Books and Christmas seem to go together naturally and Charles Dickens certainly got the western world into the spirit of the thing with his A Christmas Carol, first published in December 1843, with fabulous illustrations by John Leech. A few of our Quadrant readers and contributors have listed some of their favourite books, and some that they intend to read over Christmas.
The best newish book of fiction I read this year was Marilynne Robinson’s stunning Gilead, in which an elderly minister in a small town in the American Mid-West in the 1950s sets down the story of his life for his young son. How Robinson imagines her story so perfectly is a mystery. The best new non-fiction was Sally Wise’s A Year in a Bottle, rare among practical books in that it is not only useful but also a joy to read and for once in a cookery book there are no photographs, not even of the author. Of the books I helped prepare for publication, Frank Devine’s book of essays Older and Wiser was a constant delight, even though I had read everything in it at least twice before; but there was one first novel by a deluded young author who I hope will find an occupation more suited to her talents, whatever they are.
Robert Harris’ Lustrum, the second instalment in the Cicero trilogy begun with Imperium, is every bit as good as its predecessor. A master of the classy, literate thriller, Harris has surpassed himself in these books, wonderful evocations of Rome in the dying days of the Republic. Told in the first person by Tiro, Cicero’s slave secretary(who was a real person and did write a life of Cicero, now lost), Lustrum takes us on a gripping ride through the grandiloquent highways and stinking byways of Roman politics and society and in the process holds up a mirror to our own.
The Ghost Writer by John Harwood isn’t a new book (it was first published in 2004) but it’s still very much in print and it’s an absolute Christmas cracker of a Gothic novel with genuine chills, elegant writing and vivid characters. The author’s a son of the Australian poet Gwen Harwood and this is his first novel (his second being The Seance, also good but not as perfect as this one).
Australian novelist Wendy James’ collection of short stories, Why She Loves Him, is an extraordinary portrayal of a range of lives and situations, acutely observed and vividly evoked. They range from glittering micro-stories like Head On to the title story, an evocation of criminals on the run which is the length of a novella and is a brilliant tour de force, well worth the cover price in itself.
I would recommend Andrew Roberts’ The Storm of War, a more recent one volume history of World War II. He reworks a well known event but does it in a lively, entertaining fashion. For me there were some new nuggets of information, including the eavesdropping arranged by the British on captured German officers. This disclosed a greater knowledge on the part of the Wehmarcht of Nazi atrocities than the regular German Army pretended was the case.
Richard Ford is one of my favourite authors and I’m working my way through his entire output. At the moment it’s The Lay of the Land. Antony Beevor’s D-Day is an incredibly well researched and grippingly written account of the invasion. Caroline Moorhead’s Dancing to the Precipice is a riveting study of the ancien régime diarist Lucie de la Tour du Pin. A fascinating book to dip into relentlessly are The Letters of Arturo Toscanini, edited by Harvey Sachs.
In real books I’m reading Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue, am looking forward to Keith Windschuttle’s new Fabrication volume, and am eating my way through David Herbert’s terrific Complete Perfect Recipes. For the holidays I’ve loaded the Kindle with Paris after the Liberation by Anthony Beevor and Artemis Cooper; Culture of Corruption by Michelle Malkin; Victorian Frightenings – a collection of Victorian ghost stories; Dumas’ The Three Musketeers; Arthur Young’s Travels in France – a book I’ve always wanted; and The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith.
I’ll be reading Corolianus, which Senator George Brandis recommends as the most political of Shakespeare’s plays. And then it’s all wallowing in the cultural backwash of my 50th birthday European holiday: AJP Taylor’s The Hapsburg Monarchy, 1809-1918, Bouhimil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England, the brilliant Austrian journalist Joseph Roth’s Essays from France, 1925-1939 and Steven Runciman’s The Sicilian Vespers. For light relief, I have on standby Evelyn Waugh’s Black Mischief, Boris Akunin’s detective tale The State Counsellor and American Food Writing, edited by Molly O’Neill. As you can see, the trip cleaned me out and I’m housebound this Christmas.
Mark A. Gabriel is a former lecturer of Islamic history at Al-Azhar University in Cairo. His book Islam and the Jews, gives a scholarly insight into the history and apparent contradiction of Islamic teaching. Beginning with his childhood education that saw him memorise the Quran by age 12, his conversion to Christianity allowed him to overcome his institutionalised hatred of the Jewish people and provides a contemporary view of Islam from a unique perspective.
Nigel Lawson is one of the few British politicians to stand in opposition to the anthropogenic global warming phenomenon. His slender volume An Appeal to Reason, a Cool Look at Global Warming is refreshingly straightforward and free of the puritanical tone that sometimes discredits other works. Lawson traverses the science and history of climate, offers alternative responses to the current orthodoxy and exposes the hypocrisy of the climate change alarmists.
