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Category Archives: Best read of 2008

Best reads of 2008

I notice I began the “best read of 2008” category this time last year, so anything from now will be a “best read of 2009” – and I do have one lined up. But today, in order of time from 26 December 2007, here are my 2008 choices. They aren’t always the latest books, as my choice is determined by Surry Hills Library and by what I may from time to time get at a bargain bookshop. Go to the linked posts for details.

1. Travis Holland, "The Archivist’s Story" (Bloomsbury 2007). Fiction.

2. Brian Leung, “Lost Men”. Fiction.

3. Conservative but informative and very entertaining: James Franklin on "Corrupting the Youth". Nonfiction.

4. Anita Brookner, “Latecomers”. Fiction.

5. Frank Welsh’s Great Southern Land: A New History of Australia. See also here and here. Nonfiction.

6. Anne Holt, “The Final Murder”. Fiction.

7. Gregg Hurwitz, “The Crime Writer”. Fiction.

8. Like a benign psychotic episode: East/West imagination in "Kafka on the Shore" (2005) – Haruki Murukami. Fiction.

9. When a blog is good enough to be a book – Riverbend’s “Baghdad Burning”. Nonfiction.

10. Denise Mina and “Tartan Noir” — “The Last Breath”. Fiction.

11. Sharp yet gentle satire in McCall Smith’s parochial epic: "The World according to Bertie". Fiction. See also here.

12. I like Norman Davies – essays “Europe East & West”. Nonfiction.

13. James Lovelock, “The Revenge of Gaia”. Nonfiction.

14. Anna Kavan, “Guilty”. Fiction.

15. David Day, “Conquest: A New History of the Modern World”. Nonfiction.

16. Let the Right One In, John Ajvide Lindqvist. Fiction.

17. A Life of Unlearning — a journey to find the truth — the book – Anthony Venn-Brown. Nonfiction.

18. ::: Alexander McCall Smith ::: “The Careful Use of Compliments”. Fiction.

19. Believe Me, It’s Torture: Politics & Power: Hitchens – an essay online. Nonfiction.

20. George Monbiot, “Heat”. Nonfiction.

21. River of Heaven by Lee Martin – Random House 2008. Fiction.

22. Rich Merritt, “Code of Conduct”. Fiction.

23. The Sourcebooks Shakespeare series.

24. John Dominic Crossan, “God & Empire”. Nonfiction.

25. Unheroic, super-intelligent gay fiction: Samuel R Delany’s "Dark Reflections". Fiction.

26. One of 2008’s top reads: Tom Perrotta “The Abstinence Teacher”. Fiction

27. Last episode of SBS’s “First Australians” and a must see anthology — the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature.

28. Adrian Murdoch, “The Last Pagan: Julian the Apostate”. Nonfiction.

29. But I have been reading comics… – Mike Dawson, “Freddie & Me”. Fiction.

30. Lawrence Potter, “This Book May Help You Understand the World”. Nonfiction.

31. My last Top Read of 2008: Damian Thompson, “Counterknowledge” (Atlantic Books 2008). Nonfiction.

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Posted by on December 26, 2008 in 2008 in review, Best read of 2008, book reviews, reading, Top read

 

My last Top Read of 2008: Damian Thompson, “Counterknowledge” (Atlantic Books 2008)

0801-Grayling My reading these days comes from two main sources: Surry Hills Library or the bargain basement bookshops. I am after all a pensioner. Naturally, this does impact on my “Top Read” choices, but has not prevented my finding quite a few in the past twelve months. I will be listing them in another post later on, but you can also check the tag.

So the latest came via the bargain bookshop, $12.95 instead of $35 for the hardback.

I recommend Counterknowledge with two reservations.

The first is encapsulated in this otherwise very favourable review by British philosopher A C Grayling (no relation to a blogger some of us know) in New Humanist.

