The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.
- Stanley Wells : What Was Shakespeare Really Like? CUP.
- Laura Cumming : Thunderclap: A memoir of Art and Life & sudden Death. Vintage Digital.
- Rory Stewart :Politics On the Edge. Vintage Digital. This is a very well-written memoir of Stewart’s decade in British politics. I met the author during his first election campaign (see my report here), and my impression of him was that he was completely lacking in side. What you saw or heard, was exactly what he was. I wondered then whether someone so up-and-down straight could succeed in a profession often requiring the saying of different things to different audiences. It is telling that before his election, the only politician Stewart says that he had met and admired was David Milliband, who strikes me as similarly straight up-and-down.
In some respects, this book is a record of The Getting of Guile, as he learns how best to manage and manipulate the British civil service, and, and perhaps less successfully so far, British politics. His departure from elected public life is our great loss, and it does not behoove us. I hope he returns.
- Michael Frayn : Among Others: Friendships and Encounters. Faber and Faber. Well-written and sometimes moving vignetts of people Frayn has known in his life. Wished these were longer and there were more of them. The book would have been much better if the last one, with an extended metaphor in poor taste of a human body as a skyscraper, had been deleted.
- Allen Welsh Dulles : Germany’s Underground: The Anti-Nazi Resistance. Da Capo Press. This account is mostly compelling, although marred by the inclusion of entire documents in the main text, instead of selective quotations from them. Dulles was an active participant, when working for the OSS in Bern, Switzerland from November 1942, in various anti-Nazi activities, and collected documents and information as he worked. He was the grandson, nephew and (later) the brother of Secretaries of State.
- Martin Peretz : The Controversialist: Arguments with Everyone, Left Right and Center. Wicked Son. (HT: AS)
- Bruce Beresford : Josh Hartnett Definitely Wants to Do This … True Stories from a Life in the Screen Trade. 4th Estate. An interesting account of just a few years in the life as Australian film director. Many names are casually dropped, but that may be simply because Beresford has been around a long time and seems to have known everybody born in the 1940s. And it is not often one comes across the name Takemitsu; Beresford is a lover of classical music.
For a Hollywood film to be made it needs financing. Film investors, it seems, are mostly shallow, usually uninterested in the story they are being asked to fund. To get financing, it seems, a film project needs several famous actors to commit to the film. The more famous the better. To get their commitment, it seems, promises of large payments usually work. Sometimes, but not always, famous actors may even be interested in the story. Hence, a script may be required. Even when no one actually reads the script, they pass it around and comment on it. In particular, actors and their agents, use their power not to respond, or not to respond yet, to requests for inclusion in projects. Everybody is so polite that they don’t like to decline requests. But almost nobody is polite enough to actually say they decline, and, if they do say so, certainly not directly to the person pitching the script.
The key function of middle management in large organizations is to enable upper management to avoid ever actually talking to the people who do the work. The key function of agents and brokers in the film biz, it seems, is to enable actors to avoid talking to anyone else. There is an anthropological thesis to be written on the role of a script as a dynamic artefact in the attention economy of film-making.
- M. W. Rowe : J. L. Austin: Philosopher and D-Day Intelligence Officer. Oxford University Press. A fascinating and well-written book.
- Janet Stuart : This Way More Adventure: A Journey of Self-Education in Africa. 2QT Publishing. A diary of a year spent traveling in Africa in the 1970s, written by Janet Stuart and her late husband Patrick Stuart (whom I once knew).
- Daniel Finkelstein : Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad: A Family Memoir of Miraculous Survival. William Collins. Compelling writing about a story of miracles and indefatigability.
- Cynthia Dearborn : The Year My Family Unravelled. Affirm Press. A moving and very-well written account of a complicated family and the changing relationships of its various members.
- George Fowler : Learning to Dance inside: Getting to the Heart of Meditation. Thomson Learning. This book was disappointing, especially after having read Fowler’s fine memoir. Clearly based on his own experience with meditation, Fowler assumes throughout that the activity is primarily goal-directed. For instance, he writes (page 34), “meditation is the deliberate search for an experience of what lies beneath all such cerebral busyness.” This was evidently the case for Fowler, but is not true for everyone, nor perhaps even for most people. On the contrary, one may engage in a meditation practice not deliberately, with goals aforethought, and not to search for anything, but because of some inner compulsion to do so. Most visual artists and musicians, in my experience, have not chosen those careers from some instrumental reason or to achieve some career goal, but because they feel a vocation. I find it strange that someone who was a member of a contemplative religious order for two decades should lack an understanding of the concept of a vocation.
- Jonny Steinberg : Winnie & Nelson: Portrait of a Marriage. Jonathan Ball. No one outside a relationship can really know what it was like inside it, but Steinberg tries. Several times I thought he was too intrusive and I skipped over parts we have no right knowing or even speculating on. Very interesting to read, though, of the backgrounds and childhoods of the two protagonists and of the early days of the struggle, pre-Rivonia.
