Friday, December 31, 2010

Wonderful new Boxing Day movies

The King's Speech is well worth seeing, although you sort of have to put up with all the emotional tics of the blue rinse set who mostly make up the audience - all their oohs and aahs as the (later) Queen Mum and the little royals (Elizabeth and Margaret) are played as ever so loving and cutesy. This movie is sentimentality writ large. Nothing is spared to tug at the heart strings of even the most cynical in the audience, let alone the aged and faded monarchists flocking to it. Colin Firth is suberb as George VI, and even Geoffrey Rush, of whom I've never been a great fan, portrays a likeable Aussie without stooping to the cliched Bazza Mackenzie oafishness. Hugely enjoyable. 

I debated with myself whether I'd see Blue Valentine, as I don't relish overripe scenes of domestic strife a la Americain. But this exceptionally good movie rises above the usual cliches of the genre. Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling should both get Oscars for their performances. They manage to convey the rawness and richness of these ordinary working class lives, yet with a subtlety that simply left me speechless. And there is so much going on in this movie, that only occurs to you afterwards, maybe days afterwards. It is simply brilliant. A classic.

Somewhere, the new one from the marvellous Sofia Coppola, is receiving both highly positive and highly negative reviews from a variety of critics. Margaret and David both loved it, but Jim Schembri from The Age hated it, calling it 'cosmically ponderous'! I had to see it! I was fully expecting to agree with Jim, who nailed it on the new Harry Potter after all, and he reminded me how much I disliked Coppola's Marie Antoniette.
Nevertheless, he was wrong. Somewhere is every bit as good as Lost in Translation, if not better. It's a distillation of all Coppola's obsessions, and done with poetry and enormous suggestiveness. Virtually every frame is full of resonance. Lives of quiet desperation, with little meaning or connectedness, a painful emptiness, a constant longing - these are her themes. Here again I've been thinking about this movie for days, relishing it and marvelling at how she managed to convey so much with such economy. Just see it.

For some light relief I thought I'd see the new French romcom Heartbreaker, starring the impossibly handsome Romain Duris and Johnny Depp's lovely French wife Valerie Paradis. I enjoyed it a lot. Three and a half stars.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

My Top 10 books 2010

Here, in order, are my Top 10 lists for fiction and non-fiction for 2010. I've posted reviews of most of these titles on this blog previously.


Eva Hornung, Dog Boy
Ian McEwan, Solar
David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin
Jonathan Franzen, Freedom
Orhan Pamuk, The Museum of Innocence
Philip Pullman, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ
Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
Craig Silvey, Jasper Jones
Jeremy Chambers, The Vintage and the Gleaning


John Heilemann and Mark Halperin, Race of a Lifetime
Michael Lewis, The Big Short
Sarah Ellison, War at the Wall Street Journal
Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22
Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Nomad
Tony Blair, The Journey
Geoffrey Robinson, The Case of the Pope
John B Thompson, Merchants of Culture
Timothy Wu, The Master Switch
George Megalogenis, Trivial Pursuit

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Jonathan Franzen's Freedom

It's been three months since I've posted. I'm sorry. It's not that I haven't read anything. In fact I've read some excellent stuff, mainly non-fiction. For example, Tony Blair's exceptionally interesting memoirs; Geoffrey Robertson's persuasive and damning indictment of Pope Benedict's refusal to radically confront the huge problem of paedophilia in the Catholic priesthood; Paul Berman's Flight of the Intellectuals, which is a fairly savage critique of currently chic Islamic theologian Tariq Ramadan and his liberal stance in regard to Islam and its place in Western societies; and John Thompson's very interesting survey and analysis of today's US and UK book publishing industry - Merchants of Culture (which I'm reviewing in the international publishing journal LOGOS, out in November). 

But my review today is of Jonathan Franzen's new novel Freedom. I'd read his first novel The Corrections when it came out in 2001 and went on to win the prestigious National Book Award. I enjoyed it, but can't say I loved it. I found it rather dry and frequently tedious, and most of the characters cold and distant. Technically of course it was brilliant. But Freedom, in my humble opinion, is a far more interesting and accomplished work. Without a shadow of a doubt, this book will become a classic of American literature. Put simply, it's spellbinding. It's absolutely enthralling. It's easily the best American novel I've read in years - up there with the classic Middlesex, and probably better.

