Perhaps I’ve just spent too much time in pubs, but I found Shirley Fitzgerald’s completely unpretentious but utterly engaging book, Terminus: The Pub That Sydney Forgot, to be one of the gems of Australian history in 2018. Fitzgerald is among Australia’s finest social and urban historians. For many years the City of Sydney’s historian, she has done so much to help us see that city in all its richness, complexity and diversity. Here, she turns her attention to a single street corner in Pyrmont and the hotel built on it, the Terminus. My PhD supervisor, F.B. Smith, liked to assure his students that there was no such thing as a small history, only small historians: this book proves that case conclusively. Fitzgerald uses the history of a Sydney pub to explore some of the big themes in social and urban history: politics, law, leisure, sociability — and, of course, drinking’s place in the mix. It’s a brilliant and vivid way to explore the changing fortunes of a working-class community through depression, war, industrialisation and deindustrialisation, as well as the reinvention of the inner city as a place of heritage, tourism and hipsterdom. I was reminded of just how fortunate we are in this country in terms of our archival record, for this is a richly documented history, yet it also has the enviable lightness of touch of a superb historian with long experience of writing histories for the general public.
The book that took me by surprise this year was One Hundred Years of Dirt by Rick Morton, who is among other things the social affairs writer at the Australian. This is a memoir and a collection of essays, but much more than that. It is both broadly and deeply political, without a syllable of lazy thinking or labelling. It deals among many other things with sexuality, but at the same time serves as an overdue reminder that class remains a defining component of identity. It is funny and tragic, often in the same sentence. Perhaps most importantly of all, it is written with clarity and beauty. This is an amazing debut by a man with a tough mind and a good heart, and I can’t wait for his next book.
Democracy everywhere is in crisis, and 2018 has seen a dramatic upsurge in books on the subject. Among the most perceptive is Yascha Mounk’s The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. Although written from a post-Trump American perspective, its acute analysis is applicable to the worldwide malaise in which contemporary democracy finds itself mired. According to Mounk, the two key components of liberal democracy — individual rights and the popular will — are in conflict, under mounting siege from technology, populism, nationalism, economics and the politics of identity. Illustrated by examples and illuminated by original research, Mounk’s book identifies three key drivers of voters’ discontent: stagnating living standards, fear of multiethnic democracy, and the rise of social media. To reverse the trend, he outlines a series of radical reforms that would benefit the many, not the few.
Maria Tumarkin’s extraordinary Axiomatic received the Melbourne Prize for Best Writing recently, but as the author told the awards ceremony crowd, “I am forty-four, very pregnant and this is the first thing I’ve ever won in my life.” The fact that this shape-shifting, truly experimental work has only notched up the one prize thus far renders it criminally undervalued in light of how exhilarating it is to read. This is the fourth work of non-fiction by Maria Tumarkin, for whom the sub-genre of creative non-fiction could have been coined, but it’s the first to really retain her unique voice. Brow Books has been brave enough to give Tumarkin the freedom to play, and the reader is all the more challenged and richer for it. This is the kind of writing that makes you catch your breath mid-sentence and perhaps scribble a few lines down or take a photo of the page. Tumarkin writes about age-old concepts like the passage of time with a freshness and a clarity that provide beautiful flashes of recognition and insight for the reader. And she’s funny. We’re even treated to her own internal monologue as she attempts to write around and through things. This could tip into the annoying, but it doesn’t; it’s endearing and ultimately utterly inspiring. The Melbourne Prize might be the first of many gongs for this book — an essential voice like Tumarkin’s deserves to be heaped with praise.
My most joyful moment of reading in 2018 came when I reached the punchline of Selina Tusitala Marsh’s witty and incisive memoir, “Postcolonial Talkback,” when the self-styled “fast-talking PI” (Pacific Islander) encounters the droll and not-dead-yet Duke of Edinburgh at a reception. I won’t spoil her cleverly set-up joke, but their exchange caps off her antipodean assault on London as official poet for Commonwealth Day in 2016. As the Samoan author explains of the Queen, “her peeps colonised my peeps.” Alongside this memoir, published in Griffith Review 59, Commonwealth Now, stand at least half a dozen other compelling contributions on this important but overlooked international theme, including by Melissa Lucashenko, Michael Wesley, Shashi Tharoor and David Fettling (“When Chifley Met Nehru”). This magazine continues to hit the high points, edition after edition, and never lets you down. We can be confident the Duke does not subscribe.
