Friday, November 27, 2009

Great Holiday Reads!

The best books I've read in recent weeks are pictured above. If you're looking for a quality read or two for the upcoming holiday period you could do yourself a favor and read one or more or even all of these.

Peter Temple is an Australian crime novelist who is simply a must read. Five years ago he released The Broken Shore, a truly exhilarating novel which deservedly won a host of local and international awards. He writes literature, which distinguishes him from the great majority of hacks in the crime genre. He also has a incredibly fine ear for the richness and comedy of Australian dialogue. Everybody loved Shore and we were all desperate for another dose.

Along comes Truth. It's not a sequel, so Joe Cashin, the original lead character, a country cop, is barely there. But Villani, a jaded Melbourne senior detective, is an extraordinary and marvellous creation. I never thought I'd say this, but Truth is even better than Shore. The characters are so grounded and interesting, the dialogue is pure pleasure, and the Melbourne-based, multi-layered story, is rich and textured and extremely satisfying.

Much to my shame, I'd never read any Alex Miller before his new one, Lovesong. Miller has won the Miles Franklin twice, with Journey to the Stone Country and The Ancestor Game. Lovesong is simply one of the best books I've read this year (and I'm up to 73 so far!). It's a subtle, deceptively simple, but profound and disturbing story of a marriage and other close relationships. It stayed with me for weeks afterwards. I'm certainly intending to read more Miller and really looking forward to it.

Madeleine St John wrote The Women in Black way back in 1993 and it's just been re-released in Australia by Text. The women of the title all work in ladies wear in a Sydney department store in the repressive late 50's. It's a hugely enjoyable, insightful and comic exploration of their lives and loves, and well worth reading. It's become a bit of a classic and I can see why. Read this and you'll well and truly understand why the 60's was such a necessary revolution.

I picked up David Nicholl's One Day, not really knowing what to expect. (Why do we chose the books we do? I get so conflicted in bookshops when I'm browsing, looking for something that will absorb, satisfy and enlighten. If you pick one you don't pick another. These things take time to read, and making the wrong choice is really annoying, not to say expensive). Anyway, I got lucky with One Day. It's fantastic. It follows two students in London from their graduation to 20 years later, visiting them at the same time each year. They are simply wonderfully drawn characters, very different, whose lives go in totally different directions, but they are inexplicably drawn to each other. Our whole recent history - fashion, music, food, politics, society, etc - is the backdrop to these ordinary yet extraordinary lives. You'll get utterly absorbed in this book, I promise you.

I approached Nick Hornby's Juliet Naked with a fair bit of trepidation as I had a really bad experience a few years ago when I valiantly struggled to get beyond the first 50 pages of How To Be Good but ended up throwing it in the closest rubbish bin! It was dreadful. Juliet Naked however, his latest, is really quite excellent. A nice and sympathetic portrait of a woman who finally realises the man she's been living with for fifteen years or so is a total and ridiculous dick! Hugely enjoyable.

Emily Maguire is a young Australian writer who seems to be everywhere. I picked up her latest, Smoke in the Room, not really knowing what to expect other than a bit of inner city grunge which was fashionable fifteen years ago (what ever happened to Justine Ettler, who wrote the marvellous The River Ophelia?). Smoke in the River's starkly original central character is a 23 year old young woman who is a highly articulate, intelligent but depressed loser. She's a wonderful creation, and it would be marvellous if we could see more of her in Maguire's future works.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Two Great Political Tomes

For the last two weeks I've been thoroughly immersed in these two huge, heavy but wonderful political books. I can wholeheartedly recommend both of them to anybody who loves to luxuriate in the rich details of our contemporary political history.

Ted Kennedy's Memoir is a reflective and beautifully written story of his life and career as a Kennedy and as a member of the US Senate for nearly forty years. The whole rich family saga is here, as well as fascinating behind-the-scenes narratives of all the great legislative battles Kennedy was associated with during the Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Shrub administrations.

What a huge family! Ted was the last of nine children, and his brother Bobby and his wife Ethel had eleven for god's sake. Seemingly, hundreds (well...four) of the family were wiped out in small plane crashes, and disasters of one kind or another overtook many of the rest. You'd have thought they would have learnt not to go out! Still, there's so much love in this book, for family, friends, colleagues and even occasional foes, that makes it so warm and involving, and, frankly, absorbing.

Many of Kennedy's great speeches are liberally quoted, which gives the book a special, literary power as well. Wholeheartedly recommended.

Paul Kelly's The March of Patriots is also an enthralling read. If you want a superb, sympathetic and politically astute overview of Australian politics over the last thirty years you couldn't do any better than this book. And Kelly has a special gift for bringing even the most mundane and complex issues to vivid life. He brings a strong sense of story as well as a wealth of juicy detail to all the great policy initiatives and stoushes that have made the last few decades of our history so fascinating. Keating and Howard are the main protagonists, but there are many more.

He's a bit too fond of 'ism's', like nationalism, regionalism, exceptionalism, globalism, etc, which he uses to give his narrative a dramatic lift and nobler purpose, but nevertheless he remains pretty grounded throughout, and invests the story with plenty of energy and drive.

