Best Reads 0f 2016 Part II

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December 22, 2016 by brettdgale

Listen Liberal: Whatever Happened to the Party of the People – Thomas Frank

Likewise, in a book of unsuppressed fury, Thomas Frank issues a scathing indictment of the modern Democratic Party. In Frank’s compelling analysis the Democratic Party and what it stands for has come completely unmoored from its working class base. In the wake of Donald Trump’s shocking election victory this has become an all too familiar trope in the analysis of why Hillary Clinton lost the supposedly unlosable election.  Indeed, Frank is a founding member of the inequality is the new black school of political analysis.  But is it true?

I don’t completely agree with Frank’s post-election opining on the reasons for Hillary Clinton’s loss either (those reasons of course neatly dovetail with the indictment of Frank’s book).   I think the post-election obsession with the white working class obscures the many, many reasons why voters voted the way they did from the fact that Trump had a better slogan and use of social media, through to Russia, the FBI, voter suppression, the lazy ideological purity of millennials and massive doses of sexist bias.  Whatever your position however, Frank makes a lucid, thoughtful, if angry, case for the proposition that it wasn’t the workers that left the Democrats it was the Democrats that left the workers.

Nice Try: A Murray Whelan Thriller – Shane Maloney

Murray Whelan is not your average gum shoe. For a start he’s a political fixer (of a bumbling sort not having risen above the level of ministerial staffer at this point in the series), whose hopelessly romantic notions of relationships and parenting leave him to look for love in all the funniest places.   Nice Try is book three in the series, but don’t let that deter you, neither the plot or back story are so complex that you can’t just dive right in.  Here we find our hero trying to help out Melbourne’s doomed Olympic bid whilst trying to stop an indigenous protest threatening the bid, impress his teenage son, and solve a senseless murder all while trying not to laugh too hard.  Quintessentially Australian, strongly evocative of the Melbourne of two decades ago and full of cheap laughs, the Murray Whelan series makes an exuberant summer read.

The Death of Rex Nhongo – CB George

If Nice Try invokes late 80’s Melbourne CB George nails his portrayal of contemporary Zimbabwe with this crime thriller cum study of domestic lives in disarray.

This is the story of people living the stresses and strains of their normal everyday lives whilst a murder mystery swirls around them – the true life tale of the inexplicable death of one of the heroes of Zimbabwe’s war of independence (did he die in an accidental fire or was he murdered?).

The rich character driven plot swirls and swoops with a whirlwind narrative that is always in motion. Character’s lives interact and intersect, marriages fall and rise, and all are affected in some way by the gun that may or may not have murdered Rex Nhongo.

The Dirtiest Race in History: Ben Johnson, Carl Lewis & the 1988 Olympic Final – Richard Moore

If you are a certain age and a fan of sport the image of Canadian sprinter Ben Johnson striding over the finish line at the end of the 1988 Olympic Final is indelibly seared into your memory. Right arm thrust high in the air, biceps rippling like a stocking full of walnuts, legs still in full stride but clearly slowing down, brutal efficient arrogance etched on every feature of his face, he glances back contemptuously at the losers in his wake.  There is clearly no inkling in his mind that he will soon be stripped of his prize in the wake of one of the greatest scandals in Olympic sport as the stanozolol coursing through his system show up in the vials of the IOC’s drug testers.  Yet Ben Johnson wasn’t the only drug cheat that day six of the eight finalists in that race have been linked to drugs at some stage in their careers.  Richard Moore tells the tale of that day and the history that led up to it in a no-nonsense yet compellingly sympathetic manner.  With interviews of many of the main participants in the dark deeds this is a fascinating look at our collective sporting history.

Tough Guys Don’t Dance – Norman Mailer

Testosterone. That’s the one word that sums up this primal scream by Norman Mailer. The writing style is not just hard boiled it’s taken out of the pot and then left in the sun to bake for weeks.

When Tim Madden, an unsuccessful writer living on Cape Cod, awakes with a gruesome hangover, a painful tattoo on his upper arm, and a severed female head in his marijuana stash, he has almost no memory of the night before. Thus begins Norman Mailer’s descent into the darker recesses of American masculinity.

Perhaps because of its raw masculine brutality, or more likely due to Mailer’s rat-a-tat-tat style the reader is compelled on throughout the story – one more page, one more revelation, where will it all end?

The Underground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

For those who don’t know, the Underground Railroad was a metaphor for the network of networks and network of sympathisers that allowed a number of slaves to escape from the South to relative freedom in the North.   In Colson Whitehead’s unbelievably brilliant new novel the metaphor is turned into an actual railway with stations, carriages, drivers and all.  That touch allows the story of the teenage escapee Cora, and her pursuit by the Javert like bounty hunter Ridgeway, to careen along at a breakneck pace   This is the tale of how evilly dehumanising the institution of slavery was – how cruel and barbaric and how essential to the functioning of the US at the time.

