2015 – my year in books and reading

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By Grant Hall.  Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

In late 2014 I moved back from my homeland of Australia to my wife’s homeland of Vietnam. I packed a few books with me and when I finished those I motorbiked out to the nearby tourist town of Mui Ne for new supplies. In years gone by I could always pick up a good read in Mui Ne, usually second hand books that tourists had left behind, but these days the pickings are slim. I’m not sure if all the old bookstores closed down because people don’t read on holiday anymore, preferring instead to upload poolside selfies to Facebook rather than the traditional poolside entertainment of reading a great new novel. I don’t see so many people reading books these days and my fear is that people just don’t read at all anymore; or maybe now, like me, everyone reads books on their smart phones!

So before I made the reluctant but necessary switch from paper to screen, I had to make do with whatever Mui Ne or my friends, who understood my predicament, could bring to me. This dictated a number of the books I read in 2015, including a bio of John Adams (POTUSA #2) and American Psycho, two books I probably wouldn’t have chosen had there been other alternatives but which I enjoyed nonetheless.

Looking back on it, my reading in 2015 presented a few unintentional themes. I read many books by or about lawyers; the leaders Gandhi, John Adams, Obama and Don Dunstan were all practicing lawyers, so too is Cat Thao Nguyen, whilst Peter Garrett and Ahn Do both trained to be lawyers before pursuing different career options. Even now I’m reading a book by former Judge Michael Kirby. I also read a number of political books in an attempt to understand some of the things that I witnessed whilst working for the Australian Government in the preceding three years, and took a deeper interest in economics whilst taking some study in International Business at the University of South Australia during 2015. I’m happy that my reading list is diverse, something I discussed in International business, cultural savviness and the importance of reading.

I didn’t read as many novels as usual because a big bloody Ayn Rand novel took up most of the year!

Anyway, here’s my list and thoughts.

NON-FICTION

Australian Multiculturalism

The Happiest Refugee – Ahn Do

We Are Here – Cat Thao Nguyen

Small Bamboo – Tracy Vo

I’m Not Racist But … 40 Years of the Racial Discrimination Act – Tim Soutphommasane

Do, Nguyen and Vo are the children of refugees who fled Vietnam in the 70’s, grew up in Australia and despite being born into challenging circumstances became successful in their chosen fields; Do as a comedian, Nguyen as a lawyer and Vo as a TV journalist.  Vo used to read the news to me each night when I lived in Perth where I met many Vietnamese “boat people”, as they used to be known. I was interested in reading more about the experiences of Vietnamese boat people who came to Australia, and contrasting their experiences with modern day refugees. Do’s book is hilarious by the way!

Dr Tim Soutphommasane is Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner and the author of I’m not a racist but… and if you have some racist friends, this is a good book to give them (not that they’d be likely to read it). Within I’m Not Racist But…, Soutphommasane provides some firsthand accounts from people who have suffered from racism in Australia and details the researched effects of racism whilst providing a good legal and historical background to the much argued about Article 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act.

The Arts

How to Make Gravy – Paul Kelly

Just Kids – Patti Smith

Patti Smith and Paul Kelly are world leading singer-songwriters who have been performing for decades and I’ve been lucky enough to see them both in concert. Both of these books, which are biographical in content, give the reader good insights into the creative minds of original artists. There’s great deal of talk in the business world these days about the need for creativity to bring about innovation, and it’s worth looking at the examples that artists like Smith and Kelly provide detailing the development of their creativity over many years. If you read Kelly’s book, listen to his A-Z Recordings which accompanies the book perfectly.

Give me Excess of It – Richard Mills

Rules of Engagement; FOXTEL, football, News and wine: The secrets of a business builder and cultural maestro – Kim Williams

Composer and Conductor Richard Mills was leading businessman Kim William’s school teacher when he was a kid, and they speak warmly of each other in their respective memoirs. Williams was an arts administrator before landing big roles with organisations like FOXTEL whilst Mills, when he wasn’t teaching, conducting or composing, was often also administering music institutions. Both books give great insights into the Australian music and arts landscapes over the last thirty to forty years and the value of the arts and arts education. Neither hold back on their criticisms of the Australian Government in relation to the arts and education either!

