Appearing in Australian Spectator, 22 December 2017
Best books of 2017
When we look back at 2017 we will probably remember it as a year of minor issues that turned into major crises, peculiar utterances from odd people, and opportunities that were not so much missed as foolishly fumbled. Throughout all this there were some good books across a range of subjects.
One of the most interesting was Minding Her Own Business: Colonial Businesswomen in Sydney by Catherine Bishop (published by NewSouth). Delving deep into primary sources, Bishop examines the critical role played in women in the fledgling colony, as they established and ran enterprises as varied as schools and pubs. Even though it was legally difficult for women to hold property they often found ways around the rules. The authorities, aware of how much the colony needed entrepreneurs, usually looked the other way. Bishop provides plenty of fascinating stories as well as a chapter on ‘colourful’ characters. It adds up to an entertaining and insightful account, and it is no surprise that the book won the prestigious Ashurst Business Literature Prize.
Unlike Bishop, David Hunt makes little claim to be historically reliable in True Girt (Black Inc), a follow-up to the equally satirical Girt. It covers the era of bearded bushrangers and hardy pioneers, such as John Horrocks, an explorer who was, apparently, shot dead by a bad-tempered camel called Harry. It is hard to tell what is real and what Hunt has made up, but it is a good romp and reminds us that, important as history is, it should not always be taken too seriously.
Taking the vein of cultural larrikinism in another direction is Trigger Warning: Deplorable Cartoons by Bill Leak (Wilkinson). It brings together many of his cartoons from 2016, illustrating how the pomposity of the professional whingers of the Left could be punctured by a deft pen. But Leak was an equal-opportunity offender, and he was entirely happy to make fun of anyone who deserved it (ie, pretty well everyone in politics). It also required real courage to portray crazy jihadists, union thugs and nut-job bureaucrats as what they are – a quality not seen often enough. He leaves a legacy, and he will be missed. A good companion is The Bleak Picture (HarperCollins), the complete story of Leak’s 23 years at The Australian. There are interviews with some of his victims, including Philip Ruddock, Tony Abbott, and Alexander Downer (who generally took things in the spirit in which they were intended), and essays by some of Leak’s colleagues in the media. He leaves a legacy, and he will be missed.
Several of Leak’s cartoons deal with Pauline Hanson, who he depicted as one of the big winners of 2016. Anna Broinowski, in Please Explain: The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Pauline Hanson (Viking), agrees. The book is based on Broinowski’s SBS documentary and it has similar strengths and weaknesses. When most of the commentariat are happy to abuse Hanson from their comfy chairs Broinowski got up close and personal, following Hanson on the campaign trail and doing her best to understand her strange path through the political landscape. Broinowski also realises that a significant chunk of the national electorate feels disenfranchised, ignored, and even abused, and Hanson provides a genuine connection. The book is on less firm ground when Broinowski tries to tie Hanson, Trump and Brexit together; there is a sense that she is stretching metaphors. Nevertheless, Hanson looks like she is here to stay, and Please Explain is a good attempt at finding out why.
Finding the centre of Australia is a tricky undertaking but Scott Bevan believes that is on the edge: specifically, Sydney Harbour. In The Harbour (Simon & Schuster) he argues that as the birthplace of white settlement in Australia it has a special place in our collective consciousness. He delves into the history, examining the impact of the harbour on the city’s social development. Bevan, who has written extensively about art, also looks at it as an inspiration for painters and writers. True, on a good day the harbour has a sparkling, translucent quality, and it is no surprise that a view of it bumps up real estate prices by astronomical amounts. Bevan believes in hands-on history, and he makes a point of exploring it by ferry, barge, yacht, and kayak. He finds some odd nooks and crannies, and plenty of colourful characters as well. There are times when he overdoes the ‘true Australia’ angle – plenty of non-Sydneysiders would dispute the claim – but nevertheless The Harbour is a remarkable piece of work.
A book which has been the subject of dispute is No Front Line: Australia’s Special Forces in Afghanistan (Allen & Unwin) by Chris Masters. The result of many years of research, including lengthy periods of ‘embedding’ with the elite troops, Masters is at his best when explaining how soldiers dealt with the ambiguity of the conflict in Afghanistan. Given that the Special Forces are a tightly-knit band of brothers, it is astonishing that Masters got so close to them. Masters was required to clear the final draft of the book with the ADF but there is no sense of this being a sanitised, ‘official’ history. The controversy around the book was due to claims of mis-representation by VC-winner Ben Roberts-Smith, over the killing of an Afghan civilian who, while unarmed, was a likely spotter for insurgent snipers. Accounts vary, and if anything the incident underlines the difficulty of battlefield decisions. But this incident is only a small part of a large book, and should not be seen as something to disparage Masters’ achievement.