- Prince Harry, The Duke of Sussex (Ghost-writer: J.R. Moehringer) : Spare. Transworld Digital. Very well written and compellingly, a credit to John Moehringer. While Prince Harry’s life has certainly had some severe downs (his parents’ divorce; the death of his mother; the coldness of the Windsor family; the malicious treatment given to his wife by the London tabloids), sympathy for him is undermined by his strong sense of unforgotten grievance for even the smallest perceived slight. What a cry-baby he is! Hard to believe that someone this sensitive was in the Army and served in a war. Did no one ever tell him to pull himself together and act like man? Oh, I forgot – his brother, his father, and his grandfather all did! And his schoolmasters at Eton! And his superior officers in the British Army!
- Randolph Stow : The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. I read this as a teenager when it was a set text at school, and have not re-read it until now. Am surprised how adult its themes are, most of which were lost on me the first time round. Friends and family included people who’d been killed in WW2, or who’d been prisoners of the Japanese, and these aspects resonated with me more now than they had originally. Growing up with people with such wartime experiences is something, I have realized since, that has become unusual, at least in the western world.
Until re-reading this book, I had not realized that Stow was the librettist for Peter Maxwell-Davies’ song-cycle “Eight Songs for a Mad King”, to which I had listened obsessively at the time I was first reading Merry-Go-Round. What memories returned with learning this!
- Gabrielle Carey : Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and My Family. University of Queensland Press. A moving and well-written memoir.
- Katja Hoyer : Beyond the Wall: East Germany, 1949-1990. Penguin. A detailed and thorough account of the creation and development of the DDR, covering aspects of its economic, cultural and social life, and positioned within the wider political context. Although the author seems to wish to appear objective, the account is decidedly sympathetic to East German socialism. Those many people harassed, arrested, tortured, imprisoned, or executed for opposing the regime or its policies would be unlikely to accept this account.
- Chris Mullin [2010 and 2011]: The Diaries (Three volumes). Profile Books. Mostly fascinating, although Mullin does not always explain who people are at their first mention. Like a backbench MP’s lot, these diaries are a combination of the important and the banal. Although there is some discussion of ministerial life, there is surprisingly little reflection on his time as a Minister.
- Chris Wallace : Political Lives: Australian Prime Ministers and their Biographers. UNSW Press.
- Peter Hill : Stravinsky: The Rite of Spring. Cambridge University Press.
- Stephen Hough : Enough: Scenes from Childhood. Faber and Faber.
- David Burke : Family Betrayal: Agent Sonya, MI5 and the Kuczynski Network. The History Press.
- Niki Savva : Bulldozed: Scott Morrison’s fall and Anthony Albanese’s rise. Scribe.
- David Rothkopf : American Resistance: The Inside Story of How the Deep State Saved the Nation. Public Affairs.
- Sean Kelly : The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison. Black Inc.
- Gyles Brandreth : Elizabeth: An Intimate Portrait. Michael Joseph.
- Gareth Russell : Do Let’s Have Another Drink: The Singular Wit and Double Measures of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. William Collins.
- John Delury : Agents of Subversion: The Fate of John T. Downey and the CIA’s Covert War in China. Cornell University Press.
- Katharine Murphy : Lone Wolf: Albanese and the New Politics. Quarterly Essay #88.
- Gideon Haigh : The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent Simon and Schuster Australia. A fascinating account of HV Evatt’s career as a lawyer and judge, and the global influence of his judicial dissents. Was he Australia’s best foreign minister? Gough Whitlam might disagree. Was he the smartest Federal politician never to have made it to PM? I would put Ted Theodore and Isaac Isaacs above him on that list. Moreover, Evatt’s political judgment was not always great, as the Petrov case showed.
My father spoke of reading in the 1950s the Parliamentary speeches of Menzies and Evatt in the papers the next day, or in Hansard later, and the impression he got was that Menzies’ speeches were usually vapid and superficial, while Evatt’s were well-argued, intelligent and often profound. However, if he had managed to hear the Parliamentary broadcast of the speeches when they were made, he would have had the opposite impression: he would have been swayed by Menzies’ superb oratory against Evatt’s wooden delivery.
They were both lawyers, and had faced each other in the High court in the Engineers case of 1920. When Evatt was appointed to the High Court at age 36 in 1930, Menzies appeared before him in the very first case he considered.
- Kerry-Anne Walsh : The Stalking of Julia Gillard: How the Media and Team Rudd brought down the Prime Minister. Allen and Unwin.
- Frank Bongiorno : Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia. La Trobe University Press. A good, well-written summary of Australian political history.
- Helen Fry : Spymaster: The Man Who Saved MI6. Yale University Press.