Galey’s Best Reads 2017 Part 21
December 20, 2017 by brettdgale
In the Country of Men – Hisham Matar
This tense psychological thriller is set in Gaddafi’s Libya and tells the story of nine year old Sulaiman and his family, struggling to survive amongst the betrayals and hidden deceits that are a constant fact of life under totalitarian states.
Sulaiman tries to have a normal childhood but at every turn the stresses and strains of daily life living beneath a despotic regime take their toll on Sulaiman, his family, and his friendships. The fact that the story is told in a first person narrative by a nine year old boy who can’t really comprehend his own deeds or those of the society in which he lives just serves to underscore the complete inexplicability and constant savage spitefulness ever present in such an oppressive society. Sulaiman can’t work out why his father keeps disappearing, why his mother drinks “secret medicine” from a brown paper bag sold under the counter, and as his best friend’s father is taken away by the secret police why he feels the need to suddenly shun his best friend. Indeed as the external events of the regime get crueler so too do the games Sulaiman and his friends play.
Yet while the society in which Sulaiman lives is loveless, his is family life is anything but, and the story is told in such a beautifully lyrical style that the reader is left at the end, not in complete despair, but rather, in something approximating hope.
Julius Caesar – William Shakespeare
I’ve always had a soft spot for Julius Caesar ever since appearing as Marc Antony in a parody of the aforementioned Shakespeare classic (silly phrase because they are all classics) in my early years of high school. The play was called “Rinse the blood off my Toga” – sample dialogue:
Antony: I said Friends, Romans, Countrymen lend me your ears
Chorus: What’s in the sack?
Anyway, you get the picture of the quality of the spoof. So, to this year and I notice that the Royal Shakespeare Company was playing Julius Caesar whilst we were in the UK. Problem – how to see the play and take care of an 8 year old. Solution – bring her along. To our eternal happiness said 8 year old loved the whole experience (made all the better by Bella serendipitously making friends with the younger sister of the actress who played Portia just on the morning we were due to see the play). However I don’t know whether to be proud or terrified that given Bella’s political pedigree she took a tale of political assassination completely in her stride (I guess she’s seen a lot of it in her short 8 year life).
Five Go on a Strategy Away Day – Enid Blyton (written by Bruno Vincent)
Hands up those who enjoy strategy days or “offsites” as we call them down under? No one? I thought so. If spending a full day (or worse two) with your closest and least dearest work colleagues is your idea of hell than this book is for you.
The Famous Five are all grown up and have begun work at a multinational firm which believes it’s important to build team morale by taking the team out to the country for a day of activities. All the standard activities of strategy days are there to make fun of, from the corporate speak introduction, through to the trust exercise, the communication exercise and the orienteering course.
Remember whenever you go on your next offsite “we are going to explore, discover, learn, improve and reshape our thinking about the business environment. Together, we will take an experiential journey of discovery and renewal – we’re going to break everything down to its nuts and build it again from the ground up. Our friend is truthfulness, and our enemy is cliché. So I want you to think outside of the box, and give it a hundred and ten per cent. By the end of the day, we will have formed a holistic approach that should really be a paradigm shift for you all moving forward”.
I don’t know who is behind the reissues of the Famous Five with new, exotic and comedic adventures for adults (Five Go Gluten Free) but what I do know is that whoever it is, is a bloody comic genius.
New Boy – Tracy Chevalier
This is the second of Hogarth’s retellings of Shakespeare that I’ve read (the other being last year’s My Name is Shylock by Howard Jacobson). I must say on the strength of the two I’ve read so far I can’t wait to read further in the series particularly those by Margaret Atwood, Jo Nesbø and Jeanette Winterson.
Chevalier has chosen the dark psychological tragedy of Othello as her starting point and transplanted the characters to a Washington DC school yard of the 1970s. And what better setting for the green eyed monster of jealousy to wreak havoc than in the school playground. Having watched close at hand this year the trials and tribulations of Year 3 girls this year I have no doubt that many of the Year 6 behaviourial traits Chevalier references await in three years’ time.
