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Annual Reading Diary 2013

January 13th, 2014 · Admin, Reading Related

For a number of years now I’ve been publishing an Annual Reading Diary as a discipline to my resolution to read at least one book a week every year.

Disappointingly, this has been the first year since I made my resolution that I didn’t hit my target. In my defence, reading is a domestic activity and a new child and running for Parliament will change anyone’s routine! Hopefully my change in career doesn’t mean this goal won’t be achievable in the future…

Summary:

  • Highlights: “The Fatal Shore”.China’s War with Japan“, “Out of the Mountains“, “Romulus, My Father“, “Remembering Babylon“.
  • Lowlights: “This Town”, the many hours I spent on The Game of Thrones books only to have but the vaguest idea of the characters and the plot six months later.
  • Breakdown: 24 Non-Fiction / 22 Fiction (depending on how you classify HhHH). I aim for a 50-50 balance here, so I’m pretty happy with that. A good excuse to sneak a few more fiction books in next year.

The List:

  1. On Warne“, Gideon Haigh. Our greatest cricket writer eschews the diary/biography construct that dominates sports writing and gives us an almost philosophical meditation on the savant-like genius of Shane Warne. As someone who loves the work of both Haigh and Warne, I couldn’t help but swoon for this book. Buy–Borrow – Toss
  2. #”Norwegian Wood“, Haruki Murakami. Along with “All the King’s Men” and “Gatsby”, I re-read this book every couple of years. Not because it is a work of literature of the same quality of those books, but because I first read it at a particular time in my life and I will forever feel like a 19 year old again while reading it. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  3. Gone Girl“, Gillian Flynn. Girl disappears leaving confused husband. Well, it was probably the stand out publishing sensation of the year (50 Shades Aside) and you can understand why. A fantastic pager turner that really sucked me in, but I couldn’t help be left a bit cold by its final fifth (which I will not spoil here). Buy – Borrow – Toss
  4. Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace“, DT Max. Pop biography of DFW. I love DFW’s style as an essayist and the humanist philosophy that he began to push late in his career really speaks to me. Which makes it all the sadder that he couldn’t seem to take any pleasure in his prose himself, nor take any comfort from the philosophy that he ultimately espoused. While a flawed work, this book left me with a great sense of melancholy thinking about this. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  5. The Fatal Shore: The Epic of Australia’s Founding“, Robert Hughes. The seminal account of Australia’s convict history. ‘Tour de Force’ is one of those phrases that is so over-used as to have become a meaningless, but this book represents everything of the phrase’s original import. A virtuoso piece of writing, scholarship and argument. Even given a subject matter about which most Australians now feel quite knowledgeable of (though did not when Hughes set out to write this book), readers will finish this book with a greater understanding of not just our nation’s history, but its soul.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  6. The Culture of Complaint: The Fraying of America“, Robert Hughes. A polemic against lazy post-modernism. Hughes’ mastery of both convict era Australian history and of modern culture is enough to make anyone feel inadequate. There is a lot to like in this book, but with the passage of time and the shift in the debate around many of the issues that he tackles, there are aspects of this book where Hughes talks past the modern incarnation of his opponents. That being said, his clarion call for the defence of intrinsic excellence in all forms of culture is just as valuable today as it was twenty years ago.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  7. Pride and Prejudice“, Jane Austen. Sorry to say that it took me 30 years to get around to Jane Austen (I hadn’t even seen the BBC series before picking this up), but obviously it was my loss. I loved P&P and will have to work my way through the rest of Austen’s works in due course. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  8. Loose: A Wild History“, Ouyang Yu. A complex mix of fiction and non-fiction across a range of genres and geographic settings. Sadly, I couldn’t get into this. I admired its structural ambition, but ultimately it just didn’t hang together well enough for me to feel invested in what was going on. Buy – Borrow - Toss 
  9. After Words: The Post Prime Ministerial Speeches“, Paul Keating. A lengthy collection of Keating’s Post Prime-Ministerial speeches covering the full range of PJK’s polymath interests. Richer than the interview series with Kerry O’Brien and a testament to how much PJK still has to contribute to the Australian body politic. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  10. HhHH“, Laurent Binet. A French Post-Modernist true-fiction, first person account of the writing of a true-fiction account of the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich in occupied Prague (phew!). I had significant reservations about this book coming into it. In general, I find authors who insert their own stories into non-fiction works insufferably self-indulgent. Couple that with my perfectly healthy aversion to French Post-Modernism and this book was carrying a lot of baggage. But despite it all, Binet manages to pull it off in an engaging and reflective way. I ended up kind of loving this book. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  11. Dark Victory: How a Government Lied It’s Way to Political Triumph“, David Marr and Marian Wilkinson. A first class long-form piece of journalism about John Howard’s mendacious use of the Tampa affair in the lead up to the 2001 election. Depressing, but important reading. Still relevant to today’s political debate. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  12. Dark Market: How Hackers Became the New Mafia“, Misha Glenny. Former BBC Eastern-European correspondence tells the story of the early cyber-crime networks. I like Glenny’s journalism, but this isn’t his deepest work. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  13. Jarhead: A Marine’s Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles“. Anthony Swafford. A classic grunt history of the first war in Iraq. Entertaining and insightful. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  14. Madame Bovary“, Gustave Flaubert. Supposedly the original novel and classic tale of forbidden love, but I just couldn’t get into it. I haven’t worked out the French yet. Give me Tolstoy anyday. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  15. American Gods“, Neil Gaiman. Mankind’s gods are down and out in an age in which people worship new idols of money and technology. Entertaining pulp-fantasy fiction. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  16. The Lion and the Unicorn: Gladstone v Disraeli“, Richard Aldous. A joint history of two of the largest figures of early Westminster democracy. I loved this book, full of wonderful factoids about the evolution of the norms of Westminster democracy. DYK that while Gladstone was PM on four separate occasions, he lost his own seat twice? Or that convention used to hold that an MP appointed to the Cabinet used to have to fight a by-election in their seat before they could take up their post? Great stuff. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  17. Romulus, My Father“, Raimond Gaita. Son’s account of his father’s Australian immigrant story. Meaningful, moving, poetic. Just brilliant. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  18. Hanging Man: The Arrest of Ai Weiwei“, Barnaby Martin. The life and arrest of Ai Weiwei told through a series of interviews with the artist. Offers insights on art, repression and modern China. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  19. Rome: An Empire’s Story“, Greg Woolf. An excellent introduction to the Roman Empire. Shorter than Gibbon. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  20. Remembering Babylon“, David Malouf. Semi-historical literary account of Australian pioneers encountering a shipwrecked Englishman who had been living with an Aboriginal tribe for a number of years. I love almost everything that Malouf has written and this is one of his better books. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  21. Wars, Guns and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places“, Paul Collier. Academic economist offers a layman’s account of the application of quantitative models and field research to the study of democracy in the third world. Offers plenty of challenging ideas to chew on. Not unlike “The Victory Lab” in parts. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  22. “Game of Thrones”, George RR Martin. I kind of hated myself after reading the Game of Thrones series. They are LONG and there are so many characters and stories that everything blends into an amorphous mass of medieval fantasy very quickly. But somehow I just couldn’t stop reading them. Looking back, it’s a mystery to me why I invested so much time in these books, but I shudder to think at the opportunity cost of it. I’m not linking to it because I don’t want to encourage anyone else to start the habit!  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  23. “A Clash of Kings”, George RR Martin. As above. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  24. “A Storm of Swords”, George RR Martin. As above. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  25. “A Feast for Crows”, George RR Martin. As above. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  26. “A Dance with Dragons”, George RR Martin. As above. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  27. “The Art of Fielding”, Chad Harbach. Superstar college baseball player brought low. Beautifully written coupled with genuine and well drawn relationships between the protagonists makes for a fantastic read – but I thought it drifted a bit towards the end. Very good, but not great. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  28. “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”, Ben Fountain. A group of war heroes return to the US of furlough to attend a Dallas Cowboys football game. I thought this book was vastly over-rated. It’s an adequate account of American military pathos, but it was so heavy handed that I was groaning at times.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  29. The Orphan Master’s Son“, Adam Johnson. I didn’t love this as much as others seemed to. I suspect it suffers from having been released so soon after “Nothing to Envy”, which inevitably makes fiction about the brutality of North Korea seem hollow in comparison. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  30. The Master of Go“, Yasunari Kawabata. Semi-Fictional account of the final, six month long match of an ageing Go Master. ‘Go’ has always fascinated me, I love Japanese literature as a rule and Kawabata is a Nobel Prize winning author… but I didn’t love this book. It was fine, but it didn’t stay with me after I’d finished it.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  31. “The Smartest Kids in the World and How They Got That Way”, Amanda Ripley. Accessible investigation of the characteristics that underpin the best performing nation’s school systems in the OECD’s PISA tests told through the device of American exchange students studying in this countries. This book has made a lot of ‘best of non-fiction’ lists this year and it’s easy to see why. It packs a lot of information into a very digestible format. For me the biggest take-away was the significance of high-expectations and emphasising the cultural importance of education in driving student performance. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  32. How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character“, Paul Tough. Summary of recent academic literature emphasising the importance of non-cognitive skills in children’s ability to succeed academically and in the world outside the classroom. Persuasive and covers much of the same ground as “The Smartest Kids in the World”, from an individual student perspective. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  33. Information Wants to be Shared“, Josh Gans. Aussie Economist Josh Gans posits that with the increasing returns to scale enabled by digital distribution, today information wants to be shared. Offers a more nuanced take than the ‘Information wants to be Free’ crowd. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  34. The Sirens of Titan“, Kurt Vonnegut. Malachi Constant, the richest man of the 22nd century, journeys to Titan at the behest of Winston Niles Rumfoord, a man trapped between dimensions. Classic Vonnegut; wry and mind bending. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  35. Battlers and Billionaires: The Story of Inequality in Australia“, Andrew Leigh. Australia’s best Shadow Assistant Treasurer provides a persuasive and accessible summary of Australia’s growing economic inequality. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  36. Imagining Australia: Ideas for our Future“, Macgregor Duncan, Andrew Leigh, David Madden, Peter Tynan. Enjoyable blue sky thinking from a group of young and idealistic Australians. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  37. Out of the Mountains: The Coming Age of the Urban Guerilla“, David Kilcullen. Australia’s premier counter-insurgency expert posits that in the future, conflict will come ‘out of the mountains’ of rural Afghanistan and Pakistan and into the densely populated, globally and digitally connected, coastal cities of the developing world. In this environment, government, the military and criminal and para-military groups will fight for ‘competitive control’ over cities and communities. As a result, governance, and the exercise of force, have become far, far more complex than ever before. Kilcullen’s expertise in field research means that this book is brimming with detail, data and personal anecdote. Should be an influential book in political circles.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  38. Barracuda“, Christos Tsiolkas. A champion swimmer from Australia’s multicultural working-class deals with failure. Not Tsiolkas’ best work, but laudable for continuing to give gay and non-anglo characters a greater prominence in Australian literature than they have had for some time. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  39. A Journey“, Tony Blair. Blair’s take on his time in Government. Really, you’re enjoyment of this book will be largely determined by your pre-existing verdict on the man. So a largely self-selecting readership. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  40. The Dawkins Revolution: 25 Years On“, Gwilym Croucher, Simon Marginson, Andrew Norton, Julie Wells. A worthy (if very dry!) collection or articles appraising the impact of one of Labor’s least appreciated, but most significant reforms. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  41. How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia“, Mohsin Hamid. The fictional account of an Asian billionaire told in the style of a self-help book. Hamid is developing quite a unique voice and while this isn’t quite as good as “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”, I enjoyed it very much. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  42. This Town: Two Parties and a Funeral and Plenty of Valet Parking“, Mark Leibovich. Tales of how Washington is a cynical and self-interested place. I really detested this book. There isn’t much easier in journalist than writing cynical pieces about politics. Sure US politics is broken, but I didn’t come away from this book feeling like I understood any of the main actors any better than I already do. Every political actor is a two-dimensional self-promoting cynic in Leibovich’s world and the only participants in the system who are granted the complexity of being even flawed human beings are a handful of journalists from a more noble golden age. Meh. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  43. The Dinner“, Herman Koch. A family convenes at a high end restaurant to confront a family secret. Described to me as ‘The Dutch Gone Girl’, which I can see to a certain extent. It was certainly a page turner at times, but ultimately it didn’t grab me in the same way and the ending left me even colder than the ending of Gone Girl. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  44. China’s War With Japan: The Struggle for Survival“, Rana Mitter. Much as Antony Beevor used newly opened Soviet archives to popularise the story of the Eastern Front of WW2, Mitter uses new Chinese attitudes to archival material to provide a new perspective on the second Sino-Japanese War. Offers many insights to into subsequent events in Chinese domestic politics in the 20th century and particularly the tensions in the Chinese-US relationship. Highly recommended. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  45. Gaysia: Adventures in the Queer East“, Ben Law. A whistlestop tour of gay communities and their varying issues in Asia. I read “The Family Law” a few years back and didn’t love it, but I’ve come to find that I like Law’s journalism. I think he’s quite talented and hope he does more reportage than cultural/personal essay writing in his career. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  46. Average is Over“, Tyler Cowen. Cowen argues that the proliferation of technology is driving new extremes of labour force polarisation creating an employment market in which there are a small number of extreme beneficiaries, a larger group of people marketing specialised services to these people and an even larger group of very marginalised people. Buy –Borrow – Toss