Compared to Masters magisterial tome, Leigh Sales’ essay On Doubt (Melbourne University Press) is a small piece of work, although not short on insights. Part of the MUP Big Themes series, the essay itself was first published several years ago; the value in this re-release is a lengthy addendum that Sales provides to take account of the growth of social media as a central driver of news, both real and fake. She has become increasingly sceptical of social media over the past few years as it has become less of a way to discuss ideas and more likely to be an echo chamber of extremism and a vehicle to shout down anyone of a different view. The role of the journalist, she says, is not to advocate one cause or another (whatever one’s private feelings might be) but to investigate and question, looking for the truth behind the PR. She readily admits that this is difficult to do but the point is that it must be attempted. Given the prestige attached to Sales’ position and seniority, it might be hoped that On Doubt will be read and digested by her colleagues in the media. But this reviewer, for one, is not holding his breath waiting for it.
The obsessive, pack-driven mentality of the media is a crucial point in of one of the best novels of the year, An Isolated Incident by Emily Maguire (Picador). The incident is the murder of a young woman in a country town, sparking a police investigation and a journalistic obsession with the pretty-dead-girl-of-the-hour. The story is told from revolving perspectives, the key one being that of Chris, the older sister of the victim and barmaid of the local pub. Anyone wanting a resolved, happy ending will not find it here, but Maguire has a gift for complex characterisation and an ear for dialogue. Despite the dark subject matter and the gruelling course of the narrative there are surprisingly beautiful passages in the book, lifting it out of the hackneyed crime genre.
Another outstanding novel is Josephine Wilson’s Extinctions (University of Western Australia Publishing), winner of the 2017 Miles Franklin Award. It revolves around a retired engineer, Professor Frederick Lothian, as he tries to make sense of his life, and that of his late wife’s life, through the objects that have accrued around him. It is not an easy process but eventually he begins to see beyond the secrets and lies, and moves towards acceptance of the past and re-engagement with the world. A series of odd events pushes him closer to his neighbour Jan, a practical woman who ends up as a balance for Fred’s own focus on theory. It would be easy to say that little actually happens in the novel, but it is about people, how they grow, how they look back, and how they find redemption. So in that sense, everything happens, underscored by Wilson’s lyrical, careful prose.
Incorrigible Optimist: A Political Memoir (Random) shows Gareth Evans at both his best and worst. He is most often remembered as a minister in the Hawke-Keating governments but in fact much of this book deals with his subsequent work with the UN and a range of other international bodies. He is certainly a man of quick, organised intelligence and great energy, and he has a knack for cutting through bureaucratic obfuscation and meandering. He loves to file things, which turned out to be a useful habit when recounting the details of critical meetings. Yes, a smart fellow, but sometimes he seems to be overly impressed with himself. Saying that Australia should engage more with Asia, or that China is a rising power, or that Trump cares little for international rules and agencies is not exactly breaking new ground, although he seems to think he is making remarkable discoveries. Well, Evans does put the view that a streak of megalomania is necessary for anyone who wants to achieve anything.
This reviewer had a difficult time deciding on the winner of the Trees Are Dying For This award, for the most unnecessary book of the year; there were many strong contenders. One of the best was an overseas entrant, Hillary Clinton’s book What Happened (Simon & Schuster). It purports to be about the 2016 presidential election campaign but she continually wanders off the point to remind you that she was, and still is, the best qualified, the smartest, the most experienced, the … you get the picture. You finish this rather lengthy book with the feeling that Hillary thought the election campaign was an extended policy debate when it was really a revolution looking for a place to happen. The book should have been titled What Happened!? For a better account of how Hillary lost, readers might look at Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign (Crown) by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes.
But in the end the TADFT gong went to Making Modern Australia: The Whitlam Government’s 21st Century Agenda (Monash University Press), a book of academic essays edited by Jenny Hocking (who has made a pretty good career out of Gough, with a two-volume biography). The basic tenet is that the priorities of the Whitlam government laid the foundation for everything – at least, everything good – that followed, up to now. There are some heavyweight contributors but it seems that no-one stopped to think that the idea was just, well, silly. The Whitlam era was more than four decades ago, so get over it, guys. As much as anything, the book shows that some people have just got way too much time on their hands.
For Professor Hocking, a certificate awaits your collection. It is printed, very cheaply, on recycled paper.