Whitehead conveys this story with a lyrical beauty mixed with a raw, pulsating urgency. The story of slavery and of its victims is a story that resonates today because, despite the advances of the 150 years since Lincoln’s Emancipation proclamation, the legacy and stain remain, never completely addressed.   Just as we in Australia have not yet fully come to grips with our own racially charged past, thus, there are lessons for all of us in pausing and reflecting on these histories.

This brilliant beautiful and brutal book deserves its place as a must read for the year.

Between the World and Me – Ta-Nehsi Coates

That unaddressed legacy of slavery and ingrained racism plays itself out in this letter from journalist Ta-Nehsi Coates to his teenage son written in response to the verdict that led to Black Lives Matter.

As Coates tells his son, “You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heel. And to varying degrees this is true of all life. The difference is that you do not have the privilege of living in ignorance of this essential fact.”

The clear point that Coates is making to his son is that despite the long ago abolition of slavery, as the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and so many others have shown as a young black man he is never safe and his own body will never be his to own. He can be destroyed by American society and no one will be held responsible.  Racism is institutional, ingrained and ignored.

This is confronting stuff and it is designed to be. Whilst the book itself is a very personal account of living as a black man in a white world, universal truths can be drawn from the challenge that Coates throws in the face of all our complacency.

How Star Wars Conquered the Universe: The Past, Present and Future of a Multibillion Dollar Franchise – Chris Taylor

Everything you wanted to know about Star Wars but were afraid to ask, (and more), is the essence of Chris Taylor’s fine expose of everything Star Wars. I actually don’t think I could write a review that could do justice to this excellent history of the Star Wars universe or universes really, as Taylor explores both the real world impacts and legacy of George Lucas’ franchise as well as the world of the movies and books themselves.  Published last year just before The Force Awakens took the global box office by storm I for one would love to see an epilogue by Taylor explaining what’s going to happen next.  If you have a Star Wars fan in the family or even anyone interested in the modern phenomena of pop culture and its influence on wider society this is the book to give this Christmas.

Star Wars: Tarkin – James Luceno

Before we soon have the movie Rogue One telling us how the plans to the Death Star were discovered (that’s not a spoiler it’s the most bloody obvious thing about the trailer) someone had to build it.  That someone was our military martinet from the original Star Wars movie Grand Moff Tarkin.  Now the Star Wars novels have always been my guilty sci-fi pleasure and the best of them contain a world not just of action and adventure but of political intrigue and Machiavellian manipulation. This novel fits that bill to a tee. I’ll have more to say in a later blog post about what Disney have done to the Star Wars universe I’ve loved since 1977 but suffice to say for a guilty pleasure James Luceno’s latest edition to the canon is a good one.

The World According to Star Wars – Cass R Sunstein

Cass Sunstein is both the “most cited law professor in the United States” and the author of the ground breaking behaviourial economics tome “Nudge”. He knows a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff and he wants you to know that stuff too. Now in a normal book that could be either intimidating or maddening for the average reader, depending on your view of Harvard professors telling you want to think.  But it turns out to that Sunstein loves Star Wars.  In fact he believes the world is divided into three groups of people –  “those who love Star Wars, those who like Star Wars and those who neither like not love Star Wars” (it is well known where I sit on that spectrum).    In The World According to Star Wars. Sunstein combines his love of the films with his penchants as a polymath to discuss everything: from why no one guessed the original movie would succeed (i.e. how make decisions), through to the reasons for rebellions and the implications of constitutional law It’s breezily written, it’s fun to read, and it’s educative – almost the perfect non-fiction book really. No less an authority figure than the great Walter Isaacson has called this “a gem of a book” – and who am I to argue.  A must read whether you like or love Star Wars (would also be fun for the other group but I choose to ignore your existence).

The Money Men: Australia’s 12 Most Notable Treasurers – Chris Bowen

I learnt something from the very opening sentence of Chris Bowen’s potted history of the Treasury portfolio in Australia – and that is that, “Australia is the only nation in the world that has a Treasurer running the economy”. That’s not just a trick of nomenclature it’s a very real difference between the roles and responsibilities of our chief money man (and unfortunately they’ve all been men) and those who hold the reins of finance in other countries.   Early on in his introduction Bowen makes the point that despite individual biographies having been written on some of these chaps no systematic attempt has been made to catalogue what it is that makes someone succeed or fail in the second most important job in Australian political life.    This extremely readable and observant account well and truly rectifies that previous omission.  Bowen is scrupulously objective in his treatment of his twelve subjects, with his harshest criticism levelled at former Labor Treasurer Jim Cairns. This lends the book the serious analytic depth it needs to succeed and therefore it should rightfully take its place in the top echelons of works of Australian political history.