I cite Mills in Arts leader warns against ‘economic clichés’; is attacked with economic clichés and Williams in Croquet clubs, festivals and advancing economic growth in Adelaide

The Daily Arts (The Arts and Cultures of Việt Nam: A Journey Through History) – Phan Cẩm Thượng

Satchmo Blows Up the World: Jazz Ambassadors Play the Cold War – Penny M. Von Eschen

The Daily Arts is a collection of newspaper articles published between 2000 and 2007 by Phan Cẩm Thượng.  Thượng is a well known artist, critic and culture researcher who has published numerous books about Vietnamese art history since the eighties, and is a lecturer at the Việt Nam Academy of Fine Arts. In The Daily Arts, Thượng outlines the history of the arts in Vietnam, how the arts has interacted with broader society and vice-versa.  Thượng doesn’t stick to writing solely about art, covering a large swathe of topics; food, football, the scourge of plastic bags, low quality house paint, the high cost of traditional clothing for minority groups, ceramic bowls, colonialism, and the impact of French culture on the arts in Vietnam. You can read my full review of The Daily Arts here.

Throughout the Cold War and in the early days of the American military’s involvement in Vietnam, the US was trying to influence states and people living under communism, or at risk of “falling” into communism, to accept American models of democracy and capitalism. To assist them in this, the government sent many leading jazz performers and their bands to hotspots across the globe to promote American interests through cultural diplomacy. I’ve often written about the American Jazz Ambassadors in wherewordsfailblog.com and it’s eye opening to learn more about the history of the initiatives and the thinking behind them.

Politics

After Words: The Post-prime Ministerial Speeches – Paul Keating

Political Amnesia; How We Forgot to Govern (Quarterly Essay) – Laura Tingle

After Words by the former prime minister of Australia Paul Keating was quite interesting for two main reasons, firstly it’s pretty clear that Keating’s long espoused and often much derided vision for Australia’s engagement with Asia is in fact a sound one that we should adopt and also that he has a talent for predicting future circumstances such as the GFC. Tingle’s essay picks up on many of the same concerns that Keating raises and mirrors my experience of three years working within the Prime Minister and the Attorney General’s Departments whilst giving a voice to something that every Australian public servant knows but can’t say publically; the Australian Public Service has lost most of its institutional memory, has been dangerously politicised, and is in a fair old mess. I cite Keating in The Australian arts funding crisis and what it means for business.

The Story of My Experiments with Truth – Mahatma Gandhi

Diary of a Foreign Minister – Bob Carr

The Audacity of Hope – Barack Obama

Big Blue Sky – Peter Garrett

If it were possible to get Gandhi, Carr, Obama and Garrett together for dinner I’m sure the evening would be full of amazing discussions, although the dietry requirements of both Gandhi and Carr would be a pain in the neck for the host. Before embarking on a trade mission to India with the South Australian government, I thought that I would read up on either Gandhi or Modi. I chose Gandhi mainly because his memoirs were much cheaper than books about Modi in the Kindle Store. Gandhi lead an incredible life in India, South Africa and England. Some of My Experiments with Truth is page-turning stuff, whilst at other times he goes into such laborious details about his eating habits that reading it before bed guarantees a good night’s rest. In a kind of pilgrimage, I was thrilled to visit Mani Bhavan, the house in which Gandhi resided when he was in Mumbai, that has been preserved as a museum. Bob Carr, the former Australia Foreign Minister also spends a great deal of time discussing his diet, albeit with a great deal more humour than Gandhi. Diary of a Foreign Minister is like a mockumentary, with Carr hilariously mocking everything in his path, including himself. Its hilariousness is somewhat tempered though by the fact that Carr was working in a largely inept government, of which he was all too aware and willing to document. Also writing disparagingly of the same government another former minister and Carr’s colleague Peter Garrett (AKA: the lead singer of international rock band Midnight Oil) seeks to set the record straight on the royal shafting he received at the hands of Rudd and co. He also details the story of his life and the history of the Oils who, whilst they were a ferocious band on stage seemed to lead a pretty quiet life offstage (or perhaps for the Oils, what happened on tour stayed on tour).  I cite Garrett in Mental health, the arts and safety in the workplace. I read The Audacity of Hope to see if Obama had lived up to the promises he made in regards to American soft power before becoming the President and my conclusion is that he hasn’t. Whilst Bob Carr spends some time comparing his abdominal area to Obama’s, surprisingly, Obama doesn’t refer to Bob Carr or his abs at all. Garrett and Gandhi probably both had good abs too.

