December 21, 2022 by brettdgale
The Cat Who Saved Books – Sosuke Natsukawa
This is a beautiful little read that will warm the cockles of your heart. Especially poignant for those of us who worship books and the pure joy of reading.
Bookish high school student Rintaro Natsuki is about to close the secondhand bookshop he inherited from his beloved grandfather. Then, a talking cat named Tiger appears with an unusual request. The cat needs Rintaro’s help to save books that have been imprisoned, destroyed and unloved.
I loved, loved, loved this fable that reminds us of the power and beauty of escapist stories band the need to take time out and read them in a world that too often forces us to rush by.
all that’s left unsaid – Tracey Lien
What a fantastic and powerful debut novel. As I’ve begun to form this list and write these blurbs I am reaching the conclusion that this maybe my book of the year.
Set in my childhood home of Cabramatta in the mid-nineties (about ten years after I graduated High School) this tale is as far from my experience of teenage hood as it is possible to be. Yet it dramatically tells the history of a time and place that is important for our understanding of the forces that shape modern Australia.
While the murder of Ky Tran’s brother Danny (and the code of silence that covers the crime) sits at the heart of the novel this novel is unflinching in its examination of the migrant experience in Australia especially Vietnamese migrants coming in the wake of the Vietnam War.
It’s a lot to put on a debut but Tran successfully pulls apart the intergenerational trauma, the devastating effects of hard drugs and the institutionalised racism that affected so may in that time and place. It also touches the universal themes such as the search for belonging by successive generations of immigrants, the alienation of teenage hood and the impact of grief.
As I say it’s a lot for a debut, but Lien pulls it off. Oh, and did I mention that the phrase “page turner” may have been expressly invented to describe Lien’s style in this gripping murder mystery that offers so much more insight and feeling than what “murder mystery” implies.
You will be thinking about this book and moved by it long after you put it down.
Klara and the Sun – Kazuo Ishiguro
As science continues to race ahead of reason in its pursuit of the perfect embodiment of artificial intelligence it is worthwhile to pause every now and again to contemplate what we have wrought.
In Klara and the Sun the always brilliant Kazuo Ishiguro has given us one such pause. Ishiguro provides us a trip through the uncanny valley in this story of a girl named Josie and her Artificial Friend (AF) Klara set in a dystopian near future United States. Klara is purchased by Josie’s mother to be a companion to Klara as Josie prepares to enter college having been at some point been “lifted” to a higher plane of intelligence. Klara is the kindly yet naïve narrator of the story and through her we contemplate what it means to be human (or near-human).
I don’t want to give too much of the story away as it is the slow unspooling of the narrative, and the glimpses around corners of understanding that give this novel its power.
Ishiguro writes with an unsentimental and restrained style that serves well not only the big questions he is asking us to contemplate but counter intuitively tweaks our emotions too.
The Midnight Library – Matt Haig
Another fabulist tale that allows the reader to contemplate the possibilities of life.
Nora Seed is depressed following her estrangement from her only relative, her best friend, the loss of her job, and the loss of her cat. She attempts to take her own life but instead ends up in the titular “midnight library” a vast neverending palace of books in which each story offers Nora the chance to try another life she could have lived.
Haig’s sparse novel taps into the very human notion that there is always a different life that we could have been living, based on choices we didn’t take, or importantly, actions we did. Often we imagine it as a “better” life, but not always.
It is this exploration that Nora goes through in the midnight library, coming to the realisation that choices are not the same as outcomes.
The treatment of the idea of suicide is a little glib in my view, but that discordant note aside, Haig has created a thoughtful, imaginative, excursion into the questions of what is truly fulfilling in life, and what makes it worth living in the first place.
Truth-Telling: History, Sovereignty and the Uluru Statement – Henry Reynolds
As the nation embarks upon a national conversation to change our constitution, every single Australian should read this book. For decades Henry Reynolds’ work has shaped how we view Australia’s troubled history and white Australia’s too often refusal to confront the truths of our national story.
Inspired by the Uluru Statement from the Heart, Reynolds uses thorough analysis of law and history to prove the truth of that document’s statement that sovereignty ‘has never been ceded or extinguished’.
Reynolds shows us not only that the sovereignty of First Nations peoples was recognised by European international law in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, but that British annexation of a whole continent was not seen as acceptable at the time.
Once more Reynolds has ripped the blinders from our eyes to make us confront what in our hearts we know to be true.
