Some of the books I recommend

Most people who read have an inbuilt system of prejudices and fears. They might dread the thought of feminist writing, or post-modernist experiments. Others are afraid of academic writing, with a footnote being akin to an incoming arrow. These are all reasonable opinions, if you really hold them. But why turn what is great fun into a chore?

I only read what I want to read. Here are some categories and some favourites.

Crime novels

My favourite writer of crime novels is Georges Simenon. I would not waste time on his so-called “hard novels”; hard to read is a fair description. Stick to the Inspector Maigret books. 75 novels and 28 short stories, from 1930 to 1972. Each one intense, exciting and in the place. You are in Paris, or a Dutch seaside village, and there is Maigret.

Maigret is monumental. He, along with his pipe, is immovable, and implacable in his search for understanding. He is not interested in law, but in justice.

He wants to know why, and his observation of time and place is intense. Maigret evolves over the 42 years, but his appeal remains. These books are hard to find these days, but op shops are a reliable source. There are some reprints available. Buy them if you can.

Origin stories

This year I read Growth of the Soil, by Knut Hamsun. “NO, I’m not reading a Norwegian from last century,” I hear you mutter. Read it anyway. Hamsun invented the modern novel.

In this story he follows a young man into the Norwegian wilderness, where he establishes a modest farm, finds a wife, has children, and sees a town established. But Hamsun makes the personal universal. His style is both formal, and insightful. It has a completely modern outlook, especially in its depiction of psychological turmoil. His treatment of human relationships is refreshingly candid. He is simple and direct in his depiction of sexual activity, which can surprise.

If you enjoy trying Hamsun, then there is his masterpiece, Hunger, a tale of a writer’s mad search for love, success and meaning. A forerunner to Hesse’s Steppenwolf, Hamsun introduced the internal monologue to literature. The only caveat is you should find the right translation. Sverre Lyngstad is streets ahead of any other.


History can be an acquired taste. Which is surprising, because history is so regulated by peer review that it is very hard to find a ‘bad’ history. Of course we need to be selective, and to choose history, and not PR hack efforts.

History is usually extremely well written, mainly because historians are highly educated, and they are writing as much for their rivals as for their audience. They also support their arguments with evidence, which can look like academic writing, but it is just ‘quality control’. Curiously open to debate, even from us.

I love to read anything by A.J.P. Taylor, who was something of a ‘rock-star’ historian, who popularised history in Britain with a series of successful television shows. His scholarship remained exceptional, and his “The Origins of the Second World War” is challenging in its ideas, and outstanding in its exposition.

Although not ‘pure history’ Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall trilogy is challenging, insightful, beautifully written, and a wonderful introduction to English history. Once you dip in, you can be inexorably drawn into many hours of ‘rabbit hole’ exploration.

Spy stories

I cannot separate John Le Carre from Len Deighton in the spy business. From George Smiley (Le Carre) to Bernard Samson (Len Deighton) they have each created a small pleasure-based industry based on larger than life characters, excellent plotting, and a light touch. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is out of favour because of its age, but for all that, high art.

Graham Greene’s The Quiet American and Our Man in Havana show his range, from realpolitik to somewhat lighter. “Greeneland” is his recurring landscape of disillusionment and despair, but when you finish one of his novels, you know a little more about life, and love.

Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden series is enjoyable, and based on his real life as an agent in post-revolutionary Russia. Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent has been described as “timeless”. Ian Fleming is surprisingly lean on talent. James Bond comes across as a misogynistic snob, and the holes in the plots are legendary. I would terminate 007.

Other great books worth a look

Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler is a great, sparely written, adult book. Set against the background of the 1939 show trials in the Soviet Union, it is both frightening and inspiring. Not a fun read, but it will stay with you forever.

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is a novel everyone should read, because it is firstly a decent, courageous, upstanding book, and because it is clear and unambiguous in its message of equality before the law, and the danger of all sorts of prejudice.

It was published in 1960, just before the reaction against the civil rights movement set in. It addresses race, class and the American South, and it is narrated in a visual style. The movie is great too.

So this is pretty much a good place to start, a personal list of books and writers, which I find interesting and well written. There are thousands of good books out there, and millions of bad ones. Choose with care.

Is our alliance with Trump’s America worth it?

Over eighty years ago Prime Minister John Curtin prepared a New Year’s Eve message for the Australian people. It was written three weeks into the war with Japan. It was published in the Melbourne Herald on 27 December, 1941: 

‘Without any inhibitions of any kind, I make it quite clear that Australia looks to America, free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.’

With this message he informed the world that Australia’s foreign policy direction must change, in response not only to the military situation with Japan, but to Australia’s location in the Pacific. From then on, he states, Australia will be proactive, the architect of her own interests. 