It's the story of two young people who are attracted to each other in college, and then marry, for better or worse. They have two kids, who, unfortunately but fairly universally, develop personalities of their own. They all grow, develop careers, interact with society and politics. They have wide and varied family networks, and friends supportive and dangerous. Franzen's genius is in the way he creates full, living, breathing, passionate and thoroughly modern human beings. The ripe, combative richness of modern America is here - the passionate liberal versus conservative politics, the anger of middle America, the educated Eastern elites versus the resentful working class. It's Bush and Cheney's America - 9/11, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the coming of Obama.

But, in the end, Freedom is not a political book. It's a novel of love and hope - the deep, profound connections between human beings that bind and last, no matter the pain, the wrenching divisions, the awful disappointments. Read this book for the dialogue alone - the arguments, the angry phone calls, the sheer intelligence and emotional intensity of their verbal interactions. It's spellbinding. The writing is magnificent. Witty, alive, ambitious.

The ending, which was absolutely right, had me in tears. I could barely find my way to the scotch bottle. Much American literature has always struck me as overripe. Everything is bigger, larger than life, more intense and dramatic than any ordinary reader has ever experienced. The English are subtle, understated. But Freedom, although thoroughly within the American tradition, has a sureness and credibility that resonates.

Read this book over the Xmas holiday season. It's 562 pages long, so you need the time get involved in its world.

You won't regret it, and you will emerge a far better human being.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Brett Easton Ellis: Imperial Bedrooms

Imperial Bedrooms is a sequel to Brett Easton Ellis' first published novel Less Than Zero (1985). Like Salinger's Catcher in the Rye thirty four years previously, LTZ seemed to define the zeitgeist of a generation, and propelled the 21 year old Ellis to literary superstardom, an exaltation he has struggled with, and indeed creatively mined, ever since.

Many critics seem to think Ellis essentially is this self-referential teller of the one evolving story - the story of his rich Los Angeles friends and their aimless, destructive rituals, and his place as an author at once participating and observing. But I don't think this really defines Ellis at all.

To me he wrote one of the greatest English novels of the post-war age, a true classic - American Psycho. When this was first published in 1991 most countries, including Australia, banned it outright, or only allowed it to go on sale if shrink-wrapped!! I was living in Queensland at the time and simply couldn't get it. A friend sent me a copy from the US (this was pre-Amazon days).

American Psycho was a savage, devastating critique of late 20th century decadence. A searing, powerful, relentless indictment of meaningless, indulgent, voyeuristic lives. Many readers were warned off it because of the violence. Too bad really. They missed the entire point. Your nose had to be rubbed in it - that was the point.

So where does the new novel Imperial Bedrooms fit within the Ellis oeuvre?

It's a disappointment. Nowhere near the power or resonance of American Psycho, and missing the freshness and surprise (perhaps this is to be expected) of Less Than Zero. The same Ellis obsessions are there, however. His young friends from 25 years ago are now power-players in Hollywood, making B-grade movies, attending endless parties, awards nights, launches, etc, but still as vacuous, bored and desperate as ever. They have become the Champagne dregs, with all the appurtenances of material success - BMWs, BlackBerries, fake tans, fake faces - but none of the substantiality of character. There are no wives or kids, just endless, meaningless sex with young, grasping, aspiring actors. The only coinage the women have is their c..t. The main character, Clay, is a sick, perverted, sexual predator. Truly an ugly human being.. 

Ellis is a chronicler of surface glitter. But there is always menace, a sense of being caught up in something larger, an overriding evil. Violence is always happening or threatening, and is as meaningless as the glitter and baubles.

Unlike in Less Than Zero there is an unfolding dramatic narrative in Imperial Bedrooms, but it is less than believable and rather contrived. I thought at one stage I was reading a script for Days of Our Lives! There was dialogue but no communication. But then again, this is quintessentially Ellis.

If you like Ellis you'll like this book. I certainly liked it, although it's far from his best.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet

I must admit I approached this new novel from English novelist David Mitchell with a certain amount of trepidation. I hadn't read his widely praised Cloud Atlas, which was shortlisted for the Booker in 2004, but I knew it was regarded as a 'difficult read'.

Well, his new novel The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet is absolutely brilliant. This book will be soon regarded as a classic. It is a rich, absorbing, highly dramatic and hugely enjoyable saga of life and society set in a secluded, anti-Western and anti-Christian Japan in 1799. The sea-faring Dutch have managed to negotiate a commercial relationship with the isolationist Japanese authorities, and have been allowed to set up a small piece of 'foreign territory' on a small island in the port of Nagasaki.

The intense relationships between the Dutch themselves and between them and the Japanese provide most of the drama of the book. The dialogue is superb, enlivened by an earthy crudity that is frequently funny and, of course, downright racist in today's terms:

'The jaundiced pygmies'.

'What was that frog-croak? I hate a man...who farts in French and expects applause'.