2014 Reading Goals:

  • I’m DEFINITELY going to read a Patrick White (suggestions for the easiest way into his writing are welcome) and ‘The Man Who Loved Children‘. I’m starting to feel a little fraudulent as an Australian elected representative who hasn’t read some of the foundations of our canon.

 

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Annual Reading Diary 2012

December 20th, 2012 · Admin, Reading Related

For a number of years now I’ve been publishing an Annual Reading Diary in conjunction with my resolution to read at least one book a week every week of the year.

So without further ado, here’s the list for 2012:

  1. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, Maya Angelou. Autobiography African-American poet and writer. Tackles strong themes (Early 20th C Southern US racism and poverty, child rape, family break-down etc) beautifully and without excessive morbidity or sentimentally. A worthwhile read. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  2. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”, Stieg Larsson – I resisted this for a long time, but caved when the Slate Culturefest reviewed it and gave it a tentative thumbs up. I liked it despite myself but the critiques about it’s very stereo-typically ‘male’ outlook are justified. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  3. American Psycho”, Brett Easton Ellis – Genuinely shocking. I was surprised that it is actually as explicit/offensive as claimed. I was also surprised by how little plot there was. That being said, it did have amusing stretches. The soliloquies on 80s music (particually Phil Collins) are genuinely brilliant. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  4. “20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth”, Xiaolu Guo. A teenage village girl runs away from her home to a series of menial jobs and unfulfilling relationships in Beijing.  A strong punk affectation, but an interesting snapshot of youth in a rapidly changing China. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  5. The 9/11 Report: A Graphic Adaptation”, Sid Jacobson and Ernie Colon. An abridged graphic adaptation of the 9/11 Commission’s report on the events leading up to September 11, 2001. A surprisingly effective medium for conveying the chronology of what occurred, but less effective when dealing with the report’s policy recommendations. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  6. Zoo Quest for a Dragon”, David Attenborough. An old fashioned adventure story. In the mid-1950s, David Attenborough travels to remote Indonesia in an effort to capture a Komodo Dragon for the London Zoo and a BBC TV Series. The complete naivety of Attenborough’s three man production team (the knew next to nothing about the Dragons at the start of the trip and were ultimately prevented from removing one from the country at the end of the trip) is charming for its time but somewhat astonishing today. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  7. In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea”, John Armstrong – An examination of the concept of Civilisation and it’s value in a post-modern world. I came to this with high expectations imagining an update of Kenneth Clarke, only to be disappointed. I’ve enjoyed Armstrong’s previous books (particularly ‘Conditions of Love’), but this one couldn’t hold my interest. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  8. Leaves of Grass”, Walt Whitman. Peerless poetry. Accessible on a superficial level, but always rewarding closer reading. Universally enriching. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  9. The Way of the Greeks”, Edith Hamilton. A very high quality cliff’s notes to the philosophy, history, drama and art of the ancient Greeks. A favourite of RFK, Hamilton’s work conveys the extraordinary achievements of this fertile period of history with the respect and depth necessary to do the topic justice, but in a way that is accessible to those innocent of the classics.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  10. The Noodlemaker”, Ma Jian. A collection of short stories of modern China told through a series of drunken dinners between two friends with a shared history of conflict. Dark, satirical modern Chinese fiction. The book jacket described it as Kunderaesq and I have to be cheap and derivative and agree. Recommended. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  11. The Uninvited”, Geling Yan. More Modern Chinese Satire. An unemployed Chinese factory worker discovers that by posing as a journalist he can eat at the free buffet’s of Chinas nascent PR industry. The protagonist is drawn into a mystery but I’d already lost interest by then. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  12. A Good Fall”, Ha Jin. A collection of short stories exploring the experiences of the Chinese immigrant community in the United States. Ha Jin is a favourite author of mine and his simple prose is perfect for a collection of stories about immigrants struggling to connect in an alien environment. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  13. Mudslingers: The 25 Dirtiest Political Campaigns of All Time”, Kerwin Swint. A straightforward list book cataloging the roughest political campaigns in US history. If nothing else this is worth reading to comprehensively disabuse oneself of the notion that there was once a golden era of politics in which gentlemen debated the public interest in a Habermasian public sphere. The dirtiest campaigns in this book are frequently the oldest ones…   Buy –Borrow – Toss
  14. Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned”, Wells Tower. Perfectly adequate collection of modern literary short stories. Promised much but didn’t quite transcend the genre.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  15. Life and Fate”, Vasily Grossman – Epic historical fiction covering the sweep of the Eastern Front of WW2 from the perspective of an extended Russian Jewish family. With a scope that stretches from Stalin in the Kremlin, to a unit of Russian soldiers besieged in Pavlov’s House during the battle of Stalingrad, to a Commissar in a Russian tank battalion leading Operation Uranus, to a Russian General in a Nazi concentration camp, to a Jewish scientist working on an atomic bomb while being hounded by Stalin’s secret police, to a Jewish child walking into the gas chambers in Auschwitz the canvas of this book is awe inspiring. And all written by a Russian Jewish journalist who lived with the Red Army from Stalingrad to Berlin. It’s no coincidence that this book was named to invoke “War and Peace”. Truly one of the Great Books of the 20th Century.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  16. The Road”, Cormac McCarthy. Father and Son travel across post-apocalyptic landscape with little hope or overt purpose. Grim, unrelenting utterly parodic of McCarthy’s oeuvre.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  17. Me Talk Pretty One Day”, David Sedaris – Humorous autobiographical essays. I read this as a palate cleanser after The Road. Largely pointless and lacking in substance/meaning. I enjoyed this so little that it made me uncomfortable at my intellectual snobbery. Far inferior to Augusten Burroughs in this genre. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  18. If this is a Man”, Primo Levi – Adorno might have said that there could be no poetry after Auschwitz, but “If This is a Man” is not only bears witness for the most horrific event of the 20th century, but does so in an indisputably artistic manner. Levi marshals the moral power of art to leave the reader greatly shaken. Given its brief length this really should be a must read for all thinking people. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  19. American Born Chinese”,  Gene Luen Yang. Graphic novel of the school life travails of a Chinese-American Boy interspersed with the myth of the Monkey King and the Journey to the West. Works in a weird way but nothing earth shattering. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  20. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress”, Dai Sijie. Two young school friends are sent  for re-education in rural China as part of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. They discover a cache of European novels and use them to woo a ‘Little Chinese Seamstress’. A cute concept and elegantly written  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  21. Novel without a Name”, Duong Thu Huong. A Viet-Cong unit leader travels across Vietnam to visit his home village after 10 years of guerilla warfare. Poetic and polemical. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  22. Once Upon a Moonless Night”, Dai Sijie. A Western academic seeks a Buddhist sutra once owned by last emperor of China. I’ve like Dai Sijie’s other books and I thought the concept was interesting, but the text was too florid for me to be able to get engaged with this book.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  23. Shakespeare”, Bill Bryson. Everything you expect from Bryson. A short, light fact-filled but analysis-light account of the life and works of Will Shakespeare. Engaging but not life changing. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  24. My Reading Life”, Bob Carr. Former NSW Premier and current Minister for Foreign Affairs writes about the books that have had the greatest impact on his life. Inspired me to make a greater effort with the French and Russian classics next year. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  25. Ready, Player One”, Ernest Cline. Ecentric billionaire and creator of a massively multi-player virtual reality world dies and establishes an elaborate 80s geek culture public contest to win his bequest. Harmless science fiction. The author gave away a Delorean as part of his book tour so that’s pretty cool. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  26. Arguably”, Christopher Hitchens. A collection of more than 100 of Hitchens’ essays on history, politics and culture. First class. Talking about Hitchens’ essays is one of the few contexts in which you can use the word ‘Orwellian’ as a complimentary adjective. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  27. Inside the Canberra Press Gallery: Life in the Wedding Cake of Old Parliament House”, Rob Chalmers. 60 year veteran of the Canberra Press Gallery gives a first hand account of life in the gallery in Old Parliament House. Equal parts fascinating, rambling and salacious. A testament to the uniqueness of Australian Democracy. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  28. The Master and Marguerita”,  Mikhail Bulgakov – The Devil visits Soviet Moscow. Magic realism ensues. Quite bizare at times and not for everyone. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  29. Death Note: Vol 1 – 108“, Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata. One of the most significant Japanese Mangas. The son of the Tokyo police commissioner finds a magical note book that enables the owner to kill any individual by writing their name in the book. The story goes through the looking glass when the protagonist begins using the book to kill of the worlds criminal class and starts mind bending game of cat and mouse with a secretive super cop. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything ‘twisty-er’ than this before. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  30. Darkness at Noon“, Arthur Koesteller. An old Bolshevik is arrested and tried by the secret police for treason against the state. It’s what you would get if you combined Kafka and Orwell and added a dimension of moral responsibility (and hence complexity). One of the classics of the 20th century, though a book that you suspect will fall from public awareness as memories of the Soviet Union fade. A story that could only be written by someone who was both an ex-communist and who has been jailed for an extended period. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  31. Huey Long“, T. Harry Williams – Barnstorming biography of Louisiana demagogue, Governor and Senator, Huey Long. Anecdotes of the craft of politics abound and while this is a hefty tome, it doesn’t read long once you get into the rythms of Southern Democratic politics. Highly recommended. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  32. God is Not Great“, Christopher Hitchens. No one does polemic like Hitchens and “God is Not Great” manages to must the same passion and rage as “The God Delusion” without indulging in the same contempt and condescension for the religious. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  33. A Moveable Feast“, Ernest Hemingway – Hemingway on Hemingway (and Fitzgerald and Stein and Pound) in inter-war Paris. A pocket-sized classic filled with genuine insights on life and the artistic process. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  34. The Western Cannon: The Books and School of the Ages“, Harold Bloom – I’ve been listening to this via audiobook for the better part of a six months now (33+hours). Bloom reads it and he sounds just as sententious as you’d expect. There’s a lot of meaty substance in this and some worthy critiques of modern academic literary studies, but the bulk is reactionary pomposity. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  35. Captain China Volume 1“, Chi Wang and Jim Lai – A Chinese nationalist response to Captain America. Captain China saves President Obama from an assassination attempt. It’s exactly as bizarre as it sounds.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  36. Stiff“, Shane Maloney. Electorate Officer for a Western Melbourne State Labor Minister is drawn into an intrigue of industrial scheming and murder. A high quality gumshoe genre book. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  37. Crescent and Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds“, Kinzer, Stephen. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  38. #”Burr“, Gore Vidal – The story of a Revolutionary War hero, Senator and the first Vice-President of the United States to kill someone in a duel while in office. Arguably better than “Lincoln” if only because of its close (and often defamatory) imaginings of the most prominent figures in the Revolutionary USA, but regardless a must read for anyone with an interest in early US history. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  39. The Rise of the Fifth Estate“, Greg Jericho.First hand account of the emergence of social media as a new voice in the Australian political ecosystem and the ructions that this caused for existing institutions. A great way for new-comers to catch up on the online events of the past six years.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  40. #”Joh: The Life and Political Adventures of Johannes Bjelke-Petersen“, Hugh Lunn. Recent events in Queensland inspired me to grab this one off the bookshelf for a re-read.   Buy –Borrow – Toss
