Galey’s Best Books 2013 – Part II

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January 2, 2014 by brettdgale

We start Part Two with a book about books and it just gets better from there.

More, Baths Less Talking – Nick Hornby

The third (or fourth, not sure which) collection of Nick Hornby’s monthly book reviews for the Believer magazine.  Ive run hot and cold on Hornby’s fiction over the years but I consistently love these little collections.  Witty, charming reviews that I use to pad out my own book wish lists.  And like any good bibliophile I’m attracted to the fact that in any given month Hornby purchases more than he can read. A man after my own heart.

Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy

A sprawling masterpiece – a tale of love and death as Tolstoy slowly but surely captures the essence of our humanity.  At its heart Anna Karenina is the story of three marriages, only one of which can be called successful, hence, one of the most famous opening sentences in all literature. The work is so dense and the competing narratives so interwoven that it is easy to get overawed by the complex world of social mores Tolstoy re-creates, but persistence pays off as they say for one of the most rewarding reading experiences of all time. And, one of the most intriguing heroines of all time.  Indeed, above all it is the multifaceted complexity of Tolstoy’s characters that ensure Anna Karenina stands the test of time. There is a deep and abiding understanding of the vagaries and varieties of human nature at work here

Bruce Springsteen and the Promise of Rock and Roll – Marc Dolan

One of the better rock biographies I’ve read in the last couple of years.  Dolan captures the essential narrative of Springsteen’s life from the backstreets of New Jersey to the promised land of hope and dreams. In essence, Dolan’s work is a fan’s tribute to his music hero – but it’s not written with a starry eyed wonder.  Bruuuce warts and all is the subject matter here. Dolan spends a lot of time on Springsteen’s live shows and it’s no wonder why. As I wrote in my review of Springsteen’s Sydney shows earlier this year Springsteen makes a pact with his audience in every show.  It’s a simple pact that music should be just as fun when you are 65 as it was when you were 15.  Indeed, to see Springsteen performing live and having fun is to still see a skinny kid from Freehold New Jersey strumming an air guitar as he watched Elvis performing on Ed Sullivan.  Even if you are not really a Springsteen fan do yourself a favour and see him live next year.  And for a bit more colour and background read Dolan’s book.  For, like all good music bios, it’s written by someone who both understands and has a deep abiding appreciation of his subject.

Telegraph Avenue – Michael Chabon

Talking of appreciation for music, Michael Chabon has struck again with this sharp witted and good humoured story of a pair of best friends Archy and Nat, and their quixotic ownership of a small record store facing the steamrolling behemoth of a mega-chain (the book is set in 2004 before digital downloads and MP3s forever swept away record stores, both independent or chain store alike). At times the characters’ encyclopedic obsession with records rivals a similar passion to Nick Hornby’s protagonist in High Fidelity.  Yet, Chabon being Chabon, as his story rambles on (in the nicest possible way) you become taken by his all-encompassing and multi-skeined narrative. While on the surface it’s a story of friendship it’s also an examination of race, sex, and the fate of modern retail. Oh and it’s also a story of Kung Fu.  How good is that? As always, to my mind, Chabon can do no wrong.

The Ghost Writer – Philip Roth

This was the first Roth novel to feature the man who would become his long-time alter-ego, the writer Nathan Zuckerman. Many more Zuckerman novels were to follow including some of Roth’s greatest works – with the protagonist’s blooming writing career standing witness to the cultural forces that have shaped contemporary America (I’m thinking particularly here about Roth’s brilliant late 90’s trilogy American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain).

Since his first appearance in 1979 we have aged as Zuckerman has aged, but here we are introduced to the neophyte writer as he trembles in awe of his own authorial hero in who’s home he is about to spend a night. There he meets the author, his aggrieved wife, and a young woman who startling and provocatively may or may not be Anne Frank.  What follows is what one expects from Philip Roth, a certain cleverness with words and images, a sharply observed assessment of the foibles of human nature and relationships, presented here as a meditation on the power of fiction to shape and mould our existence, as Roth explores the clash between art and life.

The Odd Angry Shot – William Nagle

This Vietnam War story couldn’t be anything but Australian.  As has been remarked upon elsewhere, it has the feel of a war story being shared by a group of mates at the pub or around a barbie. A colloquial, funny, tragic, and provocative reflection on the boredom, mateship, humour, and fear of soldiers at war.

The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler – Laurence Rees

I’ve always wondered what attracts political followers to the people most unlikely to lead, and why people who clearly know better are willing to put up with the depredations of those whom they never should have elected.  In this fine assessment (and companion piece to the BBC TV series) I’ve discovered why.  How a strange, odd little nerd with no friends could command those around him to his despotic will. Rees lays out the criteria of successful charismatic leaders; certainty, mission, vision, hope, connection; and examines how Hitler possessed such qualities in spades.  He relies heavily on the testimony of those who lived through Hitler’s rise and fall to decipher the perplexing mystery of why so many were inspired by one of history’s darkest Demons. There are lessons for us all in Rees analysis, as we continually go searching for our political messiahs.