It’s now time to vote to begin the process of redress. Just vote Yes.
Dune – Frank Herbert
In 1977, inspired by falling in love with Star Wars I tried to read this “other space opera” set on a desert planet. I was 8. I failed miserably, book was too dense, too arcane and way too full of hippie allusions that I didn’t understand.
Finally gave it a crack again at 52 and it was well worth the wait between reads. Herbert has written a sweeping narrative that touches on the hero’s journey, Machiavellian intrigue, mythology, religion, politics, imperialism, environmentalism, and the nature of power.
In many respects Dune is the book that inspired so much of sci-fi and fantasy to come.
Facts *and other lies: Welcome to the Disinformation Age – Ed Coper
For a number of years now we’ve been increasingly aware of the potential of the rising sewer that forms much of social media to overwhelm us all in a shitstorm of disinformation and misinformation. Yet still, too many of us fail to heed the threat this poses to our democracy and to our very social existence.
There have been a number of great books exposing this problem in recent years, and Ed Coper’s contribution to this oeuvre is a standout addition. Coper understands the manipulatory impact of social media like very few others on this planet so we should take his warnings to heart. More importantly we should all heed the ideas and instructions he gives us for fighting disinformation in our own lives, our own social circles, and of course, imperatively in defending our democracy.
As I write this, in Australia in the past week we’ve all too graphically seen the evil consequences of unchecked disinformation and unhinged paranoia. In the face of such tragedy, warnings like Coper’s can sometimes feel too late. But they are not, Coper’s book is timely and one of the most important political books of the year in my view.
Do yourself, and society, a favour, and read this book.
Battling the Big Lie: How Fox, Facebook and the Maga Media are Destroying America – Dan Pfeiffer
While we are dwelling in the dark corners of the media eco-sphere, you may as well pick up Dan Pfeiffer’s latest as well. As one has come to expect from Pfeiffer he cleverly, wittily and sophisticatedly analyses the problems that the modern media system and its amplification through social media mean for American democracy (not so spoiler alert – none of them are good).
He charts the building of a massive right wing disinformation and misinformation media machine funded by billionaires who’ve learnt how to monetise rage to their financial benefit and society’s detriment. Of course, as with any good Pfeiffer book he suggests practical ways in which we can (not just get angry about this state of affairs) fight back.
The Unforgiven: Mercenaries or Missionaries – Ashley Gray
In this thought provoking book Ashley Gray implicitly asks the question, “what price money?”
In the early 80s apartheid South Africa was one of the first countries in the world to try and sportswash its sins (a practice that now seems all too common place). For South Africa this sportswashing took the form of rebel cricket tours. Players from Australia, England and the West Indies all succumbed to the lure of kruger rands at one time or another. All players that took part stood condemned, but as Gray points out, it was only the West Indians who suffered the ultimate price of life bans (Kim Hughes who lead the Australians now commentates on radio, Mike Gatting came back to play for England).
Here in first person interviews Gray charts the consequences for those players. Many are the stories of tragedy for the shunned West Indian cricketers – too often ending in a spiral of drugs, depression or permanent ostracism from their own countries.
None of the stories are as straight forward as they seem and Gray shows us that while money was an important motivator, the reasons each individual accepted were complex and varied. This is a nuanced and powerful thoughtful book that never condones the rebel tours but exposes a too human tale.
Love & Virtue – Diana Reid
Diana Reid seems to have cleaned up every Australian literary award there is with this debut novel based on the trials and tribulations of first year university students. And it deserves them all.
A sharp, witty coming-of-age story for our times. Reid is an astute and acerbic observer of both the cultural mores of young people finding their way in the world, and society at large (in particular patriarchal power dynamics). She manages to combine episodes of darkness and wit in a story that, while in many ways celebrating the emotional and intellectual growth that is the raison d’etre of university life, is not at all afraid to stare into the worst aspects of that life too.
Scary Monsters – Michelle De Krester
This is one of the more fascinating books I’ve read in years. It’s actually two stories in one. Or actually two stories in two. Each story has their own separate front cover. You literally turn the book over and upside down to read the second story. Except there is no second story – there is no right order in which to read this book. The reader finds oneself disoriented before even the first word is read.
This, I presume is exactly, the effect De Krester is trying to achieve, because the two stories contained within the covers are disorienting themselves both for their protagonists and the reader.
Both tell the story of immigrant Australians and the disorientation felt by migrants to a new land.