When Charlotte and Levi’s mother returns from the dead, Levi resolves to build his sister a coffin. Charlotte, not taking these developments well, decides to leave — and embarks on a journey through the wild Tasmanian landscape. Flames is Robbie Arnott’s first novel, and it is delightful. He jumps playfully between different writing styles in every chapter, telling the story of Charlotte and her brother from the perspective of a different character each time. The hum of the Tasmanian bush is the one constant, providing a familiar backdrop to the surreal events that unfold. In many ways, the story in Flames is very simple. The book’s complexity, depth and beauty come from its delicate exploration of the link between people and their environment. It’s been a tough year; we all need a little escape. And Arnott provides one in this enchanting story that also captures something very real about Tasmanian life.
House prices may finally be falling in Sydney and Melbourne, but housing remains unaffordable for many Australians. Peter Mares’s No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s Housing Crisis sets out the scope of the challenge: homelessness is rising, home ownership is falling, and the gap between housing “haves” and “have nots” is widening. Mares argues powerfully that a society built on the expectation of rising housing wealth is incompatible with one in which all can find affordable housing. I don’t agree with all Mares’s conclusions: he places too much faith in housing tax changes and discounts the prospect that building more housing would make it cheaper. But it’s a valuable book because it simultaneously captures the dire human cost and diabolical policy challenges posed by Australia’s housing crisis.
The early 1970s, a bohemian home in southwest London. Ed a writer-teacher, Ellie a Greek in political exile, on first-name terms with their pre-teens, Daphne the tomboyish elder. An open door, wafting sounds, tree house, freedom’s new age. “Children find their own way. And it’s important to let them,” says Ed. Enter his companion Ralph, a composer in his twenties, back from Balkan song-collecting, sheep dung on his boots. “There was no clear point when the friendship started — Ralph was just around,” recalls Daphne decades later. What had really happened then? Where does it lead now? Daphne’s schoolmate Jane is sure, Daphne sceptical (“You must remember what it was like then?”). All versions are given their due in Sofka Zinovieff’s Putney, a luminous, layered portrayal of a past being turned inside out, and the repercussions. Deft in its time shifts, fleet in its pace, quietly skewering, Putney courses with life, love and insight.
It’s a disservice to call Gideon Haigh’s A Scandal in Bohemia “true crime” because it is much more than that. It is the fascinating story of the unsolved murder of Mollie Dean, a young woman living in 1920s Melbourne, which struggled to accept her wild independence and flamboyant artistic sensibility. Her murder is the focus, but the book is just as much about life in a boom-era city whose cultural and political horizons were broadening with postwar immigration. Radical ideas, discussed in smoky cafes and studios, showed the promise of a modern Australia, but it still offered no place for women like Mollie. It’s a world too far away for most of us to remember but there’s much in it that still resonates. An added bonus is that most of the locations in the book still exist and can easily be visited.
Vicki Laveau-Harvie’s father is the type of old bloke who opts for the easy life by removing the batteries from his hearing aid. There’s only one problem: his wife is starving him to death. When their delusional and manipulative mother goes into hospital, Vicki and her sister seize their chance to bust Dad out of this domestic death row. What could possibly go wrong? Written with an inky black wit and an eye for the absurd, The Erratics is the kind of memoir that will have the middle-aged children of ailing parents laughing, crying and reaching for the second bottle of shiraz.
In Around the World in 80 Trees, Jonathan Drori heads east from Kew Gardens, travelling via Europe, Africa and the Middle East, India, Indonesia, Australia, the Pacific and the Americas. He discusses trees in terms of their histories and mythologies, their medicinal properties and culinary uses, and their roles in the planet’s ecosystems. Did you know that the ants that populate the Whistling Thorns of Kenya can fight goats and win? Or that the Black Walnuts of the eastern United States provided dye for the uniforms of Confederate soldiers, wood for aeroplane propellers in the first world war, and a form of dynamite in the second (apparently you grind the shells and mix the powder with nitroglycerine)? Drori’s book is engagingly written, imaginatively illustrated and rather lavishly presented. It’s also hard to put down.