The March of Folly; From Troy to Vietnam – Barbara W. Tuchman

Dangerous Allies – Malcolm Fraser

The Future of Power – Joseph Nye

In 2014 I finished a three year stint working for the Australian Government. I was often left baffled by the decisions and behaviours of senior staff and our elected representatives, so in 2015 I decided to read more about the decision making processes of government.

The opening lines of Tuchman’s influential (though not influential enough) book sets the tone for the journey:

A phenomenon noticeable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests. Mankind, it seems, makes a poorer performance of government than of almost any other human activity.

In Dangerous Allies the former Australian Prime Minister Fraser makes a compelling case against the folly of Australia in continually following the USA into wars in foreign lands, whilst The Future of Power makes a strong case for an increased use of soft power in place of military power. I wrote a piece based on Nye’s book called 8 business lessons in soft power from The Future of Power by Joseph Nye.

Economics and culture

Debt: The First 5000 Years – David Graeber

Why Nations Fail – Daron Acemoğlu and James A. Robinson

The Secrets of Culture – D. Paul Schafer

When a lady at a party said to Graeber “one has to pay one’s debts” he couldn’t stop thinking about this assumption and, as an anthropologist, wanted to test it. In doing so, during what may have been an extended bout of OCD, he wrote a 500 page tome exploring the history and philosophy of debt and now, after reading it, I’ll never look at money the same way again! Why Nations Fail, like Graeber’sDebt, also examines the unfairness of certain economic institutions and how they are managed, arguing that to build and maintain national wealth countries need to develop inclusive economic institutions rather than exclusive ones that only bring wealth to small groups of elites. Good arguments for arts funding can be found within this book which I wish more of our elected representatives would read. The Secrets of Culture also looks at how poorly we have been served by the economic environment that we have created and argues that we need to ‘pass out of the present economic age and into a future cultural age’, which is something I agree with and write about extensively throughout wherewordsfailblog.com (see Culture destroys silos for starters).

Business

Trading Places: The Airport Economist’s guide to international business – Tim Harcourt

Steve Jobs – Walter Isaacson

The Tipping Point – Malcolm Gladwell

In 2015 I spent some time travelling through Asia to promote my business, League Cultural Diplomacy, and the Kindle Edition of Trading Places was a handy accompaniment providing small hits of useful business and cultural information about my destinations (I even managed to meet with some of the people mentioned in the book!). Like Richard Branson’s autobiography Losing My Virginity, I found the Jobs bio interesting because it highlights how important the arts and culture were to his life and how this contributed to him developing one of the world’s greatest companies (I write about this in Culture Destroys Silos and Diversification as an international business strategy). The Tipping Point is an enjoyable read about ‘the magic moment when an idea, trend or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips and spreads like wildfire’ and I’ve quoted some of Gladwell’s findings within wherewordsfailblog.com. Not long after I finished reading The Tipping Point I came across the below YouTube clip which perfectly sums up the books central theme.

