My Year In Review

2014 was a year of firsts for me. I began my Tattooed Critic wordpress, I started to read more and more fiction rather than non-fiction, it was the first time that I had traveled outside of Australia, and the first time that I attempted to review books that I read – publishing them on my blog and slowly building up confidence to send some off in the hope one will be published somewhere. I’m still a novice at what I am doing and haven’t been able to read and write as much as I wanted; still, I’m enjoying my project. So, with this ‘article’, I add another first: my first ‘Year in Review.’

In 2014 I set myself the goal of reading 50 books for the year. I’m not so pleased to announce that I fell well short of that number. It was probably an ambitious target to set considering I would spend five weeks in the United States traveling, and would spend most of my time working and saving for the trip. Nonetheless, I read a total of 34 books (not too bad, I guess). It’s not the worst result, but its nowhere near where near the number I wanted.

We are now well set in 2015 and once again I’m running late for such a list. So, before it gets too late to publish such a piece, I would like to present my most favourite reads of 2014.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan:

9781741666700-2The 2014 Man Booker Prize winner would no doubt be in a lot of people’s must read list. Nevertheless, Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book I have been suggesting to anyone with a heartbeat.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North takes its title from 17th-century poet Basho’s travel journal. The reason for choosing this title reflects both the highest part of Japanese culture, and also the lowest of Japanese culture with the treatment of its Prisoners of War in World War II.

Inspired by both his father’s experience as a POW on the Thai-Burma railway and the life of Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop, Flanagan confronts the reader with the suffering, sacrifice, humility, heroism, trauma faced by POWs on the railway, while addressing the question of memory and the impossibility of love.

The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book of unwavering beauty set amongst the suffering experienced by the Australian POWs. As Dorrigo Evans says: “a good book… leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your soul.” The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book that will leave you rereading your soul.

An Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman:

Carman-CoverAn Elegant Young Man by Luke Carman, his first book of fiction, is a collection of monologues set in the suburbs of Western Sydney. Carman’s young, self-conscious but determined hero navigates his way through various complications: divorce, an often-perilous social world involving the cultural flash point of Western Sydney, friends and enemies.

Carman’s debut book of fiction is dynamic – blending his loves of Whitman and Kerouac, Leonard Cohen and Henry Rollins throughout the monologues and capturing the voices of the streets conveying the fear and anger, beauty and affection, the ugly and the bad, with restless intensity.

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane:

9781926428550Ruth Field lives alone in her seaside home on the Coast of New South Wales with her favourite chair, her cats and her fading memory, blurring together the past and present. Early one morning, a tiger visits Ruth. Not long after the tiger makes its first visit to Ruth’s home, Ruth receives an unexpected visitor, Frida, sent by the government to care for Ruth for a few hours per day.

The Night Guest is a brilliant debut novel from McFarlane. The novel is masterfully created with a compulsive readability around a modern topic. It is unusual for a young writer to write about the elderly, however, McFarlane has produced a suspense novel layered with gentle humour, loneliness, isolation, memory and tenderness that studies the vulnerability faced by the elderly. What lies at the heart of the novel is the question: who is to care for them when others are unwilling or unable to do so?

Lost For Words by Edward St Aubyn:

2014-04-28-LostforWordsjacketHP-thumbLost for Words by Edward St Aubyn is a hilarious satire on literary awards – most notably the Man Booker Prize. Renamed the Elysian Prize for literature, St Aubyn traces the complicated path to awarding a major literary prize.

Lost for Words is habitually St Aubyn: telling a multi-layered story through a vast amount of characters each offering their point of view. Lost for Words is a witty, fabulously entertaining satire that cuts to of some of the deepest questions about the place of art in our celebrity-obsessed culture, and asks how we can ever hope to recognise real talent when everyone has an agenda.

The Undesirables by Mark Isaacs:

the-undesirablesThere is no other contentious issue throughout Australia’s history, both politically and socially, than the issue of immigration. George Megalogenis describes immigration as “the defining issue in the battle of wills between politicians and the polls, because voters, if given the chance, will always prefer fewer new arrivals.”

