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My Year in Reading – Part 2

December 23rd, 2011 · No Comments · Reading Related, Uncategorized

Following on from Monday’s post, here’s the second half of my reading for 2011:

  1.  “Dancing in the Glory of Monsters: The Collapse of the Congo and the Great War of Africa”, Jason Stearns – A history of the Congo Wars; a twenty year conflict that involved a dozen countries and cost six million lives that most people have never heard about. Virtuoso journalism to tackle a conflict this complex and little known in the west and make it digestible to the average reader. Even better, Stearns doesn’t over-reach. His only conclusion is that there are no simple solutions to stabilising this region.  Buy – Borrow – Toss
  2. “Revolutionary Road”, Richard Yates – A story of suburban ennui in 1950s America. I know a lot of people loved this book, but I was a bit underwhelmed. I guess I’m just unsympathetic to people complaining about the stultification of middle class life. Honestly, there are more important things to be angst ridden about. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  3. “The Jungle Book”, Rudyard Kipling – A collection of short stories of life in Raj era India told through the eyes of animals and children. Reading Kipling, it’s easy to see how the English both achieved and destroyed so much around the world. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  4.  #“Recollections of a Bleeding Heart 10th Anniversary Edition”, Don Watson – A personal history of life inside the PMO during the Keating Prime Ministership. Elegiac. Naïve. Inspirational. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  5. “Psmith Journalist”, P.G.Wodehouse – Psmith moves to the United States and takes up journalism. I’ve largely forgotten this already. It’s Wodehouse, It’s Psmith. For better and for worse. What more do you need to know. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  6. Fifty Orwell Essays”, George Orwell – A collection of Orwell’s best non-fiction. From Colonial Burma to Revolutionary Spain, from the coal mines of Northern England to the literary circles of London, Orwell’s searing insight cuts to the nub of the great political and moral questions of the 20th Century. The best 99c you’ll ever spend on Amazon. You could teach an ethics course from this collection. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  7.  “Cannery Row”, John Steinbeck – A novella about the inhabitants of the small Californian coastal community of Monterey. Brilliant. Every time I finish a Steinbeck I feel invigorated and enriched. A New Year Resolution to properly work through his catalogue. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  8.  Columbine”, Dave Cullen – A detailed examination of the events leading up to and following the Columbine school massacre informed by the diaries and videos of the killers and thousands of interviews with members of the community. A great piece of journalism. A necessary one too to debunking the many myths that were perpetuated by the media in the aftermath of the shooting. Fascinating. I was surprised to learn that the shooting had nothing to do with bullying or teen alienation, or even for that matter shooting (it was really a failed bombing inspired by Timothy McVeigh).  Buy – Borrow – Toss
  9.  “A Visit From The Goon Squad”, Jennifer Egan – The stories of a loosely linked set of characters in and around the music business interacting across time. I found the meta-debate around this book difficult to overcome. Jennifer Egan keeps getting thrown up as an example of a major female US literary fiction writer that doesn’t get the same credit as the Franzens’, Eugenidies’, Dellilo’s etc because US literature is a boys club. AVFTGS is cited as a book that doesn’t get the critical acclaim it deserves because female writers are overlooked (which is weird given all the prizes it won!). So I can’t help but compare the book to those guys – and I honestly don’t think it’s anywhere near being in their league. Maybe I am an unconscious misogynist, but I think Franzen’s work is significantly better than hers. My overall feeling is that it’s not substantial enough to be enduring. I can’t imagine as many people reading this book in ten years as are currently reading The Corrections for example.  The thing that worries me the most about the book in retrospect is how little of it I can actually remember just a few months on. I think by jumping between characters and time so frequently, she sacrificed the ability to focus on the substance to a greater extent. I thought most of the characters were only really sketched out rather than really developed in detail. Maybe that was the intention, but at the end of the book I found myself wishing that it was a whole book about Sasha, or maybe only three characters (maybe the guy in the last chapter and Benny as well?). But as it was I found it too fleeting. I don’t know. My feelings on this book are unstable, but I was ultimately unsatisfied. I did love the chapter written in powerpoint though.  Buy – Borrow – Toss