Australia disengaged from the ‘general war’ to concentrate on the Pacific conflict. Both Churchill and Roosevelt were surprised, and dismayed, but the die was cast. Australia survived the war, but only with massive assistance from the U.S. America has been the cornerstone of our foreign policy ever since.

Eighty years later, are Australia and the U.S. still a ‘perfect match’, or is it time to re-consider the partnership? Although America is still the pre-eminent power on earth, does Australia need its protection, and secondly, does America provide that protection, and if it does, at what price?

Is there a credible threat to us, or would we be more sensible to take a leaf out of New Zealand’s book, and be no-one’s enemy, and no-one’s target? It is important to look at our similarities, but also at the areas where we diverge.

Shared history, shared values?

For years, at least until President Trump was elected, there was a type of consensus that what we had in common far outweighed our differences. Recent events, particularly in America’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and then the Black Lives Matter protests, have thrown some doubt on that shared vision. 

Many have used the “shared history, and shared values” argument to justify our continued relationship. Others question the value for Australia, which has stood loyally by its mighty ally, through its many wars, with not much to show for the effort, except in terms of lost lives, and wasted military resources. We were never there as equal partners. 

We supported American wars whenever we were asked

Australia joined the U.S. in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the First Gulf War in Iraq, the Afghanistan War, the Second Gulf War in Iraq. We even joined the so-called War on Terror.

When push comes to shove, Australia is expected to step forward, no questions asked. Perhaps the debt from 1941 – 1945 has been repaid?

Democratic standards

Australia and the U.S. are both nominally democratic societies, and yet there is a tradition in the U.S. of actively trying to suppress the vote for minorities, and to rig elections by gerrymander. There are efforts to outlaw postal voting, begun when in the midst of a global pandemic. 

Australians are used to electoral matters being decided by independent umpires. We are not only encouraged to vote, but we are punished if we do not. So is America still a democracy, and is it worth defending?

Guns in America

Probably the most contentious right Americans possess is the right “to keep and to bear arms”. Covered by the Second Amendment, and intended to permit the personal use of arms as a defence against state tyranny, it has mutated into a violent and uncontrolled gun culture. 

In 2021, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 48,830 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S., according to the CDC. 

This was the highest number of gun deaths since 1968. see here  Another side of this tragedy is that suicide accounts for almost twice as many deaths as homicide. 

By comparison Australia’s gun deaths in 2019 were 229. It is incomprehensible to us living in Australia that Americans insist on their right to kill, and to be killed. 

This situation is exacerbated by the militarisation of the various state police forces, and the sheer number of mainly gun-fuelled deaths. Most of those deaths are of Black men, arguably by overzealous police. Do we share the values of a nation which practices officially sanctioned, racially based murder? 

Did Scott Morrison commit us to a war with China?

Our previous, unlamented Prime Minister ramped up the hysteria and the rhetoric concerning China. He committed a sum of $270 billion to defence, which included funding for long range missiles. These are presumably to warn China that we are deadly serious about defending ourselves, militarily, against our largest trading partner. 

This can be traced back to a slavish desire, on Morrison’s part, to please Donald Trump. The ex-President, in an attempt to divert attention away from his own criminal governance of the country, had sought to demonise China for somehow ‘inventing’ Covid19.

By jumping on Trump’s bandwagon, Australia is going to be ‘protected’ if China reacts badly to our belligerence. That must be why we are investing in nuclear powered submarines, to be ‘delivered’, in dribs and drabs, if at all, in the 2040s.

It is uncertain whether human civilisation will even survive until the 2040s. Already climate change is contributing to mass migrations; droughts and floods are affecting food and water security; the West is already fracturing under the political pressures of exploding refugee numbers, and political volatility is out of control. Russia is just the first rogue state to bust out of the bubble.

Labor has drunk the kool-aid

The logic behind following the United States anywhere is flawed. It is a nation which seemingly needs wars, in order to keep its over-sized military busy, and focussed outwards. How else to restrain its generals and admirals?

The American Century is over. The country is hopelessly divided, and its people are not only divided on political grounds, but also on economic, religious and racial lines. Inequality has morphed into something resembling the Middle Ages.

If America was once a trusted ally, the Trump presidency must have caused us to reconsider where we stand. A buddy this week, maybe not so much next week?

We need to tread carefully until the U.S. has a leader who can be trusted. Joe Biden is 80 years old. His main opponent will probably be Donald Trump, who is crazy, old and unstable.

This then is the horse we have hitched our wagon to. In Australian terms “have we backed the wrong horse?”