…The sentences that need to be added to this otherwise superb crusade against despoliation of truth and reason concern what harsh critics would, I am sure wrongly and unfairly, call a sleight-of-hand by Thomson, given that when he is not debunking counterknowledge he is none-too-indirectly associated with one of its most egregious forms by being the editor of the Catholic Herald. Early in his book he says that religion “does not fit neatly into the category of counterknowledge” because its claims are not about the material world and cannot be tested empirically. And he leaves it there; protected, you might say, behind the wholly admirable pyrotechnics of his assault on “misinformation masquerading as fact” to be found elsewhere.

This, I am afraid, will not do. As already suggested, the most persistent and influential forms of counterknowledge, including many false claims about the origin and nature of the universe, what it contains and what it is influenced by, which heavenly bodies go round which, what can be effected by prayer or the laying on of hands, and so vastly on, are the religions. Thomson rightly criticises the fact that the British state supports five homeopathic hospitals and pays for six degree courses in homeopathy, but says nothing about tax-funding of faith-based schools – not a few teaching creationism. He quotes Popper on falsifiability as the test of a genuine knowledge claim, but does not mention Popper’s correlative stricture, that “a theory which explains everything explains nothing”, as a direct refutation of the meaningfulness of religious claims.

He grants that religion becomes counterknowledge when it is controverted by the evidence of our senses, but does not admit that all religion is therefore so. He does not address the point that when factual information is lacking with respect to some claim – as is standardly the case with the major tenets of religion – constraints of rationality come into play…

Even so, Grayling says: “This excellent little book, if supplemented by a single brief sentence – a draft of which I offer below – should be put in the satchel of every secondary school child, in the departmental pigeonhole of every undergraduate…”

The second reservation I have is that there are times Thompson seems to me to be too Eurocentric, or a little too quick to label something as “counterknowledge” simply because it does not quite fit with his version of Enlightenment philosophy. I am sure you will see something paradoxical there in my two reservations!

I would go further than Thompson by quite happily regarding the Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke as pseudohistory, in which I am no different from many mainstream theologians. (You may get a post on that before Yuletide!) On the other hand, I would not be quite as dismissive as he is about Chinese Traditional Medicine.

I would also express some reservation about the use to which his generally perfectly correct criticisms of much thought in the Muslim world might be put by the likes of Daniel Pipes or Melanie Phillips, but then I am rather more of a cultural relativist than Thompson is.

That aside, the book is very stimulating and very useful. The chapter on Intelligent Design/Creationism is quite brilliant.

You don’t even need the book, really, though I do recommend it, partly out of a continuing belief that the reading of actual words on paper does have some advantages over absorbing matter from a screen – some of the disadvantages of which are actually made clear in the book! Nonetheless, the book was simultaneously published with its website, which is very comprehensive and also stimulating. Most of the people it will infuriate are people you really wouldn’t want to know anyway!

See Counterknowledge.com.

 
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Posted by on December 12, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, challenge, culture wars, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, historiography, History, Top read

 

Book notes and footnotes

sat29 On the right you will see a small stack of (bargain!) books, two that I have referred to just lately, and one that I am about to review.

The new book

LawrencePotter Lawrence Potter (left) has inadvertently led me to a very good book blog via This May Help You Understand the World by Lawrence Potter. As that entry says:

In a confusing universe, it’s reassuring to find that it isn’t only you who doesn’t grasp the intricacies – or even the basics – of the world’s problems. We probably all feel that at some instinctive level we understand most of the big issues, but the truth is – certainly as far as I’m concerned anyway – that we couldn’t even begin to explain the difference between Shia and Sunni Muslims (and why it matters) or the US electoral system, or the Weapons of Mass Destruction controversy, or why the Palestinians are fighting each other or even why organic bananas are so much better for everyone, not just you.

In fact, I suspect that the number of people who could get any further in their explanation than “Err … well …” would be tiny.