Historical Bios

Captain James Cook: A Biography – Richard Alexander Hough

John Adams – David McCullough

Don’t Ask. Don’t Tell: Too long untold – Don Dunstan in life and politics – Richard Yeeles

When I was a child I was incorrectly taught that Captain Cook “discovered” my homeland of Australia, when in fact what he did was stick a flag in the ground and claim it for Mother England. I’d read a number of people who I admire recently say that Captain Cook is a historical figure they much admire, and maybe I’d admire him more if he wasn’t such a murderous bastard – something I wasn’t taught about in school. I enjoyed the book in a grown-up-boys-own-adventure-kind-of-way; tales of whoring, debauchery and murder fill its pages! I was interested to learn about many of the cultural diplomacy initiatives that Cook used when travelling to new lands – did you know that he travelled with a pipe band that was often used to smooth over relations with the native populations in the lands he visited? The John Adams biography was very interesting because as the second President of the USA, he was one of the chief designers of the American Government. He had an outstanding awareness of human nature, how power can corrupt it, and sought to develop the structure of government in the knowledge of this. Don’t ask don’t tell is refreshing because the biographer isn’t idolising his subject, Don Dunstan, the former Premier of South Australia. I benefited from learning more about the history of my home state and can’t believe that many of today’s arguments about the states economy, the pro’s and con’s of uranium mining for instance, are the same arguments our grandparents were having in the 1950’s – no wonder SA hasn’t moved forward much since Dunstan’s days

Sport

Open – Andre Agassi

Captaincy – Graham Gooch

Andre Agassi’s autobiography is an astounding read and the best sports biography I’ve ever read. It’s the brutal honesty that makes it so good; he was abused by his father when he didn’t succeed on the court, he hated tennis, did drugs, divorced Brooke Shields and smashed up his trophy cabinet in a rage of self-loathing. It’s a credit to him that he came out the other side of the professional tennis circuit sane and in one piece! I argue throughout wherewordsfailblog.com that the arts, sports and business worlds have a lot to learn from each other, and so I dropped a nice Agassi video into Diversification as an international business strategy and some thoughts about risk.

In contrast, Captaincy by former English cricket captain Graham Gooch, which a friend who knows my love of cricket found in a 2c bin in a Bangkok bookshop, is boring and uninspiring – a bit like English cricket really.

FICTION

Ultra-Violence

American Psycho – Bret Easton Ellis

No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthy

I‘ve never actively set out to read more violent fiction but before I picked up the Kindle reader my choices were limited. I read American Psycho at the same time I read Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister and was surprised by the similarities between the two, both Carr and the protagonist in Easton Ellis’ book take a great deal of interest in describing their physique, exercise habits, music, and fashion choices. This is an underrated work that provides insights into the human condition in the same way Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club does.  You can read it and skip the violent bits (which are horrific) easily enough, which is what I did, and music geeks will enjoy a great deal of music jokes throughout the novel, such as the psycho’s reviews of Genesis and Huey Lewis albums. No Country for Old Men is OK and the movie version does it more than justice. Whilst it’s not McCarthy’s best work, Blood Meridian being his finest to my mind, it’s still a worthwhile read.

Novels about wars and suns

Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Empire of the Sun – J. G. Ballard

Over the years I’ve read many of the most famous war novels and I’ve often found the best ones come from that of “the enemy” – such as All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War. I’d wanted to read more fiction by African writers so when I spotted Half of a Yellow Sun in a Singapore bookshop I snapped it up immediately. I’d come to know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi from her fantastic TED Talk which I quoted in my post International business, cultural savviness and the importance of readingThis novel, set in the Biafran war which Adichi’s family had lived through and whose experiences informed the novel, is one of the finest war novels I’ve come across and deserves to be read at least as much as Empire of the Sun. Ballard’s novel is a fictionalised account of his own childhood wartime life in Japanese occupied World War Two Shanghai; the descriptiveness in his writing is incredible, drawing you right into the experience alongside him.