It Takes a Family by Rick Santorum has been described as ‘a very serious, smart work of political science’. A former US Senator and Republica Conference Chairman, Santorum argues that the family, rather than the Hillary Clinton ‘village’ is most important in achieving the common good.
I have three suggestions. Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money is a very good read. This is history through the lens of bread, cash, loot, moolah, you name it. I enjoyed this immensely, though truth be told not quite as much as Ferguson’s earlier Empire book.
Secondly, Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, now a few years old, is one of the best books I’ve read in some time. Pinker demolishes three long standing myths, namely those of the noble savage, of the ghost in the machine, and of the title’s quasi-eponymous blank slate. The first refers to the myth that people are born wholly good and in some Rousseauian way are corrupted by society. The second refers to the notion that each of us humans has some non-material soul operating outside of causation and the material world, one that makes choices free from biology. And the last relates to claims that the mind has no innate traits, is not hard-wired to point in particular ways. The first and last of these myths are staples of the left-wing side of politics, not least of bad educational policies. Pinker explodes them all, and pays no attention to politically correct nostrums along the way. This lack of any concern for political correctness brings me to my last suggestion.
If you haven’t done so already, go and read some of George Macdonald Fraser’s Flashman series. My lord these are funny books. I haven’t read all of the series yet, but other than making sure you start by reading the first of the series (entitled Flashman) you can just pick up any of these and be off. You will laugh out loud, and continually. And along the way you will get plenty of accurate history, as Fraser’s trick is to have taken an extremely secondary literary figure and plunked him into actual historical events. And of course that figure, Mr. Flashman, is a coward, cad, disreputable shmuck on whom fortune, in the end, always smiles. Think Ecclesiastes and ‘time and chance happening to them all’ and you’ll have the basic idea. Great entertainment!
The Tyranny of Liberalism: understanding and overcoming administered freedom, inquisitorial tolerance, and equality by command by James Kalb. The first half of his book argues that “Liberal assumptions an ideas cause social authorities to lose touch with human reality, to supplant and suppress informal and traditional institutions such as the family, and eventually to overreach and become tyrannical, self-contradictory, and self-destructive.” In the second half of the book, Kalb attempts to outline an alternative approach: “… one that makes much more room than liberalism now permits for tradition, religion, particularity, and transcendence. It includes a defence of the reasonableness of such things, and indeed of their necessity for a rational way of life”.
Those who enjoy a good love story might pick up Bernard Goldberg’s latest – A Slobbering Love Affair: the true (and pathetic) story of the torrid romance between Barack Obama and the mainstream media. Alas, an Australian equivalent of this book remains unwritten. There would be quite a wide market, one would think, for a tome chronicling the slobbering Rudd affair. Of the Obama-media love-in, Goldberg writes: “Never in my memory were so many journalists so intent on effecting change as they were during the campaign of 2008 … I could not remember a time when so many so many supposedly objective reporters had acted so blatantly as full-fledged advocates for one side—and without even a hint of embarrassment.”
Like many, I read a few books at once. I am only a few chapters into both Battlelines by Tony Abbott and Christopher Booker’s The real global warming disaster, both are necessary reading in the light of political changes in 2009. Booker, in his normal style, completely demolishes human-induced global warming whereas Tony Abbott gives a no holds barrred insight into a really remarkable man. A fascinating account of life kept me going on long flights – How we live and why we die by Lewis Wolpert.
I am re-reading Jaroslav Hasek’s Good soldier Schweik, the Czech Bible for survival under fascism and communism. When I first read the book 40 years ago, I could not decide whether Schweik was a drongo or an extremely clever seditious soul. Now I know. My general reading is intertwined with my scientific reading which is increasing day-by-day as scientific knowledge doubles every seven years. I guess if one stops reading then one can confidently state that “the science is settled”.
The Land I Came Through Last by Robert Gray. If you read no other book over the summer holidays, read this masterpiece. A picture of Gray’s dysfunctional family, especially of his alcoholic father, the last of the remittance men, it is also a deeply moving portrait of the artist as a young man. Older and Wiser: Essays 2000-2009 by Frank Devine. An irresistible collection of Devine’s last thoughts on life and love, literature and politics — and much more. What Science Knows and How It Knows It by Jim Franklin. A clear defence and apology for science by a mathematician philosopher who is a sort of neo-Thomist and can see the limitations of science. Like Peggy Lee, he asks: Is that all there is?
Robert Hughes: The Australian Years by Patricia Anderson. A well researched and sympathetic if often sceptical report on the emergence of “the world’s most famous art critic.” Tom Wills: His Spectacular Rise and Tragic Fall by Greg de Moore. A fascinating account of a nineteenth century sporting genius, libertine and alcoholic whose father was murdered by Aborigines but who went on to create and coach the first Aboriginal cricket team.
