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Glyn Davis

Books of the Year 2023

by Kerryn Goldsworthy et al.
December 2023, no. 460

What the authors of these three wildly different books share is a gift for creating through language a kind of intimacy of presence, as though they were in the room with you. Emily Wilson’s much-awaited translation of The Iliad (W.W. Norton & Company) is a gorgeous, hefty hardback with substantial authorial commentary that manages to be both scholarly and engaging. The poem is translated into effortless-looking blank verse that reads like music. The Running Grave (Sphere) by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), the seventh novel in the Cormoran Strike crime series and one of the best so far, features Rowling’s gift for the creation of memorable characters and a cracking plot about a toxic religious cult. Charlotte Wood’s Stone Yard Devotional (Allen & Unwin, reviewed in this issue of ABR) lingers in the reader’s mind, with the haunting grammar of its title, the restrained artistry of its structure, and the elusive way that it explores modes of memory, grief, and regret.

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Only rarely does a book of political philosophy inspire a media commotion. Well, at least a small stir – glowing reviews in leading British newspapers, BBC interviews, a speech at the Royal Academy of Arts, praise from the archbishop of Canterbury. Daniel Chandler, LSE economist and philosopher, is the thinker of the moment.

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'It is too early to say’ was the legendary response of Zhou Enlai when Dr Henry Kissinger asked him about the effects of the French Revolution – proof, if needed, of an ancient culture acknowledging the long cycle of history. Except Zhou misheard. As Chas Freeman, the retired foreign service adviser at that historic meeting revealed many years later, Zhou assumed that Kissinger was talking about the 1968 student protests in Paris, not the storming of the Bastille. It was, said Freeman, a mistake ‘too delicious to invite correction’.

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The reverberations from 6 January 2021 continue. On that day, two thousand or more protesters stormed the Capitol Building in Washington, DC, intending to overturn the formal ballot electing Joe Biden as president of the United States. Waving phones, livestreaming their moves, some called for the execution of politicians, notably Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. For the first time, a Confederate flag was waved on the floor of the Congress, while a man wearing horns and waving a ‘Q sent me’ sign became the global image of the invasion. The mob was eventually pushed out of the building, but five people died during or after the assault, and four police officers caught in the mêlée later suicided.

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In The Aristocracy of Talent, Adrian Wooldridge cites the Chinese civil service exams as a forerunner of the modern world. Early European visitors observed the examination halls scattered across China, with throngs of men young and old cramming as each three-year cycle of exams approached, the glittering careers in government awaiting the lucky few, the consolation prizes as a local scribe or teacher awaiting the many who failed. Children would start studying at the age of six for the chance to pass a local exam and go to the provincial centre for the national papers. Estimates suggest that two and a half million Chinese men sat each round of exams, in carefully invigilated centres across the empire. For the successful, further exams determined promotion through the ranks to the very highest offices.

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Hugh Stretton knew he was a lucky man – someone born well in the lottery of life. Born in 1924, he came into a thoughtful family with a strong record of public service. He was educated at fine private schools and excelled in his arts and legal studies at the University of Melbourne. When war intervened, Stretton served in the navy for three years without suffering injury and then won a Rhodes scholarship before completing his undergraduate qualifications.

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The Tyranny of Merit by Michael J. Sandel & Philanthropy by Paul Vallely

by
December 2020, no. 427

Save the Children in Stockholm wanted to highlight the unfair distribution of global wealth, so it invented an online game called The Lottery of Life. This invited Swedes to a website to spin the wheel of chance. If you were born again tomorrow, where would you appear?

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John Keane is Australia’s leading scholar of democracy, with work that demonstrates an impressive command of global sources. Keane’s most widely cited book, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), included new research on the origins of public assemblies in India many centuries before the familiar democracy of Greek city-states. Keane located the origins of democracy in non-European traditions, in part by tracing the linguistic origins of the concept.

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On 3 October 1962, Hugh Gaitskell rose to address the annual Labour Party Conference in Brighton. He had been Labour leader for nearly a decade and was widely tipped to win the next general election, due within two years. Gaitskell’s message was clear and vivid: Britain must never join the European Economic Community. To do so, he told delegates, would ‘mean the end of a thousand years of history’.

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Speechless, Adolf Hitler sat glowering at Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Since 1933 the führer had gambled repeatedly that France and Britain would capitulate to his latest demands. Now he tried again, reassured by Ribbentrop (no aristocrat, a vain man who had purchased his title) that the feckless Allies would not intervene if ...

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