Sunday, 24 January 2016

G is for Grieving

In 2015 a lot of people were talking about Helen Macdonald's award winning book, H is for Hawk (2014). Indeed it appeared on many 'best of' lists for the year and has been hailed by many for its remarkable combination of memoir, natural history, biography and self-help. It was awarded the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and the Costa Book of the Year award.

Helen was a research fellow at Cambridge University when her photographer father died suddenly. Consumed with grief, Helen went online, ordered a goshawk she named Mabel, and spent the next year immersed in training this bird of prey.

While the purchase may seem like a whim, Helen was well acquainted with falconry. As a child she was obsessed with birds of prey and read all sorts of books about hawks and falcons. She has trained birds before, but a goshawk is notoriously difficult to train.

As Helen learns about Mabel, the reader does too. Mabel and Helen discover together, through trial and error, how to fly, feed and hunt. Mabel helps Helen to resolve her grief and find happiness.

Macdonald's journey with Mabel is paralleled by TH White's experience with his hawk, Gos. English author White, best known for his King Arthur novel The Sword in the Stone (1938), was a deeply unhappy, lonely man, who described his attempts to train his hawk in The Goshawk (1951).  While White is cruel with his hawk - overfeeding, neglecting, smothering - Macdonald understands the nature of hawks and how they need to be treated.

I have mixed feelings about this book. Macdonald's writing is extraordinary - she is so descriptive that the reader is immersed in the feathers. You feel her pain as she describes her grief, loneliness and disappointment as well as her joy as she celebrates small successes while training Mabel. I am not a 'bird person' but I found myself enjoying the new terminology - bating, creance, jesses, tiring, yarak - and was keen to hear more about these remarkable creatures.

For me, the story was uneven, at times engrossing and then suddenly boring. I felt it lagged in the middle, spending too much time on the unlikable White, and not enough time on Helen and Mabel. The good far outweighed the bad and ultimately I would recommend H is for Hawk, especially for lovers of natural history and birds.

Sunday, 10 January 2016

Remembrance of Things Past

In the most recent Quarterly Essay (QE60), Laura Tingle explores Political Amnesia - How we Forgot How to Govern. With a relatively new Prime Minister and an election on its way, this is a timely exploration of how politics in Australia has changed in the last twenty years. Tingle's main focus is on the value of institutional memory in the public service, Parliament and the media.

On the Australian Public Service (APS), Tingle reminds readers of the value of the bureaucracy which has provided successive governments with valuable, contestable advice. In the past twenty years or so the APS has been devalued. The push to privatise, with more emphasis being placed on consultants, has seen expertise leave the APS. The terminations of heads of department when governments change, has brought about a more cautious and cowardly APS. The managerialism from the private sector has also given way to an APS that believes in changing portfolios every two years so that no one gains deep subject expertise. The once revered APS has become a shadow of its former self.

On the media, Tingle talks about feeding the beast of the 24/7 news cycle. She argues that journalists have by and large become generalists, rather than subject matter experts. This means that policies can be reported on by people who don't have the deep understanding of the subject area and are unable to provide an effective critique. She also questions the value of the talking points given to all Ministers where they repeat predetermined lines about the issue of the day. With immediate deadlines and yesterday's news forgotten, journalists no longer have the time (and perhaps skill) to engage in thinking through policy, relating issues historically, and understanding the broader context. This results in taking at face-value what we are told without really engaging in issues.

But politics is Tingle's main target. She looks back over the years - Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd, Gillard, Abbott and now Turnbull - and how they valued or dismissed institutional memory. As governments become younger and less experienced, Ministers race to make their mark through 'reform' - often introducing new policies that were tried and failed years earlier or trying to recreate something they have a vague memory of working previously without understanding the context of the time. The centralisation of control in the Prime Minister's office has also meant that debate and deliberation of an issue had been dismissed as undesirable.

Spanish philosopher George Santayana famously wrote that 'Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it'. For the last twenty years so much of what has come out of Canberra has been ensconced in a sense of deja vu. Let's hope that every member of government reads Tingle's essay and makes a conscious decision to build institutional memory and rebuild the APS.

I really enjoyed this Quarterly Essay. It is a compelling, intelligent, piece of journalism which makes a powerful case for improved policy making. 

Included in this essay  is correspondence related to the previous Quarterly Essay - Faction Man (QE59) by David Marr.

Sunday, 3 January 2016

Planning for 2016

I know it is not smart to plan my reading for the year too much, as inevitably I never read what I plan to anyway. But, in the spirit of getting myself organised for the year, I thought I should set out some goals for 2016.

I would like to read at least two books a month - 24 for the year - which is what I feel I can manage with my work and other commitments. I blog about most of the things I read, so that should give me a good year of blogging as well.  In 2015 I picked up a lot of books at various events like the Sydney Writers' Festival. I need to finish those so that I am free to do more shopping when the Festival rolls around again.

