Monday, 31 December 2018

My Reading Year - 2018

Another year of reading has come to an end, and what a great year it has been. My reading goal for 2018, as documented in my challenge was 30 books, which I didn't quite reach having read only 24 titles this year.

My list included a number of books which I wrote about in my first of January planning for 2018 post. I managed to get through a many of these books, including:
In an attempt to diversify my reading I created my own reading bingo card with various categories (achievements highlighted below).  This was fairly successful, although I missed out on a lot of categories I had intended to pursue.

Adapted into a
Film/TV Show
or Memoir
New York Times
Booker Prize
Current Affairs
/ Politics
Set in Space
or at Sea
Pre-20th Century
Fiction Based
on a True Story
Short Story
in 2018
Free Choice
Set in the
First Novel
in a Series
Written by a
Nobel Laureate
Mystery or
Crime Novel
Stella Prize
Banned Book
20th Century
Set during
Lesser-known Book
by a Famous Author
Essay Collection
Book on the
1001 List

So here's what I read in 2018:

When looking back over the novels I read in 2018, there were quite a lot of crime/mystery books. Highlights were JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith's latest Coromoran Strike novel, Lethal White, and Australian author Chris Hammer's debut novel Scrublands. I enjoyed Jane Harper's latest outing,  The Lost Man, but it wasn't a patch on her previous novels with Detective Aaron Falk.

Wondering what all the fuss was about, I read Lee Child's first Jack Reacher novel, Killing Floor, which left me perplexed by its popularity. Another dud was Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Links, which I read as part of my 'Poirot in order' pursuit. Even though I didn't particularly enjoy either of these books, I don't feel my time was wasted - sometimes you have to read the bad to recognise the good.

I read two Helen Garner's this year: her delightful The Spare Room and the newly released collection Stories. I much preferred the former with its crisp prose and hidden complexities.

Strangely, two novels I read in 2018 were set in a graveyard! Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book was an enchanting, award winning children's book. But my greater feat was finally reading George Saunders' Booker Prize winning Lincoln in the Bardo. I had wanted to read it for some time but had found it hard to get in the rhythm. This year I succeeded and am pleased to have read it.

One of the novels I greatly enjoyed this year was Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, a magical realism book focussing on the lives of refugees. It is a novel for our times, as is graphic novel Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, which explores loneliness, isolation and despair when a loved one goes missing.

Of the dozen novels I read this year the one I would most recommend to others as a gripping, page-turning read is Chris Hammer's Scrublands. I really enjoyed this multi-layered suspense novel and have already shared it with many family and friends. Part of a current wave of Australian bush-noir, Scrublands has plenty of twists and turns to keep readers engaged.

I read a lot of biographies and memoirs this year. Top on my list was historian and journalist Julia Baird's monster bio Victoria: The Queen. At 700+ pages, Victoria took up a lot of my reading space but it was well worth it as this is a fascinating look at the long-reigning monarch.

One of my heroes is US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So I was keen to read Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik's Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Unlike traditional biographies, this book blends pop culture, music lyrics, fan art, and more into an interesting portrait of an incredible judge.

Two memoirs tugged at my heart-strings. Journalist Rick Morton's One Hundred Years of Dirt tells of his upbringing on a remote Queensland station, the violence and poverty his family endured and the sacrifices his mother made for her children. Bri Lee's astonishing memoir Eggshell Skull centred on her year as an associate for a Queensland District Court Judge and her subsequent experience as a complainant in a case against her assailant.

I was absolutely engrossed by Sarah Krasnostein's  The Trauma Cleaner. This biography about the incredible life of Sandra Pankhurst was absolutely compelling, forcing readers to set aside their assumptions about how other people live.  Another fascinating book was Chloe Hooper 's  The Arsonist, which looked at the devastating Black Saturday bushfires and the trial of one of those who caused them.

I really enjoy reading well crafted essays. As Samantha Irby's We Are Never Meeting in Real Life topped many 2017 best book lists, I began this year with her funny, snarky and cynical collection.  At the other end of the spectrum, Rebecca Solnit writes with great intellect and thought on issues affecting women in her Men Explain Things To Me. Tackling gang rape, sexual harassment, genealogy, isolation and more, I really admired Solnit's feminist approach. I also read two Quarterly Essays, by Richard Dennis (QE70) and Laura Tingle (QE71).