  41. Ocean of Words“, Ha Jin. A collection of short stories revolving around a Chinese military base on the Chinese-Russian border during the Cultural Revolution. In addition to being a sensitive and insightful story-teller, Ha Jin focus on the individual in a totalitarian state is a valuable rejoinder to the stereo-type of the Chinese masses. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  42. Ransom: A Novel“, David Malouf – A retelling of the encounter between Priam and Achilles in the Illiad. A moving book that works on the small scale of human emotion and the larger scale of cultural expectation at the same time. Recommended. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  43. Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets“, Sudhir Venkatesh. Sociology graduate student embeds himself with a gang leader in a Chicago housing project. Told in a narrative, confessional style rather than as a sociological treatise which makes the book both accessible and surprisingly intimate. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  44. The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns“, Sasha Issenberg – In depth study of the growing application data driven, empirically social psychology tactics in modern political campaigning. The 50% of this book that is good is very good, but it meanders a lot in the middle parts by telling the story chronologically (as campaigns and political scientists floundered while trying to get rigor into what they were doing). Buy –Borrow – Toss
  45. Freedom“, Jonathan Franzen – I had put off reading this for more than 12 months as I wanted to consume it free from the climate of hype that surrounds everything that Franzen produces. You can believe the hype though as this was an extraordinary book. Frazen’s close studies of the late 20th century American middle-class and their family dynamics really are extraordinary. If you didn’t like ‘The Corrections”, you probably won’t like this either, but in many ways this book exceeded its predecessor. Buy – Borrow – Toss
  46. Leaving the Atocha Station“, Ben Lerner – An interesting read. I didn’t like it, but might recommend it. It’s a book that’s prompted a number of good debates with friends and if nothing else it’s great source material for trolling the literary set. I’m convinced there’s an aspect of satire to the book – the author is taking the piss out of the self-seriousness of the protagonist. Sentences like this are inexplicable otherwise: “It didn’t matter; every sentence, regardless of its subject, became mimetic of the action of the train, and the train mimetic of the sentence, and I felt suddenly coeval with its syntax.” But if you take it at face value, a more  cynical interpretation is that the language of literary poetry in the book is used not for satire or to create room for the projection of meaning by the reader (a theme explored by the protagonist), but merely as a signalling tool to demonstrate literary acuity. It’s all about the author rather than the reader. In the hands of a virtuoso this can be forgivable as it’s fun just to go on the ride with them, but in the hands of even just a ‘good’ writer it serves no purpose but to stroke the writer’s ego within their community of practice. It’s no better than French Philosophy. The best parts of this book were the exploration of projection/communication that come in the sections of dialogue where the protagonist is struggling to understand the local language. I thought the paragraphs where he unfolded the potential meanings of what he was hearing in Spanish were quite beautiful and close to my favourite parts of the book: eg “she might have described swimming in the lake as a child, or said that lakes reminded her of being a child, or asked me if I’d enjoyed swimming as a child, or said that what she’d said about the moon was childish.” A nice device that I would enjoy in a poem (or even series of poems) but if it was the premise of the entire book I thought it was a reach.  Buy – Borrow – Toss
  47. Don’t Go Back to Where You Came From: Why Multiculturalism Works“: Tim Soutphommasane – One of the books of the year for those interested in Australian politics and policy making. Southphommasane makes a persuasive case that the Australian model of multiculturalism, founded on the rights and obligations of citizenship, has been uniquely successful – particularly in comparison to the vastly different approaches employed in Europe. One of those rare books that has led me to think about an issue very differently after reading than before. - Buy –Borrow – Toss
  48. This is How You Lose Her“, Junot Diaz – An entire collection of short stories about male infidelity? An interesting subject for a concept album. Diaz faculty for description – particularly of women – is very impressive, but he’s also a very sensitive writer and he paints a nuanced picture of the emotional life of his characters. Reminded me of Raymond Carver’s “What we Talk About When We Talk About Love” in some respects. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  49. The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail But Some Don’t“, Nate Silver – NOT just a book about polling and political punditry, but rather a very detailed examination of the limitations of forecasting and prediction across a range of subject areas (including weather, hurricanes, earthquakes, terrorism, baseball, politics, economic forecasting). The book’s focus on the limitations of statistical forecasting is high irony given the (generally) uninformed criticisms Silver faced during the 2012 Presidential Election Campaign. Silver’s  explanation of the limitations of Fischerian statistical inference (particularly the scourge of statistical significance and overfit models) should be included in all introductory statistics courses. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  50. World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War“, Max Brooks – A pastiche of first person accounts from across the globe of a zombie apocalypse. Largely Sci-Fi escapism despite Daniel Drezner’s (partly tongue in cheek) efforts to talk up the geo-political insight of the differing international approaches to the end of the world portrayed in this book. Buy –Borrow – Toss
  51. On Our Selection“, Steele Rudd – As someone who has family roots on the Darling Downs stretching back to the days of Dad and Dave it pains me to say it, but this book has not aged well. The slapstick comedy doesn’t really translate across generations and the constant stories of animal cruelty as humour were enough to put even me off. Go to Henry Lawson if you’re looking for an Australian literary taste of this period.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  52. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love“, Raymond Carver – Brief and obtuse, but strangely  moving. I can see why this book is still considered to be so influential 30 years after it was written. I was particularly delighted to unexpectedly come across a short story (“So Much Water, So Close to Home”) that was obviously the inspiration for the Paul Kelly song “Everything’s Turning to White” and the eponym for the Album from which it comes. If you haven’t read any Carver before, this should give you a feel for the books oeuvre.  Buy –Borrow – Toss
  53. The Great Books“, David Denby – New York movie critic re-takes Columbia University’s mandatory ‘Great Books’ course in middle age wrestling with the canon of Western Civilization alongside Freshmen and Sophomores. A good, high level introduction to the Great Books coupled with a sensible discussion of the cultural role and relevance in a modern, pluralistic society. Buy –Borrow – Toss

