Books 2008

This year, I’ve succeeded in reading some new books at the beginning of last year, as opposed to last year when it took me about three months. I’ll keep this up-to-date throughout the year. And at the end, the score is 15 fiction and 16 non fiction (but I may have missed a couple of forgettable books).

Notes from an Exhibition, by Patrick Gale. Four stars

Patrick Gale is a middlebrow (this is where my literary understanding stops – I could not tell you why he has never been near the Booker shortlist, but even I know on reading that he wouldn’t get near it). British author, who writes stories about the complications of families. Like many, this one takes a generation for the story to unfold, and tells the story from multiple points of view. He is excellent at writing so that you really understand and accept a character’s motivations and actions, no matter how monstrous they might seem from others’ points of view. This book reminded me why I enjoy reading fiction, I haven’t read much in the last couple of years.

Stiff, by Shane Maloney. Four stars

I had already seen this on TV, but when I found a jumbo volume of three at the bookshop, I thought I’d give it a go. Shane Maloney is one of those writers who love being clever with words (not as addicted to the pun as Kathy Lette, but similar style), which didn’t come across on TV. Overall, very funny, and almost a period piece now, as its set in the early 80s.

The Brush-Off, also by Shane Maloney Four stars again

I enjoyed this just as much, but found it harder to read. Murray Whelan (the lead character) seems so powerless at times that I found myself feeling powerless to match.

Nice Try, also by Shane Maloney. Four stars again

How to Twist a Dragon’s Tale, by Cressida Cowell. Five stars

This is a children’s book, but since our whole family had a great time reading it aloud (actually Mr Penguin did the reading), and we all loved it, it belongs here. Very very funny rip roaring adventure of a young viking, who is a bit of a weed (he gets very seasick, for example), but always saves the day with nerve and intelligence and help from his friends. Highly recommended. An earlier book in the series is available as an audio book, read by David Tennant, who does some great voices.

The Gods of Amyrantha, by Jennifer Fallon. Three stars

I enjoyed this, but not as much as her previous trilogy. I liked the previous books because I liked the characters – they were believable, human, interesting, and not perfect. The characters in this one are mostly less likeable, but they also seem less real. A good read, but I didn’t have to stay up to finish it.

The Kite Runner. Four and a half stars

I’m definitely behind the zeitgeist on this one. I bought it after all the reviews of the movie came out. I read it in a big gulp (staying up to midnight to finish it) that I felt probably didn’t to the lyrical language justice; but I wanted to find out what happened!

Through a Glass Darkly, by Donna Leon. Three stars

This is a readable, but lightweight series of detective books set in Venice. They are originally in english, which is why I found it irritating that Leon insists on describing the italian grammatical forms – using the plural you, using the formal tu etc. etc. To me that would have been reasonable in a translated book, where the forms might matter, but someone writing in english should find a less clumsy description of formality.

Mind you, I do love Venice (even as touristy as it is), so they’re fun to read if you’ve been there.

The Palace of Impossible Dreams, by Jennifer Fallon. Three stars

This is the third in a series, and….. it doesn’t end. That’s always a bad sign in a fantasy writer. Starting to look like delusions of grandeur. I’ve enjoyed Fallon’s books, but this is starting to feel its a bit like writing by numbers. I’ll probably buy the next one, though.

Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. Five stars

After starting this book a couple of weeks ago, I took it to NZ with me. After an early dinner, I picked it up and started reading at about 8.30pm. At midnight, I finished it, and couldn’t sleep, as my head was buzzing with the horror of the war, and processing this wonderful book. It’s not a good book to read when you are away from your children, (it gave me some nasty dreams) but a wonderful book.

People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks. Four stars

I’ve been a fan of Geraldine Brooks since I read her reportage book (from being a journalist in the middle East) Nine parts of Desire. As well as having been a middle east correspondent, she is also a convert to Judaism (when she married). So this book, which imagines the history of the Sarajevo Haggadah brings together many of her enthusiasms. Mostly, I loved this book. I’m a sucker for scholarship, and stories of people who cared about scholarship, and beautiful things, over many centuries. The subplot, though, of the scholar who restores the Haggadah, and her relationship with her driven, neurologist mother, tried my patience at time. The mother seems deliberately a charicature – the ultimate horrible working woman who does not care for her child.

Exit Music, by Ian Rankin. Three and a half stars

Although I do like my detective stories dark, Inspector Rebus is getting more and more disfunctional, as a human being. He’s getting a bit painful to read about, now. VI Warshawski went the same way. This is officially the last Rebus novel, and although I loved the early ones, it felt like time.

