Summer reading: Recommended books of the year

December 2, 2011

Because Green Left Weekly is taking a break for the summer, it asked staff, contributors — or just people it likes — to name the best books published this year. Here are their suggestions.

Tim Dobson, Green Left journalist and blogger at Press Box Red
A Life Too Short: The Tragedy of Robert Enke by Ronald Reng
Yellow Jersey Press, 2011

Gary Speed hanged himself on November 27. He was the manager of the Welsh Football team and a long-term professional player in the English Premier League. The week before, German referee Babak Rafati slit his wrists in an attempted suicide. Welcome to the world of professional sport.

Robert Enke was set to become the long-term number one goalkeeper for the German national side when he threw himself in front of a train. This book, written by a friend, painstakingly details the extraordinary and unique pressure faced by professional sportspeople in their day-to-day lives, how it can ruin and destroy people and how no sport has been active enough in facing the problem, especially professional football.

Sportspeople are often depicted as cartoon characters or robots. This book shows they should perhaps be seen as tortured artists, forever straining for a perfection that they will never quite achieve.

Ian Angus, editor,
What Every Environmentalist Needs To Know about Capitalism by Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster
Monthly Review Press, 2011

Environmental destruction isn’t caused by ignorance or mistaken policies: it is the inevitable result of a social and economic system that puts profit before people and must constantly expand to survive.

In this short and clearly written book, Magdoff and Foster explain why that is, why there can be no permanent solution to the environmental crisis so long as capitalism continues, and why greens and socialists must join forces to make an ecological revolution. Every socialist should buy two copies: one to read and learn from, and another to give to a friend who wants to go beyond environmental concern to effective action.

Ben Courtice, Green Left reporter and blogger at Blind Carbon Copy
The Lionel Bopage Story: Rebellion, Repression and the Struggle for Justice in Sri Lanka by Michael Cooke
Agahas Publishers, Colombo, 2011

This political biography is most timely because it comes at the end of Sri Lanka's long civil war that ended with the destruction of the Tamil Tigers and the victory of the Sinhala state.

Lionel Bopage's biography examines critically the ways in which nationalist chauvinism and political impatience and opportunism repeatedly prevented the Sri Lankan left (especially his party, the JVP) from developing into a force that could lead the nation away from communalist and racist strife, let alone deal with widespread poverty and violence.
For those considering the way forward for Sri Lanka, it's a must read.

Derek Wall, author and activist
Broken Republic by Arundhati Roy
Hamish Hamilton, 2011

Arundhati Roy's Broken Republic isn't just about India and it certainly isn't an apology for the Maoists, it's about the whole world.

Roy's poetic anger shines through. The Maoists are fighting a forgotten war on the side of the indigenous whose land is being stolen by mining corporations. Roy is often critical of the Maoists, but her account of meeting them is fascinating. She castigates India as a corrupt nation wrecking the environment and destroying lives, but praises the diversity and strength of the varied movements fighting back.

Her book shows how it is, globally. Governments work for the rich, assault the environment and crush their citizens. A society that respects nature and humanity is possible, but this will involve a huge fight. Roy's book is a powerful call for resistance. This is an astonishing and subversive title and it takes courage to tell it how it is. Roy has more courage than it is easy to imagine.

David Cromwell, co-editor at media-analysing website
More Bad News From Israel by Greg Philo and Mike Berry
Pluto Press, 2011

It makes for deeply uncomfortable reading for journalists and editors reporting from the Middle East, but this book is a godsend to readers trying to understand the history and propaganda surrounding Israel-Palestine.

In the largest study of its kind, the authors illustrate major biases in the way Palestinians and Israelis are represented in the media — such as how the motives and rationale of the different parties involved are depicted. The book also reveals the extraordinary differences in levels of public knowledge of the conflict. Unsurprisingly, the glaring gaps in media coverage and public understanding reflect pro-Israeli propaganda.

No wonder Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, told Media Lens that he fully agrees with Philo and Berry's careful analysis. BBC coverage of Israel and Palestine is, he said, "replete with imbalance and distortion".

Mat Ward, Green Left writer/subeditor
Too Many People? by Ian Angus and Simon Butler
Haymarket Books, 2011

For me, a great book is one that substantially changes the way people see the world. Nicholas Shaxson's Treasure Islands, which came out this year, definitely does that. It exposes the extent to which tax havens have corrupted the entire global financial system, resulting in governments slicing away at corporate tax to try to compete.

But Ian Angus and Simon Butler's Too Many People? is a game-changer on steroids. The book's release, coming as population hysteria reached a peak with the world's head count hitting 7 billion, could not be more timely. Whereas Shaxson's book sees capitalism as essentially benign, Too Many People? shows, clearly and concisely, that capitalism — not population — is the very root of the world's problems. It will challenge the views of many on the left; it certainly changed mine.

Jay Fletcher, Green Left journalist
Stieg & Me: Memories of a life with Stieg Larsson by Eva Gabrielsson
Allen & Unwin, 2011

This memoir by Eva Gabrielsson, partner of 30 years to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo author Stieg Larsson, is the most heartbreaking and poignant portrayal I’ve read of Larsson’s political life and tragic death.

The Swedish Men who Hate Women — or the English-translated Millennium trilogy — has produced a multimillion-dollar empire of the books, films and biographies in more than 41 countries.

But Gabrielsson was cut off from artistic control and the huge financial success of the series. Their work-focused lives meant they never married, so Larsson’s estranged brother and father inherited the entire Millennium legacy under Swedish law. Gabrielsson says she was called “mentally ill” and “unstable” by the men who wanted control of Larsson’s entire estate and legacy.

Gabrielsson says as a result most people only know the “Millennium Stieg”, and this memoir gives shape and depth to the uncompromising and passionate journalist he really was. It also fully exposes for the first time since his death the injustice of the woman he loved most being cut out of his legacy.