In the first instance, I need to finish books I have already started:
  • H is for Hawk (2015) by Helen Macdonald (Update Jan 16: read review)
  • The Executioner's Song (1979) by Norman Mailer
  • Not My Father's Son (2015) by Alan Cumming
  • Women I've Undressed (2015) by Orry Kelly
  • Go Set a Watchman (2015) by Harper Lee
  • Quarterly Essay 60 - Political Amnesia (2015) by Laura Tingle (Update Jan16: read review)
  • A Spool of Blue Thread (2014) by Anne Tyler
Add to this some of the books I have recently acquired or borrowed:
  • My Brilliant Friend (2012) by Elena Ferrante - which I gave my mother for Christmas and promptly borrowed from her!
  • Career of Evil (2015) by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)
  • The Learning Challenge (2014)  by Nigel Paine

Finally, I need to leave a little room for new books that have been recently published and those I might gather along the way. I am very keen to get my hands on A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara and Fates and Furies (2015) by Lauren Groff as these sound very interesting. Yanighara's book is a 700+ page monster, so I will need to put that off for a while so I finish some of the others. There are some new books I want to read too like Christopher Hitchens'  And Yet: Essays (2015) and Julian Barnes' The Noise of Time (2016).

Now if only I could have a few more weeks off work so I had more time to read....

Saturday, 2 January 2016

My 2015 in books

Another year has passed and it is time to reflect on the year that has gone by and the books I have read along the way.

In 2015 I set myself a goal of reading 24 books - two a month - and blogging in equal measure. I managed to write 39 blog posts about books of all kinds, but did not quite make the 24 books (damn you epic tomes!).

In my first post of 2015 I announced my plans for the year and described an ambitious list of to-be-reads. While I started well, ticking off my list as I went, I soon found that I needed to replace many titles on the list with more pressing reads.

My reads in 2015 can be roughly clustered as follows:


I didn't read a lot of fiction in 2015 but some of my most favourite reads this year were by Australian writers. I highly recommend both The Golden Age (2014) by Joan London and Emily Bitto's The Strays (2014).  Both of these novels were recipients of numerous awards and have an authentic Australian voice.

I also really enjoyed The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins (2015) and Patricia Highsmith's classic The Talented Mr Ripley (1955). I look forward to continuing other books in the Ripley series.

Two of the other novels I took off my 'to-be-read' pile were Ann Patchett's State of Wonder (2011) and Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things (2013).

True Crime
I have never really thought of myself as a true crime reader, but started out the year reading a book I had given my mother for Christmas, Last Woman Hanged (2014) by Caroline Overington, about Louisa Collins who was sentenced to death for allegedly killing her husband. A few months later I read another version of the same case in Carol Baxter's Black Widow (2015). It was really interesting to compare and contrast these two accounts.

After hearing Asne Seierstad speak at the Sydney Writers' Festival, I also read the compelling and challenging One of Us - The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre of Norway (2015). This was a remarkably detailed depiction of a horrific crime.

I should also mention that I really enjoyed the Serial podcast. Season one told the story of Adnan Syed who had been convicted of murdering his former girlfriend Hae Min Lee. Told over twelve weeks, this fascinating drama replaced much of my commute reading.

I read a lot of biographies this year which told the life stories of remarkable women. I really enjoyed reading Julia Gillard's recollection of her years as Prime Minister in My Story (2014).

I laughed aloud at Amy Poehler's Yes Please (2014) and despite high hopes for Lena Dunham's Not That Kind of Girl (2014), I found it to be a bit of a disappointment.

One of the most interesting biographies I read was One Life (2015) by Kate Grenville, an account of her mother's extraordinarily ordinary life.

Other Non Fiction
I read a lot of other non-fiction in 2015 including Roxane Gay's essays Bad Feminist (2014), Asne Seierstad's The Bookseller of Kabul (2002), and Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). The non-fiction highlight for me was Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015).

I really enjoy the Quarterly Essay which arrives every three months in my mailbox. They are always interesting and expose me to new ideas. In 2015 I read:

Random Musings

Part of the reason I didn't quite achieve my reading target is that I attend a lot of events where I am introduced to new authors and new ideas. I also listen to a lot of podcasts, like Chat 10 Looks 3, The Guardian Books, and Slate's Audio Book Club, so I am constantly being sent off to other reading adventures.

I have blogged about many of the events I attended, like the Sydney Writers' Festival, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, and All About Women. I also wrote about plays like The Present and King Lear and about various literary awards that crop up throughout the year.

Favourites of 2015
If I had to chose, I would select as my favourites of 2015, The Golden Age (2014) by Joan London  and Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015)

But I would give an honourable mention to Kate Grenville's One Life (2015) and Asne Seierstad's One of Us (2015) for their amazing skills as writers.