Huge structural shifts and policy reforms have (thankfully) been unleashed on Australia over the years encompassed by this book, and Keating and Howard have driven them with passion. Kelly's superb chronicling of these events is a must read.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Celebrate these new Australian films!

Blessed opened today around Australia and I rushed to see it because two members of its ensemble cast are simply my favorite female actors alive today: Frances O'Connor and Miranda Otto.

It's become quite fashionable in critical circles to denigrate Australian films of the last few years for being too dark and depressing and decidedly noncommercial. They've become too consciously indie and worthy, luxuriating in being labelled 'gritty'.

There's truth to that, but there's also untruth. See Balibo, Beautiful Kate and Blessed for fine recent examples of excellent local productions that are powerful and emotionally wrenching and worth all the investment that time, money and talent can make in them.

Blessed is simply amazingly good. See it for Frances O'Connor's performance alone. It's not a large role, but it's stunningly raw and harrowing. You don't so much see this film as subject yourself to it, but it's worth every bit of uncomfortableness you'll feel. I simply bawled at the end for at least five minutes. Thank god the credits kept the lights off!

It's directed and co-written by Ana Kokkinos, who wrote the superb Lantana. One of the other co-writers was Christos Tsiolkas, he of Slap fame, that extraordinary novel of modern Australian working class life, which I enthused over in this blog.

There've been plenty of wonderful Australian films released this year. Don't believe all you read.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

The Genius of Paul Krugman

For years now I've been an enthusiastic reader of the Nobel Prize winning US economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman.

For so many reasons this guy is one of my all-time heroes! He's the scourge of the wingnut Republican conservatives in the US, particularly the neocons of recent times. He gives no quarter and lets them get away with nothing.

What makes him so powerful are two very formidable talents: the lucidity of his writing, and his exquisite intelligence.

Virtually singlehandedly he brought an end to Bush's crazy push to privatise social security in his second term, a proposal that would have savaged the entitlements and savings of tens of millions of Americans, but that was being sold as a way of rescuing funds from the dead hand of government bureaucracy so as to generate higher levels of returns on the market for individual citizens. Krugman's relentless and forensic critique of the proposal eventually sank it. Imagine the state those privatised funds would be in now after the financial crisis.

Krugman has written a number of books, but the latest and possibly best is The Conscience of a Liberal. There could be no better introduction to American politics and society than this magnificent and engrossing tome. The chapter on the rotten US health system and why it so desperately needs wholesale reform is one of the best things you could ever read on the subject.

But for a shorter intro to how good this guy is read his recent article in the New York Times called How Did Economists Get It So Wrong?

Krugman got his Nobel Prize for his seminal work on trade theory. He challenged the long held belief that countries traded with one another because of the notion of 'comparative advantage'. Country A is good at making cheese and Country B isn't, so B imports the cheese it needs from A and sells stuff it's good at making to A in return. (Australia sells coal to China and buys cheap manufactured goods from China).

But, wait a about all those countries in Europe who make cars and import them as well? Italy, Germany, France and Sweden all export and import cars at the same time. So in fact does Australia, not to mention the US. Krugman blew the notion of comparative advantage right away. He looked at what was actually happening in the real world and then tried to construct a theory around it, rather than the reverse. Countries export as a way of reaching out to new markets, as a way of growing. And they import what they need and whatever takes their fancy.

This bias towards real world immersion is what has made Krugman such a compelling commentator on the current global financial crisis. He is a strong supporter of the stimulus packages implemented by so many governments around the world (in fact he considers they didn't go far enough) and a fierce denouncer of the 'debt is bad' mantra of wooden-headed conservatives.

Reading Krugman is a tonic, simply invigorating. His columns appear twice a week in the New York Times. I urge you to indulge!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Vale Ted Kennedy

For those of us who came of age in the sixties, and were of a liberal or radical persuasion politically, socially and theologically, Ted Kennedy was a hero.

His defining moment, the one that forever etched its profound mark in our consciousness, was his eulogy for his brother Robert in July, 1968. Simply and movingly he said this: 'My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: 'Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.'

With that familiar New England cadence, common to the Kennedy brothers, with its traces of Irish lilt and rhythm, the melodious upward inflexion in all the right places, Ted Kennedy powerfully defined the contours of much in our lives - the idealism, the reach and failure, the sins and the tragedies.

For over 40 years he engaged in the hard, wrenching and unforgiving task of achieving some sort of practical progress in the cause of a progressive, liberal agenda in the US Senate. He fought fiercely but constantly reached across the aisle when he judged it necessary to secure satisfactory legislative outcomes. He was the epitome of everything the conservatives hated, but in the end earned their respect and enduring friendship. Some of the most moving tributes to him today have come from conservative Republicans.

Ted Kennedy modelled the path of idealism for those of us in less exalted realms and places, and we continue to be inspired.

Thank you Ted.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

M.J. Hyland and Colm Toibin - two new novels

Firstly a note to M.J.Hyland. The 'MJ' is a huge mistake - an awful marketing mistake and an unfortunate literary one as well.