Those are just some of the topics covered in this excellent and well-timed book…

I concur! The first entry is on jihad

Potter is very thorough and up-to-date (as of early 2007 of course). Other topics include: Israel/Palestine, US elections, world trade, climate change, Darfur, Russia, nuclear proliferation, and China. On China, about which I know a bit, I find it very well informed. Back to the review:

Considering what a comparatively slim volume it is, the amount of information in it is amazing, and it’s just so pleasing to be able to listen to a news broadcast or read a paper and actually have a reasonably clear idea of what they’re talking about. In fact, smugness is in danger of setting in …

Oh … and Mr Potter also tackles the thorny question of whether George W Bush really IS stupid.

The answer may surprise you.

And any author who looks like that has to be credible. 🙂

Seriously, this is an excellent and very readable book. He avoids pomposity and excessive predictability or overdone PC. Not a bad achievement, eh! It’s another Best Read of 2008.

Footnotes

Well, that horrible set of events in Mumbai continues to distress and perplex, doesn’t it? In my post Some thoughts on Mumbai I ventured some background gathered from good sources, but the plot really is thickening, isn’t it? Trouble is there are so many vested interests at play here it is hard to know what is most likely. There can be no doubt none of it bodes well.

In today’s Australian one letter writer expresses quite a common view, which would seem to have much in common with what I tried to say in Dark energy, God and humility, which in a way is also about Mumbai…

IT’S all too easy to see the current terrorism in Mumbai as the work of an insane minority. These men are not deranged. They are intelligent and psychiatrically normal men who just happen to believe literally the words of their silly and dangerous religious books.

Both the Koran and the Old Testament frequently advocate violence towards those of differing religious beliefs. Most people, perhaps influenced by secular humanism, instinctively do not take these “silly bits” literally. Unfortunately, a minority of the devout can’t make a distinction.

Until the major world religions, be they Muslim or Christian, are prepared to “clean up” their violent and often murderous literature, they deserve to be proscribed just like any other terrorist group.

David Phillips
Southport, Qld

As John Dominic Crossan says in God & Empire, however, it is not quite as David Phillips and many others portray it. If one considers a dual portrait of God as a God of Violence and/or a God of Love:

It is positively, absolutely not that one solution is found exclusively in the Old Testament and/or the Jewish tradition while another is found exclusively in the New Testament and/or the Christian tradition. It is not ecumenical courtesy, political correctness, or post-Holocaust sensitivity but simply biblical and historical accuracy to insist that both solutions run side by side, and often in the same books, from one end of the biblical tradition to the other. They are asserted relentlessly as the twin tracks of the Divine Express…

He’s quite right, an assertion I base on having read the Bible and Apocrypha from one end to the other, not cherry-picking as I went, and much the same can be said for the Qur’an, a substantial amount of which I have also read. (Few books are more bloodthirsty than The Apocalypse of John, after all.) It is what you do with this that matters. Crossan comes up with one solution, which I am not sure works, but at least leads to a rather healthy analysis of life and politics… I can’t help thinking, though, that the life-time study of the biblical traditions and the Ancient Near East/Greek World/Roman World has led to an only too understandable cultural myopia… We’ve all been there. What he knows he knows in depth and explains very illuminatingly, however. Can’t see fundamentalists liking it one little bit.

I make a case in that “Dark energy” post for quite a radical rethink by believers of their sacred scriptures, one that is not I have to say original to me. At the same time there are those not willing to be quite so radical who can still be perfectly harmless, even desirable, as neighbours and fellow-citizens, even if they regard me with suspicion and I regard them as being a bit cracked. Only through such benign tolerance do any of us have much hope, after all. We don’t have to be right, you know…

And the excellent blog I found…

… It’s Vulpes Libris (The Book Foxes). Have a look.

