Best Books of 2012

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January 6, 2013 by brettdgale

The genesis of this blog grew out of my yearly list of favourite books So in order to kick start this blog here’s my choices for 2012.

Galey’s Best Books 2012

 The Passage of Power – Robert Caro

I’ve previously marvelled at the zealotry of Game of Thrones fans and their overwhelming fear that George RR Martin might fall off his perch at any moment, thus depriving them of the climax of their obsession.  I was thoroughly bemused until I realised I was one of them.  Not for George Martin, but for Robert Caro. Indeed, like many other dweebs and dorks who receive this missive I would be more than devastated if Caro could not finish his magnificent series on Lyndon Johnson.

Caro may simply be the greatest biographer to have ever lived (and yes that includes you Mr Boswell).  With this volume Caro again proves his mettle as a master story teller with 800 odd pages of gripping, page turning, can’t stop til the book is done, analysis of Lyndon Johnson’s roller coaster ride from his thwarted tilt at the Presidential nomination, through his eunuch-like irrelevancy as Vice-President, to the assassination of JFK and his emergence as a President willing and (unlike most people who hold that office) able to transform a nation.  In the truest sense of the word the story of Lyndon Johnson is an epic – told here by a writer with no peer.


The Old Man and the Sea – Ernest Hemingway

This slim work of brilliance nearly made me want to take up fishing.  In typical Hemingway style the clarity of the language and the vividness of the imagery smack you in the head like being hit with a large marlin. Much more than the simple story of an old fisherman’s struggle to land a giant marlin it is a story of redemption, struggle and honour.  A supreme achievement.

The Final Solution – Michael Chabon

A very old man who was once extraordinarily famous is pressed into service to perform one last feat of detection in the small country town to which he has retired.  His name is never mentioned but we all know who he is.  Suffused with Chabon’s trademark flights of imagination, this short, sharp and at times tender little novel is an homage to the greatest fictional detective of all time (Sherlock Holmes of course).  At less than 150 pages I found it a lovely little read for a rainy afternoon.

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim – David Sedaris

I had the privilege of seeing David Sedaris live on stage earlier this year – had me rolling in the aisle and weeping with laughter.  Inspired me to read this older work.  As always sheer comic genius.  Sedaris has an uncanny ability to turn even the most routine and mundane acts of life into observations of the highest wit.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – John Le Carre

Not only does John Le Carre’s master thriller document the Cold War, it fairly reeks of it.  Cryptic, suspicious, moody and dark – an atmosphere of shadows and deceit pervades a novel that can only be described as a masterpiece.  This is what it felt like to live through the bleak days of the Cold War. But in a wider sense the novel speaks to us because this is what it feels like to live through the bureaucratic drudgery of many a workplace with backbiting colleagues, ignorant superiors and hidden rules of engagement.

AmsterdamIan McEwan

Winner of the Booker Prize in 1998, like all good prize winners Amsterdam was a controversial choice, dividing critic against critic and friend against friend on its worth.  This is much like the plot of the novel it must be said, because, one of the things that McEwan does very well is render not very likeable characters in all the complexities that make us up as human beings, thus allowing the reader some personal affinity with characters even without empathy.

For mine, Amsterdam is a nice little psychological examination of the competition inherent in any friendship with a gothic twist typical of the McEwan style I relish so much.  I admit, as with Philip Roth below, I’ve not met a McEwan work I hate, I like some less than others but taken as a group they individually provide a good time’s reading.  This tale of the consequences for four high achieving contemporaries when the woman they’ve all loved at one time or another dies packs a lovely punch in a very short space.  I literally read it in one short sitting (wife and kid were out for the night) – allowing the flow of the language to wash me along.  Yes, like other McEwan books the plot verges on the ludicrous at times (that’s part of the fun in my view), but despite that, McEwan is a true master of the English language who puts most others writing today in the shade.

Although not as penetrating as Amsterdam, Ian McEwan’s latest, Sweet Tooth is an enjoyable diversion into the seemingly unrelated areas of: the duplicitous realm of spies, literary pretension and love.  At its heart it is a novel of readers and writers and the relationship of both to the fictional word.


American Pastoral – Philip Roth

So Philip Roth will write no more.  Although I’m nowhere near finished his entire oeuvre reading this brilliant novel as the announcement of his retirement dribbled out publicly was more than timely. The same year that McEwan won the Booker for Amsterdam, Roth won the Pulitzer Prize for this All-American parable. Swede Levov, high school sporting star is at the peak of his success at the same time as the US dominates the post-war world.  As unimaginable events catastrophically change the trajectory of Levov’s life, in parallel the novel charts the urban decay of the US.  This whipsaw of a novel is also a penetrating examination of the effects of late sixties American counter-culture on a pastoral and idyllic normal American life.