Your name is Maria, one of the most beautiful first names in Christendom, and you should use it. You are not Mary-Jo from Louisiana. From your photographs you are also a beautiful woman physically. Why shrink away from that? Deliberately remaining nebulous and abstracted behind an indeterminate persona is no way to relate to your readers, much less attract new ones, and it is not a gesture of any significance. Authors are located in an historical place and time, a time swirling with the ideas and tensions of a particular social context, and for critical purposes key things about them should be disclosed. Being up front about your sexuality in today's world is a matter of integrity and honesty with your audience. The George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) days are gone. Even T. S. Eliot would present himself today as Thomas Stearns Eliot if he had any sense, which he had in spades. It's a weighty and resonant moniker, impactful. These things are important.

This Is How is Maria Hyland's third novel, and so far the only one of her's I've read. Frankly, I expected much more, given the pretty positive reviews. It's a prison narrative, even a prison procedural, and certainly not very original or insightful on that score. As a psychological portrait of a delusional young man with anger management problems who ends up murdering a recent acquaintance..well, it's just OK. All the usual cliches are there - unhappy childhood, distant father, smothering mother, university dropout, girlfriend leaves him, etc. The prison part makes up half the book and here again the cliches rule - vicious lags, sexual advances and threats, corrupt guards, bashings, rotten food, hopelessness, etc. The novel doesn't so much end as fade away, as it's got nowhere to go -much like the prisoner I guess. A disappointing read.

For a novel that really gets inside the mind and social context of a young person, and builds a narrative of incredible power and resonance, and one that simply won't let you go for days and nights after you've finished it, then read the Irish novelist Colm Toibin's latest, Brooklyn. Like his previous novel The Master, this is a magnificent achievement. The final, life-changing decision that the young female protagonist takes - praised by most reviewers for its rectitude and honor, but utterly wrong in my view for its cowardice and immaturity - is gut-wrenching.

Buy Brooklyn, read it and debate it and tell me I'm wrong.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Slap: a Very Adult Book!

Reading The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas was an extremely refreshing experience for me. I pretend to know something about Australian literature - I majored in it years ago, and have read it extensively since - and think I know something about its broader themes and obsessions.

I subscribe to the fairly traditional school of thought that sees our literature reflecting the Australian experience of social fragility - our almost pathological need to seek shelter from the dark, menacing vastness of the land we inhabit; the deep, meaningless abyss that we're perpetually in danger of being sucked into. We congregate in cities and towns on the more welcoming edges of this continent. Our 'mateship' tradition expresses our deep sense that we survive as a group or not at all. Our fear is of isolation and madness.

While so much of our literature is rural in setting, it is never pastoral and rarely country town. In the 20th century it is dominantly inner city. It reflects the personal and social dynamics of the more educated, urban classes of Balmain and Carlton and the like. The protagonists are writers, broadcasters, teachers; rarely bizoids, middle managers, tradies. The stories and settings are all too familiar and 'literary'. The outer suburbs are non-existent.

It has usually been left to popular fiction, particularly crime fiction, to give us a sense of the broader social realities and how and where the majority of the population actually lives and what they do, think and worry about.

So when a book like The Slap comes along, it registers like a forgotten and surprising force of nature. This book is decidedly non-literary. It is a powerful, emotional, hard-hitting thump in the guts.

It has that rarest of features in Australian literature - muscularity. It is not effete; it is in no way a 'sensitive exploration of..'; it is intense in its earthiness; it has an invigorating physicality.

You will not entirely like most of the characters, male or female. They are not generally sympathetic, but they are frighteningly real and complex, and, in the end, unforgettable.

Much American literature tends to indulge in extremes: characters and situations on the very edge, frequently unrestrained, overripe. Think Mailer, Roth. Australians, like the English, are more genteel, with less of a taste for overt violence and aggression. It shows in our art.

Not The Slap! Here is a book that breaks the mould. It is confronting and bold and deserving of all the accolades and prizes it has received.

Buy it and read it! You won't regret it.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

My Year Without Sex....(the movie!)

Having seen and enjoyed writer/director Sarah Watt's intriguing Look Both Ways, I was looking forward to her next, just released film My Year Without Sex. It's had rave reviews, and stars the brilliant Sascha Horler, whom I've always liked. She's an actress without a trace of method, straight up and down honest. What you see is what you get. Matt Day was also in it, he of the ill-cut, page-boy, hairdo.

What a disappointment. The film is easily the the most boring thing I've seen in years. What drama there was was totally contrived - 'what suburban episode can we shove in now to move the story along another month? - a car crash, a dead pet, a win on the pokies, a bit of anxiety at work, xmas presents (isn't there always some cheap drama in there), a dumb priest at the local church, a kid's birthday party, the easter bunny - god, the cliches keep coming.

Thus it never lifted off. The comedy bits were tiresomely unfunny, and the serious bits lacked anything remotely engaging.

I think Watts was trying to convey the stress entailed in being plain and ordinary in our pressured, consumer society, with its endlessly seductive, false god charms. But the parts never amounted to a whole conveying much meaning at all.

See the indigenous production Samson and Delilah instead. This simple movie is a classic. A film about Aboriginal desperation, written and directed by Michael Thornton, which utterly avoids blaming the white man. Powerful.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Terry Eagleton's Reason, Faith and Revolution.

