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Annual Reading Diary 2012

December 20th, 2012 · No Comments · 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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