The new boy of the title is Osei Kokote, the Ghanaian son of a diplomat, who joins the sixth grade late in the school year. And just as Othello stands out for his blackness in the Venice of Shakespeare’s play so too Osei is the only black kid in his new school. Chevalier well evokes the blatant racism of the 70s and the willingness of children to ostracise the other, particularly with as malevolent a lad as Ian (Iago) setting himself up as Osei’s enemy from the ringing of the first bell.
Chevalier captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s original without doing anything too radical with the plotting (in contrast to Jacobson’s effort) and for that she’s been criticised by some for being too literal. Personally I thoroughly enjoyed this well-crafted take on an old classic.
The Once and Future Liberal – Mark Lilla
Mark Lilla wants to pick a fight. Specifically he wants to pick a fight with his own political party – the Democrats. In this provocative book Lilla (a political scientist at Columbia) takes aim at the message the Democrats have been selling in recent years. He contends that since the time of Reagan American liberals have lost the ability to send a unifying message to the country and that essentially the left of America is in crisis. Indeed, despite the magnificent victories of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and their two terms in office each, neither of “those Presidents’ electoral victories…stop or even slow the rightward drift of American public opinion”.
Lilla lays the blame for this failure of Democrats to cut through at the feet of so-called “identity politics” which he calls “Reaganism for lefties” (that is a politics focused on the individual’s desires rather than the collective good) or, as he wrote in the New York Times, “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing”.
He believes that now is the time to issue a clarion call to American Democrats for a new kind of politics. One that aims at creating a new sense of unity in the American public and the American body politic by developing a saleable vision for the whole society rather than one based on tallying up the concerns of multiple and disparate sectional interests.
Lilla’s thesis is both thought provoking and contentious as all good political screeds should be.
This slim treatise is a great argument starter for those of us who inhabit the left side of politics. Whether or not you agree with his contentions this is a book worth reading and a debate worth having.
Red Plenty – Francis Spufford
For those of us too young to know or too old to remember, there was a period in the 1950’s when to the outside world the Soviet economy actually looked as if it worked, and that’s mainly because for a short turbulent time it very nearly did. Or as Francis Spufford would have it, “For a while, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, people in the west felt the same mesmerised disquiet over Soviet growth that they were going to feel for Japanese growth in the 1970s and 1980s, and for Chinese and Indian growth from the 1990s on,” “Beneath several layers of varnish, the phenomenon was real.”
In telling the story of why this system eventually failed, Spufford has written another of the novels I read this year that audaciously pushes established literary norms.
He tells his tale through a series of interlinked short stories blending dissertations of fact with the creation of fictional characters and fabricated incidents that closely resemble real life events and historical actuality.
It is almost an eccentric approach to historical education but Spufford pulls it off with superb storytelling or as he himself says “best to call this a fairytale…- but it really happened, or something like it”.
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Talk of defying the boundaries of literary convention will inevitably lead the engaged reader to the book that won Gabriel Garcia Marquez the Nobel Prize and invented the genre of “magical realism”. I’ll put a warning in here. If you don’t like magical realism you probably won’t like this book even though it has sold 30 million copies in 37 languages.
This is a magical allegorical fable that tells the history of Colombia through the story of the isolated village of Macondo and its premier family, the Buendia family, over the course of a century.
The storyline almost defies description, but concentrates on the repeating cycles of history as each generation of Buendias not only share the same names (Jose Arcadio, Aureliano) but the same character traits and the same fates. Thus, just as the town’s most famous residents keep repeating the same mistakes, Marquez uses this recurring cycle of woe to illustrate a more profound truth that history is a circular process in which humans will blindly and wilfully go on making the same miscalculations ad infinitum if given the chance.
At the end of the day however, what makes this book so successful is Marquez exquisite use of language and vivid imagery which effortlessly transports the reader to a fantastic but thoroughly recognisable world of floating virgins, reincarnating gypsies and soothsaying colonels.
History of the Russian Revolution – Leon Trotsky
To mark 100 years since the Russian Revolution I dusted off Trotsky’s contemporary history for a read. Despite the obvious bias of his position (being a key player on the winning side and all) I was quite surprised to see a large effort made to produce a work of scholarly analysis.
Trotsky deliberately set out to apply the “scientific method” to his history even going so far as to refer to himself in the third person when he appears in the action. This actually makes Trotsky’s work a readable and insightful account free of the problems of political biography.