Barbara Lipska, a neuroscientist who studies the brains of those with mental illness, has written a fascinating book, The Neuroscientist Who Lost Her Mind, about her own experience of and recovery from madness as a result of cancerous tumours growing in her brain. She was the director of the human brain bank at the US National Institute of Mental Health when, as a result of what was eventually discovered to be metastatic melanoma, her brain suddenly went awry. She lost her grasp of reality and suffered symptoms of dementia and schizophrenia, even as she realised what was happening. Eventually, with treatment, her brain began to work normally again, leaving her to delight in this fact but with a very personal experience of the fear, confusion and ordeals experienced by those whose brains she studied.
Management guru Peter Drucker said, famously, that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. If you accept that principle, you would think it important that the accepted measures of economies are sound. Mariana Mazzucato thinks they are not. Bending Oscar Wilde’s definition of a cynic for her title, The Value of Everything, Mazzucato takes aim principally at the outsize role of finance in our estimation of economic performance and argues for a more balanced picture. Most of all, her analysis is an assertion of human preferences and a rebuttal of the notion that economies are giant, inexorable whirring machines that work best with no hand on them. Given that we may be on the cusp of another of those periods of financial calamity, a useful diagnostic. And a great means to mess with the minds of a few economist friends (or investment bankers) over the long, hot summer.
My book of the year was Michael Ignatieff’s Isaiah Berlin: A Life, published in 2000, about the British political philosopher whose work and life managed to articulate a compelling rationale for liberalism in the teeth of the twentieth century’s two great totalitarian movements, Nazism and communism. Berlin saw that a political system based on one overarching idea cannot work for the good, since the contradictions between our goals not only divide us from each other but run within every one of us. He was a brilliant talker and gossip who knew nearly all the major players in mid-twentieth-century British and American politics, a gentle soul who thought himself irredeemably ugly but who was told by Greta Garbo that he had beautiful eyes and who spent one intoxicating night with the Russian dissident poet Anna Akhmatova under the eye of Stalin’s secret police. With the lightest touch, Ignatieff illuminates the thought through the life, and packs it all into 300 pages. Reading it in the shadow of Trump, with resurgent tribalism everywhere, I felt sad that Berlin is already fading from memory. We desperately need him not to be.
James Button is the author of Speechless: A Year in My Father’s Business and Comeback: The Fall and Rise of Geelong.
Scots-born, London-based, prize-winning poet Robin Robertson offers something unusual and unexpected in The Long Take. Inspired by his love of Hollywood noir of the 1940s and 50s, it’s a departure from his poetry collections, which focus for the most part on the natural world or on myths from ancient pasts. Yet if it’s allowed that film too is myth, we might see a connection, a book that’s more extension than departure. The Long Take is an epic poem, a verse novel, interspersed with chunks of heart-wrenching prose, arresting photographs and scorching records of social decay. The central character is Walker, a veteran from Nova Scotia seeking a new life for himself in postwar America. Starting at New York’s Grand Central station he makes his way across the country, to be deposited in a ruthlessly modernising Los Angeles. Although this is apparently the first poetry book to be shortlisted for the Man Booker, it’s hardly a surprise. A novel of raw beauty, hypnotic in its language, with its mood of “numb brutality,” as one critic puts it, this is one of the great takes on America, with lingering resonances for today.
“You want it darker/ We kill the flame,” Leonard Cohen intoned on the album released just weeks before his death, but the flame burns on in The Flame, his posthumous volume of poems, lyrics and sketches. With trademark economy, elegance, symmetry and grace Cohen faithfully observes and records the travails of the self: “No fable here no lesson/ No singing meadowlark/ Just a filthy beggar blessing/ What happens to the heart.” As in 2006’s Book of Longing, Cohen’s words are interspersed with rough drawings, mostly self-portraits, as if Cohen is looking upon his poems, gently mocking them. There’s an element of narcissism here, as in all of Cohen’s work, but also an arresting honesty, a willingness to stare at and speak of what he sees — and keep staring until the reflection starts to blur and the self begins to dissolve. Cohen’s output in his final years was more humble in ambition and narrow in scope than his earlier work, and it may be true, as Tristram Fane Saunders writes, that Cohen’s “best poetry collections are printed on vinyl, not paper,” but The Flame is not just for completists. When a life burnt this bright, there is much to divine from the ashes.