On Mumbai

This is pretty impressive: Terror in IndiaDileep Premachandran. (ABC Unleashed)

 
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Posted by on November 29, 2008 in Best read of 2008, Bible, Christianity, current affairs, events, faith and philosophy, humanity, interfaith, Islam, other blogs, reading, religion, South Asian, terrorism

 

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But I have been reading comics…

… or rather a “graphic novel”. Now I have long since got over snobbery about this format, even since Maus and its sequels. That old “quality” thing can be found here as much as anywhere else. Yesterday I borrowed Freddie & Me (2008) by UK-born (1975!) artist-writer Mike Dawson, now in the USA. I have finished it already and will read it again, so delightful I found it. To quote the review linked to the book title:

Mike Dawson’s graphic memoir, FREDDIE & ME, is structured after the Queen song "Bohemian Rhapsody", and his approach to comics bears a lot of resemblance to his favorite band in more than just that overarching structure. Like Queen, Dawson’s debut long-form work is ambitious, bombastic, all-over-the-place, larger-than-life, quirky, clever, self-indulgent and ultimately irresistible…

That said, FREDDIE AND ME isn’t about Queen. We learn almost nothing about the band that wasn’t common knowledge, nor is Dawson really interested in pursuing that line of inquiry. Instead, it’s a book about memory mediated through a common reference point. The story’s central conceit is that every significant memory of Dawson’s is connected somehow to Queen. The reality is that this connection, as he notes in the end, Dawson created those connections, perhaps in part as an anchor for the memories that were most important to him. For Dawson, memory and identity are one and the same, and the loss of the former leads to the loss of the latter, and loss of identity is oblivion.

The sequence about one-third in about memory is really quite haunting; it certainly hooked me.

The style? Here, if Mike Dawson will forgive the appropriation, is one small example:

 fre2

I do commend this, so much that I am adding it to my Best Reads of 2008.

You may read more here.

A good supplementary text for anyone doing the NSW HSC’s “Belonging” module too, I would have thought…

 
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Posted by on November 22, 2008 in America, Best read of 2008, book reviews, humanity, humour, reading, Scottish, USA, writers, writing

 

Three from Surry Hills Library

A varied set this in quality as well as genre and subject. One of them is so bad I couldn’t be bothered finishing it, though I did skip forward to check what happened. One is above average but not great in its field, which is not to say it doesn’t have quite a few strengths. One is quite fascinating and very well researched and well written, so much so that I place it in my Best Reads of 2008. Can you guess which is which?

tue11

Read the rest of this entry »

 
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Posted by on November 13, 2008 in Best read of 2008, book reviews, Crime and/or crime fiction, History, reading

 

Last episode of SBS’s “First Australians” and a must see anthology

Last night The First Australians dealt with Mabo. I will confine myself to a positive note, having already blogged this very significant contribution to understanding the past of all of us in Australia. I thought I knew this episode’s material rather well, having read much about it at the time, but there is always something to learn. Last night I learned a great deal more about the particular culture Mabo belonged to, and I learned a great deal more about the man. All honour too to those elements of the Catholic Church that played such a vital role at that time, and continue to do so.

Nice to see that crowd of Indigenous Australians in Sydney in 1988 when many thousands from all over Australia descended on the city for the Bicentennial. I was in that crowd.

wb

a memory of 1988

bookcover-sml An ideal companion to The First Australians is the recently published Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature edited by Anita Heiss and Peter Minter, with a preface by novelist Nicholas Jose. Check the link, as the site offers many extras.

A groundbreaking collection of work from some of the great Australian Aboriginal writers, the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Aboriginal Literature offers a rich panorama of over 200 years of Aboriginal culture, history and life.

‘This volume is extremely significant from an Indigenous cultural perspective, containing many works that afford the reader a treasured insight into the Indigenous cultural world of Australia.’  From the foreword by Mick Dodson

The cover picture is by Michael Riley, whose art I celebrated in August: Michael Riley: sights unseen.