Some thoughts on my year in reading:

  • Highlights for the year were “Life and Fate“, “If This Is a Man” and “Don’t Go Back To Where You Came From“. Heavy going in retrospect.  I really liked “This is How You Lose Her” too which is a bit lighter.
  • Every literate member of the human race should make the (minor) effort to read “If This is a ManIt’s short, it’s moving and its important.
  • 20 Non-Fiction books and 33 Fiction books – a little out of kilter given that I generally aim for a 50:50 split here.
  • Partial-marks on delivering on my reading goals for 2012. On the positive side I got back into Asian literature with a vengeance this year and made a real discovery with Ma Jian. On the negative side, Mishima’s The Sea of Fertility remains uncompleted and the only poetry I read this year was “Leave of Grass”. I tried Philip Larkin and found him a bit too curmudgeonly for my tastes sadly. I’ve been looking for a Ruthven Todd collection for more than 12 months now to no avail.

My reading goals for 2013 are:

  • The Russians and the French  – I tried some Flaubert (“A Sentimental Education”) this year but couldn’t hack it and gave up after a few days. I’m resolved to make a greater effort next year. At the very least I’m going to break into Tolstoy – Anna Karenina has been sitting in my ‘To Read’ queue for far too long. I feel embarrassed to be 30 and not to have read any of his stuff yet given how much trash I have torn through in my life.
  • Mishima - I’m definitely coming back to The Sea of Fertility this year as well. Definitely. I’m resolved.
  • At Least One Classic  – having read Denby’s “Great Books” and Carr’s “My Reading Like”, I’m resolved to read at least one classic next year. I’m leaning towards Marcus Aurelius’ ‘Meditations’ at this point, but I’m open to persuasion from classically minded friends…

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Political Behaviour as a Pro-Social Activity – “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns”, Sasha Issenberg

December 6th, 2012 · Campaigning, Democracy, Politics, Psychology, Social Psychology

Rogers and Grebner were coming from a different set of questions but arriving at a similar understanding of what drove political activity. No one decided to vote in a vacuum, and interpersonal interactions mattered. In fact, their psychologically minded tests and feints were moving toward something that felt very familiar to Gerber. Rogers’s project to promote voting as popular and Grebner’s threats to expose scofflaws had, if only briefly, reconstructed small corners of late-nineteenth-century America, where voting was a community activity. Since writing his dissertation about the introduction of the secret ballot, Gerber had spent much of his time trying to isolate the slightest ways to increase turnout in the system it had created. In Gerber’s eyes, the nineteenth century, where men packed onto courthouse steps to select their leaders with raised hands or words bellowed over the din, represented a kind of Edenic political space of widespread participation.