The books alternates between somewhat dry intellectual analyses of the philosophical bases for both communism and revolution and graphic seat-of the pants action scenes such as the storming of the Winter Palace and the meeting of the first Congress of Soviets which Lenin proclaimed open with the immortal words “We shall now proceed to construct the socialist order”.
The Russian Revolution is still the most important geo-political event of the past 100 years, shaping the direction and tenor of the 20th century, even as its consequences interacted with other world events. Yet as Trotsky makes clear, it was not one single event but a series of events that saw the collapse of the Romanov monarchy in February 1917 to see the final seizure of power by the Bolsheviks in November of the same year. Or as Lenin himself wrote in What is To Be Done – “Revolutions must not by any means be regarded as a single act…but as a series of more or less powerful outbreaks rapidly alternating with periods of more or less intense calm.”
As a history, Trotsky’s book is well worth reading, particularly balanced against other less Marxist stories of the struggle. One of those that I also read this year was Catherine Merridale’s Lenin on the Train. A lively account of Lenin’s war time return to Russia on a sealed train through Switzerland, Germany and Sweden. Merridale captures the spirit of drama and intrigue surrounding Lenin’s return from exile including quite striking and colourful profiles of both minor and major characters involved. She makes a strong case to be allowing Lenin to go home the Germans were using Lenin for their own war time purposes (or was he using them).
Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics – Ed Balls
It’s a shame there are not more Ed Balls around. And not just for the ability to randomly tweet the words Ed Balls. Most politicians of my experience are reluctant to show their true personalities in political life (or possibly the epitome of the modern politician lacks any true personality at all) and I’m not sure if Ed Balls had a personality when he was a political adviser and then a politician, but on the strength of this book I think he did.
Ed Balls shows an ability for self-deprecation and self-awareness lacking in nearly every other political autobiography I’ve ever read. Balls is straightforward and honest about the mistakes he made in his political career, he is open about the emotions he felt when losing his seat or discovering he had an “internalised stammer”. Balls lost his seat in Parliament at the very moment he had assumed that he would become the Chancellor of the Exchequer perhaps this is what has given him the sagacity to reflect wisely on both his time in power and his life and to come to important conclusions. The book is subtitled “lessons in life and politics” and Balls has certainly drawn lessons that in my view are worth paying attention to.
As Chris Bowen wrote in his critique of the book, Balls’ work is both personal and revealing. A rare combination in books of this nature. This is one of the best political biographies I’ve ever read – period.
He Died with a Falafel in his hand – John Birmingham
We’ve all had weird flatmates. Personally I haven’t had any as near as weird as those who occupy the pages of this side-splittingly funny novel. I did have the woman who insisted on only having sex with her boyfriends in the bath tub (it was more like a half-bath really and she was quite tall so I always wondered at the gymnastics of it all and was also quite thankful I had my own ensuite). And then there was the guy who shipped in a piano to the lounge room and spent a whole year learning the opening chords of Let It Be at 2 am – he had not mastered it by the time he moved out so I think he’s still selling luxury cars.
John Birmingham’s flatmates on the other hand encompass every type of human imaginable and the author renders them all brilliantly so that the houses he lives in and their inhabitants almost spring to life in front of you. A book that deserves its place as an Australian classic.
What Happened – Hillary Rodham Clinton
This book should come with a trigger warning for those of us still devastated and disbelieving over the events of November 8 2016. Judging from the tone, it was cathartic for Hillary to write it, but for the rest of us true believers it also serves to bring back bad memories.
Having said that it is a book that cries out to be read – not just because most of the early critics (particularly of the Hillary blames everyone but herself variety) clearly had not read it.
And let’s deal with that shibboleth first. As a review in The Australian of all places points out, “despite her critics, the former secretary of state has produced a memoir that displays a readily apparent honesty”. Indeed, the book is filled with instances in which Hillary takes the total blame for decisions that led to her loss.
In my view, the thrust of the book is about Hillary explaining insightfully, (and not without emotion) why she thinks certain things occurred leading to the election debacle.
The fact that Hillary would dare to write an analysis using her own observations seems to be particularly galling for those who believe that their own interpretations of the electoral result are best.