Dictator – Robert Harris

Robert Harris has finally finished his Cicero trilogy of historical fiction documenting the fall of the Roman Republic and the rise of the Roman Empire as seen through the eyes of the famous statesman Cicero’s faithful slave and amanuensis, Tiro. This series of books is a remarkable literary achievement written with a brilliant eye to character, plot and breathtaking pace.  As an ex-journalist Harris understands how politics work but he also understands the central mores of a good thriller – so these books contain both.  The greats of the ancient world stride purposefully through the pages of this trio Julius Caesar, Augustus, Sulla, Livia, Marc Antony, Pompey, Cicero himself of course, building a tale that is at once a fairly accurate history lesson whilst being a thoroughly engaging and enjoyable beachside side read.

The Making of the President 1964 – Theodore H White

White single handedly invented the genre of the campaign biography with his “Making of the President” series. Those who read my pre-election book reviews (which I’m assuming was all of you) will know with what high esteem I view this installation in the series.  The story of Lyndon Johnson and his triumph over Barry Goldwater is worth remembering if only to remind ourselves of the promise of hope in a world without much.

Submission – Michel Houlbecq

This morally ambiguous, confronting and complex novel may just well be one of the best parables of 2016 without its even realising that. As the forces of populism sweep our world, and while in the real world right wing nationalist Marine Le Pen is a possibility to win the next French election in 2017, Houlbecq has trained his sights on the 2022 French elections and the triumph over Le Pen of a fictional party – the Muslim Brotherhood.   Soon after the election we find Sharia law imposed rapidly with an equally rapid adjustment of the population to this seismic upheaval in 250 years of French tradition.

Given the real life threats and terrors from Islamic terrorism that have plagued France in recent years (this book was released on the day of the Charlie Hebdo massacres) much of what Houlbecq   His satire is both bleak and brutal, his lead character misogynistic and selfish, his criticism of the complacency of modern French society unsparing.

Houlbecq captures the uncontested decline into conformity which often follows tectonic shifts in political power (witness the ongoing normalisation of the Trump Presidency even before it begins – a phenomenon that as Charles Blow in the New York Times points out should not go uncontested). Houlbecq envisages a subtle dystopia in the not too distant future, but one in which all of society is complicit in bringing about, as it currently sits astride its high horse, propping up a system that is in need of a reformation.

Here is Houlbecq’s narrator explaining the state of modern French politics prior to the 2022 election:

“when I was young the elections could not have been less interesting; the mediocrity of the political offerings was almost suprising. A –centre-left candidate would be elected, serve either one or two terms, depending how charismatic he was, then for obscure reasons he would fail to complete a third.  When people got tired of that candidate. And the centre left in general, we’d witness the phenomenon of democratic change, and the voters would install a candidate of the centre-right, also for one or two terms depending on his personal appeal.  Western nations took a strange pride in this system, though it amounted to little more than a power-sharing deal between two rival gangs, and they would even go to war to impose it on nations that failed to share their enthusiasm”. 

Anyone having witnessed the global political events of 2016 in the UK, the US or Australia will recognise the fragility of our own modern political systems in that description.

As all the best satires and alternate realities do, Houlbecq’s novel blurs the line between fiction and reality to such an extent that the reader is left with the nagging question – could this be possible? And if it were, what then? It is often when the reader feels most uncomfortable with both the subject matter and the text that literature is at its finest.  On that score Submission fulfils its part.

The Luck of Politics – Andrew Leigh

All politicians think that they are some kind of genius, using their smarts, street cunning, intellectual grunt and sheer charisma to get themselves up the greasy pole. Andrew Leigh, himself a politician, sets out to prove otherwise. As luck would have it, in Leigh’s telling luck is a major unacknowledged factor in political success.  The book catalogues the fascinating ways and fun facts that give lie to politicians’ claims of their own superiority.  For instance did you know that until 1984 the order in which candidate’s names would appear on the Federal election ballot paper was alphabetical?  This meant that by the 1984 election fully one quarter of the members of the House of Representatives had surnames starting with A,B or C – it would seem that the donkey is superior to any innate political abilities.  There is something refreshing in having a behavioural economist in Australia’s Parliament and Leigh writes with a verve that brings to life the role chance plays in shaping not just the political destiny of our world but by extension our own lives as well.


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