A Snowball in Hell, by Christopher Brookmyre, Four and a half stars

Christopher Brookmyre is a manic scottish thriller writer. This story, though, is set mostly in London, with mainly scottish characters. Brookmyre does like to have a rant about the problems of modern society, using whichever character is most convenient, but this book is a lot of fun, and moves along at a cracking pace.

Breath, by Tim Winton. Four and a half stars

Tim Winton writes about life on Western Australia’s coast. His books give you a sense of the place and time that he writes – and the life of living by the sea that I’ve never really experienced, being a city girl. I’ve dipped into his books, but not always been able to finish them. This one, though, gripped me all the way through, through the exploration of character, rather than plot development. The story itself seems slight when written out, but the character exploration is all about risk, and what drives people to extreme risks, something that fascinates me.

The Spare Room, a Novel, by Helen Garner. Four and a half stars

This is a very sparse, autobiographical seeming novel (the narrator is a woman named Helen who shares many characteristics with Helen Garner), about Helen’s friend who visits, while dying, but in search of the latest quack miracle cure. I’m not quite sure why I couldn’t put it down, but again, its the development of character, and the way in which those characters are grappling with many of life’s big questions that makes this one of the novels I can’t get out of my head this year.

Exit Right; the Unravelling of John Howard, by Judith Brett Three and a half stars

I read quite a few reviews of this before succumbing and buying it – there was polarised opinion. I enjoyed it, and found it an interesting angle on why the liberals ended up losing so decisively. It talks about three models of leadership, and John Howard is characterised as a strong leader, who thrives on conflict. But while that creates an interesting framework for analysis, I’m not sure I agree that, for example, John Howard’s leadership style was what stopped him from being able to effectively change direction on global warming (when that is what the voting public were doing).

Best Australian Essays of 2007 Four stars

This book last year was the impetus for Club Troppo’s initiative to find the best blog posts of 2006, as their view was that there should have been some blog posts in there. It’s a rare blog post that’s long enough for this book. Interestingly, though, for the essays I hadn’t read, for many of the most interesting (Kevin Rudd’s discussion of religious philosophy, Noel Pearson’s essay on white guilt and victimhood), I felt I already knew the arguments well from having read numerous blog discussions referring back to them. Looking at where the essays were first published, I’m tended to subscribe to the Griffith Review, as well as the Monthly.

Griffith Review, Edition 11 – Education four and a half stars

I really enjoyed reading this collection of essays about education.  I can see why the Griffith Review featured so heavily in the Best Australian Essays collection. I was particularly interested that at least two contributors blamed feminism for the reduction in quality of teachers over the past 30 years  – far more opportunities for talented women, when teaching and nursing used to be just about the only options. I don’t agree – teaching also had much higher salary status relatively 30 years ago than it does now – partly because of the rise in proportion of white collar work – but it was an interesting argument.

Dreams from my Father, by Barack Obama. Four stars

I’ve been wanting to read this for a while now. Elizabeth reviewed it on Half Changed World long before Obama announced his candidacy and I’ve looked for it in bookshops ever since. Mostly, though Australian bookshops have carried The Audacity of Hope, which sounds like a more political, less interesting book. After reading this, I thought that those who accuse Obama of being a coconut, of not being an authentically black american because he grew up in a white family in Hawaii are being a bit unfair. He’s certainly thought deeply and ruthlessly about race, and his own experience of it, and what it means for america. Far more than any white politician ever could, or would.

The Logic of Life, by Tim Harford. Five stars

I read this in a gulp, after seeing Harford speak when he was in Sydney. Thought provoking, rigorous, and very readable. Highly recommended. I’m going to try and review it (although I have a few of those on my list!)

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving one that isn’t, by Bob Sutton. Four stars

Not a very big book, but a passionate one, written by a Stanford Management professor who has statistics to back up his contention that there are good financial imperatives to try and get rid of the assholes in your workplace. He (sensibly) points out the times when being an asshole can be effective, but believes that the risk of it getting out of hand is much greater than the small benefits. A good read for me, struggling with one or two assholes at my own workplace. The author also has a blog.

Better; A surgeon’s notes on performance, by Atul Gawenda four and a half stars

Gawenda is a surgeon, and staff writer for the New Yorker. I always eagerly flick to his pieces in the New Yorker, and so when I found this book in a bookshop, I immediately bought it and read it within 48 hours. Lots of thought provoking articles about how very complex performance can be improved, and how to gather information in ways that will actually improve medical performance, rather than change the blame.

Complications: A surgeon’s notes on an imperfect science, by Atul Gawenda. Four stars

Actually I read this one first, but the same applies. I’d like to write a blog post responding to half his articles, but I’m not sure if I’ll manage it.