  10. “The Spy Who Came in From The Cold”, John LeCarre – Cross, double cross or triple cross? A cold war spy thriller of the first order. Not just a pot boiler either, but a literary work of real substance. Explores an interesting thread about the means and ends of politics and international relations and the consequences for individuals. When I was a teenager I loved Tom Clancy books, I wish I’d found LeCarre earlier instead.  Buy – Borrow – Toss
  11. “Hiroshima”, John Hersey – The seminal account of the nuclear attack on Hiroshima, told through the experiences of half a dozen survivors. Originally commissioned by the New Yorker and published shortly after the bombing, it’s brilliantly written with a tone pitched perfectly for the subject matter. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  12. “Power Without Glory”, Frank Hardy – Roman à clef of the life of the corrupt Labor power broker, John Wren. Surprisingly good. Genuinely readable, even if it flagged a bit at the end. Insights into the nature of power and its exercise abound. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  13.  “300”, Frank Miller and Lynn Varley – Graphic novel portrayal of the battle of Thermopylae. After reading The Watchmen, V for Vendetta and 300, it’s pretty clear to me that there’s a crypto-fascist aspect to his world view. It’s a bit creepy.  Buy – Borrow – Toss
  14.  “Marvels”, Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross – A graphic novel linking the stories of Marvel’s main superheros and filling new comers in on the universe. Supposedly one of the best of the superhero genre, but failed in a narrative sense for mine. Without emotional valence. One for the true fans only. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  15.  “The Defender”, Jordan Conn – The story of 7’7’ Sudanese basketball oddity Manute Bol. No, he didn’t really kill a lion. Yes, he lived a bizarre, comical and tragic life regardless. A very interesting read. Incidentally, I really love the Kindle Single format (cheap, easily consumable in short bites), but I can’t seem to find much of interest in the Kindle store. I think they need to find a better way of helping people find content. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  16.  “The Great Stagnation: How America Ate All The Low-Hanging Fruit of Modern History, Got Sick, and Will (Eventually) Feel Better”, Tyler Cowen – Academic economist and Internet polymath Tyler Cowen posits a theory for the stagnation of economic growth in the United States. No more free land to be productively utilised and under-educated people to have their human capital enriched means that the US (and the west more broadly) needs to work harder at the things that drive growth (science, R&D etc). Buy – Borrow – Toss
  17.  “The Unfinished Revolution: How New Labour Changed British Politics Forever”, Philip Gould – A key Labour strategist from 1987-2010 writes about the modernisation of the UK Labour party and the six UK election campaigns that he advised on. Along with “It’s not what you say, it’s what people hear” by Frank Luntz, this is the book that I would most recommend for anyone interested in a practical handbook on political campaigning. Gould gets the big picture of campaign strategy, but also sets out in detail how to go about operationalising strategy during an election. First class. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  18.  “Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea”, Barbara Demick – A US journalist pieces together the details of ordinary life in one city in North Korea through the stories of a exiles living in South Korea. If you have even the slightest curiosity about North Korea (particularly in light of the death of Kim Il Jung, you ought to grab this book. It’s fascinating and insightful. Close to the best book I read this year. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  19.  Disgrace”, JM Coetzee – A South African Professors’ liaison with a student leads him to flee Cape Town in disgrace to live with his daughter in rural South Africa. A well told reflection on masculinity, fatherhood, power, repression, hatred and suffering.  Buy – Borrow – Toss
  20.  Reluctant Fundamentalist”, Mohsin Hamid – Overachieving Pakistani working in the finance sector in New York has his relationship with the United States turned upside down by the September 11 attacks. I’m not sure that I fully bought the format of this book (it is told in form of a discussion between the protagonist and an unidentified American in a Pakistani city), but I did like the multiple layers of allegory that Hamid played with in this book. Layers upon layers of meaning everywhere you look. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  21.  The Light on the Hill: the Australian Labor Party, 1891-1991”, Ross McMullin – The authoritative history of the ALP commissioned for the Party’s 100th anniversary. A long, but rollicking account of the drama filled history of the Australian Labor Party. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  22.  Goodbye Jerusalem: Night Thoughts of a Labor Outsider”, Bob Ellis – Ellis recounts the lead up to the 1998 Federal Election and his surreal independent candidacy in Bronwyn Bishop’s electorate when she was spruiked as a future Liberal leader. Yes, I know he’s an arsehole with some really unpleasant views, but so was Hemmingway etc etc. Fact is, the guy can write and his melancholy but earnest tone is ideally suited to discussions of the Labor party. My copy is pre-defamation pulping J  Buy – Borrow – Toss