Towards the end of the book the British get involved, and carry on as only the British know how ('So let's give this despotic backwater a taste of the coming century..'). But 'untainted' Japan is an equally flawed and brutal society, with sheer evil and hypocrisy riddled throughout.

'If only, Shiroyama dreams, human beings were not masks behind masks behind masks. If only this world was a clean board of lines and intersections. If only time was a sequence of considered moves and not a chaos of slippages and blunders'. 

The re-creation of that moment in history two centuries ago brings home some basic truths that Mitchell constantly underscores. The ordinary lives of ordinary human beings today are qualitatively better on just about every level and on any measure. There is no romanticising of the past going on here. In terms of medicine (there were no x-rays or antibiotics so people suffered awfully from common complaints we can cure so easily now), communications (replies to letters took three years to arrive), education (superstition and sheer ignorance had awful consequences), social structures (slaves and the lower classes were treated with abject cruelty), law and justice (corruption reigned supreme), and international relations (power and subjugation ruled) - compared to these brutish realities the modern world is a highly civilised place.

We tend to forget this. Mitchell rubs our noses in it.

In the end this book celebrates the value of honorable and courageous men and women, individuals who stand up for what is right, and thus power the progress of liberation for all.

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet  is an enormously satisfying novel, and I urge you to read it. You won't be disappointed.

I predict a shortlisting for the Booker, for sure.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Recent Books Worth Reading

David Marr's Quarterly Essay on Kevin Rudd is a fascinating read. It's a sensitive and incisive overview of the driving forces in Rudd's life and career, and the final 20 or so pages (of 86 in all) are simply superb. Buy it for these alone. As a writer Marr has an extraordinary ability to cut through his expertly assembled material with arresting short, sharp jabs that give the narrative a punchiness that keeps it constantly moving and interesting. Many lesser writers would find writing a lengthy piece on someone as intrinsically deadening as Rudd an almighty challenge!

Here's a typical para:

 'Hours aren't the issue. Bureaucrats don't mind working hard, long days. They object to feeding material in when nothing much comes out; demands made at midnight that might be made at midday; wild flurries of activity driven by petty media squalls; calls for detailed briefing on fourth-rank issues that need never go near a prime minister; and urgent requests for material they know to be sitting in Rudd's office already. They mind wasting their time.' (p.72)

You don't have to agree with Marr's conclusion that Rudd is 'a politician with rage at his core, impatient rage.' But you will have to acknowledge that he has painted a truly revealing portrait of a profoundly irritating man.

Young, gay Brisbane writer Benjamin Law has written a truly enjoyable memoir of growing up in a rather eccentric Chinese-Australian family from the Sunshine coast.  His mother, Jenny, is hilarious, a wonderful creature, full of quirks and personality, and the rest of his family - five kids and an absent father - are pretty much the same. It's brilliantly written, with a deceptively light touch, often refreshingly crude, and frequently LOL funny.

Paul Harding's Tinkers won this year's Pulitzer Prize for fiction so I was keen to read it. It is quite a short book of 191 pages, but it is not an easy read. It's highly literary and tightly written as a poem. You need to be in the mood for this. If you feel miserable, profoundly ordinary and insignificant, and prone to wonder if it's all worth it, then you will be in absolutely the right frame of mind to enjoy it. It's a meditation on ordinariness, on little people with little, seemingly unnoticed and barely meaningful lives, as they just go about tinkering.

I can do no better than quote Marilynne Robinson's brilliant prose from the blurb: 'Tinkers is truly remarkable. It achieves and sustains a unique fusion of language and perception. Its fine touch plays over the textured richnesses of very modest lives, evoking again and again a frisson of deep recognition, a sense of primal encounter with the brilliant, elusive world of the senses. It confers on the reader the best privilege fiction can afford, the illusion of ghostly proximity to other human souls'.

If you read and enjoyed Scott Turow's magnificent bestseller Presumed Innocent, which was published in 1987, then you simply have to read his just published follow-up Innocent. Turow is a (still practicing) criminal lawyer and his fiction is imbued with the law and its players - the court system, the prosecution, the defense, and of course the guilty and the innocent. But what gives the the books their power is his ability to craft believable characters in all their emotional depth and complexity. The drama derives from them and their interaction as much as it does from the inevitable playing out of the legal processes in the courtroom.

Don't read this follow-up until you read the original. Do yourself a favor - take a week off and read them both.