Sometimes the stars line up to pinpoint a book people should read. It happened in the first week of December, when the Economist took aim at “dirty India” and its pressing need to clean up, and Melbourne’s own (well, shared) Ronny Chieng interviewed Bill Gates for The Daily Show about human excrement and the Gates Foundation’s search for the perfect toilet. The book that brings the topics together is Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste by two American researchers, Diane Coffey and Dean Spears. India has had one of the highest rates of open defecation — outdoor pooing, to use the scientific term — in the world. It also has had higher rates of childhood stunting than Bangladesh and countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Coffey and Spears analyse why the seclusion of the dunny has not caught on in India and why random sewage has immense implications for public health. Toilet-building has been a key element in prime minister Narendra Modi’s Clean India (Swachh Bharat) campaign of the last four years. Toilet-using will be the test, as Coffey and Spears argue.
When the writers Charmian Clift and George Johnston arrived on the Greek island of Hydra in 1955, they felt they had broken free from the constraints of a postwar Australia that seemed ever primed to disapprove. On Hydra, wrote Johnston, “nobody was watching us.” He and Clift and their children remained on the island for almost a decade, at the centre of a shifting group of expatriates, fellow writers and people who wanted to be writers, or artists, or something other than what they were expected to be back in their home countries. But wherever you go, someone is watching, and what Paul Genoni and Tanya Dalziell show in Half the Perfect World: Writers, Dreamers and Drifters on Hydra, 1955–1964 is that Clift and Johnston were being watched all the time. The Hydra dockside was “a natural stage,” one where the actors were also the audience, observing one another perform, making notes — and taking photographs. Genoni and Dalziell make innovative use of the vast photographic record of expatriate life on Hydra during the fifties and sixties, most notably the work of the American photojournalist James Burke. Eschewing a more straightforward narrative line, the authors “borrow from the language of photography” to create a series of snapshots of Clift and Johnston and the many others who came and stayed for a while before moving on. Somehow their approach seems just right for the task.
Fine fiction can tell you much more than the headlines about a powerful country scared about its present and perplexed by its future. Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered juxtaposes nineteenth-century America with Trump’s America. The nineteenth-century hero is a science teacher whose commitment to Darwin’s new theory of evolution clashes with the Christian certainties of his small town. Today, living in the same house, the modern heroine confronts the collapse of her middle-class life while just off-stage, Donald Trump storms through the 2016 primaries. Kingsolver was a scientist before making her living as a writer, and she shows how nineteenth-century America, slowly recovering from the civil war, was torn by Darwin’s challenge to God. In the Trump era, economic disruption and the science of climate change are equally challenging to the American dream. The heroine is a journalist cast out of the craft by the collapse of American journalism as her academic husband loses tenure because his college goes bankrupt. As cash flees and middle-class verities collapse, it’s time to sign up for Obamacare. Kingsolver isn’t lecturing. Instead, she is portraying American life through vivid, wry, struggling characters. This is a novel explaining politics through people.
On paper, Andrew Fisher should be my kind of guy. I’m a sucker for a story of courage and self-improvement, and Australia’s fifth prime minister’s journey from poor Scottish miner to the highest office in a new land should tick all my boxes. His full head of hair — at least in the early years — and robust moustache also speak my language. Yet the reason why David Day’s impressive biography — Andrew Fisher: Prime Minister of Australia — remained on my metaphorical bedside table for ten years was the certainty that I would again be underwhelmed. I know: that’s my problem, not Day’s. Or Fisher’s. If I’m looking for a Thomas Jefferson or an Abraham Lincoln, maybe I should steer clear of Australian political biographies altogether. But say what you want about pedestrian leaders: at least they can walk you from A to B without falling over.