The Prague Cemetery – Umberto Eco

One day in the mid eighties I was drawn to a book that contained the following blurb on its front cover, “Umberto Eco has written a novel and it has become a literary event”, What the hell did that mean? and who the hell was Umberto Eco? I soon found out, that book was “The Name of the Rose” still perhaps the most intelligent yet amusing and crafty book I’ve ever read.  Six novels later we arrive at the brilliant “The Prague Cemetery” and Eco has lost none of his capacity for witty creativity, philosophical rumination, historical reinvention and literary detection.  This novel tells the (re-imagined) tale of the creation of the most insidious, yet powerful forgeries of all time, “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”.  Interestingly, all the characters in this dark and disturbing work except for the main protagonist are real people.  While for some this book will need be read with an open mind and a strong stomach it is an important tale for our times examining as it does, both enduring racism and the prevalence and ease that right wing nut jobs have in creating destructive conspiracy theories.

 Puberty Blues – Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette

Like a lot of people I first read this tale of growing up on Cronulla’s beaches as a very young teenager.  My impression at the time was almost one of forbidden glamour and an insight into a strange and alien teenage world I was on the verge of entering. Moved to re-read it 30 years later, after viewing the quality TV production of this year, I was struck by the bleakness and incendiary nature of the narrative.  But also by the brilliance of the writing and self-awarenes of the authors who were only 16 at the time of writing.  The book stands as a landmark assault against the brutal sexual treatment of young women in the 1970’s.

The Prisoner of Heaven – Carlos Ruiz Zafon

I found Ruiz Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in the past few years.  Thus, I was really disappointed with his follow up The Angel’s Game, however, with the Prisoner of Heaven Ruiz Zafon has returned in some better shape to the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  Set in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War, Ruiz Zafon’s gothic atmospherics set the tone for a grand mystery.  Of the three books so far in this series this is the least stand alone – but it is setting itself up nicely for another sequel.  If you gave up at Prisoner of Heaven give this a go.

The Ground is Burning – Samuel Black

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write your first novel as a first person narrative in the alternating voices of three of the most significant figures in history – Niccolo Machiavelli, Leonardo da Vinci and Cesare Borgia – but somehow Samuel Black manages to pull it off.  A nice summer diversion.

The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman

Gaiman’s fantasy world of a human child growing up in a cemetery full of ghosts is creepily good.  Captivating and imaginative, dark and delightful.

A Wild Sheep Chase – Haruki Murakami

Original, vivid and surreal.  At turns comic, at turns eerie and sinister.  As the novels’ protagonist searches for a sheep that hasn’t been seen for years (read the book to find out why) this hybrid of mythology and mystery provides a magical realist jaunt into Japanese life and mores.

 Tourist Season – Carl Hiaasen

An enjoyable detective romp through the wilds of south Florida, from the swamps of the Everglades to the high rise glitz of Miami   Beach. Hiaaasen leads the reader on a merry chase to catch a dysfunctional group of enviro-terrorists hell bent on destroying the Miami tourism industry.  Fun and funny.

 Batman:  The Dark Knight Returns – Frank Miller

This dark graphic novel begat a revolution.  This is where the resurrection of the Batman story began.  Mired in a (admittedly enjoyable) sea of high camp post the 60’s TV series Frank Miller decided to re-envisage Batman as something darker: a tormented soul bent on vengeance as well as justice with a samurai like code of honour.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Charles Dickens: A Life – Claire Tomalin

In a Kardashian world it’s important to remember that Charles Dickens may have been the first global celebrity (and that once upon a time people befitting the status “celebrity” actually had something to offer the world). It is almost impossible to imagine at this distance how huge his fame was. Dickens’ own life was as interesting as any character he created.  From his sale by his wastrel father as an indentured servant in a blacking factory; through absolute fame; tortured genius; cruel father and social benefactor; to his hidden, years-long, love affair with a much younger woman, Tomalin expertly weaves the tale of Dickens life and the antecedents of his finest works into one readable whole.

Mister Pip – Lloyd Jones

In civil war ravaged PNG a young girl learns what life is through Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.  This is a tale of stories and how their telling helps us to survive.  It’s a lovely well-told fable on the importance of good teachers to the shaping of our lives.

A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens

I would hazard a relatively well educated guess that not too many literary works sell more than 200 million copies.  A Tale of Two Cities has justifiably exceeded this target.  This tale of London and Paris before and during the French Revolution has love, sacrifice, revenge, revolt and other exciting verbs as well as characters to be long remembered (such as my favourite – Madame Defarge and her knitting companions). More serious and less humorous than most Dickens, it is though, rightly, one of the author’s most popular works.