Battlelines by Tony Abbott. Whether you see this as a guide to the life and thought of the next Prime Minister or as simply a memoir of the Howard years, it is well written and enjoyable, if sometimes contentious, read. The March of Patriots by Paul Kelly. This sequel to Kelly’s history of Australian politics in the 1980’s takes the story up to the fall of the Howard government. You don’t have to agree with all his judgments to find it an invaluable record.
I belatedly found and read Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe and to my astonishment loved it. You can feel the high Victorian 1850s and the road to the American Civil War rising vividly from its pages. I had previously had it tucked away in my mind as school prize and great-aunt present stuff, then found a genuine 1880s version in a disregarded pile of old books. Then I discovered that it is still in print – in an inexpensive reprint version by Wordsworth Books in the UK and I bought some for presents. Another oldie I found by chance was Mary Grant Bruce’s Billabong series – alive and well in the children’s section of my local library and reprinted in the 1990s. While not, at least for adults, in the Uncle Tom class, adventures at Billabong still read well. Peter Golding’s They Called Him Old Smoothie – John Joseph Cahill, a biography of the quiet achiever 1950s Premier of New South Wales, is also good reading for appropriate buffs.
I have started the Christmas season with A Thousand Splendid Suns, a novel set in Afghanistan in recent decades. A Dennis Lehane mystery is waiting for the real lay-off season.
The Persian Night by Amir Tehari sets in clear perspective the development of the state that may well be the greatest threat to peace in the world today. Tehari was editor of the leading Iranian newspaper until he could not take the hypocrisy and cruelty of the madly theocratic regimen any more. He makes clear the facts so often misrepresented: the U.S. did not overthrow Mossadegh nor continue to support the Shah.
Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley, which covers the imperial war on the Mediterranean of the 16th century between Islam and the West, culminating in the great Western victory in the critical, epochal sea battle of Lepanto, whose effects were soon dissipated by internal quarrels among the Western states.
Then back to my own area of particular interest: Global Shanghai, 1850-2010: A history in fragments by Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, a brief penetrating account of the crucial years in the rise, the fall, and the rise again of what is perhaps the most interesting metropolis in the word today.
Finally, forthcoming to read later in 2010: Shanghai: Quai, Portal, and Key to China by Robert Elegant. The fullest account for the general reader of the origins, the tumultuous and prosperous past, as well as the spectacular prospects of that great first truly international city — and, I trust, an account that will entertain mightily as well as inform.
Two books comprise the solid tucker – the literary meat and potatoes – waiting on the platter of this year’s holiday reading banquet: Peter Pierce’s History of Australian Literature, and Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History (third volume). As I read Pierce, I shall keep beside me the 1961 pioneering A History of Australian Literature by H.M. Green. Writing in 1981, A.D. Hope wrote that Green’s was a classic that would endure for ever; let us see. The ever-valiant Windschuttle, in his earlier volume, restored integrity to a corrupted discipline. Bring on the next round! My next course will be a comparative soufflé, because I read it in an unworthily hasty fashion last year. It is Graham Freudenberg’s huge Churchill and Australia. My recollection is of a wonderful combination of history and empathy, to be savoured this time at leisure in the coming weeks. Again this year, no fiction to set my teeth on edge; my fault entirely, of course: they wouldn’t award all those glittering prizes to second-rate novels, would they?
For Christmas reading I focus on two issues now posing threats to Australia’s future. Pre-eminent is the drive to hobble our economy with assorted schemes to reduce production of that humanity-friendly and otherwise innocent gas, carbon dioxide – ostensibly so that we may thereby contribute to addressing the (false) claims about man-made global warming. The other, less immediate but more threatening, is the steady growth of a creed – Islam – whose adherents owe allegiance to that creed beyond any allegiance to Australia, and who are seemingly determined, unlike all previous immigrant streams, to resist any real integration into our society.
As to the first, I strongly recommend Ian Plimer’s Heaven + Earth, sub-titled Global Warming: The Missing Science. Notwithstanding some flaws of detail, it is a none the less magisterial exposition of the fact that “climate, sea level and ice sheets have always changed, and the changes observed today are less than those of the past”. The recent exposure of (further) proof of the fraudulence of the “science” of global warming – the emails leaked from the Climate Research Unit of the University of East Anglia – lends particular topicality to Plimer’s book.
As for the growing cancer of Islam within the West (including our own community), I single out two very different works. The first, Global Jihad: The Future in the Face of Militant Islam, by Patrick Sookhdeo, is a densely written, fact-packed “study of the classic Islamic sources on jihad and their relevance to today’s terrorism”. Not easy going, but an almost indispensable reference work. Second – comparatively light relief were its insights not so serious – is While Europe Slept: How Radical Islam is Destroying the West from Within. This account by Bruce Bawer, an American living in Europe before, and importantly after 9/11, catalogues the prevailing European “appeasement of radical Islamic anti-Semitism, homophobia, gender apartheid, and religious intolerance”, and points a revealing finger at the wormwood at Europe’s heart today.