The issue of Asylum Seekers usually draws heated debate – especially between the left and the right – yet the voices of those who are either at the front line, or those who are fleeing persecution, are never heard from. This is where The Undesirables is most valuable.

Isaacs did five rotations on Nauru from October 2012 to June 2013. Over this time, Isaacs kept a diary of what life was like living and working on Nauru. His diary has been refined into The Undesirables: Inside Nauru. The Undesirables at times can be a grueling read. The original intent of the book, as a diary, and a novice writer, means there are repeated concerns, themes, and topics throughout the book. Nonetheless, the theme that resonates the most is the celebration of the human spirit and the struggle to do what is right.

ANZACs Long Shadow:

9781863956390James Brown’s short but much needed critique of Australia’s Defense forces is a must read for 2015. While Brown does discuss several issues with the Anzac legend and the formalities of the centenary of Anzac, Brown moves onto a more pressing issue facing the ADF.

Brown highlights the growing rift between spending significant amounts of money on dead soldiers while neglecting those who are living and suffering from their experiences. The extent of this rift is felt from the public – that has no understanding of War in the Modern World – through to the Federal Government and well into the organisations established for the Returned Soldier – most notably the RSLs.

The book is more important considering the Australian Government’s purchase of new fighter jets, HMAS Canberra, and the plan to build a new submarine fleet that could possibly be unfavorable to future military strategies.

The Unexpected Professor by Peter Carey:

imagesBest known for his provocative take on cultural issues in The Intellectuals and The Masses and What Good Are the Arts?, John Carey describes in this warm and funny memoir the events that formed him – an escape from the London blitz to an idyllic rural village, army service in Egypt, an open scholarship to Oxford and an academic career that saw him elected, age 40, to Oxford’s oldest English Literature professorship.

He frankly portrays the snobberies and rituals of 1950s Oxford, but also his inspiring meetings with writers and poets – Auden, Graves, Larkin, Heaney – and his forty-year stint as a lead book-reviewer for the Sunday Times.

This is a book about the joys of reading and an informal introduction to the great works of English literature. But it is also about war and family, and how an unexpected background can give you the insight and the courage to say the unexpected thing.

Notable Mentions:

Other notable mentions that I read throughout the year are: The Stranger by Albert Camus, The Patrick Melrose Novels (Never Mind, Bad News, Some Hope, Mother’s Milk, and At Last – in the past couple of weeks I have seen new editions of the Patrick Melrose Novels, combining all five novels into one, in bookstores), and Stoner by John Williams.

It was pretty difficult to narrow all the books I read in 2014 to a list of seven. After looking at some other people’s top reads for 2014, it appears I’ve given a larger list, especially with my notable mentions section.

And 2015?

In 2015 I’ve set myself a more achievable goal this year: 35 books. I’ve started well: I’ve read Hilary Mantel’s short story collection The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, David Malouf’s The Writing Life, Robert Dessaix’s memoir What Days Are For, and Geordie Williamson’s brilliant The Burning Library: Our Great Novelists Lost and Found.

In 2015 I hope to bring my readers (if there are any) more reviews, articles, and my travel diary (and maybe a short story, or two) along with bookish news, photos and other interesting things involving books via my twitter feed. Hopefully My Year In Review brings forth some books and writers that you haven’t heard of and encourages you to read on of them. All the books mentioned are all fantastic and cover a wide range of issues and topics.

Happy Reading!

Review: Anzacs Long Shadow

‘The Allure of ANZAC’ and the Australian Defence Force.

 Review of James Brown’s Anzac’s Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession, Redback4, 2014, 184pp.

9781863956390

My great Uncle and Grandfather both served in Vietnam. My great Uncle was with the Australian Armoured division while my Grandfather was a member of the Royal Australian Navy on HMAS Sydney (III). Growing up around these two men offer a paradox between serving members or veterans – especially the Navy – of how Anzac is commemorated and how the day is perceived in the public. While most follow the words inscribed on the Sydney War Memorial in Hyde Park, “Let silent contemplation be your offering,” others turn Anzac day into something that James Brown believes resembles more like a festival.

James Brown, a former commanding officer in the ADF, and now a fellow at the Lowy Institute researching military issues and defence policy, has produced a short, sharp and sophisticated analysis of Australia’s Defence Force and the role the ADF played in Afghanistan.