End This Depression Now – Paul Krugman

Nobel laureate and New York Times columnist Krugman has written an excoriating analysis of the “austerity leads to prosperity” doctrine of the conservative political and economic establishment.  Krugman convincingly illustrates how recessions in the US and Europe have been prolonged due to a lack of political courage and a blind adherence to the failed nostrums and dogma of the economic elite.  Interestingly, literally as I was finalising this review I came across a great piece by Bernard Keane on a not-unrelated point,  “The more dangerous fantasy, the one that can and will harm the economy, is the one that insists that budget surpluses are the key goal of economic policy, rather than a tool in the service of broader economic outcomes. Whether you believe it because you’re stupid enough to think governments are just like households and must always “live within their means” or you believe it because you have a pathological hatred of debt and think government is always too large, no matter what size it is, it means substituting ideology for thinking, and substituting the means for the ends.”  I reckon that’s pretty spot on, and suspect Krugman would agree.

Ghetto at the Center of the World: Chungking Mansions, Hong Kong – Gordon Mathews

My copy of the Rough Guide to Hong Kong from 1995 has this to say about the iconic Hong Kong tourist hotel that is Chungking Mansions – “a festering collection of grimy, rubbish strewn corridors, dimly lit accommodations, gift shops basic restaurants and loitering locals.”  Yet in this thoughtful and optimistic anthropological study, Gordon Mathews has identified a vibrant culture of trade, economic interdependencies, and petit arbitrage, that is a microscosm of the world’s economy, as he chronicles how (mainly) small time third world businessmen go to Chungking Mansions to buy consumer and trade goods that have been manufactured in mainland China, bringing them back to their home countries for resale at a higher price.   A worthwhile and readable journey into the way globalisation actually affects most inhabitants of the world.

The Man Without a Face:  The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin – Masha Gessen

Even a quick reading of this impressive book leaves one in no doubt that Masha Gessen’s description of Vladimir Putin as “a small vengeful man”, may be an understatement.  Gessen charts Putin’s career rising from teenage thug to leadership (for life it seems) of a thoroughly corrupt state perpetuated by intimidation and fear. Given that under Putin, the state punishes people for being independent, and the fact that assassinations, jailings and beatings are routinely handed out to the critics of Putin’s regime, Gessen has displayed a significant courage in shining a light into some very dark places of modern Russia.

Stasiland – Anna Funder

Anna Funder brilliantly brings to life what existence was like for those trapped behind the Berlin wall.  As a journalist working in Berlin post 1989 Funder became obsessed with the bureaucratic thoroughness of the Stasi.  In a delightful series of portraits (of ordinary citizens, resisters and ex Stasi men alike) Funder illuminates the insidious and all encompassing stifling that was the hallmark of the East German state.

Pity the Billionaire – Thomas Frank

Frank the author of the wonderful “What’s the Matter with Kansas?” (published in Australia btw as “What’s the Matter with America?”, thereby negating with the choice of a publisher’s title the entire thesis of the book ), but I digress,  as I was saying, Thomas Frank is at it again.  Frank skewers the preposterous idea that the conservative powers that control the wealth of the nation are in fact victims of a vast left wing conspiracy.  He convincingly pierces the bubble of self-deceit that has led to an amazing rise in the self-pity and sense of victimhood experienced by the world’s uber-rich in recent years. Along the way he demolishes the notion that Ayn Rand is the truth, the light and the way (a view apparently held by loser VP nominee Paul Ryan except for the uncomfortable cognitively dissonant fact that she was in favour of abortion – perhaps he only read the cover your honour).

This is a brutal assessment of the hijacking of popular annoyance at the onset of the GFC and its architects by America’s plutocrats and their Tea Party puppets.  It also works as a wake up call to Democrats to stop being so damn defensive about actually defending the rights of workers.  Luckily for all concerned the American people had the good sense to reject the bleating of the billionaires on the first Tuesday in November.  Sure this book will mainly be bought by those predisposed to its thesis but quite frankly there is still a lot of fun to be had in having one’s prejudices confirmed by actual facts and thorough analysis.

It’s Even Worse Than It Looks: How the American Constitutional system collided with the new politics of extremism – Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein

Congressional and Constitutional scholars both, neither Mann nor Ornstein are particularly partisan, instead they are clear eyed analysts of what ails the American political system. It is with some despair that they survey the wreckage that the US congress has become in recent years.  Intriguingly, many of their practical prescriptions for change are things that Australians take for granted in our political system such as; weekend elections, independent election authorities, preferential voting, and most controversially compulsory voting.  A must read for anyone interested in understanding what is really happening in American politics.

