Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:50 | SYDNEY
Monday 26 Sep 2022 | 03:50 | SYDNEY

Lowy Institute books of the year III

14 December 2012 14:14

Part 1 of this series by Lowy Institute research staff here; part 2 here.

Cold Light by Frank Moorhouse. Selected by Alex Oliver, Research Fellow.

Cold Light is the third in Frank Moorhouse's trilogy on the life and times of Edith Campbell Berry, erstwhile diplomat, who started her career as an idealistic officer in the League of Nations. Cold Light traces the mature phase of her professional life as her attempts to rejoin public life in Canberra after the Second World War are challenged by being the sister of a registered communist and wife of a cross-dressing spy. External Affairs' unenlightened policy barring married women from professional appointments doesn't help either. Resolute, she takes on a succession of interesting roles: planning the new capital, Canberra, a position under Menzies advising on nuclear energy, and finally as an envoy for the Whitlam Government on nuclear issues, contributing to the establishment of the IAEA in its remit to 'practise unremitting suspicion in a diplomatic and urbane way'. As a woman working in international relations, Moorhouse's work has special resonance for me, and Edith is an inspiring, if somewhat terrifying, heroine. 

Lonely Planet: Iran. Selected by Non-resident Fellow Rodger Shanahan.

I've read a lot this year. Academic articles, military operations reports, Inner-West Harbour junior cricket association rules, and refugee claims until they're coming out of my ears. But I've only read one book, and that only selectively: Lonely Planet: Iran (2008 edition). But it was more practically useful than any treatise on international relations I could have read. No theorising, no quotable quotes, just good advice. Need a dodgy hotel in south Tehran with the best Mr Fixit you could ask for? Done. Trouble navigating the Tehran Metro? Just the trick. Want to avoid the annoying English-language chaperon and propagandist who is allocated to you at the main entrance to the shrine at Mashad? Use the side entrance. Priceless.  

ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia, by Lee Jones. Selected by Malcolm Cook.

This year I had the pleasure of reviewing Lee Jones' first book, which is commendable for its intellectual bravery. The book takes on the myth of the 'ASEAN Way' and its cherished non-intervention norm and does a good job of dispelling it. It also fights against the tide of intellectual laziness by clearly distinguishing between Southeast Asian states and ASEAN as a regional organisation and shows how these states have used ASEAN to pursue their national interests. As ASEAN continues to succeed in its attempt to be in the 'driving seat' of regionalism, Jones' book gives us a better understanding of the 'driver' and what we can expect from its driving.

On the fictional front, Train Man was a fascinating read of a new style of literature developed in Japan for mobile phone and internet users. It is also a touching love story about the anomie of modern urban life.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo. Selected by Rory Medcalf, Director of the International Security program.

For a self-confessed India booster, this book is a shocking corrective. It is an extraordinary and sustained work of 'immersion journalism'. Author Katherine Boo spent years living in (well, close to) a Mumbai slum, winning the trust of a few among the many millions of people for whom the modern Indian dream has been at best an illusion. It's a beautifully crafted yet unsentimental and grim narrative, and absolutely essential reading for anyone who thinks human welfare can be measured in aggregate GDP growth alone. The redeeming theme is the way some individuals in the direst circumstances can maintain a sense of integrity.

Did it convince me that capitalism and globalisation constitute the wrong path for India? No. Is it a warning that a cascade of corruption and the worst legacies of caste and communalism could hold India back from a truly democratic destiny? Absolutely.