Socialist Summer Reading: the best of 2013

Socialist Review asked some left-wing writers for their picks from 2013. We hope there are suggestions here you can enjoy during your summer reading.

 Tina Makereti:

My discovery of the year was poet / novelist / essayist / short fiction writer Kei Millar. I have only read his most recent novel The Last Warner Woman so far, plus a couple of poems and some essays on his excellent blog Under the Saltire Flag. I love writing that can show me an unfamiliar world simply through the rhythms and sounds of its language. In The Last Warner Woman, Miller also allows his main character to question the veracity of the narrator in a way that meditates on the nature of storytelling itself.

While I was curating the Shared Baskets – Social Equality in Aotearoa NZ exhibition at the NZ Film Archive, one of my important finds was In a Land of Plenty, free to view at nzonscreen. Written and Directed by Alistair Barry, creator of the more well known Someone Else’s Country, In a Land of Plenty tells the devastating story of unemployment in New Zealand. I thought I knew a little about the effect of the 1984 Labour Government and Rogernomics, but was shocked to learn that creating an underclass of unemployed was a deliberate economic policy.

[Tina Makereti’s collection of short stories, Once Upon a Time in Aotearoa, was published by Huia in 2010.]

Morgan Healy:

The one book I think everyone should rush out and buy is Alison McCulloch’s Fighting to Choose: The Abortion Rights Struggle in New Zealand. Aside from being excellently written, McCulloch captures the defining period in the fight for abortion law reform during the 1970s and 80s. The narrative weaves in an impressive array of primary source documents, including transcripts from the Royal Commission hearings, a thorough analysis of the Commission’s report and interviews with key players. After all was said and done, what New Zealand has been left with is a law that was intended to be restrictive, and that has over the years only persisted because of the liberal interpretation of the mental health ground by the medical profession.

McCulloch argues that the New Zealand struggle over abortion has been characterized by religious blackmail, Parliamentary chauvinism (only four women were MPs at the time the Contraception, Sterilisation and Abortion Act was passed in 1977), feminist disarray and political cowardice (pg 17).  For those still involved in the abortion fight today, these points continue to resonate. Yet, as McCullloch points out, the pro-choice movement is all but invisible here in New Zealand. This is why Fighting to Choose is such a seminal piece of work: it provides a political analysis of the abortion struggle to date, while also being a call to arms for those of us who believe pregnant bodies should not be policed and women’s abortion decisions should be legal and destigmatised.

[Dr Morgan Healy is the National President of the Abortion Law Reform Association of New Zealand. She is a regular commentator on reproductive rights.]

Ian Birchall:

If you think things are tough nowadays, imagine being a revolutionary socialist in Nazi-occupied France, facing not only the Gestapo, but a Resistance dominated by a Communist Party that was highly nationalistic and sometimes murderous. Yvan Craipeau, Swimming Against the Tide: Trotskyists in German Occupied France (Merlin Press) tells for the first time in English the story of these genuine internationalists who, at terrible cost, succeeded in producing a German-language paper to fraternise with German workers in uniform.

For a more cheerful story from France, try Daniel Singer, Prelude to Revolution: France in May 1968 (Haymarket Books). First published in 1970, it captures the euphoria of the biggest general strike in human history, but also provides a mass of information on the society that produced the revolt. To read it is to ask the question why the hopes of 1968 were so cruelly disappointed.

Mike Gonzalez & Houman Barekat [eds], Arms and the People, (Pluto Press) contains thirteen essays on the role of the armed forces in social struggles, from the Paris Commune and World War I, through Indonesia, Chile, Vietnam and Portugal to present-day Egypt. They show the terrible power of the capitalist state, but also the fact that, on occasion, armies can crack.

Finally, if you want a novel, try  Leo Zeilig, Eddie The Kid (Zero Books). It is the story of a leftist (sometimes ultra-leftist) activist in the anti-war movement and the terrible complexities of his family life. It is often very funny (Zeilig can laugh at the left, even though his commitment is unquestioned) but also sometimes profoundly sad.

[Ian Birchall has been a revolutionary socialist activist, historian, and translator in Britain for five decades.]

Pip Adam:

I’ve had the opportunity of late to read three unpublished manuscripts by writers I really respect. I’ve enjoyed the manuscripts immensely, and I’ve also been taken by the process of reading writing which hasn’t entered the larger mechanics of publishing. It’s an experience I’d highly recommend. It’s quite a different relationship to have with a work and it made me think a lot about publishing as a whole and how it fits with the act of writing and reading. The manuscripts led me to several published works, some I’m revisiting, some I’m just discovering.