I read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's autobiography Infidel when it was published in 2007, and was profoundly moved by it. It was the story of her life as an intelligent girl in a Muslim family in the deeply tribal and war-ravaged African country of Somalia, and how she eventually escaped to the Netherlands and discovered the liberating philosophies and lifestyles of the West. Essentially the book was a relentless assault on Islam, and particularly its treatment of women.

Nomad, just released, tells of her time as a controversial and outspoken parliamentarian in Holland and her eventual migration to America after she received serious death threats from fanatical Muslims. It is a seriously enjoyable book. Ali is a highly intelligent and gifted writer, and like any convert, passionate about the new life of political, religious and intellectual freedom she has discovered. It is impossible not to cheer her on. The obstacles she overcomes are legion.

Yet, Hirsi Ali presents us in the West with an almighty challenge: she is a denouncer of all things Islamic. Not just the so-called Islamofascists, who commit terrorist atrocities; who murder their own wives, daughters and sisters to protect male 'honour'; who mutilate young female genitals as part of a cruel circumcision rite; who force women to cover themselves from head to foot in heavy, hot gowns, devoid of any religious meaning; who proclaim murderous fatwas against Booker prize-winning novelists and Danish cartoonists.

Ali is not just against these. She is against Islam as such. She does not believe there can be any such thing as 'Moderate Islam'. Westernised, moderate, Muslim theologians are 'trapped in confusion...because they want to maintain that the Quran is perfect scripture, and that all of its key injunctions - kill the infidels, ambush them, take their property, convert them by force; kill homosexuals and adulterers; condemn Jews; treat women as chattel - are mysterious errors of translation'.

'Afflicted with similar pangs of white guilt, many prominent Christian theologians have also become accomplices of jihad'.

According to Ali 'Islam is not just a belief;it is a way of life, a violent way of life. Islam is imbued with violence, and it encourages violence.'

She calls on the Christian churches to reactivate their missionary past, to virtually re-create the crusades, and work to free young minds and spirits in Muslim countries from falling prey to the menace of Islam. Too many Muslims are 'seeking God but finding Allah', because they are not being exposed to more enlightened voices'.

It is a radical precept, but a potent one from a crucially important voice. Highly recommended.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Murdoch and Hitchens: Two Great Non-fiction Reads

Over the last two weeks I've read Sarah Ellison's War at the Wall Street Journal and Christopher Hitchens' Hitch-22. You won't find any better non-fiction around at present. Both books are superb.

Sarah Ellison was a senior reporter with the WSJ during the months of struggle by Rupert Murdoch to acquire the paper, a true American icon, in 2007. She covered the story for the Journal, so was in a prime position to bring all the threads together to produce what must be one of the best business books of the year (up there with Michael Lewis' The Big Short).

What is simply amazing about this book is the incredible access Ellison obviously had to all the players, major and minor, in the drama. This is about as 'inside' as a book can get. It's almost as if she had secret microphones under board tables, tray tables, crockery, car seats, beds, urinals...whatever. Everybody seems to have disclosed virtually every piece of detail to her. Even Murdoch himself seems to have allowed her unlimited access. 

But the real pleasure of the book is the riveting tale itself - how the Bancroft family, owners of the Journal for over a century, were slowly but surely worn down and outmanoeuvred by a master at the game. 

And the subsidiary story is just as powerful: it's about newspapers and their future, if any. How, in the first instance, would the WSJ change under Murdoch's control - would the culture, values and journalistic integrity it enshrined for decades be undermined? And how would, not just it, but all newspapers fare in a radically changing media world?

Ellison is fair, broad-minded, and professional to the end. Her own biases are never thrust down the reader's throat. But the facts she marshalls speak for themselves. The Journal is a very different paper two years after Murdoch took control. Many observers lament this. But Murdoch, of course, begs to differ: 'We produced a better paper. I'm sorry but it's as simple as that'.

I've long been a fan of Christopher Hitchens, one of the West's most vociferous and intelligent defenders against fascists, extremists, dictators, totalitarians and other fools. Since the Iraq war however, when he, alone in leftist circles, came out in support of Bush's 2003 invasion, he has been pretty universally vilified by friend and foe alike, and he's challenged the loyalty of his many fans. He's also recently, of course, joined the Atheist brigade along with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. (I found his 2008 treatise God is Not Great almost unreadable in its anthropological ignorance and all round pomposity).

Hitch-22, A Memoir can be seen as a monumental justification of his unpopular positions (it's a densely typed 435 pages), or as a fascinating exploration of his lifelong obsessions, beliefs, passions and friendships. It's clearly the latter but works also as the former.