And yes Thomas Frank, I’m looking at you in particular. Whilst I generally love your writings your analysis of why Hillary lost and of this book is superficial and designed merely to try and reaffirm your existing prejudices as to what’s wrong with the modern Democratic Party. Perhaps if you’d brought a little more literary critic and a little less political polemicist to your critique it may have stood up to scrutiny.
That’s not to say Clinton is not without her blind spots. Indeed, in some passages the reader walks away with a little feeling of the old Shakespearean “methink she doth protest too much”, such as when she points out that she did have policy positions that would have helped the working class it was just that no one was listening.
This in fact brings us back to Thomas Frank’s main criticism of the Clinton/Obama Democratic Party. In one sense, I have no doubt that Frank is correct in his general assertion that at some point (as with all left wing parties) a single minded focus on the needs and aspirations of the working class was overtaken by a desire to right all of societies’ wrongs in whatever shape or form they may take. In the case of the Democrats Frank would argue there is no longer any pro-working class policies at all (a proposition I don’t completely agree with). Thus when a figure like Trump comes along, making a direct appeal to that self-same working class they inevitably flock to his messiah like pronouncements. That at least is how the theory goes.
My problem with this analysis is that sets up a false binary choice – either it was working class inequality that did it or it was something else. Indeed such a theory plays into the two most common narratives as why Hillary Clinton lost the election. Those two narratives are that voters voted overwhelmingly for change and that the key factor was, “inequality stupid!” Both are wrong, or at least not the complete picture in one case). Both theories actually serve a right wing media agenda precisely because they work to obscure the very real divisions in the fabric of American society and so should involve some wariness on behalf of Democrats. Equally, simplicity is never really an answer when it comes to voter behaviour.
Point one is clearly myth. It is not insignificant that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by what may well end up close to 3 million votes and it is not insignificant that she only lost the 3 key swing states by somewhat less than 100,000 votes. Yes, change is coming to America as a result of Trump’s victory but it doesn’t mean that the country at large voted overwhelmingly for it.
More importantly however, is to debunk the notion that economic inequality and the rage of the working class was the sole factor in the Democrat’s demise. They were undoubtedly significant factors given the previously strong blue states that Clinton lost but equally given the relative votes of the candidates something else was at play. A simple fact – Trump got the same sort of vote as Mitt Romney in 2016 but Clinton’s vote was more akin to John Kerry’s in 2004. So where did all the Obama voters go? Not to Trump, the truth is they didn’t turn up.
Thus, in any analysis it is important to look at why the vote held up for the least likeable candidate in modern Presidential campaigning but fell for his opponent. Last year I published the following reasons why I thought Trump won and Hillary lost. With a year’s reflection I feel they hold up pretty well. Some of them accord with Clinton’s own positions while others don’t.
Trump had a better slogan – this is not a joke, “Make America Great Again” however nebulous at least carried a clear clarion call to what the Trump campaign stood for. Over the course of the campaign Clinton’s team produced 85 different bumper stickers – that’s 85 different messages. And whatever can be said about the darkness and negativity of the rest of Trump’s campaign the slogan itself was actually a sign of optimism.
Trump’s mastery of social media. On election night 2016 the political commentator Van Jones made the point that whomever has mastered a new medium has dominated an election, FDR with radio and JFK with TV, same with Trump and social media. And that’s before we consider the role of fake news which Hillary’s book so neatly and thoroughly describes.
Celebrity. We live in a world of god like worship of celebrity like never before in our history. The fact he was a celebrity was used as the reason why Trump couldn’t win. His celebrity had precisely the opposite effect. In the decade that The Apprentice was beamed into the living rooms of middle America as one of TV’s highest rated shows a perception of Trump formed and it was by and large a positive one. Hardened perceptions are almost impossible to shift and thus even as Trump got crazier and crazier and more outrageous, in order to avoid cognitive dissonance those inclined to support him simply tuned out the message. The Democrats attacks failed to pierce the armour of the veil of ignorance formed by the Apprentice in Chief. By contrast 30 years of demonization and attacks by the right wing echo machine had also shaped the view of Hillary Clinton and you don’t need me to spell out the fact that it was entirely negative.