Three for the Beach

Lustrum – Robert Harris

Volume 2 of Harris’ Roman trilogy sees Cicero once more fighting his political enemies including the wily Julius Caesar.  Harris’ fact based novel captures the internecine machinations of politics in ancient Rome – machinations that are not much different in form and substance to those of our own time.  Harris has both an eye for political intrigue and an ear for political rhetoric which makes this series a delightful read for all political junkies.

Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter – Seth Grahame-Smith

The whole premise of this book is preposterous.  And it forms a link in a long chain of preposterous re-imaginings of literary classics featuring the undead starting with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.  Yet far from being lifeless Grahame-Smith has created a plausibly believable rollicking read.  Plausibly believable, if you admit the existence of Vampires that is.  There have been over 16,000 books written about honest Abe.  I suspect this is the most original. And possibly the most fun.

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

Pure addictive entertainment.  That’s the best way of describing this thriller about a woman who has gone missing.  The book is written in two voices; that of the missing woman (through diary entries) and that of her husband (who we not just suspect, but want to believe, has knocked her off). Can’t say more because it would give away too many of the twists and turns that make this such an enjoyable holiday read.

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the new America – George Packer

George Packer has written a powerful and compelling narrative history of the contemporary United States – tracing the slow decline of the greatness of America – a decline that lies at the heart of so much of the bitterness and hatred fueling American life at present.  “No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way. Like any great change, the unwinding began at countless times, in countless ways—and at some moment the country, always the same country, crossed a line of history and became irretrievably different.”

As Dos Passos does in his America trilogy (a work on which Packer pretty clearly basis this work) Packer describes the new America through the ongoing stories of those most affected by its shifting sands.  These stories are interspersed with vignettes on influential Americans of the last few decades. The beauty of this book lies in Packer removing the authorial voice and allowing his chosen characters to speak for themselves – a first person narrative told by a third person as it were. The burning sense of outrage that lies at the heart of Packer’s book and at the heart of those he chooses to profile (although leavened with that peculiarly American optimism) makes The Unwinding both harrowing and passionate.

Forgotten War – Henry Reynolds

This book should be on the curriculum of every high school in Australia.  Reynolds tells the story of the clash between settlers and indigenous Australians on Australia’s frontier and begs the question “Why is it more controversial to talk about the frontier war now than it was one hundred years ago?” A fact laden triumph that should be used to beat to a pulp all those who sneeringly deride “the black armband” view of history.

The Political Brain – Drew Westen

Written by a renowned psychology professor this is a ground breaking investigation into the role that emotion plays in shaping our political decisions.  Like “Don’t Think of An Elephant” before it, this book is a worthwhile primer for any political practitioner interested in how to get across their message and change voters’ minds.

Living with Shakespeare: Essays by Writers, Actors and Directors – Susannah Carson (ed)

These essays form a series of love letters to Shakespeare from those who know his words so well – the writers, actors and directors who live with him every day.  A great collection of meditations from among others Ben Kingsley, James Earl Jones, Joyce Carol Oates and Ralph Fiennes.

The Eighties: One Day, One Decade – Dylan Jones

I loved the Eighties and I loved Live Aid.  If you want to know the reasons why, read about it here. Dylan Jones has done a remarkable job of capturing the spirit of an age – a must read for anyone who’s formative years were spent listening to the music of the 80s.

33 Revolutions per minute: A History of protest songs from Billie Holliday to Green Day – Dorian Lynskey

Is the protest song dead?  I posed this question back in May  Dorian Lynskey is pessimistic about its future in an increasingly clicktivist world, but that doesn’t stop him from embarking on a monumental tour d’horizon of the history of the political song from the 20’s to the present.  Absorbing and educative for anyone interested in the history of popular music.

ED: The Milibands and the making of a Labour Leader – Medhi Hasan and James Macintyre

Ed Miliband has his detractors and some of them are my closest friends.  On embarking on this book I must admit I was somewhat ambivalent myself, (although never liking his slicker, Blairite, brother David) by the end of this first rate biography I was convinced he was the real deal.  His triumph in the Labour leadership as I detailed on the blog  was as clever a piece of political manouevering as one is likely to see.  And he’s also a Red Sox fan – ‘nuff said.

Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes us Richer Smarter, Greener, Healthier and Happier – Edward Glaeser

This insightful analysis of urban planning and why the world needs cities to survive formed the basis of my own assessment of my hometown’s failure to adequately plan for its future.

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2 thoughts on “Galey’s Best Books 2013 – Part II

  1. Great list! I loved reading Gone Girl in 2013, and I’m actually reading Anna Karenina right now, so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it.

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