With the film of The Road about to open in cinemas, Christmas would be a good time to read Cormac McCarthy’s original novel published in paperback by Picador. Its sparse language makes its depiction of a post apocalypse world particularly harrowing. In non fiction Harriet Flower’s Roman Republics makes us think not only about how we understand Ancient Rome but also the whole issue of how we divide history into periods. In a similar vein William Cavanaugh The Myth of Religious Violence argues that the the association between religion and violence owes a lot to the way in which the modern secular state has legitimised itself. Part of the power of the modern state rests on the myth that religion causes unrest and violence and is therefore in need of the state. Finally I would recommend a little known American journal The Hedgehog Review which is published by the Institute for Advanced Studies, University of Virginia. Each issue has a different theme and the current issue is on The Cosmopolitan Predicament. This journal is a great general read with top rate contributors.
First choice is the unauthorised biography of James Packer, Who Wants to be a Billionaire by Paul Barry, then Love in a Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Also Scar Tissue, autobiography of lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers by Anthony Kiedis and Larry Sloman, and John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Finally A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking.
I struggle to find new books which I think I will enjoy, but if I had a rich benefactor I would ask for a copy of Selina Hastings’ The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham – a novelist whose work I always relish. (While Mr Moneybags has his credit card out, could he possibly scour the planet for one of the few remaining copies of E A Wyke-Smith’s 1921 children’s novel Bill of the Bustingforths? It’s hilariously funny and uninhibited, but sadly out of print and almost impossible to find. I only ask because my sister has a copy and refuses to lend it to me.)
Second-hand books are really my drug of choice. This also makes presents much less expensive, so Mr Moneybags might like to buy me my own copy of Sten Nadolny’s exquisitely-written The Discovery of Slowness, about the inner life and journeys of John Franklin, right up to the disastrous North-West Passage mission. He might also throw in Diana Souhami’s superbly irreverent The Trials of Radclyffe Hall, which is a rollicking deconstruction of the passionately self-important Ms Hall, her love life, and her literary pretensions.
“Who is John Galt?” These are the opening words of Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged. They usher in a mystery: who is stopping the motor of the world? And an adventure: the industrialists’ struggle to save it. And a love story: an eternal triangle with a difference. And a political drama: the producers versus the powerbrokers. And a touch of science fiction: a motor that runs on an inexhaustible energy supply. More than that, “who is John Galt” ushers in a philosophical novel – just the book to sink your teeth into this summer.
Atlas Shrugged was published in 1956 – to bad reviews. But over half a century and seven million copies later it is selling faster than ever before; during 2009 it reached the top of Amazon’s best seller list in both the Classics and the U.S. Literature and Fiction categories. If what you’re looking for is slice-of-life naturalism this is not the book for you; but if you want to enter a timeless world of “romantic realism” that speaks particularly acutely to our time, try Atlas Shrugged. Or, if its one thousand plus pages and seventy page philosophic speech are too daunting for the holiday season start with Ayn Rand’s other famous novel, The Fountainhead, or her first novel, We The Living, or her shortest novel, Anthem.
My primary area of interest is intellectual history and particularly systems of extremist thought. Consequently, new books that I look forward to reading include The Reluctant Revolutionary: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Collision With Prusso-German History by John A. Moses, a study of the theologian who died a martyr as part of the doomed resistance to Nazism, and achieved cult status amongst Protestants in the Sixties. I will also complete The Real Global Warming Disaster: Is the Obsession with "Climate Change" Turning Out to Be the Most Costly Scientific Blunder in History? by Christopher Booker, and Igniting a Revolution: Voices in Defense of the Earth, edited by Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella II, which is a collection of radical environmentalist manifestoes.
Because modern environmentalism appears to be a new religion I will be re-reading the chapters of Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, to explore parallels with the emergence and rise of Christianity in an earlier period of civilizational crisis and decline. I will augment this with Peter Brown’s classic studies: The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750, and The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000. I am also hoping that Santa will bring me a copy of Keith Windschuttle’s new book on the Stolen Generations.
Philip Hoare’s Leviathan or The Whale is an extraordinary tale while Ben Macintyre’s The Last Word: Tales from the Tip of the Mother Tongue is a great giggle if you like words and the English language. For something that is brilliantly designed, annotated and illustrated, Robert B. Strasssler’s The Landmark Herodoutus is a book to treasure. Australian history has been well served by Babette Smith’s Australia’s Birthstain and the romp that is Carol Baxter’s Breaking the Bank: An extraordinary Colonial Robbery. Keith Windschuttle’s Stolen Generations is eagerly awaited; it’s been all too quiet on the war front!