With 2014 being the centenary of WWI and also the upcoming centenary of Anzac in 2015, the Australian Government is planning to spend $325 million (with an already tight budget) on the prestigious event. In addition, there is an expected additional $300 million through private donations. In comparison to the United Kingdom (here we could draw on the famous lines of Andrew Fisher: “Australia will defend Britain with every last man and every last Shilling”), Australia will outspend the ‘Mother Country’ by 200 per cent.

The Australian Government’s funding of the centenary of Anzac and the First World War, is match by the commercialization of this ‘sacred day.’ Brown lists several commercial activities and products, including a paddle boat race across the Dardanelles and the ‘Sands of Gallipoli.’ Brown mockingly chastises such promotion that was legislated against in the 1920s. This extravagant event is best summarized by Brown himself: “This year an Anzac festival begins, a commemorative program so extravagant it would make a sultan swoon… But commemorating soldiers is not the same as connecting with them.”

After dealing with the formalities of the centenary of Anzac, Brown moves onto a more pressing issue facing the ADF. Brown highlights the growing rift between spending significant amounts of money on dead soldiers while neglecting those who are living and suffering from their experiences. The extent of this rift is felt from the public – that has no understanding of War in the Modern World – through to the Federal Government and well into the organisations established for the Returned Soldier – most notably the RSLs.

Brown believes that the Anzac legend has instilled a Nineteenth Century character that military structure, discipline, and strategy are no match for the individual, egalitarian Digger: an “idolatry of a culture suspicious of officers that favours egalitarianism.” The Anzac legend manifests itself in today’s soldiers: wearing thongs and shorts when attending dangerous duties.

Not only has the Anzac legend created a culture of relaxation and lenience in defence force personnel, it has also neglected other pillars of defence such as the Navy. Of the 96 Victorian Crosses awarded in all conflicts, not one mariner has been awarded the VC. Yet, a reoccurring theme is the posthumous awards for valor for Simpson and his Donkey.

The growing gap between the living soldier and that of the dead soldier is clearer in Australia’s involvement in Afghanistan. A war of great complexity – “we weren’t fighting one war, we were fighting hundreds across the country” – the Australian military performed with outstand professionalism and military precision. However, when it came to communicating what Australia’s role was, no politician or high-ranking military officer could articulate what the Australian role was: Australian soldiers would not combat against the enemy – but they did. Military personnel will not engage in narcotic operations – but they did. Much of the military debate or conversation on Australia’s defence force is focused on the past.

Brown’s analysis of Australia’s military is the strength and major focus of this book. The issue is not with fighting personnel, but rather those higher in command and also the politicians responsible for their deployment and policies. Compared with several other nations, Australian Colonels, Generals and Majors are not seen in the public debate. The military does not encourage those in high command to write or analyse previous decision, policies and mistakes Australia, or others, have made. For example, the Australian military does not analyse the amphibious landing at Gallipoli. Quantico is the only place to have conducted a detailed review and analysis by George Patten in 1938. Without this detailed information, it is possible that the D-Day invasion would not have had such success. The lack of review and writing process could also hinder the development of Australia’s defence force. Brown highlights new purchases made by the Australian Government without a shift in strategy or focus to use these new purchases with the desired effect.

It is this aspect is concerning for such a well renowned military force that communication is not encouraged, often leaving the public in the dark as to what policy are we applying, what are we doing in Afghanistan? And why are we doing these operations? This is where Australian politicians also fail. Stephen Smith and Joel Fitzgibbon who both held the Defence Minister positions are depicted as glib and uninterested with defence issues. Complex issues are ditched for easy and cheap defence policies such as a new medal or pin for military families.

Brown has found the middle ground in this debate, offering a well-balanced and analytical account of the issues facing the ADF and the well being of living soldiers. There are a lot of issues – past and present – wrapped up in this book, but Brown handles these issues with a brightness that is welcomed within this debate. Brown is not a historian, and does not claim to be, however, he has handled the debate over the Anzac legend with great poise, balance, fierceness and relevance to the issues facing the ADF and personnel.