Ever since I was a very young and innocent man I've read Terry Eagleton. He came to my notice in the late 60's during the Vietnam war. He was a young academic from Cambridge who described himself as a Marxist and co-founded a UK magazine called Slant, which became a fierce, articulate and passionate voice of criticism of Western political and cultural 'decadence'. These were the days of student uprisings and incipient revolutions across the spectrum - political, social, sexual, cultural. It was the counter-culture in full swing. It was a heady and exciting time to be a young student, to say the least.

Over the years Eagleton went on to become an important voice in literary and cultural criticism in Britain, but never lost his taste for radicalism. He also never lost his extraordinary talent for writing. He has written numerous, well-regarded books, and is currently Professor of English Literature at the University of Lancaster and Professor of Cultural Theory at the National University of Ireland in Galway (where he lives).

All this by way of introducing his latest work Reason, Faith and Revolution, which I've been unable to put down for the last three days. I've barely eaten or slept. It's just utterly absorbing. The subtitle is 'Reflections on the God Debate', which is exactly what it is. He takes aim at the anti-God brigade: Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens in particular, authors of The God Delusion and God is Not Great respectively.

It is witty, polemical and wise, full of marvellous literary and philosophical allusions, and wonderfully provocative, with full-frontal attacks on all sorts of juicy targets. And it's such a joy to read. The prose is lively, at times poetic. He is a master of the telling and accurate simile.

If you have a penchant for theology, philosophy, literature and politics - and what civilised person doesn't? - then you will love this book.

Here is a taste:

Astonishingly, we are saved not by a special apparatus known as religion, but by the quality of our everyday relations with one another. It was Christianity, not the French intelligentsia, which invented the concept of everyday life....There is nothing heroic about the New Testament at all. Jesus is a sick joke of a saviour. Messiahs are not born in stables.

It ever there was a pious myth and piece of credulous superstition, it is the liberal-rationalist belief that, few hiccups apart, we are all steadily en route to a finer world.

Science has its high priests, sacred cows, revered scriptures, ideological exclusions, and rituals for suppressing dissent. To this extent, it is ridiculous to see it as the polar opposite of religion.

The sky's the limit, never say never, you can crack it if you try, you can be anything you want: such are the delusions of the American dream. For some in the USA, the C-word is 'can't'. Negativity is often looked upon there as a thought crime. Not since the advent of socialist realism has the world witnessed such pathological upbeatness.

Neoconservatism is a species of fideism, untroubled in its ideological ardour by anything as trifling as reality.

Buy and read this book. As for me, I'm about to read it again!

Sunday, May 24, 2009

The Debate Over??...

Here is a climate alarmist story from today's Sunday Age:

Here is the credible science:

Professor Bob Carter (pictured) is an Australian research scientist at the University of Adelaide, and was formerly head of the School of Earth Sciences at James Cook University in Queensland. His article is a superb summary of the more rational view.

Debate over, my arse!

Friday, May 22, 2009

A Global Warming update...

I ordered these two books from Amazon having become fascinated with the scientific side of the climate change debate after reading Ian Plimer's wonderfully invigorating Heaven+Earth.

Amazon is so good because of its readers' reviews which guide selections from the hundreds of competing tomes on a particular subject. These two books universally got five stars, and I can see why.

The Solomon book is simply outstanding, and I heartily recommend it to anyone who, like me, is getting quite fed up with the repetitive, apocalyptic, 'we'll all be rooned' visions of doomsayers who simply accept the orthodox, consensus, scientific view absolutely uncritically. (Here's what I want on my gravestone: 'He never accepted the party line'!)

There are far more rational perspectives from far more credible scientists around the world, and they are refreshing, optimistic and sane. Solomon reviews the writings and opinions of thirty of them.

For instance, the world renowned Russian scientist Dr Habibullo Abdussamatov says this: 'If the temperature of the ocean rises even a little [due to increased solar activity], gigantic amounts of CO2 are released into the atmosphere through the evaporation of water. It is no secret that increased solar irradiance warms Earth's oceans, which then triggers the emission of large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So the common view that man's industrial activity is a deciding factor in global warming has emerged from a misinterpretation of cause and effect relations'.

'Furthermore....this recent global warming will be short-lived and we are actually on the brink of a global cooling, likely a severe one....The Earth has hit its temperature ceiling, demonstrated by cooling that is occurring on the upper levels of the world's oceans. Solar irradiance has begun to fall, ushering in a protracted cooling period beginning in 2012-2015. The depth of the decline...will occur around 2041...and will inevitably lead to a deep freeze around 2055-60, lasting some 50 years, after which temperatures will go up again. We continue to bask in the remains of heat that the planet accumulated over the 20th century'.

Great stuff eh?

Antonio Zichichi is Italy's most renowned scientist and an outspoken critic of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He argues 'that models used by the IPCC are incoherent and invalid from a scientific point of view....On the basis of actual scientific fact it is not possible to exclude the idea that climate changes can be due to natural causes, and that it is plausible that man is not to blame'.

The problem is that scientists with these sorts of views get very quickly ostracised from the mainstream scientific community whose members universally believe the 'science is settled'. Here's how Al Gore described the sceptics: 'they get together on a Saturday night and party with people who believe the earth is flat and that the moon landing was staged on a movie lot'!

