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ANZSOG’s top summer reads for 2021

6 December 2021

News and media


Image of woman reading on the beach

It’s been another challenging and exhausting year for many in the public sector, and we hope you will get the chance to take some time off over summer and absorb yourself in a good book or two.

For some reading inspiration, the ANZSOG team has put together a list of books that will help you expand your mind and get new perspectives on the world.

We can’t ignore the fact that COVID has been the topic of conversation in 2021, but this year’s list includes some of our favourite writing on science, culture and public policy, as well as fiction.

The Premonition by Michael Lewis (non-fiction)

A first draft of the history of the COVID-19 pandemic, The Premonition pulls together the stories of a group of people who anticipated, traced and hunted the coronavirus; who understood the need to think differently and act fast, in order to a to save lives, communities, and society itself. It’s also a story of the institutional inertia and buck-passing that hobbled the USA’s response to the crisis right from the beginning.

Spike: The Virus vs the People by Jeremy Farrar with Anjana Ahuja (non-fiction)

For another take on the pandemic read this memoir by Dr Jeremy Farrar, part of the UK Government’s key Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) when COVID hit in March 2020. He gives an insider’s account of how the news of COVID-19 first reached the world’s scientists, how the pandemic unfolded and how governments reacted and failed to cope. It reads like a thriller.

A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville (fiction)

This award-winning novel explores the world of early colonial New South Wales through an imagined memoir by Elizabeth Macarthur. Grenville gives voice to one of the silent women of Australian history. Married to a ruthless bully, searching for power in a society that gave women none: this Elizabeth Macarthur manages her complicated life with spirit and passion, shining a light on the contradictions and hidden histories of the settlement of Australia.

The Idea of the Brain by Matthew Cobb (non-fiction)

A thrilling history of our rapidly expanding understanding of the brain, as well as the metaphors we have used to make sense of it. The brain is a system of hydraulics! The brain is a telegraph network! The brain is a computer! This will give you a new understanding of the forces that shape our brains and the unique challenges faced when trying to understand an object that is like nothing else in the universe.

Boris Johnson – The Gambler by Tom Bower

An attempt to unravel he enigma of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, this book by leading investigative journalist Tom Bower attempts to reconcile Johnson’s ruthless ambition with his bumbling public persona. Digging back into his complex family background, it covers his transformation from journalist to a triumphant stint as Mayor of London, overshadowed only by his colourful personal life, brimming with affairs, scandals and transgressions. The book covers his ascent to Number 10 in the wake of the acrimonious, era-defining Brexit referendum, and his government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis in 2020.

The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the great Australian dissent by Gideon Haigh

Former High Court judge and federal Labor leader H. V. ‘Doc’ Evatt has long been obscured by Menzies’s broad shadow, as he struggled to keep the Australian Labor Party together in Opposition through the prosperous and complacent 1950s. In this book, one of our finest writers and sharpest minds, shows Evatt in his true light: the most brilliant Australian of his day. Inspiring, cosmopolitan and humane, Evatt was the forerunner of Keating and Kirby, believing that Australia could be more than quiet and comfortable – it could be an example to the world of a compassionate, just, progressive society.

Welcome to Country updated edition by Marcia Langton (non-fiction)

Australia is home to the longest continuing culture on Earth, and Aboriginal academic Marcia Langton’s guide highlights myriad ways to engage and deepen our knowledge and appreciation of the First peoples through travel. This extensively updated edition of Welcome to Country offers a full range of Indigenous-owned or -operated tourism experiences across Australia, insights into Indigenous cultures and histories, and also addresses the events and issues such as Native Title, the Stolen Generations, the 2020 bushfires, the Black Lives Matter movement, and making a rightful place in the nation for First Peoples.

Quarterly Essay 82: Exit Strategy – Politics after the Pandemic by George Megalogenis (non-fiction)

Political commentator and author George Megalogenis offers a survey of Australia’s options to deal with the post-pandemic world and likely recession. In the wake of the pandemic, will we see a new politics of care and fear, of social security and concern for the future? He explains what we know about recessions and unemployment and how governments should respond. Touching on the gender and generational aspects of job losses, and the fate of higher education, he considers the state of the federation and, as Australia is forced to make its own luck, asks: what future for a divided nation?

Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (fiction)

This novel, told from the point of view of Klara an AF (Artificial Friend) who is chosen by Josie, a sickly child to be her companion, is set in a dystopian future of genetic engineering and human isolation. Exploring the nature of love and friendship and what it means to be human, this is Ishiguro’s first novel since winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017.