In one, Lili is teaching English to high-schoolers in the south of France in 1980. Waiting to hear if she has been accepted to postgraduate study at Oxford while at the same time dealing with fickle friends are her creepy neighbour downstairs. In the other we are transported to a not too distant dystopian Australia where Lyle is an unassuming bureaucrat in a sinister government entity – The Department. It’s Australia, but not as we’d prefer to know it.
De Krester writes with a fluency that draws the reader into the lives and actions of her beautifully rendered lead characters.
The Second Sleep – Robert Harris / Act of Oblivion – Robert Harris
You can’t go past Robert Harris for a vacation read. He writes with the perfect blend of mass market escapism and literary verve. His style has you turning the pages long past bedtime – (even the extended bedtime of being on holidays).
Act of Oblivion takes us deep into the 17th century as we get swept along by this tale of obsession, fanaticism and retribution focused on the pursuit by the newly re-established monarchy of the Cromwellian rebels who signed the death warrant of Charles I. (As a special bonus for those readers of this list who shared the Yale journey with me, our old stomping ground of New Haven plays an integral role in the plot).
Is The Second Sleep – history or future? That’s the question you find yourself asking part way through this finely paced novel. All civilizations consider themselves invulnerable; history (and Robert Harris) warn us that none is.
Skywalker: A Family at War – Kristin Baver
What would the Star Wars saga look like if it was written by an historian? That’s the book that Kristin Baver has written. Don’t get me wrong it’s not a history of the making of Star Wars (although there is a brilliant book that chronicles that) nor is it sort of compendium of the Star Wars universe.
It is exactly what I indicated – the Star Wars saga reimagined as a history text book of the galaxy.
As a complete and utter Star Wars nerd this book seems to have been written expressly for me and all those like me. It’s fun.
Go Tell It on the Mountain – James Baldwin
Instilling guilt into people for natural sexual longings lies at the heart of much of organised religion’s coercive control over its adherents. This was certainly true of the fire and brimstone preachers of the Pentecostal church in Harlem in the early 30s where James Baldwin’s incredibly powerful debut novel was set.
When Baldwin wrote this novel in 1953 he was (as he has said) attempting to come to grips with his feelings towards his own preacher father and their painful relationship. Thus the story focusses on the friction between 14 vear old John Grimes and “his” preacher father who strongly condemns the normal travails of youth (sexual and otherwise) that John displays. The story, and the father son conflict comes to an emotion laden conclusion on John’s 14th birthday.
Baldwin writes with a ferocity that somehow strengthens the sensitivity at the novel’s core as he explores complex notions of conformity versus individualism, community expectations versus personal choice, and the interplay of faith and family.
The Intuitionist – Colson Whitehead
As I wrote in last year’s list – I’ve never read a bad Colson Whitehead. In fact I venture as far as to suggest that there are no bad Colson Whitehead novels.
And the statement holds up in this, Whitehead’s first novel.
Lila Mae Watson is the first black female elevator inspector in the entire Department of Elevator Inspectors. She’s also the best. And the most radical, using a form of inspection known as intuition which is only practiced by a small subset of inspectors. When an elevator free falls on her shift things become much less straight forward than they at first seem.
Like most of his other novels, The Intuitionist fits no real genre. Part mystery thriller, part meditation on racial and social issues and part keen eyed satire on the role of factional politics inside organisations; Whitehead’s fabulist tale is escapism at a high level.
Hamlet: Poem Unlimited – Harold Bloom
This is Harold Bloom’s short exigesis on what many consider to be the greatest play ever written and Shakespeare’s greatest and most enigmatic character. Bloom delves deeply into the longevity of the play, it’s ongoing impact and the character of Hamlet himself.
This was a re-read for me ahead of Bell Shakespeare’s production of Hamlet I was going to earlier this year. It was a great primer for the play but more than that it is a great delight of a book for anyone who is a lover of Shakespeare.
Death by Shakespeare: Snakebites, Stabbings and Broken Hearts – Kathryn Harkup
There’s a lot of ways to die in Shakespeare. “The Bard killed off over 250 named characters in his plays and poems in dozens of different ways”.
Harkup surveys them all, including: shipwreck, died of shame, stabbed (in one notable case 33 times), poisoned, removing a pound of flesh, frenzy, beheadings, guilt over an evil life, suicide, malady of France (aka syphilis), burnt at the stake and of course baked into a pie.