Funny, but sadly, tragically,wrong.

The big question for me is why is there this divide? What psychological and group dynamics are at play? Are we seeing just another example of groupthink, the well documented process of individuals identifying with a group being captured by its leadership and authority and seemingly losing any ability to think independently and critically?


Thursday, May 7, 2009

Two great books!

Of all the marvellous literature I've read this year the following two novels absolutely stand out: The Book Thief by young Australian author Marcus Zusak, and Revolutionary Road by American author Richard Yates.

The Book Thief is an absorbing story of a young German girl coming to terms with life in Nazi Germany in the 30's. It's a book of enormous power and is immensely emotionally satisfying. It was published in 2005 and has been an international bestseller, and no wonder. I highly recommend it.

I missed the recent film, Revolutionary Road, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio, which from all accounts was excellent, so decided to read the novel, first published in 1961. I was absolutely blown away by it. It's magnificent.

And this raises a question. Where has this novel been? Why hadn't I heard of it? Why does Jane Austen and her ilk dominate our secondary and tertiary curricula but not powerful, compelling, challenging, complex, very unsettling stuff like this?

Buy these two and read them. Your soul will grow larger and warmer, and you will become a far better person.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Why do they shoot the crocodile. Part 2.

Is it maybe an expression of humankind's primitive and deeply rooted need for vengeance....a bloodlust that the march of civilisation over thousands of years has not abated?

Is it a simply a manifestation of our continuing war against nature and other species? Humans expressing their superiority? Like we do with the planet generally?

Is it an ancient primordial grievance, an outpouring of anger that we evolved from such beasts?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Why do they shoot the crocodile?

Someone out there, one of my thousands of readers, must know the answer to this. It's not a new question. Why do they shoot the crocodile?

Yesterday a young man in the Northern Territory, ignoring the warnings of his family and friends, attempted to swim across a river to get to his home on the other side. The river was well known for being croc infested.

A passing croc, obviously hungry, did what crocs tend to do and pursued the man for dinner. Successfully.

Today the police shot the croc, and looking slick in their uniforms with their shiny guns, triumphantly announced it to the press.

Did they shoot the magnificent beast, going about its natural business, because it broke the law of the land, which as everyone knows outlaws murder? Did they shoot it because it now, as they say, 'has a taste for human flesh' and might kill again? Did they shoot it to teach a lesson to all other crocs who might be tempted to imitate this wayward one?

Honestly, I don't know. Please enlighten me.

Friday, April 10, 2009


It's Good Friday, easily the most boring and annoying day of the year! It's also a celebration of rank hypocrisy.

Don't you hate how every shop is closed, even supermarkets that people depend on for food? Even most cafes and coffee shops? The rare ones that open are incredibly crowded and the service is soooo slow!

There are two things that are really annoying however: clerics and bikies.

George Pell and Philip Jenson, heads of Australian Catholicism and Anglicanism respectively, make their usual appearance on our TV screens and bore the nation to death with patronising and sentimental talk of...well, what exactly? Nothing of any resonance or meaning, just the usual tired cliches of official churchiness. George can't resist getting political either. Tonight on TV he implied that Rudd's stimulus packages were 'sending the nation into debt'. How would he know? What gives him the right? Why do we have to listen? What are these TV producers thinking?

As for the bikies, do we have to put up with these morons delivering a convoy of easter eggs 'for the kiddies'? Same as they do at Christmas time?

It's so transparently a public con. Show the mugs we're good at heart so we can rape and pillage every other freekin day of the year with impunity! Well I'm not fooled. You are miserable, ugly, fat, murdering scum. Feed your (undoubtedly stolen) eggs and teddy bears to your mangy dogs and get the hell off our TV screens. And take the TV producers who think this is news with you.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Billions of Big Numbers!

Watching Four Corners on the ABC last night (a particularly weak Liz Jackson effort on the Rudd Government's emissions trading scheme) I was struck dumb by the reporter's reference to the big number of $1.7 billion as 'one thousand and seven hundred million dollars'!

Australians used to refer to billions as thousands of millions when I was a kid. It was the British style, billions of anything, let alone money, being so rare that you had to clarify exactly what it meant. Pedants, technically right probably, thought billions were million of millions, not thousands of millions, and that the Americans, who always considered it thousands of millions (just as millions were thousands of thousands), were, as usual, ignorant.

The media world long ago conquered the pedants and everybody now means thousands of millions when talking about billions. Billions are commonplace now. The number is everyday parlance.

But occasionally some sophisticate, usually on the ABC, has to remind us common folk that a billion is actually a big number like 'a thousand million'! It is so condescending.

The other thing that profoundly annoys me is the habit of newspapers to always convert everything to Australian dollars when quoting a US dollar amount. The business pages are full of references to US dollars. The accepted way of doing it is to write $US then the amount, as in $US100.

The fact is everybody knows what a US dollar is and what it is worth, especially the general readership of the business and economic stories. We don't need the amount to be converted into Australian dollars just to bring it home for us.