Alexander Billet, music journalist,
Woody Guthrie, American Radical by Will Kaufman
University of Illinois Press, 2011
I Mix What I Like: A Mixtape Manifesto by Jared Ball
AK Press, 2011

It's a tie! This year saw not one but two books that each recapture long-buried aspects of real rebel music. With revolutions popping off in the Arab world, with the Occupy movement gripping American streets and the words "general strike" no longer an abstraction, they couldn't arrive at a more crucial point.

Woody Guthrie, American Radical reclaims America's best-known folk-singer for what he was - not some naive country bumpkin, but a real, dyed-in-the-wool socialist who sought to integrate his genuine belief in a workers' world into his songs. Lots of liberal, social-patriotic myths have been spun around Guthrie; professor Will Kaufman's book sets the record straight.

In the age of the internet, the hip-hop mixtape has been reclaimed as it once was: an opportunity to speak rhymes of truth to power outside the avenues of the music biz. To spin culture back in a direction of justice and racial equity. Jared Ball's thorough, passionate book reminds us what it is that made mixtapes so vital to cultural rebellion in the first place.

Patrick Harrison, Green Left journalist
Palestine by Sarah Irving
Bradt Travel Guides, 2011

This is the ideal resource for Palestinian solidarity activists and travellers in the Holy Land. The best book of its kind, it delivers a frank and honest picture of Palestine when the vast majority of tourist literature is an accomplice to the erasure of Palestinian history and culture.

As the author states in the introduction, "to visit Palestine is, in some measure, a political act" even for conventional tourists.

The guide's background information section pulls no punches regarding the creation of Israel and the occupation of '67. It's also one of the only guides available that also covers Palestinian communities inside Israel. This is the only book worth reading for travellers to Palestine, whether interested in solidarity activism or not.

Alex Miller, university lecturer in Britain and Green Left book reviewer
This Road is Red by Alison Irvine
Luath Press, 2011

My book of the year for 2011 is a novel about the tenants of the Red Road flats in Glasgow, a high-rise development that was built in the 1960s and which is now scheduled for demolition. The novel – based on extensive interviews with past and present inhabitants – rings very true and is by turns funny, sad, touching and tragic.

It’s the sort of book it would be easy to do badly, and it’s to the author’s great credit that this, her first novel, is a great success.

The next book by Alison Irvine, the daughter of two antipodeans, will be about emigration from Glasgow to Australia and New Zealand.

Niko Leka, Green Left reporter
The Cage by Gordon Weiss
Picador, 2011

The Cage tells of the war crimes committed in the last months of the civil war in Sri Lanka. It ends with the demand for an international independent investigation into these crimes.

The book represents painstaking scholarship and journalism at its best. It presents the origins and events without fear or favour, as they emerged. In its analysis, it’s the modern-day equivalent of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War.

Read it, and urge its author, Gordon Weiss, to write a second edition covering the horror of “post-war” reality in Sri Lanka. An indication of the continuing climate of fear is that there is one member of the armed forces for about every 10 civilians in the Jaffna Peninsula.

Phil Shannon, retired public servant and CPSU activist, Green Left book reviewer
Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life by Michael Moore
Allen Lane, 2011

This is an engaging account by documentary-maker Michael Moore of his life as a source of trouble for religious, military and political authority and their accomplices of bigotry and prejudice.

Despite a youthful shyness, Moore’s refusal to accept an unjust status quo saw him speaking out, standing for election and running an alternative newspaper before famously denouncing the Iraq war when accepting an Oscar. A physical target of the mad right, Moore has kept his nerve, producing splendid documentaries which he describes as "angry comedies" about economic and social injustice.

Moore’s book now reveals a fine writer and politically engaged story-teller who can touch the heart, the head and the funny bone in equal measure. An effortless but inspiring read for political activists, both old and in-the-making.

Peter Robson, Green Left reporter
Embassytown by China Mieville
Macmillan, 2011

Socialist writer China Mieville writes novels using fantasy and science fiction tropes, in part, to explore problems in the real in world.

In his latest offering, Mielville tackles colonialism, gender and racism in a unique and interesting way.
Mieville also loves monsters and the alien Arieke are monstrous in a way that is particularly interesting.

Their language is incapable of certain forms of abstraction. After humans visit their planet of Arieka, they adopt the method of simile by making Avice Benner Cho a living part of their language. What follows is the near-destruction of an alien culture under the colonisation of humanity and the struggle to maintain an independent human culture in the face of colonial pressure from Earth.

It’s a good one.

Zane Alcorn, Green Left reporter, rapper, activist
Go the Fuck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach
Penguin, 2011

Without a doubt the best book I read in 2011 was Go the Fuck to Sleep by Adam Mansbach. I didn’t so much read it, as have it read out to me -- by Noni Hazelhurst no less -- which rerouted and reactivated all sorts of long dormant synaptical connections in my head and compounded the great comedy of the moment. Subsequently I had it read to me again, this time by Samuel L. Jackson, and it was like "Die Hard with a four year old" with Jackson trying desperately to defuse the child’s unrepentant ransom seeking.

This book is all kinds of fucking hilarious. The artwork by Ricardo Cortes is spot on, evoking the children's-bedtime-book-illustration archetype to a tee. I’m not a parent myself, maybe I will be one day, but suffice to say I’ve heard stories about how the small ones can er… push the boundaries of what they can get away with, right to the edge. In doing so they can push the parents in question to the brink of insanity. It can’t help that raising the next generation of workers is still typically an unpaid duty (of the gendered kind) either.

Bravo to Adam Mansbach for providing the parents of the world with an outlet for all that grimy, real, unglorious nightly parental angst. Five stars brother.

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