Solving Public Problems by Beth Noveck (non-fiction)

The challenges societies face today, from inequality to climate change to systemic racism, cannot be solved with yesterday’s toolkit. Solving Public Problems shows how readers can take advantage of digital technology, data, and the collective wisdom of our communities to design and deliver powerful solutions to contemporary problems. Beth Noveck – a former adviser to President Obama – offers a radical rethinking of the role of the public servant and the skills of the public workforce, this book is about the vast gap between failing public institutions and the huge number of public entrepreneurs doing extraordinary things—and a practical guide on how to close that gap drawn from her decades of experience.

Activism, Feminism, Politics and Parliament by Margaret Wilson (non-fiction)

This is the story of one of New Zealand’s most eminent political actors, and a powerful and illuminating analysis of the politics of New Zealand during the major economic and social reforms of the 1980s and 1990s. Despite being a policy-focused campaigner, reluctant to join a political tribe and uncomfortable with the combative attitudes and personal jockeying that politics seemed to entail, Wilson nevertheless rose to become the president of the Labour Party during the turbulent mid-1980s and went on to become a central, far-sighted, occasionally controversial minister in the Clark government. From pay equity to a home-grown Supreme Court, employment relations legislation to paid parental leave, the policies Wilson championed were based always in the long-held principles of a true conviction politician.

Empire of Pain – the secret history of the Sackler dynasty by Patrick Radden Keefe (non-fiction)

One of the USA’s best investigative journalists chronicles the US opioid crisis through the rise and fall of the secretive Sackler dynasty, who grew rich on selling the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin. The Sacklers, better known for philanthropy, reaped billions as Americans succumbed to an epidemic of addiction and overdosing. Keefe turns a mountain of material (some delivered to him anonymously) into an addictive tale of greed, regulatory failings, expensive lawsuits and the cold lack of remorse behind one of America’s richest families.

Silverview by John le Carré (fiction)

This is the final novel from the legendary spymaster John le Carré (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; Smiley’s People, The Russia House) Published posthumously, the manuscript was found in a drawer and finished by his novelist son. It is a tale of betrayal, bureaucratic inanity and choosing between public duty and private morals that continues his fascination with secret worlds and secret lives.

Another Day in the Colony by Chelsea Watego (non-fiction)

A ground-breaking work – and a call to arms – that exposes the ongoing colonial violence experienced by First Nations people. In this collection of deeply insightful and powerful essays, Chelsea Watego draws on her own experiences to examine the ongoing and daily racism faced by First Nations peoples in so-called Australia. Rather than offer yet another account of ‘the Aboriginal problem’, she theorises a strategy for living in a social world that has only ever imagined Indigenous peoples as destined to die out. She speaks not of fighting back but of standing her ground against colonialism in academia, in court, and in media.

Te pune waiora – the distinguished weavers of te kahui whiritoi by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Donna Campbell, Nathan Pohio, Awhina Tamarapa (non-fiction)

Raranga, the Maori art of weaving, is deeply bound with the customs and protocols of te ao Maori. The weavers of Te Kahui Whiritoi are considered to be the most accomplished of all Maori weavers, and are of great significance to the art history of Aotearoa New Zealand. Written in te reo Maori and English, this book shares the energy, culture and strength of the weavers of Te Kahui Whiritoi, and their taonga. It honours their voices, stories and knowledge, celebrating weaving as a significant artform with a long and special history and a vibrant future.

The Devil You Know by Gwen Adshead with Eileen Horne (non-fiction)

Forensic psychiatrist Gwen Adshead has worked with some of Britain’s most notorious murderers, helping them understand and take responsibility for their actions. This grim but fascinating book reminds us of the complicated humanity of people marked forever by their terrible crimes. As one of her patients says, ‘you can be an ex-bus conductor, but you can’t be an ex-murderer’.

We are not broken: changing the autism conversation by Eric M.Garcia (non-fiction)

With diagnoses of autism increasing across the world, society needs to better understand the variety of experiences of people on the autism spectrum. With a reporter’s eye and an insider’s perspective, Eric Garcia shows what it’s like to be autistic across America, using his own life as a springboard to discuss social and policy gaps that hurt people with autism from education to healthcare, he explores how they wrestle with systems that were not built with them in mind, and the damage and frustration this can cause.

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? by Michael J. Sandel (non-fiction)

Growing inequality is a root cause of the decline of trust in government and democracy. Political philosopher Michael Sandel argues that rethinking our attitudes towards success and failure is a first step to improving social mobility. Sandel shows the hubris a meritocracy generates among the winners and the harsh judgement it imposes on those left behind and traces the dire consequences across a wide swath of American life. He offers an alternative way of thinking about success–more attentive to the role of luck in human affairs, more conducive to an ethic of humility and solidarity, and more affirming of the dignity of work. Published in 2020 but still relevant to the debate about what kind of economy and society we want to build in the post-COVID era.

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