Six months or so ago, when the A$ was worth around 95 US cents the Australian dollar equivalent was not that much different. But now that the dollar is weak again, around 65 US cents, the amount is quite different. BUT THIS DOES NOT MEAN THAT ALL OF A SUDDEN THINGS PRICED IN US DOLLARS ARE THAT MUCH MORE EXPENSIVE AND THE JOURNALIST SHOULD HELPFULLY POINT THAT OUT TO US. In US dollar terms they are not any more expensive at all.

What I'm trying to say is that the converting to A$ on a constant basis is not just stylistically annoying and patronising, but wrong because it introduces an unrelated and distracting reflection on the vicissitudes of the A$ exchange rate when that is not the point of the story in any way. Everything doesn't have to be seen through the eyes of an Australian.

Barack Obama's 'trillion dollar stimulus package' is understandable as is. It should not be translated into Australian dollars because the amount is relevant and proportionate only to the US economy, not the Australian economy, and it's wrong for it to be understood as A$1.5t today whereas it was only A$1.05t mid last year.

Radio presenters worsen this when they refer to the package as 1.5 trillion Australian dollars in interviews with Americans. It's not.

Glad I've got that off my chest!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

The Priest, the Archbishop and a very unedifying stoush.

It seems to me that the only thing Father Peter Kennedy, who has been sacked as Administrator of St Mary's church in Brisbane, has done wrong is to have been about as politically and institutionally inept as you could imagine.

He couldn't muster the wit to live and work and carry out his progressive ministry in that state of tension and ambiguity within the established institutional church that liberals, dissenters, outsiders and thousands of others over the years have had to do. They've learnt to co-exist by developing a sophisticated survival mode that keeps them sufficiently under the radar to avoid provoking direct rebuke and disendorsement to no-one's advantage.

Peter Kennedy, from what I've read, seems a pretty harmless sort of bloke, spruiking a familiar mix of new-agey, Jesus-loves-youse-all, comfort food from his pulpit, and offending no-one, other than the seriously intelligent.

Quaint little liturgical flourishes like not wearing vestments, allowing women to preach, blessing gays, baptising in the name of 'the Creator, the Sustainer and the Liberator of life' instead of the official 'Father, Son and Holy Spirit' are hardly the stuff of revolution or heresy, being more a sign of theological insipidity than informed dissent.

It was always going to be possible for the institution to allow Kennedy to operate. But Kennedy, seemingly, did not have the smarts.

The Catholic church has survived for 2000 years partly by being fanatical about authority and control, but by also being politically astute and inclusive. It's one of the grand institutions of history, remarkable for its continuing vitality, even existence, in today's post-modern, wise-arse world. It's an institution splattered with the mud of history, rich in its beliefs, liturgies, traditions and articulations, and deserving, I would have thought, of a fair measure of respect from cultured, literate people of any persuasion.

Kennedy should have been able to deal with it. It's a measure of the man that he couldn't.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Sad Case of Brendan Turnbull

I just don't get Malcolm Turnbull!

Here is a guy who took on the might of the Thatcher government in the Spycatcher trial in the 80's and virtually single handedly won a great victory for free speech and liberalism; here was a guy who took on the Howard government in the 90's in his leadership of the Republican movement and uttered those immortal lines about Howard: 'he broke a nation's heart'; here was a guy whose savvy, confidence and intelligence made virtual plodders out of most CBD suits he dealt with in the decade before he entered Parliament.

I was a big fan!

When Brendan Nelson narrowly won the leadership of the Coalition after Howard's defeat in 2007, I saw Malcolm that night in the lobby of the Westin Hotel in Melbourne and rushed up to him to offer support, appreciation and my confidence that it wouldn't be long before he assumed the leadership. He looked shocked (who is this idiot, he probably thought!) and boomed in a loud voice for the whole lobby to hear 'ha, ha, Brendan will be Prime Minister in three year's time!'

I guess it was at that point that I met the capacity for self-delusion and haughtiness that has become apparent since Malcolm seized his prize.

So we've arrived at this point where he has got himself into a godawful place in his leadership of the conservatives as he confronts the Rudd government's response to the financial and economic crisis the world finds itself in. Despite economists the world over urging huge and immediate government spending packages to kick start plummeting consumer confidence and business investment, and appreciating full well in this globally interconnected world the untried and unproven nature of these initiatives, just that they be the 'three T's': Targeted, Temporary and Timely', Malcolm is calling, incessantly and only, for tax cuts, and railing against Rudd for indulging in massive 'Whitlamesque spending' and, the horror, the horror, sending the federal budget into deficit..

Like the defeated rabble of Republicans in the US opposing Obama's massive trillion dollar package in Congress, the Conservatives in Australia, utterly untuned to the zeitgeist, are balefully lamenting the long overdue return of government intervention in the economy when it is needed. Intervention might be OK for a smackdown in the Territory, but not for pumping adrenalin into a moribund body economic.

Malcolm is calling for government abdication not intervention. But no-one is, or should be, listening. The incredible political dumbness of it is hard to comprehend. Listening to Shadow frontbencher Andrew Robb being interviewed by Fran Kelly on Radio National yesterday, I was gobsmacked by his passionate defense of the tax cut line (remember, this is their only strategy), perversely ignorant of the views of the world's economists, of what all other countries are doing, of the pleadings of business and other organisations, and unforgivably, of the measured views and sentiments of the electorate.