  23.  Farewell Babylon: Further Journeys in Time and Politics”, Bob Ellis – The same gimmick as Goodbye Jerusalem, but for the 2001 election campaign. Like most sequels, not quite as good despite arguably better material. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  24. The Naked and the Dead”, Norman Mailer – A company of US soldiers is assigned to a mission on a Pacific Island in World War 2. Over long and overblown in parts, but somehow compelling despite it. I can see why it was a literary sensation when it was published. Holds up well today, 50 years after it was first published.  Buy – Borrow – Toss
  25.  The Hunger Games Trilogy”, Susanne Collins – Teen girl forced to fight for survival against other teens on a reality tv show in a fantasy dystopia. I can see why it’s become such a big seller. Entertaining, but ultimately insubstantial. A significant drop off in quality in the second and third books. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  26.  Learning to be a Minister: Heroic Expectations, Practical Realities”, Anne Tiernan and Patrick Weller – An academic account of the experience of being a Minister in the incoming Rudd Government informed by anonymous interviews with ministers, staffers and public servants. I picked this up at the Parliament House book store on a business trip when I had run out of reading material. An interesting flashback to what it was like in the early months of the Rudd Government. Fun to play “Guess Who” with the blind quotes. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  27.  Barefoot Gen (Barefoot Gen)”, Nakazawa Keiji -  A manga cartoonist who was a ten year old boy in Hiroshima when the atomic bomb hit tells the story of the lead up to and the aftermath of the bombing. I found this book via a recommendation from Maus’ Art Spiegelman. It’s excellent, though not in Maus’ league. Barefoot Gen is more directly aimed at children and has a more explicit didactic purpose. Which means you get a lot of the more extreme manga conventions (over the top fights, children biting off people’s fingers etc) and expository detours explaining events (using Gen’s anti-war father and Kamikaze volunteer brother as foils). Which is fine and important, but just pitched at a different level to Maus. (Graphic Novel) Buy – Borrow – Toss
  28.  #“The Trial of Henry Kissinger”, Christopher Hitchens – Hitchens reviews the evidence for the trial of Henry Kissinger for crimes against humanity in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Bangladesh, Argentina etc, etc. This really is a shocking read. I’m not adverse to real politik in service of a greater cause, but Hitchens makes a pretty compelling case that Kissinger knowingly and repeatedly commissioned horrific crimes solely to advance his personal power within the US establishment. This was a quickie Hitchens’ read prompted by his sad early death. I read this book some time ago and remembered it as an archetype takedown. It held up on re-reading – authoritative, brutal and erudite. I’m really going to have to get around to reading Hitch 22 next year. Buy - Borrow – Toss

A few reading goals for next year:

  • Poetry – I’ve never read poetry at length (other than Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon who I feel don’t really count for some reason). So next year I want to get through at least “Leaves of Grass”, some Frost and some Ruthven Todd. Is Philip Larkin any good? I’ve heard people I respect speak favourably about him. I really have no background in poetry so it’s tough to know where to start.
  • Getting back into Asian literature – You wouldn’t know it from the list above, but I’ve probably read more Chinese and Japanese literary fiction than any other genre. They are distinct oeuvre’s to be clear, but they share an obtuseness and non-linearity that I really like. The core of the story is always submerged and you have to really work to get what’s really going on. I love it. Anyway, it’s tough to get most of what I like for the Kindle which has led me to deprioritise it. I do however I have a bit of a hard cover queue accumulating. I have the new Ha Jin and a few Ma Jian’s backed up in my reading queue. I also want to get around to finishing the Sea of Fertility Tetraology. I loved Spring Snow and Temple of the Golden Pavilion, but ran out of energy for the other two books.
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