Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Books 2012

I got a Kindle late in 2011 and it really gave a shot in the arm to my reading rate, that and re-engaging with Goodreads.  I still read a lot of paper books (indeed some I only want to read on paper, particularly nonfiction as fiddling with leaping forward and back to look at endnotes is somewhat of a pain on the basic Kindle.  It’s a lot easier though on the iPad where you can just touch the number and have it pop up without need to leave the page) but for the most part the mental drift to seeing e-books as an acceptable choice, in fact my first choice in most cases has been completed.    I’m kicking off 2013 by revisiting my childhood with a slew of Star Trek novels, cherrypicking the ones I remember reading and reading as a kid because they focused on my favourite character (McCoy) and as many as I can find from this i09 list of essentials.  

Here are some of the highlights.

Naturally (naturally if you are a sad politics junkie anyways) in a US presidential year I read a few on related topics.  Two essentials here, one from 2012 and one 20 years old.    The New New Deal: The Hidden Story of Change in the Obama Era by TIME mag’s Michael Grunwald  about the Recovery Act  (stimulus package).  The subtitle makes it sound a bit fanboi-ish but from following him on Twitter I’d say Grunwald would see himself as a “centrist” rather than a liberal (and perhaps a further to the right on some economic questions, for instance when the issue of ending public broadcasting  funding came up during the campaign, he was for it) – but he just happens  to accept evidence-based economic and climate change policy, and finds Obama’s much maligned stimulus package to have been an impressive achievement in both areas.   Detailed in the behind the scene DC machinations and the weeds of how you actually deliver such a huge outlay without excessive waste and corruption but he’s a magazine writer by trade so easy to read and to the point.   Can we have something similar about the Australian stimulus experience, please?       

What it Takes: The Way to the White House by Richard Ben Cramer was published in 1993 but remains relevant, and a cracking and somewhat quite profound read – plus I got it in a Kindle sale for $1.99 and its over a 1000 pages long so pixel for pixel  The book follows the 1987/88 D and R primaries through the lives of contenders Joe Biden, Bob Dole, Michael Dukakis, George H.W Bush, Gary Hart and Dick Gephardt.  They are listed in the order of how interesting I found them; although the copyright page was more interesting than Gephardt. This isn’t a criticism of Cramer, you can only work with what you’ve got.  It’s not your usual insidery, exhaustive, journalistic account of the race – a key part of the Democrat story that year,  the surging candidacy of Jesse Jackson for instance is barely mentioned as, as Cramer explains in the forward, he couldn’t get the access to the Rev which would have allowed the story to be told on an equal footing with the rest.  It is deeply subjective and presents the candidates as they see themselves attempting to answer the perplexing question: what kind of person voluntarily puts themselves through the miserable trauma that is running for President of the United States?

Other 5 stars in nonfiction (from this year where noted): Nine Lives (2012) by Dan Baum following a range of New Orleans residents from Hurricane Betsy in 1965 through to Katrina,  The End of Days: Fundamentalism and the Struggle for the Temple Mount by Gershom Gorenberg,  Drift: The Unmooring of American Military Power (2012) by Rachel Maddow , Wounded Knee: Party Politics and the Road to an American Massacre by Heather Cox-Richardson (one of the best books on the American West I’ve read  because of how it carefully ties events on the ground to economic forces and distant political machinations back East),  Columbine by Dave Cullen (upsetting as you’d imagine but necessary and definitive)  and The Man Who Never Died: The Life, Times, and Legacy of Joe Hill, American Labor Icon (2012) by William M. Adler.  

The Nordic invasion in crime fiction rather let me down in 2012.  After loving his first book, I eagerly awaited the next Jussi Adler-Olsen translation from Danish to drop, but  Disgrace was a disappointment.  (And the much vaunted Snowman by Jo Nesbo was rather kind of ... not good?)  Luckily, North African crime stepped up to the plate in the form of The Golden Scales by Parker Bilal (who writes “literary fiction” by his birth name Jamal Mahjoub) Makana is a former homicide detective in Khartoum now living as a refugee at the bottom of society in Cairo. One day one of Egypt's richest men hires him to find a missing person and so Makana is plunged into a world of gangsters, shady businessmen, wannabe film stars and all manner of social, political and personal corruption. It is not written in a hardboiled style at all (there is quite a bit of humour) but the story has definite modern noir overtones, kind of "'Chinatown' in Cairo." Makana himself has demons and there are flashbacks to the situation in Sudan that lead to personal tragedy and then exile.  I'm not an expert on Egypt by any means but I worked there for a few months and have taken an interest in reading about it, and I thought aspects of the place were beautifully evoked in the writing and characters. It's not just "generic exotic location" but specific and knowing.  The Golden Scales is set in 1998 and I gather is to be a series taking us up to the present day so I look forward to the return of Makana in another book.  

I loved Wolf Hall and have Bringing up the Bodies queued up to go but so has everyone else, so I’ll instead plug my other favourite novel I read this year:   Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Sri Lankan author Shehan Karunatilaka.  You don’t have to be a cricket fan to enjoy this book, although some of the biggest laughs for me came from the more geeky references but you don’t have to be which should be stressed because the cricket-averse might then not read this wonderful book.      It may even give a shot to your interest in the current Lankan tour, although I imagine the protagonist W.G Karunasena would have some choice words about the brittle performance of his team.

NB: I got those GIFs off tumblr from people who took them off people who took them off people so I don't have anyone to originally credit, soz.

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