Those who remember the Vietnam War may also remember Alfred McCoy’s groundbreaking The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (how’s that for a dry title?), which revealed how drug trafficking funded covert US operations from union-busting in Marseille to the secret war in Cambodia. In the years since, McCoy has taught history at the University of Wisconsin. His new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of US Global Power, looks back over the American Century and its key instruments — covert intervention, client elites and, ultimately, global surveillance. With the empire in decline, McCoy looks forward to the immediate future, positing a panoply of post-hegemonic possibilities as America’s chickens come home to roost. His money is on China, with its strategy to turn Eurasia into an economic powerhouse, develop and dominate Africa and overwhelm its enemies with its ever-expanding cyber capabilities. In one chapter — itself worth the price of admission — he hypothesises a US–China trans-Pacific war in 2030. It lasts less than twenty-four hours, has few human casualties and results in the utter defeat of US military power. And he has the footnotes to back it up.
Michael Sharkey’s anthology, Many Such As She: Victorian Australian Women Poets of World War One, casts a different light on the centenary of the war’s end. The poems Sharkey has collected, often from magazines like Ross’s Monthly or the Woman Voter, are not accounts of battles or of men’s suffering in war. The women write of war’s effects on those left at home, and sometimes of the futility of war itself. Women’s work features often, as in Nina Murdoch’s “Socks”: “Two plain, purl two,/ It’s little else a woman can do/ But bear sons and watch them grow/ Till marching out of her life they go.” In “The Mother,” Nettie Palmer worries about bringing the child she carries into a world at war: “Shall I dare know happiness,/ That I stitch a baby’s dress?” Mary Fullerton’s “War Time” describes the postman whistling as he delivers daily his “envelopes of pain”; Lesbia Harford’s “Ours Was a Friendship in Secret, My Dear” tells of a lover’s loss that cannot be acknowledged. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” wrote the great Emily Dickinson, and this modest volume, which includes biographies of the poets featured, deserves a wider readership than it will probably get.
The American author Mike Davis writes compelling works about political ecology. He’s good on urbanism, from his wonderful history of Los Angeles, City of Quartz, to Planet of Slums, his chilling look at megacities in the developing world. He regularly delves into environmental history: his epic Late Victorian Holocausts draws the connection between famine and climate in the nineteenth century. Above all, he tells stories of working people. His latest book, Old Gods, New Enigmas, pulls these strands together, drawing on the “lost Marx” to map connections between labour theory, the global employment crisis and capitalism’s failure to ensure human survival in a world of extreme climate change. It’s a great book that makes you think.
In the decades since Agatha Christie pioneered “cosy crime,” the genre has been a perennial bestseller, largely owing to its predictability. But Stuart Turton’s The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle takes all the trappings of a traditional cosy mystery — namely a party at Blackheath, an isolated English country estate, peopled by a colourful cast of characters — and turns them on their head. As the party reaches its climax, Evelyn Hardcastle is murdered. And not just once: the day — and her death — is doomed to repeat itself until party guest Aiden Bishop can unmask the killer. With each new morning, Aiden wakes in the body of a different guest. The only thing that doesn’t change in this mind-bending, genre-twisting thriller is the sinister Footman, who is determined to prevent him from solving the case, and from ever escaping Blackheath.
My best book of 2018 was actually published in 1948, but its social message resonates even more strongly seventy years later. I read Ruth Park’s The Harp in the South to prepare for the Sydney Theatre Company’s 2018 stage adaptation. What struck me about Park’s writing (which somehow got lost in the stage production) was the sharpness of her observation of characters, surroundings and pressures when Surry Hills, in inner Sydney, was a slum. Now, its terrace houses are unaffordable for most people. But how much has really changed? Amid unparalleled economic success, many Australian communities struggle for the solace and connection that Park’s more humble world seemed to find.
Boris Frankel has long been one of Australia’s most acute social critics. Apart from having some of the best titles going, his earlier works, From Prophets the Deserts Come, When the Boat Comes In and Zombies, Lilliputians and Sadists: The Power of the Living Dead and the Future of Australia, have all been insightful analyses of the era of neoliberalism and possible responses to it, marked by unsparing criticism of the comfortable illusions of many on the left. His latest work, Fictions of Sustainability: The Politics of Growth and Post-Capitalist Futures, is one of the best things I’ve read on the chasm between social democratic responses to the failure of capitalism and the need for a sustainable economy. He provides a penetrating critique of ideas popular on the left, such as the universal basic income, which I have advocated myself. Even if you don’t find the critique convincing in the end, it will certainly sharpen your thinking about the possibilities for a sustainable post-capitalist future.