As part of my commitment to Working Out Loud (WOL), I read Julian Stodd's The Social Leadership Handbook and attempted to complete the accompanying workbook.

I only read one book on American politics this year, Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House, and that was enough! I need to declare a Trump free zone and limit his influence on my reading life.

The best non-fiction book I read this year was, without doubt, Sarah Krasnostein's The Trauma Cleaner. The story of Sandra Pankhurst and her remarkable life is incredible, but Krasnostein also inserts the heartbreaking stories of Pankhurst's hoarder clients. This is a story of empathy and belonging, and one which I have recommended, gifted and shared with so many people this year. 

I had a pretty bad year with poetry in 2018. Normally I try and seek out fresh new voices but this year I only read one collection - Rupi Kaur's The Sun and Her Flowers. The fact that I read Kaur is strange since after reading her disappointing Milk and Honey I swore I would read any more of her work.... Oh well.

Best of 2018
Of all the books I read this year the two works I regard most highly are Sarah Krasnostein's  The Trauma Cleaner and Chris Hammer's Scrublands. Honourable mentions go to Bri Lee's Eggshell Skull, Julia Baird's Victoria: The QueenHelen Garner's  The Spare Room and Robert Galbraith's Lethal White.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

A Confederacy of Dunces

US Secretary of Defence General Jim Mattis resigned his position in the Trump government on 20 December 2018.  In his very public resignation letter he stated unequivocally that
"... our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive systems of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies."
Mattis' resignation came shortly after President Trump unilaterally decided to withdraw American troops from Syria, against the advice of the military - leaving civilians and allies in great danger.

The departure of Mattis did not surprise me, as that exact same day I had just finished reading Bob Woodward's 'fly-on-the-wall' expose, Fear: Trump in the White House (2018). An extreme nationalist, Trump is a protectionist and has increasingly isolated himself from his allies. He has torn up trade deals and the Iran Nuclear Agreement, backed out of the Paris Climate Accord, imprisoned immigrant children, aligned himself with dictators, threatened NATO, and attempted to build a literal wall. Trump believes power equates to fear, and he has set about disrupting all norms to keep the world on edge.

Award winning journalist Woodward has managed to gain access deep within the White House and spoken with many named and unnamed sources including Gary Cohn, Rob Porter, Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon. Through these contacts Woodward paints a terrifying picture of the President as an illiterate, ill-informed, hate-filled, vengeful bully.

As a keen follower of global politics, much of Fear was already known to me. But what I found astounding was the lengths some of the President's men would go to in an effort to tame or circumvent Trump. Documents requiring signing were removed from the President's desk, aides slowed down his agenda by delaying his orders, secret meetings were held, memoranda was written to appeal to Trump's ego, and the gatekeepers tried to limit his access to people who would fuel his worst instincts. Trump's contempt for those around him, the way he belittles and publicly humiliates those he relies on, is appalling. With the departure of Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson and more, I am worried that there will be no one left to temper his idiocy; Trump is now surrounded by yes-men who cannot constrain him.

Ultimately, I believe it is Trump who is afraid. The Mueller investigation is tightening around him. His family is under the spotlight and his corrupt Foundation has just been disbanded. He is fighting countless lawsuits and many of his former partners in crime are now corroborating with authorities. With all of these personal attacks, he rages on Twitter to distract and debase. I wonder how far Trump's narcissism goes and whether deep down he knows he is temperamentally unfit for the office he holds.

Fear is just one of dozens of books about Trump's Presidency, and undoubtedly dozens more will be written before his tenure is out. I found Fear to be well written and interesting, but in reading it I couldn't help but feeling great fear for the downfall of the office of the President, the decline of America, and the danger of our world.