 Taft 2012 – Jason Heller

Speaking of history (or alternate versions thereof), as I wandered through my favourite Barnes and Noble in New York in May I was struck by the title of this slim novel.  On spec I picked it up and was rewarded with a whimsical trip into the world of what if.  William Howard Taft lost the Presidency to Woodrow Wilson in 1912 and promptly disappeared.  One hundred years later he reappears just as mysteriously, sparking a movement of support from both disillusioned Democrats and Republicans who are more than eager to project their own hopes and desires onto his larger than life persona (Obama anyone?). Heller smoothly navigates the dangers inherent in a novel of this kind.  Whilst some of the author’s own political message is less than subtle, at another level, his satire of the state of modern US politics is both accurate and understated, leaving readers to their own parallels and conclusions.  A fine debut novel.

How to Win An Election: An Ancient Guide for Modern Politicians – Quintus Tullius Cicero

The ultimate guide to getting elected.   Quintus Cicero wrote this short screed to his younger (and in time more famous) brother containing practical tips on how to win over the voters and claim the consulship.  Amazingly as relevant today as it was in 64 BC.

 Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its own past – Simon Reynolds

In this encyclopaedic tome music critic Simon Reynolds examines the curse of musical nostalgia – popular music’s obsession with its own past.  In essence a lament that musical innovation seems to have ground to a halt.  Whilst it is undoubtedly a golden age where we each have the ability through modern technology such as iTunes and Youtube to access things that previously would have been lost we have also ended up in a world where the past and the present are intermingled and indistinguishable.  (Whilst I love my Ipod I do agree with Reynolds point here, I’m totally a culprit, but equally, I’ve often lamented the death of the album in the modern world).  Reynold’s major fear is that we have simply begun to accept that the past is our only future and that creativity is grinding to a halt.  Don’t too caught up by the mind-numbing detail and recitations of bands and music styles that the average punter has never heard of, the arguments are both cogent and lucid and well worth considering.

 12 Books that Changed the World- Melvyn Bragg

Lord Bragg has chosen to profile twelve English books (and he stresses its not a definitive list) that have had a profound impact on the way life is lived.  Its an eclectic bunch that includes The King James Bible, the rules of Association Football, Newton’s Principa and Shakespeare’s First Folio.  As much an examination of the English language, as it is an analysis of the trajectory of world history through words.

The Greatest: The Players, the moments the matches 1993-2008 – Malcolm Knox

Malcolm Knox documents arguably the greatest era of cricketers ever, rivalled only by West Indians between 1975 and 1990, as he examines the travails of the Australian cricket team from defeat in the Adelaide Test of January 1993 to the implications of cricketing mortality of the Ashes of 2007, 2008 and onwards. This is the history of the Waughs, Taylor, Healey, Warne, McGrath, Ponting, Langer, Slater and Gillespie, Gilchrist, Hayden, and Lee.   All destined for the Hall of Fame. To examine the genius of this crowd its worth examing the record of their contemporaries: Jamie Siddons, Stuart Law, Martin Love, Brad Hodge ad Chris Rodgers scored 84,000 first class runs and 243 centuries yet played a combined 13 tests between them.  Whilst at times bordering on the hagiographic, Knox is not afraid to criticise – especially the propensity of the above legends to too often resort to unsportsmanlike behaviour to achieve their ends.

 MurderBall:  Head to head with Australia’s Toughest Team – Will Swanton

Will Swanton writes like a game of Wheelchair Rugby is played – tough, uncompromising and in your face, after all, it’s called Murderball for a reason.  Swanton beautifully chronicles the Aussie team’s quest for Olympic glory in Bejing and wonderfully captures the ambiguous feelings that Quad Rugby players feel towards their participation in the sport (and hence their condition in general) – a contrasting combination of optimism, melancholia and joi de vivre . It’s too clichéd to talk about the inspiring nature of our Paralympians but that doesn’t make it any less true – a great story.

Into the Arena: The World of the Spanish Bullfight – Alexander Fiske-Harrison

Alexander Fiske-Harrison is a lunatic. An aficionado of the bullfight, Fiske-Harrison decides to learn what’s it like to get in the ring and face the bull himself and it ain’t pretty. It is a big call to make I know, (but it doesn’t make it any less true) that not since Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon has a writer so vividly captured the art, the skill and the terror of la corrida de toros.  Far more than an apologia for bullfighting (Fiske-Harrison treats seriously those who would seek to see it banned) this is an insightful examination of modern Spain and her ancient traditions.

The Art Of Fielding – Chad Harbach

Although Chad Harbach’s first novel begins and ends with baseball it’s not really a novel of baseball at all (or at least not merely a novel of baseball).  It’s a story of love, loyalty, growing up

Chinaman – Shehan Karunatilaka

At times, both humorous and poignant this is a cracker of a read.  A mystery as much as an homage to the art of cricket.  A sardonic look at both Sri Lankan politics and culture, and more generally, the verities of age and alcoholism.  Hilarious and original.


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