Michael Lewis is probably as famous a nonfiction writer as his compatriot Tom Wolfe was in the 1960s and 1970s. Several of his earlier books — Moneyball, The Blind Side and The Big Short — have been adapted into films, and his latest book, The Fifth Risk, has been optioned by Barack and Michelle Obama for a Netflix series. So it might not sound like a natural contender for best undernoticed book of the year, but there is a risk that its theme, as unglamorous as it is important, will mean that it isn’t widely read in Australia. Lewis’s topic is how federal departments in the United States actually work. In a country that worships free enterprise, the work of the public service is either ignored or derided. The Fifth Risk shows just how much the public has benefited from innovative and well-directed public programs. It also shows the Trump administration’s devastating impact on federal departments. Trump’s appointment of people hostile to a department’s remit is well known; Lewis reports on the equally devastating effect of simply not appointing anyone at all. That is a story that needs to be told, and Lewis tells it with characteristic flair.
Andrea Camilleri, now ninety-three and blind, began writing thrillers in his fifties, and became famous in his seventies. His Inspector Montalbano series is funny, erudite and — if you want to understand Sicily and the culture that produced the Mafia and its political links — essential. The TV series, starring Luca Zingaretti as the intuitive, hot-tempered and occasionally melancholic commissario, is now such a cult that Montalbano tours have replaced Godfather tours in Sicily. But the books are something more: they have a depth and a shrewdness that the TV series only half captures. Camilleri, once a Marxist, a theatre director and a TV producer, acknowledges many influences from his Sicilian heritage, but the greatest of these must be Leonardo Sciascia, whose 1961 novel, The Day of the Owl, was the first Italian novel to lay bare the collusion between Italian politicians and the Mafia. Like The Day of the Owl, Montalbano novels begin at dawn, and the authorial voice is similarly sardonic and witty. In apprehension of the day when there will be no new Montalbanos, Penguin began reissuing the early English translations a few years ago, and an omnibus of the first three novels, Death in Sicily, is now available. The novels are redolent of Sicilian culture, revealing of the interstices of crime, corruption and family and local loyalties. And Camilleri himself? He’s still writing as darkness encroaches.
Weighing up options for holiday reading, a book on randomised trials may not leap straight to the top of the list. Which is a variation on the point that Andrew Leigh makes in Randomistas: How Radical Researchers Changed Our World. We tend to make decisions based on instinct, prejudice, anecdotes or partial information, rather than on proof of what actually works. Flawed decision-making of that kind could put us off reading this geeky-sounding but absorbing account of how randomised trials have been used to bust myths and — to quote just a few examples — find the cure for scurvy, reduce drug crimes, assess the success of loyalty programs run by the supermarket giants, and maximise Google’s revenue. To add to the interest, the author is a former economics professor who, as shadow assistant treasurer under Bill Shorten, may soon get an opportunity to apply his enthusiasm for randomised trials to government policy — unless ideology and party dogma get in the way.
Though it came out late last year, Guardian journalist Luke Harding’s Collusion: How Russia Helped Trump Win the White House has retained its topicality thanks to the cooperation of Donald Trump, who proclaims that there has been and is no collusion. As 2018 draws to a close, and with special counsel Robert Mueller apparently closing in on the president, its topicality may actually be increasing. Harding was the Guardian’s Moscow correspondent and knows Russia far better than the critics, particularly Americans, who fault his understanding of the United States. Collusion is a fascinating read, and much of the circumstantial evidence he amasses for the prosecution has been in and out of the news ever since. Mueller steers a very tight ship, but seems to have been pursuing the connections between Trump’s financial dealings with Russia and the money-laundering activities of Deutsche Bank — precisely the topic of the last chapter. And the Trump Tower project and Michael Cohen’s involvement in it was the key topic of the second-last. Those chapters still look pretty good, and an updated edition, expected soon, promises to be even better.