As we approach Christmas, we offer selections from Lowy Institute staff and Interpreter contributors for the best book they have read this year.
Unreliable Memoirs, by Clive James. Selected by Michael Fullilove, Executive Director of the Lowy Institute.
I had great fun this year reading – for the first time, to my shame – Clive James' minor classic Unreliable Memoirs.
For once, a cover blurb turned out to be entirely accurate. 'Do not read this book in public,' warned The Sunday Times. 'You will risk severe internal injuries from trying to suppress your laughter.' I tried my luck on the bus and nearly required assistance from my fellow commuters.
This autobiography about growing up in the post-war suburbs of Sydney is excruciatingly funny. Even as I write, I laugh at the thought of the dunny man and his blowfly Durbar. But each chapter is also illuminated by points of clarity and wisdom. The sublime closing lines – cited repeatedly in Brilliant Creatures, Howard Jacobson's love letter to James, Germaine Greer, Barry Humphries and Bob Hughes – speak to anyone who has ever joined the Australian diaspora:
As I begin this last paragraph, outside my window a misty afternoon drizzle gently but inexorably soaks the City of London. Down there in the street I can see umbrellas commiserating with each other. In Sydney Harbour, twelve thousand miles away and ten hours from now, the yachts will be racing on the crushed diamond water under a sky the texture of powdered sapphires. It would be churlish not to concede that the same abundance of natural blessings which gave us the energy to leave has every right to call us back...Pulsing like a beacon through the days and nights, the birthplace of the fortunate sends out its invisible waves of recollection. It always has and it always will, until even the last of us come home.
Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, by Eri Hotta and A Spy Among Friends, by Ben Macintyre. Selected by Allan Gyngell, Visiting Fellow at the National Security College, ANU, and former Executive Director of the Lowy Institute.
The image of that painful grip-and-grimace between Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe at the APEC meeting in Beijing was a reminder of the way history continues to haunt Asian security. Eri Hotta's Japan 1941: Countdown to Infamy, throws a sobering light on part of that history. Drawing widely on Japanese sources, Hotta traces the 'calamitous political misjudgements' which caused Japanese leaders to take their country into a war which almost all of them, from the Emperor downwards, knew was likely to end in disaster. The consequences are with us still.
And for summer reading, grab Ben Macintyre's A Spy Among Friends, a sharply paced, smartly written and frequently jaw-dropping account of Kim Philby's treachery in the context of his friends and class. In their different ways, Macintyre and Hotta each reminds us of the dangerous capacity of policy establishments that turn blind eyes to the obvious.
Men at War: What Fiction Tells Us About Conflict, From the Iliad to Catch-22, by Christopher Coker. Selected by Andrew Selth, Adjunct Associate Professor at the Griffith Asia Institute and a regular Interpreter contributor.
To take a break from Burma-watching earlier this year I picked up Men At War, by Christopher Coker, Professor of International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.
It is a closely argued investigation of what fiction can tell us about the nature of conflict, as revealed by studies of warriors, heroes, villains, survivors and victims. Coker's subjects range from Homer's Achilles through Conan Doyle's Brigadier Gerard and Stanley Kubrick's Dr Strangelove, to George McDonald Fraser's Harry Flashman and Evelyn Waugh's Guy Crouchback. Others may not be as familiar (think Tolstoy's Hadji Murat or Balzac's Colonel Chabert), but they are no less interesting.
Despite occasional excursions into what might be considered 'pure' literary criticism, Coker's book is informative, insightful and entertaining. Not surprisingly, he concludes that 'War as a mystery will continue to escape full understanding and the characters who play their parts are deeply ambiguous for that reason'.