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Annual Reading Diary 2013

January 13th, 2014 · 5 Comments · 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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  • Suzi Macbeth

    “Blogging the bookshelf” is a fantastic idea! It looks like a good way of reflecting on the year’s reading rather than letting it slide into oblivion. I also like your Buy-Borrow-Toss rating scale – marks out of 10 or out of five stars is much too precise. I may just have to “borrow” your idea!

  • Tim

    Thanks Suzi – That’s exactly right. I was sick of thinking, I’m sure I read that book…. but I can’t really recall much about it. I find this anchors my memories of what I’ve read much better…

  • Jane

    Thanks for sharing Tim! My favourite Patrick White is Voss – I re-read it every decade and always enjoy it. As for Man Who Loved Children – it is maddenly brilliant and a much overlooked masterpiece. My resolution for this year is to read more – especially now I can see how many books you have read despite your own time pressures.

  • Yvonne Watts

    Hey Tim – my suggestion would be to read “Patrick White – A Life” by David Marr first! and I should still have a copy of Christina Stead’s The Man who love Children…. Happy to bring them down when I next visit.

  • Rob Harris

    Totally agree with Yvonne. David Marr’s biography of Patrick White is one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. Sam Maiden today admitted the opening line made her tear up. Best White book I read was The Eye of the Storm