Aussie fiction

Eyrie – Tim Winton

Burial Rites – Hannah Kent

Shantaram – Gregory David Roberts

I try to keep up to date with new writing from my home country so bought bothEyrie and Burial Rites not too long after their releases. When I lived in Montreal some years ago I was surprised at how much disdain many Montrealers had for Cirque du’Soleil, and when I went to Perth, I couldn’t believe what a loathing many Western Australian’s feel for Tim “bloody” Winton! I’ve always enjoyed Winton’s works and Eyrie is exceptionally well written, and as it is set in Perth where I lived for a few years, I know the places he talks about really well. That said, the ending of Eyrie is crap – and this isn’t the first Winton novel someone’s said that about.

Unlike Eyrie, neither Burial Rites nor Shantaram, although written by Australians, are set in Australia; Burial Rites doesn’t have a single Aussie character – perhaps the Aussie expat scene of the 1820’s in the North of Iceland was a bit on the quiet side. Kent’s evocative historical novel is an enjoyable and easy read about some murders she learned about when she visited Iceland on a school exchange. When I was in Mumbai in August with a trade delegation most of the functions were at the Taj Mahal Hotel and during breaks we visited places like Leopold’s Café for a coffee or a snack; everywhere I went I kept hearing about this novel by an Australian guy that was set within the same vicinity with scenes transpiring in both of these places, people kept saying “here’s where Lin did this, here’s where Lin did that”, so I bought a copy and it was a real page-turner. It’s a based-on-a-true-story-type-of-novel about a prison escapee who flees Australia and finds refuge within the slums and criminal underworld of Mumbai. Sooner or later an American conglomerate will surely make a film adaptation, but to me it’s an Australian story and why we haven’t brought it to the big screen already is a mystery to me!

Novels set in other times and places

The God of Small Things – Arundhati Roy

Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden

I’ve never claimed to be an up-to-date reader and both The God of Small Things and Memoirs of a Geisha were published in 1997. Set in Ayemenem, these days part of Kottayam district in Kerala in India, The God of Small Things won the Booker Prize in the year of its release and spans three decades and several family generations. Some of the writing is to die for, bringing vividly to life some incredibly moving moments. A moving tale too is Memoirs of a Geisha which transports you to the Geisha scene of Kyoto in the days of World War II and the years that followed. After it was released the novelist was sued by the Geisha he interviewed, starting a non-fiction sequel almost as interesting as the novel.

Godawful books!

Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand

The Kindness of Women – JG Ballard

Atlas Shrugged is so long it took up a good amount of time in 2015 that I could’ve devoted to reading better novels. That’s not to say that I didn’t find some aspects of it interesting and challenging. I’ve heard many people say that one should readAtlas Shrugged because whilst it was written in the 1950’s it tells the story about what is happening in society today. Having also recently read the Chang/Halliday biography of Mao Tse Tung, I felt that Rand writes a good analogy of what the USA might become like if it were to become a communist nation. This is something Rand knows about having fled communist Russia in the 1920’s. Having read the novel now, I’m not sure if those who say it relates to today are suggesting that the world is being taken over by commies or by the interests of industrialists! I got The Kindness of Women for free with my copy of The Empire of the Sun so I read it; I grew tired years ago of autobiographical works whereby the author is so sophisticated and cultured that women just can’t keep their clothes on when in his vicinity, so just found this one a big old yawn.

What about you?

So there we have it.

In no particular order the books that I enjoyed most in 2015 were:

  • I’m not a racist but…
  • How to Make Gravy
  • Diary of a Foreign Minister
  • The March of Folly
  • The Secrets of Culture
  • John Adams
  • Open – Andre Agassi
  • Half of a Yellow Sun
  • Shantaram
  • The God of Small Things

What about you? Have you read any of these? What do you recommend? Let’s chat in the comments section below!

You can click here to read more of my posts about books and reading.

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