Friday, 28 December 2018

Tales from the Crypt

Each year I give my two nieces, currently aged 8 and 11, books as Christmas gifts. I enjoy trying to track down books that I think they may enjoy - from graphic novels like Phoebe and her Unicorn, to classics like Anne of Green Gables. I try to do my homework to make sure they are age appropriate and, wherever possible, I try to read the book in advance. This year I gave them:

  • The Mulberry Tree by Allison Rushby
  • Friday Barnes, Girl Detective by RA Spratt
  • Ruby Redfort Look Into My Eyes by Lauren Child
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
I managed to read Gaiman's book before the holidays and think it will be greatly enjoyed by the recipients.

The Graveyard Book (2008) begins with a scary, dark scene in which a knife-weilding man enters a family home and kills all inside except an infant boy who has escaped from the home and wandered into a local graveyard. The dead shelter the boy and two of the ghosts adopt him and name him Nobody Owens, Bod for short. Silas, a groundskeeper of sorts, becomes his guardian and teaches him ghostly behaviour like fading, haunting and dream walking. Bod is told never to leave the graveyard and as such gets about exploring the crypts and tombs, meeting all sorts of undead. 

As the years go by, Bod grows older and he longs to move beyond the cemetery gates. He befriends a young girl named Scarlett who visits the graveyard, journeys out to the centre of town, and later he attends a local school. But the best lessons are the ones he learns from the ancient inhabitants of the graveyard.

What I particularly liked was that each chapter is a self-contained story, which makes for perfect bedtime reading. I also enjoyed the way each new ghostly character was introduced via what was written on their headstones ('Traveler Lay Down Thy Staff'). This is an enchanting book, with a fine balance of darkness and light. 

The Graveyard Book won a stack of awards including the Carnegie Medal (UK) and  Newberry Medal (US) for the best children's book.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Preparations for the Social Age

Earlier this year I picked up Julian Stodd's The Social Leadership Handbook (2nd ed, 2016) and the accompanying workbook Social Leadership - My First 100 Days (2017). I am a regular reader Stodd's articles and blog posts and always found him to be a refreshing thinker with practical ideas.

At work, I am currently working with a couple of staff on building their social capital within our organisation and beyond. So I read Stodd's Handbook with a view to seeing whether it would help me to help them in this endeavour, and whether the Workbook would be something that they would benefit from exploring.

Having read a fair few leadership and management books in my time, Stodd's approach is delightfully different. He argues that social businesses will build trust, encourage innovation, and be more adaptive. Likewise, social leaders are able to navigate this new ecosystem by being able to operate in both formal and social spaces.

Stodd has created a model of social leadership he calls NET - Narrative, Engagement and Technology. The Narrative section is all about storytelling, curation and sharing. Engagement is about agility, community building and reputation. The Technology section focuses on social capital, collaboration and co-creation.

The Handbook is extremely easy to read and can be consumed in little morsels at a time for those who cannot commit to long stretches of reading and reflection.  At times I found the book a bit repetitive, but then I have read much of Stodd's work, and see this as a positive reinforcement.

Admittedly, I did struggle with the Workbook. Initially I tried to set aside time at the end of each day to undertake the daily task. Some were straight forward like pondering where knowledge lives in your organisation (day 4), while others required discussion with colleagues like considering where stories are used in your organisation (day 20). The ones on my own were easy, but by leaving it to the end of the day, I would often find I had missed opportunities to engage with a colleague where required. As a consequence my 100 days has taken me significantly longer and remains unfinished.  But what I did find was that I enjoyed dipping in and out of this workbook, rather than working from cover to cover.

I also want to comment on the physical books. The Handbook is a sturdy hardcover with pastel colour scheme, filled with 'hand-drawn' illustrations. Just the right size for commute reading, with helpful chapter summaries. The spiral bound workbook is petite, able to lie flat for easy use and beautifully crafted. The two go together well. Stodd also has a podcast and a MOOC to accompany this series.

As someone who practices working out loud and critical reflection, I found this Handbook and Workbook wonderful tools to further my practice. I have used the ideas in my workplace, particularly in how I curate and share, and encouraged colleagues to engage with many of Stodd's ideas. I would recommend these tools to anyone looking to change their leadership practice or those working with new managers to build their social leadership abilities.