Through reading new work by Ingrid Horrocks, I’ve become intrigued by the work of a group of eighteenth century women writers including, Mary Wollstonecraft, Charlotte Smith and particularly Frances Burney’s The Wanderer; or Female Difficulties, of which I’ve only read a fraction but have already found extremely surprising formally. I’ve found myself realising that a lot of what I’ve credited to ‘post-modern’ writers from dominant positions in society was well in train three hundred years ago in the hands of women, often writing from the margins. I’m struck by the currency of these works, both politically and artistically.

I’ve also searched out Carl Shuker’s Three Novellas for a Novel  again. I read these in a fug of baby-parenting in 2008, so it’s like reading them anew.

[Pip Adam’s debut novel, I’m Working on a Building, was published earlier this year.]

Dougal McNeill:

Rosa Luxemburg’s Letters are now available in English and in paperback – reading through Verso’s generous collection gives you a chance to see both the personal struggles of this outstanding revolutionary and her developing political views and strategic thinking. Rossana Rossanda’s memoir The Comrade from Milan came out in English a few years ago. It’s a gripping account of a militant life; Rossanda was a partisan in the Italian Communist Party from the Second World War through until the late 1960s. She broke with the Party over Czechoslovakia and went on to found il manifesto, one of Italy’s leading independent radical leftist papers, and remains staunchly on the left. The book is a fascinating and unapologetic account of a life lived in struggle.

The period between the defeat of the Japanese and the horrors of the Korean War saw huge social transformations and conflicts on the Korean peninsula. Suzy Kim’s Everyday Life in the North Korean Revolution 1945 – 1950 draws on documents and records seized by US forces during the war to reconstruct a social history of Korean experience ‘from below’, looking at how villagers’ daily lives changed in these years. Her book is a welcome change from the usual top-down focus of Korean history, right and left. Finally, Gregory T. Cushman’s  Guano and the Opening of the Pacific World is a depressing but illuminating history of the ecologically devastating effects of capitalist farming and production practices – in his case to do with fertiliser made from bird droppings – in the shaping of a capitalist Pacific.

Rebecca Stringer:

Anna Funder’s All That I Am is one of those enthralling, don’t-want-it-to-end books. It tells the story of the amazing Dora Fabian, a German socialist feminist active at the time that Hitler came to power. It charts the terror unleashed by Nazism and the extraordinary courage of those who sought to resist Nazism, through the story of Dora and her significant others, the playwright Ernst Toller, her cousin, Ruth, and various fellow activists and writers, following them through their escape from Germany and subsequent precarious existence in London. I enjoyed this book so much because it succeeds in having that combination of being both intellectually substantial and utterly emotionally gripping, weaving a poignant love story and a vivid account of the bonds forged in political struggle. When the book did end, alas – I sought out more of Funder’s excellent prose, reading and also greatly enjoying her first book Stasiland (2002), a non-fiction exploration of the secret service (the Stasi) in the former East Germany. All That I Am won the 2012 Miles Franklin Literary Award.

[Rebecca Stringer teaches feminist theory at Otago. Her Knowing Victims: Feminism, Agency, and Victim Politics in Neoliberal Times will be published by Routledge in April next year.]

Andrew Tait:

James Robb’s The Chain (Steele Roberts) lays bare the blood and guts – and glory – of the freezing works.

If any job could claim to be typical, in New Zealand it would be the works. From the earliest days, our place in the British imperial scheme was producing meat. A massive, mechanised slaughtering industry was built up from the 1880s, and a workforce to operate it was recruited from all over the country and all over the world.

In the early ’80s, Frank chucks in his work in Hutt Valley and makes a hikoi to Hawke’s Bay in the hope of getting a foot in the door at the works. Mereana is a local, her father is a struggling small farmer. Her uncle Kingi, a union delegate at the plant gets her a job. Adam is rehired despite having been sacked from the plant before, but as he tells Frank when he is also hired, “They can’t sack the white man. There’s not enough of us as it is. Why do you think you got hired?”

In the plant, the new hires get a rough welcome. The story, of Frank, Mereana and Adam, never flags, as temperatures rise over a long, hot summer, leading to a bitter strike against the company’s plans to automate and lay off workers. This is a bitter story – no saviour from on high delivers anyone from anything here – but it is uplifting in the way only an honest story can be.

It filled me with rage against the callous brutality of an industrial system that is so careless with people’s health and lives. And with rage against and contempt for official New Zealand literature and culture. The works are a more typical experience than farming but there are a million and one books, poems, TV programmes, and songs about farming and exactly one about the works – The Chain. When I was a child in Invercargill, I had no doubt that the farmers’ sons were more real New Zealanders than the rest of us, even though there were far more children of freezing workers at school.

The Chain is a bittersweet celebration of the lives of the hundreds of thousands forgotten New Zealanders.

This is our final post for 2013. We wish all our readers and supporters – especially those retail and hospitality workers being pushed hard by their bosses in the lead-up to Christmas – happy holidays. We will resume publication in mid-January 2014.