HIH – The story of Australia’s biggest corporate collapse, by Mark Westfield – Four stars

I reviewed this here, but feel compelled to point out, on filling out this list, that I read this book in the week in October (4-10), which was the week that many, much larger companies around the world collapsed. Not quite the week of September 13-19, when it seemed as if a new bank was collapsing every day, but close.

Charlie Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History, by George Crile – Four stars

This is the book that became the movie. I had seen the movie first, which fairly uncomplicatedly portrays the role of Charlie Wilson as a good guy who pulls all the strings available to him to support the poor oppressed Afghanistanis fighting the Russians in the 80s. Reading the book left me pondering more deeply. First, remembering that the Soviet Union is probably the major reason that Afghanistan as a country is a basket case that nobody can really control. And second being astonished at the level of power, influence and enormous perks that are the lot of the US Congressman. Reading this book makes you understand the power of the Congressional committee system, and realise just why it doesn’t much matter to them that they don’t earn a huge amount in actual salary.

The Great Crash of 1929, by JK Galbraith- Four and a half stars

I read this on the recommendation of a colleague, who said it was scary how close the parallels to today were – particularly including the role of a property bubble in the beginning of the 1929 crash (which I hadn’t realised before). It’s a great book, which, as he says in the forward, becomes a best seller every 10 years ago, as people suddenly remember that crashes can happen. The parallel between today and 1929 that I found most interesting was one of Galbraith’s major causes of the crash – income and wealth inequality. Because the richest people in the 20s were so rich, the effect of them losing their fortunes was far more dramatic on the rest of the economy than it would have been in a more equal society. An interesting point that I hadn’t heard made in the last decade when left and right wing were debating whether the rise of inequality in the US mattered.

Word on the Street; Debunking the Myth of Standard English, by John McWhorter – Four stars

This is an earlier book by the author of the Power of Babel (reviewed here). McWhorter is a linguist, who is passionate about sharing the understanding of language that linguists have assembled with the rest of the world. The point that he wants us laypeople to understand is that there is no such thing as “correct” english (or any other language) – its just the variety of english that is spoken by the ruling or dominant group (whoever that may be). And that language changes constantly, as its speakers move it this way and that. From this, he has a variety of fascinating chapters – that English speakers should watch Shakespeare in translation, as the language has changed too much for it to really make sense to us – that Ebonics is a very small variation away from “standard” english, and shares practically nothign with African languages, rather coming from the english varieties of the people who settled the American South. And quite a few other diatribes against old fashioned grammatical rules.

The Unthinkable – Who survives when disaster strikes and why, by Amanda Ripley – Four stars

I reviewed this one here.

Man Drought, by Bernard Salt – Two stars

I’ve often thought I’d like Bernard Salt’s job. He makes his living consulting to corporate Australia on demographic trends, keeping himself in the news by sifting the most interesting and creating phrases about them. But this book reads like a paint by numbers trawl through the Australian Bureau of Statistics website. The Man Drought of the title is the (anecdotally) well known shortage of single men compared with single women in the cities of Australia. But Salt spends much of the book obsessively analyzing the postcodes and age groups where the man drought exists, and exorting the single women to go there. He has a short few paragraphs of why this might be so (something about the good jobs luring the single men overseas, but not so much the single women) but not much else. Very disappointing.

The Great Feminist Denial, by Monica Dux and Zora Simic – Three and a half stars

I feel a bit guilty about this one – I got a free review copy (my second ever) and haven’t got around to reviewing it. Probably because I couldn’t decide what I thought. Most of the Australian feminist blogosphere has done a review of it. To me it seemed to be preaching to the converted – basically saying that feminism wasn’t really to blame for all the things that it got blamed for, and there were still a few structural issues with society that harm women. But the only people reading this book are going to agree with that.

The F word – how we learned to swear by Feminism, by Jane Caro and Catherine Fox – Four stars

In some ways covering a similar range to the Great Feminist Denial, but in a different way. Mostly trying to point out the ways in which feminism is still needed to twenty somethings who haven’t really experienced much discrimination and are wondering what all the fuss is about. Perhaps because of my age (I think I’m closer to Caro and Fox than Dux and Simic, although I’m between them) or my employment experience (Caro is in advertising, Fox is a journalist who writes for the Financial Review) Caro and Fox seem more relevant to me.

  2 comments for “Books 2008

  1. Brian
    April 7, 2008 at 10:18 pm

    Hi Jen

    I read the Logic of Life in two train trips to the city. Much better than Freakonomics. Broader Scope and better grounded in theory. I loved the simple explaination of game theory.

    Brian

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