In the preface Nicholas Jose writes:

This transformative survey of Aboriginal writing presents the stories and patterns of Australian culture and societies in new ways, foregrounding and celebrating Indigenous experience and expression. It introduces powerful and creative individual voices as it also reveals a history of struggle, suffering and strength. No doubt there are gaps and limitations. There are always more voices to be heard and other stories to be told. Yet in their gathering of literature the editors show that Aboriginal authors have created some of the best, most distinctive and most significant writing to come from this country.

That may seem hyperbolic, but to read this anthology is to be convinced of the truth of that, and to be encouraged that there is more to come.

I was taken with a final statement from the late Eddie Mabo, as reported in last night’s First Australians: the momentous events of the Mabo era not only set free Indigenous Australia, but also non-Indigenous Australia, because after that none of us ever again would be living a lie about who we are. That, I suspect, is the true spirit of reconciliation. Despite all the ups and downs of the last twenty years, despite all the problems that remain, that is, I believe, where we find ourselves and where we may find solutions for all of us.

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2008 in Australia, Australia and Australian, Best read of 2008, challenge, generational change, History, Indigenous Australians, OzLit, reading, Reconciliation, Top read

 

One of 2008’s top reads: Tom Perrotta “The Abstinence Teacher”

abstinence_teacher_jacket I borrowed Tom Perrotta, The Abstinence Teacher (NY St Martin’s Press 2007) on spec from Surry Hills Library and have found it a delight, but more than that – aside from perhaps being a bit didactic. It is comedy of manners 21st century suburban US style rather than satire. It isn’t cruel enough to be satire. (I have in mind there, for example, Evelyn Waugh’s classic The Loved One, which really is rather bitter and supercilious, though laugh-out-loud funny.) There are very funny moments in The Abstinence Teacher, but the humour is more often wry and kindly. Even so, the novel exposes utterly the mindlessness that is fundamentalist moral thinking, especially but not only in the area of sexuality. It is also quite a frightening expose of the curriculum programs proposed by the Religious Right, showing that to regard such programs as “education” is a travesty.

On his own site Tom Perrotta describes the novel:

Stonewood Heights is the perfect place to raise kids. It’s got the proverbial good schools, solid values and a healthy real estate market. It’s the kind of place where parents are involved in their children’s lives, where no opportunity for enrichment goes unexplored.

Ruth Ramsey is the human sexuality teacher at the local high school. She believes that "pleasure is good, shame is bad, and knowledge is power." Ruth’s younger daughter’s soccer coach is Tim Mason, a former stoner and rocker whose response to hitting rock bottom was to reach out and be saved. Tim belongs to The Tabernacle, an evangelical Christian church that doesn’t approve of Ruth’s style of teaching. And Ruth in turn doesn’t applaud The Tabernacle’s mission to take its message outside its doors.

Adversaries in a small-town culture war, Ruth and Tim instinctively mistrust each other. But when a controversy on the soccer field pushes the two of them to actually talk to each other, they are forced to take each other at something other than face value.

The Abstinence Teacher exposes the powerful emotions that run beneath the surface of modern American family life and explores the complex spiritual and sexual lives of ordinary people.

Yes there are soccer moms (and dads), and a wonderfully drawn gay couple… I would seriously suggest Christians read this one; they may think again afterwards – at least I hope so. The book just may prove subversive in the benign way good literature often is. If you are not a religious person you will enjoy it anyway, so long as you don’t mind a book that is really quite suburban, but better and more believable than soap opera; many of your fears about the Religious Right in America will be confirmed as you read, but you may find yourself empathising more with people you might not otherwise consider… That can’t be bad.

This is a very wise, and often funny, novel.

 
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Posted by on October 24, 2008 in America, Best read of 2008, book reviews, Christianity, culture wars, education, faith, faith and philosophy, fundamentalism and extremism, Gay and Lesbian, gay issues, pluralism, reading, religion, right wing politics, Top read, USA