As I see it Malcolm, in his unbridled ambition, has got himself into an impossible place. He will lose the next election, no doubt about that, and his party will be looking around for a new leader. And this is why Costello will soon announce his intention to stand again for his seat of Higgins at the next election, rather than retire and move into the private sector. He will be available to assume, at his colleagues' urgings, his rightful place as leader.

Don't imagine for a moment this scenario has not been in Costello's mind all along.

The interesting thing to watch, however, will be this: Malcolm will still be there, smiling and seething and plotting on a Costello shadow front bench. And when Costello loses the election after next, he'll be back.

Then he'll likely win in 2016.

Fascinating isn't it! Anyone for a long term bet?

Monday, January 19, 2009

Clint Eastwood's Gran Torino

Although it's being heralded as Eastwood's 'masterwork', Gran Torino is anything but in my humble opinion.

On the surface it's a reasonably well made piece, with a fine acting performance from Eastwood as a grumpy old man coming to terms with his new Chinese neighbours.

But on a deeper level it's a nasty piece of work. This grumpy old man turns out to be about as racist as any middle American white can get. We are asked, as the audience, to empathise with him, and there are heaps of funny lines about 'coons', 'chinks', 'slopes', etc that are meant to suck you in and side with the old man as he struggles to get his bearings in multicultural America.

And of course the guy is so into guns! Besides his vintage car, the Gran Torino - a Ford, by the way, not a 'fucking Asian truck' - guns are a central feature of this Korean war veteran's life. He carries them everywhere. The perfect American solution to every conceivable problem. Blow the thugs away, that'll solve it. He's the regular hero.

The growing relationship and affection between him and his neighbours is predictable fare in movies like this, as, after all, we old-style Americans with our hearts of gold will win them all over in the end.

Bush and Cheney would love this movie.

Gran Torino is pure American fantasy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ministers of Miscommunication

What is it about Australian Federal Ministers of Communication? Invariably, they're absolutely hopeless!

Let's look at what we've had to suffer over the last twenty or so years:

1. Two parallel fibre optic cables running down most streets in our metropolitan cities. The genius behind this utterly wasteful investment in duplicated capacity was perhaps one of the worst communication ministers this country has ever had: Labor's Michael Lee in the Keating government. He decided that, instead of mandating Telstra (government controlled at that time) to build the cable network, he'd structure a bottom up competitive environment and force Optus to build its own cable network if it wanted to be part of the telecommunications game. Ridiculous! Just as the whole copper wire network that our fixed line phones use is owned by Telstra, for legacy reasons, and they simply lease it out to their competitors, so the same rational thing should have been done for fibre optic cable.

Lee's biggest mistake however was probably his decision to begin the sell-off of the whole of Telstra without first splitting it into two distinct parts - the infrastructure development part, and the retail services part. The infrastructure responsibility - the pre-competitive part - should have been kept in government hands and only the customer facing stuff - mobile phone and broadband plans, installing business networks, etc - sold off. Had this been done we wouldn't have the disastrously inadequate broadband situation we enjoy (!) in this country at present.

2. The puerile beating-up on the ABC. Richard (dead eyes) Alston, minister in the Howard government, made belting the ABC an art form. None of it, however, was propelled by any level of intelligence, just a dumb neo-con prejudice against public broadcasting. Alston, whose sole political philosophy was to be 'anti-Labor' (yes, amazing I know, but Alston actually got off on it!) hated the 'left' that he thought ran the ABC, and constantly demanded time-wasting investigations by management into so-called left wing 'bias'. In reality Alston hated intelligent commentary and criticism. He simply couldn't cope with it. He did nothing remotely productive during his long, nine-year term. His successor, Helen Coonan, was hardly an improvement. She spent all her time shirtfronting Telstra, who had by this time become quite annoyed with government policy, as you would!

3. Conroy! Enough said! Current minister Steven Conroy has an amazing record of stuffing up big time in only twelve months in the job. That's sort of hard, but obviously not for this dope. Firstly he continued Coonan's unproductive disregard of Telstra's natural monopoly in infrastructure ownership and development in this country by staging a meaningless 'tender' for the construction of the national fibre-to-the-node broadband roll out, as if any other outfit than Telstra could profitably and efficiently build it. Before bidding Telstra wanted an assurance that it wouldn't eventually be broken up (a pre-Michael Lee option), but Conroy wouldn't give it, a nice piece of irony to be sure! So Telstra said stuff you and didn't play ball. It's sort of heroic for a minister to tell this huge, admittedly arrogant, corporation to play by the rules or go to hell, but that's sort of like telling Qantas, a private company like Telstra, that its domestic and international operations could be broken up in the future, but, by the way, please invest huge amounts of shareholders' money in buying new generation aircraft so Australians can enjoy world class travel. Despite the Rudd government's $4.7 billion broadband subsidy for the winning bidder, Telstra is the only operation with the technical knowhow, connectivity capability, reach into every home and financial heft to do the job before we all die.