The Republican base. I’ve written before about the cement like polarisation of American politics. In hindsight it was clear that Trump would always have a solid floor on which to work from.
These were Trump’s pluses but what of the other side of the ledger
Yes rising inequality and stagnant opportunity was a real factor in the loss of support for the Democrats. Despite the protestations in her book it is pretty clear that the Clinton campaign failed to pick up signals from the primaries and failed to act in states where the “left behind” message was potent. On the other hand those who earned below $50,000 mostly voted for Clinton. Thus, we come back to reduced turnout as the swing factor in the whole shebang.
And what caused that? A number of reasons.
No Obama. Undoubtedly the lack of Obama on the ticket led to an enthusiasm gap from African American voters but let’s never downplay the systematic denial of voting rights to many hundreds of thousands of black voters initiated by Republican state legislatures in recent years. Making it harder to vote means that people don’t vote it’s that simple.
The FBI and the Russians. Let’s see where Robert Mueller’s investigation ends up but it seems pretty clear that the Russians (along with Wikileaks) played an extraordinary role in this election. Their hacking of the Democrats was used to feed to a fever pitch all the negative distortions and framing directed at Hillary. It had an effect. Similarly the unprecedented intervention of Comey into the dying days of the election continued to muddy the waters on an issue of confusion – giving wavering voters a chance not to bother turning up at all. Not surprisingly given all the evidence, Hillary comes to the same conclusion on these two factors. In fact the book contains a couple of meticulously researched chapters on these issues that are well worth reading.
Millennials. After giving a hand to the Brexiters by not showing up to vote, millennials topped that sterling effort by handing Trump the keys to the White House. It is clear that millennials either didn’t vote or that they parked their votes with one of the “pure” alternatives – Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. Even a fraction of those wasted votes delivered to Clinton in Wisconsin or Michigan would have won her those states.
Last and certainly by no means least (I suspect most importantly for the long term health of society) – straight out sexism and misogyny. I still remain truly mad that we have continually seen this obvious factor downplayed in post-election analysis. I could spend thousands of words on the clear ways in which both unconscious and conscious sexism hampered Hillary’s campaign and as we’ve seen in the post-Weinstein world, many of her most vocal media critics were those involved in behaviour that did not see women as equals (to say the least).
On election night a friend of mine received a text from his mother quoting Germaine Greer. It said simply quoting Greer, “Women will never know how much men hate them” but then finished with an equally strong coda “but now they do”. It is heartbreakingly true and forever will remain a stain on the body politic of the US.
And yes I’m still angry that Hillary lost and always will be.
Born to Run – Bruce Springsteen
Sometime in the middle years of the 1980s when I was in my mid-teens I became addicted to taking baths. Every night after dinner and washing the dishes (a chore my brother seemed to miss through the urgent call of nature) I’d fill the tub with hot water and luxuriate for exactly 45 minutes. The 45 minutes was important, being the exact length of one side of a 90 minute cassette tape. Because at the same time as I was drawing a bath I’d be setting up a boom box on a little stool – volume cranked to the max and slipping a tape of my favourite music into the slot of the cassette deck. In hindsight, I like to think I was inventing a sort of spa therapy for teenage boys. The spa of course was the bath, the therapy? Well what could be more therapeutic for a 14 year old than 45 uninterrupted minutes of loud as hell listening to my favourite bands or singers.
One of the tapes on high rotation in those days was a tape of a bootleg Bruce Springsteen concert from the late 1970s starting off with a blistering cover rendition of Summertime Blues, slipping easily into Badlands and Darkness on the Edge of Town and taking off from there.
I still have that tape although it is now stretched well beyond hearability. It was my first introduction to the power of Bruce Springsteen live in concert the power and the intensity of that musical performance stayed with me until I finally saw Springsteen live on stage almost 30 years later.
Watch Springsteen on stage with a guitar strapped on in 2017 and you can still picture him as the skinny kid in front of the mirror in 1964, smiling at himself as he strummed and whirled realising that playing music was not just a way out of the pitiless future of factory life but a life giving force in itself.