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The Importance of Voter Contact – “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns”, Sasha Issenberg

December 6th, 2012 · Campaigning, Politics

When the results of the experiment came in, the phone calls showed no influence in getting people to vote. The direct-mail program increased turnout a modest but appreciable 0.6 percentage points for each postcard sent. (The experiment sent up to three pieces per household.) But the real revelation was in the group of voters successfully visited by one of the student teams: they turned out at a rate 8.7 percentage points higher than the control sample, an impact larger than the margin in most competitive elections.

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Political Advice and Story Telling – “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns”, Sasha Issenberg

December 5th, 2012 · Campaigning, Data, Narrative, Politics

“A lot of what gets done on campaigns gets done on the basis of anecdotal evidence, which often comes down to who is a better storyteller. Who tells a better story about what works and what doesn’t work?” says Christopher Mann, a former executive director of the New Mexico Democratic Party.
..

The people who explain politics for a living—the politicians themselves, their advisers, the media who cover them—love to reach tidy conclusions like this one. Elections are decided by charismatic personalities, strategic maneuvers, the power of rhetoric, the zeitgeist of the political moment. The explainers cloak themselves in loose-fitting theories because they offer a narrative comfort, unlike the more honest acknowledgment that elections hinge on the motivations of millions of individual human beings and their messy, illogical, often unknowable psychologies.

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Ask Them About Their Neighbours – “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns”, Sasha Issenberg

December 5th, 2012 · Electoralism, Multi-culturalism, Psychology

One night Binder asked, “Do you think your neighbors would be willing to vote for an African-American for president?” Some of the voters answered no, and Strasma watched them closely. Something in that response—perhaps a feeling of being liberated to publicly share an unpopular opinion—convinced him that the people who acknowledged their neighbors’ racism might really be confessing a view of their own. Strasma added the neighbors question to his survey and saw quickly that it worked. Those who had high Obama-support scores but ended up backing McCain said yes to it, so Strasma made it the core of a new “openness” model: another score, out of 100, that assessed how open a voter would be to casting a ballot for a black candidate.

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Good Career Advice – “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns”, Sasha Issenberg

December 4th, 2012 · Uncategorized

Levitt told his students they would be smart to live below their means, so they could always have the flexibility to afford taking a different job if it was lower-paying.

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The Origins of Statistical Inference – “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns”, Sasha Issenberg

December 4th, 2012 · Data, Policy, Statistical Inference, Statistics

Not far from Fisher, a young economist named Austin Bradford Hill was growing similarly impatient with the limits of statistics to account for cause and effect in health care. In 1923, for example, Hill received a grant from Britain’s Medical Research Council that sent him to the rural parts of Essex, east of London, to investigate why the area suffered uncommonly high mortality rates among young adults. Hill returned from Essex with an explanation that had little to do with the quality of medical care: the healthiest members of that generation quickly left the country to live in towns and cities. The whole British medical system was built on similarly misleading statistics, and Hill worried that the faulty inferences drawn from them put people’s health at risk. Hill joined the Medical Research Council’s scientific staff and began writing articles in the Lancet explaining to doctors in straightforward language what concepts like mean, median, and mode meant.

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‘Baked In’ Voter Perceptions – “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns”, Sasha Issenberg

December 3rd, 2012 · Economics, Electoralism, Policy, Political Communication, Politics, Power

When a pollster asked if someone would be more or less likely to vote for a candidate in favor of shipping jobs overseas—a typical way of auditioning what was then a promising line of attack against Bush—they would often hear from voters across the board that it made them “less likely.” But when the AFL sent out a draft leaflet about Bush’s free-trade policies, it turned out to have little impact on the autoworkers who received it. The knowledge of factory job loss was “baked in” to their impressions of Bush, as Podhorzer liked to put it: the workers already knew what the union wanted them to think about Republican trade policy. They liked or disliked Bush regardless. But other groups, like construction workers and Republicans, did not know as much. A piece of mail that gave them information turned out to be persuasive in changing their attitudes toward Bush.

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The Deep Seated Paranoia and Insecurity of Political Parties – “The Victory Lab: The Secret Science of Winning Campaigns”, Sasha Issenberg

December 1st, 2012 · Campaigning, Politics, Progressive Politics

The best way to get anyone to do anything on the Democratic side—and I’m sure it’s the reverse on the Republican side—is to tell people that the Republicans are doing it. It doesn’t matter: the Republicans could be doing something completely stupid, but if you tell the Democrats they get scared and think they should do it. They all think the Republicans are smarter than they are.

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