Secondly, Conroy has continued the Howard government's pathetic plan to censor our Web access to 'protect our kids from porn'. Well, what can you say! All experts, repeat, ALL, say it can't be done without seriously slowing down our already snail-like access speed, and all, repeat ALL, say that any filter would act far too indiscriminately and block wholly legitimate sites.

Forget the kids for god's sake, you little man, you unappealing combination of the worst of left and right! Leave that to their parents. And if the poor little protected middle class buggers see some in-and-out occasionally, well so what! God, think of the kids in Gaza.

Rudd would do us all a favor if he ended Conroy and installed a minister who could CUT THROUGH all the inherited bullshit and get on with the task of bringing Australia into the 21st century.

Don't hold your breath!

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Doubt, the movie.

The Pulitzer prize winning play by John Patrick Shanley, Doubt, has been brought to the screen and is definitely worth seeing. It stars Meryl Streep and the golden-voiced Philip Seymour Hoffman (who can do no wrong!).

Meryl Streep is the head nun and Principal of the local Catholic school. Basically she's a dragon looking for something to incinerate. Unfortunately Streep's her usual, distracting, self in the role. She seems to bring echoes of every character she's ever played to all her current roles. Her facial ticks, the oblique way she looks at other characters, her familiar head movements (as the great New York Times critic Pauline Kael once wrote 'she only acts with her head'), these all get in the way.

Hoffman's priest is perfect though. With his warmth, largeness and obvious humanity, you just know he doesn't belong and won't last in this cloistered, straightened, pre-conciliar time (1964). But you also know, because you just know, that sexually there is a problem.

The nun accuses the priest of interfering with an altar boy.

From the start and all the way through the undolding drama, though there's no evidence whatsoever, the audience is on Streep's side. We know now a lot more than we did forty years ago. We know about priests and pedophilia and the scandals of the last decade and the way bishops avoided responsibility and simply moved the accused around different parishes rather than confronting the problem. Admirably the nun confronts it, and of course the predictable happens.

My guess is that the play would have had more confronting scenes and richer, challenging dialogue. In this film version you get the sense things have been watered down a bit.

Take the ending: why do Americans love feeble, tick-a-box, emotional closures? The final scene is thoroughly unnecessary and simply not credible. It reduces the drama rather than heightens it.

Nevertheless see this movie. You don't have to have had a Catholic upbringing to enjoy it.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Woody Allen and his magnificent oeuvre

I think I must be, quietly, one of the most dedicated and loyal Woody fans in the universe! Not that I participate in all that traditional fan activity stuff, but that I've seen all his movies and love them all. Literally! Even Stardust Memories which came out in 1980 and was fairly universally panned, only because everybody who saw it, except me, misunderstood it! (See note 1 below).

What I like about Woody is his vision. It's utterly consistent, has been fleshed out in every conceivable dimension throughout his long career, and neatly underpins his humour, his exaggerated Jewishness, his acting and directorial style, his choice of actors, his choice of wives and girlfriends, his musical passions, his obsession with New York, his European longings, etc.

What is his vision? Two films, in my view, exquisitely express it: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and his latest Vicky Cristina Barcelona.

Woody's always grappling with the tension between the thrill of a transitory romantic attraction and the faithfulness required of a deeper, long term, usually marital commitment.

While he loves beautiful, passionate, preferably young women and continually explores and enjoys the emotional vicissitudes associated with male involvement with them, he always undercuts with a clear, almost moral, preference for marriage. He never lets the romance triumph over the familial and social obligations of the deeper, personal, institutional relationship.

It's surprising how many critics and reviewers miss this essential point. For example Margaret Pomeranz confesses she can't handle Woody's attitude to women anymore: he pits youthful beauty against the harridan, echoing his personal life. Wrong Margaret. Something a lot deeper is happening here and you're not noticing it.

Paul Byrnes, writing in the Herald, has Woody exalting romantic Barcelona-type relationships against boorish American bourgeois banality. Wrong Paul. Precisely the opposite is happening.

Woody doesn't exalt marriage, but nor does he simply tolerate it. He recognises the necessity of it and celebrates the heroism of it. And he conveys exquisitely the mundane, tough reality of it.

I also think he's honest about it, as he knows not all of us are up to it.

It's a wonderful, life affirming vision, told obliquely, skillfully and artfully.

See Vicky Cristina Barcelona and hire out Hannah and Her Sisters and tell me I'm wrong.

(Note 1: In the opening scene of Stardust Memories Woody departs the train station in a carriage, but his gaze is fixed on the people in the adjacent carriage departing in the opposite direction. They are all uniformly beautiful. After making Annie Hall, Interiors and Manhattan, Woody is telling us that he is now taking a ride with the uglies! The camera pans his fellow travellers, those in his carriage, and we get the point...! Woody has a few basics to get across and have his audience emotionally confront).

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Stuff not connected with books or publishing

This is my second blog, where I'll post all sorts of reflections, movie and restaurant reviews, rants about politics and society, critiques of how people walk, etc.

I want to keep it separate from the book blog Pub Date Critical, which is more serious and professional, relating as it does to my former career. However I'll put most of the book reviews on both blogs, as they'll be relevant to both audiences.

Hope you find it interesting and fun..and occasionally provocative. If it's ever boring, however, please let me know.