There is the sheer joy of performance in a Springsteen concert. Or as he says himself in this autobiography, being on stage is “life-giving, muscle-aching, mind-clearing, cathartic pleasure and privilege”. “There is a reason it’s called playing and not working”, he says.
If ever there was a testament to the power of pub rock and what we’ve lost in Australia since the poker machines took sway – it’s there in the live concerts of Springsteen. Thousands and thousands of hours of playing rock music in sweaty smoke filled bars is certain to sharpen your craft until your live performance is an extension of life itself.
Indeed, Springsteen could well be the pin up boy for the ten thousand hours of practice thesis popularised by Malcolm Gladwell a few years back. “Born to Run” last year’s blockbuster autobiography by Springsteen brilliantly catalogues this story of scrawny teenage dropout through to rock god and now rock god emeritus.
It’s a life story of music. In fact a life in music and nothing else. As Springsteen told a sea of adoring fans during his Hanging Rock concert earlier this year, “I’ve never worked an honest day in my life for 67 years”.
However it wasn’t just the power of the music echoing through that long ago tape that got me hooked. What also stayed with me as I’d close my eyes and let the water rush over me was the power of the stories that Springsteen was telling through his words and music.
Because for close on 50 years Springsteen has been telling a story. A story of America, an ever evolving commentary on what it means to live in the land of the brave and the home of the free (or not as the case may be).
And in telling that story Springsteen created some of the greatest characters ever given breath in a rock song. Characters that would be worthy of entire novels on their own. From the Magic Rat, Terry, Mary, and Rosie, whose journeys from youth to adulthood were captured in Springsteen’s early career through to the depressed and downtrodden characters in his later songs, Springsteen’s music has always contained a novelistic approach to storytelling combined with a cinematographic sensibility.
As one of the many Springsteen biographers out there, Eric Alterman, points out, “the best of his songs have all the tension and complexity of short fiction”.
There is a reason for this, as Springsteen makes clear in “Born to Run”. After a few years of playing music night after night, he knew he was a great guitarist and he knew he was only an okay singer (“About my voice. First of all, I don’t have much of one”), he knew he had stage presence, but he knew that if he was to really succeed then it would have to be his lyrics where he really made a difference. And in many respects that’s been the essence of Springsteen ever since.
We all crave stories to give us meaning in the world, to help us navigate through the trials and tribulations of life. To give us something we can relate to that explains our life – something that gives us a spark of recognition that there are others just like me.
That’s why from the wise woman sitting around the fire through to today’s Netflix writers and producers, throughout history storytellers have been rightly venerated.
Bruce Springsteen is such a storyteller.
Springsteen’s stories are American stories but they are also universal stories.
We all go through the stresses of growing up, we all go through the heartbreak of love and we can all relate to the buffeting winds of an ever changing society.
Thus, whatever resonated with the crowd captured on my bathroom tape resonated with the young guy listening in the bath as much.
And now Springsteen has chosen to tell his own story.
Of course, the story of Bruce Springsteen has been told many times.
From those famous 1975 covers of both Time and Newsweek in the same week through the countless biographies from rock writers to social commentators there ain’t much more to tell.
More importantly, Springsteen has written and rewritten his autobiography time after time after time, both through his songs and more importantly through his stage side soliliquies.
In between songs he’s always told tall tales of meeting members of the band, sad stories of family strife,
Indeed, the question could be legitimately asked was there really a need to have 500 plus pages of new autobiography?
On the strength of the writing in “Born to Run” the answer is an overwhelming yes.
A storyteller on the stage has brilliantly become a storyteller on the page.
Sharing his life is the contract Springsteen decided long ago he would have with his audience. It is that spirit which comes clearly through the book, “I’m in the middle of a long conversation with my audience”, he said. It will be a life long journey for the both of us by the time we’re done”.
The book is a tale of linked vignettes and insights into the craft of rock and roll and the art of being Bruce Springsteen. It is a reconciliation with his past (especially his father), a rendering of his life in evocative extracts and a reckoning with his own depressive demons.
With “Born to Run” Springsteen has set a new high for the rock autobiography. It’s written with both a self-deprecating tone (Springsteen knows his hard work has made him one hell of a lucky bastard) but with a sureness of language and metaphor that marks him out as a truly great writer not just of lyrics but of prose as well.
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