But this book is not just a roll call of death. Harkup places Shakespeare’s varied ways to die in their historical context, examines how these death scenes would have been enacted in the plays (and how those enactments would have changed over time), and in a type of myth busting style investigation analyses whether or not deaths by such means would actually have occurred in the ways Shakespeare depicts. Was death by snakebite as serene as Shakespeare makes out?
It’s a genuinely new take in the field of Shakespeare analysis as well as a bit of gruesome fun. A fine addition to any Shakespearean library.
Exit, pursued by a bear.
The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century – Olga Ravn
Let’s face it – no one except those who work in them like HR departments. Set on a spaceship in the not-too-distant future, Olga Ravn’s style breaking novel reinforces why.
Written as if in a series of discrete memos from management and staff The Employees tells the story of human and humanoid workers and their struggles in the face of mindless productivity for the sake of it.
To be clear this book will not be to everyone’s taste (especially the style) but to my mind Ravn has written a whip smart parable for our times.
Mission Economy: A Moonshot guide to changing capitalism – Mariana Mazzucato
For much of the past 50 years the idea that the state should have no (or very little) role to play in the market economy has been the dominant belief amongst economists, public policy thinkers and the political class. For a number of years now Mazzucato has been challenging that orthodoxy and making the case that all the neo-liberal brain washing of decades past is little more than bunk designed to benefit private interests at public expense. For her reassessment of the central importance of government, she is deservedly regarded as one of the most important public thinkers of our time.
The truth is that governments pick winners all the time, that governments intervene all the time. Even the most neoliberal governments obviously affect every part of the economy and society by their actions. Mazzucato argues that governments should begin to do these interventions once more in the wider public interest as opposed to the gains of a narrow segment of private domain.
At the height of the COVID pandemic there was an optimism that a general and wide rethinking of the orthodoxy was in order. Sadly, there has been some backsliding on this front as governments around the world slip back to pre-Covid times. Social Democrats need to resist this slide back to neo-liberalism and Mazzucato illustrates why. In her words, combatting anew the evident failures of neoliberal capitalism, “calls for a new narrative and new vocabulary for our political economy, using the idea of public purpose to guide policy and business activity”. Mazzucato suggests doing this by refocussing government aims to an economy based on missions and uses the original moon shot as the dominant example. With global climate catastrophe already here, this book is a timely wakeup call as to exactly why we need to adopt this new approach.
Gertrude and Claudius – John Updike
John Updike’s very, very clever reimaging of Hamlet takes as his protagonists Hamlet’s mother and stepfather. Portrayed as the villains in Shakespeare’s play Updike turns the narrative on its head and casts a sympathetic eye on Gertrude and Claudius’ love story.
Updike’s narrative twist in the tale is that he tells the story in three parts using the known sources for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The first uses as its source material a rather straightforward revenge tale in medieval Denmark, as depicted by Saxo Grammaticus in his twelfth-century Historiae Danicae. The second incorporates extra plot elements added by Francois de Belleforest in his Histoires tragiques, published in 1576, and the last brings in various elements from Shakespeare’s play itself.
It’s a smart approach for a smart enjoyable book.
Grendel – John Gardner
For a year in the early 2000s I was a habitue of a certain Boston bar called Grendel’s Den named for the monster at the heart of the epic poem Beowulf. Thus, the definite appeal to me of this retelling of that tale from Grendel’s point of view.
Gardner’s book begs the question – is a monster always a monster? A great and diverting read – most enjoyable.
The Sentence – Louise Erdrich
Another powerful, moving tale where books provide the salvation for the lead figure in this novel of modern America. This novel is a fantastic character study of throroughly drawn and developed personalities that work in and around a bookshop in Minnesota. The timeframe of The Sentence is all too topically real – set during the COVID pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. There is rich pickings in this novel which will have you remembering it long after you’ve put it down.
Fair Game: Lessons From Sport for a Fairer Society and Stronger Economy – Andrew Leigh
The fact that Doc Evatt ran for his first political seat as the “rugby league” candidate is one of the many fascinating anecdotes that pepper Andrew Leigh’s latest call for a fairer Australia. Leigh has always used metaphor to his benefit in his writing and in this short tome he takes that trait to its full extent. By drawing parallels between the world of sport where more often than not a rules based order applies (and where when rules are broken outrage often ensues) and the world of the Australian economy which more often rewards unfairness over fairness, Leigh makes a compelling case for reforming the Australian economy to the benefit of all. Now we’ve got a Labor government once again let’s see what we can do.
Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone – Benjamin Stevenson
If one shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, what happens if you end up reading a book based on title alone? That’s how I fell into this comedic crime thriller.
An enjoyable beach read (actually, given its set in a ski resort it’s also a very good snow read). And, as it turns out, everyone in the narrator Ernest Cunningham’s family has in fact killed someone. The joy in this novel is finding out how and why.
The Mirror & the Light – Hilary Mantel
Valé Hilary Mantel – writer of very long books that chronicle the inherent deficiencies of hereditary monarchy as a system of government.
Although I’d read the previous works in this trilogy it was only while reading this in my current job that I realised not only had Mantel reinvented the historical novel with her trilogy, but in her account of the life of Thomas Cromwell consigliere to Henry VIII, she’d also completely captured what it feels like to be a political adviser. Indeed we could easily interpret, Chapuys’ assertion to Cromwell that, “Your whole life depends on the next beat of Henry’s heart, and your future on his smile or frown”, as an injunction to the precariousness of political life in general.
I’d love to write more here but some discretion, and more need of haste in getting this list finished preclude me from writing more just now. But believe me, if you’ve been a political adviser and you herein read the thoughts of Thomas Cromwell – you know.
This volume is probably the most concentrated on political intrigue in the trilogy, and while it doesn’t have the frenetic energy of Vol 2: Bring Up The Bodies, it moves to a steady drum beat of unease and suspicion as we inexorably move towards the only fate that could possibly befall Cromwell.
Taken together Mantel created a literary masterpiece for our time and for all times. She was taken from us way too soon.
The Guy Who Decides – Jimmy Rees
Ok, so technically this is a compendium of internet vlogs put together by comedian Jimmy Rees during the dark days of the pandemic. They were funny online and are equally side splittingly funny in book form.
Phineas Redux – Anthony Trollope
Technically this is book 4 in Anthony Trollope’s Palliser series of six novels, however for a neat trick for those of us most interested only in the politics of that series you only need to read books two, four and five. So, this makes Phineas Redux the second book to tell the story of eponymous political hero Phineas Finn. Having said that, it can be read as a standalone.
Hidden amongst a traditional story of manners Trollope is one of the great chroniclers of English politics. His novels emphasize the historical “tendency towards equality,” consider its social and political implications, and intimate how traditionally aristocratic England might respond to it. Trollope defined his own politics as “advanced conservative liberal”, which of course means absolutely nothing, but it allowed him (from his day job in the post office) to elegantly and warmly capture many of the subterranean (but ultimately earth shattering) changes taking in place in Victorian society and politics.
Trollope’s satirical observations on Westminster types are both wittily executed and stand the test of time. Many are the caricatures and tropes of certain types of politicians that I am thoroughly familiar with from our own time. To my political friends I say give Trollope a read, you may just recognise yourself within his pages. To everyone else I say give Trollope a read for a great sprawling Victorian saga of love, lust, power and democracy.
When We Cease to Understand the World – Benjamin Labatut
Benjamin Labatut has called this quite extraordinary work a “work of fiction based on real events”. Labatut moves his narrative forward at dazzling pace telling the stories of the early twentieth century’s most brilliant mathematicians and physicists and the story of the discovery/debate of quantum mechanics.
The various threads start in fact and descend slowly into speculative fiction as Labatut propels his narrative forward in a way which questions the madness that often lies behind what we consider genius.
But Labatut is interested in a wider question too – the uses and abuses of science in particular the abstract unmooring of maths from the human. This is best summed up by this passage towards the very end of the book uttered by one of Labatut’s walk-on characters, “It was mathematics – not nuclear weapons, computers, biological warfare or our climate Armageddon – which was changing our world to the point where, in a couple of decades at most, we would simply not be able to grasp what being human really meant.”
Pretty Vacant: A History of Punk – Phil Strongman
If you can get past the somewhat breathless hyperbole of Strongman’s prose this is a useful, engrossing and entertaining short history of one of the truly ground-breaking movements in popular music. Sadly, time doesn’t permit me to write more – because in its time and place punk was as much an aesthetic, a calculated act of cynical money making, a Fuck You to the establishment and an exploitation of disaffected youth as it was a revolutionary musical style. (Hmm maybe talking about punk causes even the best of us to slip into hyperbole).