This is a beautifully written story of a passionate believer in political liberalism, secularism and global democracy. One admirable feature of Hitchens' style of journalism is his constant determination to get out from under his desk, to get away from his books, friends and comfortable lifestyle, and personally visit the trouble spots of the world on a regular basis. He's been a political activist, a player, all his life, from his rabble-rousing Oxford and Cambridge days, through to his frequent excursions to Cuba, Poland, Argentina, Romania, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Israel, Zimbabwe, Cyprus, Morocco, Uganda, Venezuela, Nicaragua and many others.

He's almost Woody Allen's Zelig, his famous everywhere man...talking to heads of state and other key players at seemingly every momentous turning point in world history.

But one of the real pleasures of this book is the fine intellect and profound literary and cultural erudition that underpins it. There are so many wonderful allusions and apt quotes - they could be assembled as small books in themselves. And talk about interesting friends!

Hitchens is a fabulous character who has written a fabulous book. Well worth an investment of your time.

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Miles Franklin Shortlist: and the winner is..?

The Miles Franklin literary award is Australia's most famous, as well as being its most controversial. This year one shortlisted author, Alex Miller, received headlines when he offered the quite reasonable observation that Kevin Rudd's new 'Prime Ministers Award' was a mistake, and that the substantial prize money on offer could have been better spent bolstering the preeminent and far more prestigious Miles Franklin.

Apart from the fakery wrought by the dreadful Helen Darville in 1994 when her The Hand That Signed the Paper, supposedly written by one Helen Demidenko, caused a critical and media sensation, most of the controversy and debate over the years has been caused by the stipulation in Franklin's will that the entries explore 'Australian life in any of its phases'. This has worked to exclude many brilliant novels written by Australians that were simply ineligible because their settings were not specifically Australian (eg. The Book Thief; Dog Boy).

This year's shortlist is presented above, and what an extraordinary dilemma it presents the judges.

Who's likely to win? Let's discuss:

Sonya Hartnett's Butterfly has no chance at all. It's barely an adult novel, Hartnett still tethered, seemingly, to her Young Adult origins.

Deborah Forster's disturbing The Book of Emmett is a powerful portrayal of a cruel and stunted husband and father, and the emotional wreckage he visits upon his working class family. It's hard to believe this first novel hasn't sprung from the author's personal experience. It reads like a gut-wrenching memoir, visceral and raw.

Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey is a truly remarkable, very mature book by a young novelist which has been called Australia's 'To Kill a Mockingbird'. I absolutely loved this novel and predict it will become a much read and discussed one for many years to come. It is so rich in character, story, drama and humour that it's very hard to put down. It could have been even better, an instant Australian classic, pushing Cloudstreet off its pedestal, if only a gifted structural editor had got hold of it and addressed its one big flaw: its main characters get off too lightly. Justice is not allowed its relentless course, and there needed to be a major tragedy - all the ingredients were there. Then it would have been superb.

Alex Miller has won the Miles Franklin twice in the past, in 1993 and 2003. Will Lovesong be his third? In a word, no. It's a great book but is pulled off the top rung by a fairly insipid ending. There's a real lack of resolution.

So it's down to Peter Temple's Truth or Brian Castro's Bath Fugues, both truly great works of art, but soooo far apart on the literary spectrum. One popular, the other utterly inaccessible. Truth is crime fiction at its best, brilliantly written and conceived. But will the judges award it our preeminent literary prize? Or will they opt for a highly literary work by an accomplished Australian master?

I was determined to read Bath Fugues because I needed to read all the shortlisted entries in order to pick a winner, or subsequently condemn or otherwise the judges' choice. (Last year's choice, Tim Winton's Breath, left me speechless. It was the same old, lightweight piece of surfer-boy flim flam that's Winton's traditional line of load).

Three-quarters of the way through Castro's longish book I still hadn't got into it and it was annoying me intensely. I scribbled these notes to myself: 'clogged with writerly indulgence - the meandering reflections of his self-obsessed main characters'; 'what narrative there is gets utterly buried in a sort of faux-philosophical Montaigne/Baudelaire mud'; 'hard work - but it doesn't pay off'; 'constant undisciplined digressions'.

But by the time I'd finished the third part of this three-part novel, I realised what was going on and it had finally got to me. There's no doubt this is a complex, very difficult piece of work, sort of like the poetry of Ezra Pound. It's a hard slog, highly intellectual and with little emotional power. But in the end....quite a magnificent achievement, rich with meditations on decay, art, beauty, youth and sex. Very few readers will have the patience to read it, and it will certainly not be a popular win if it gets up. But it could be Castro's time.

So Castro or Temple. Back both. The decision will be announced June 22.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ

In a very handsome (hard cover), well-priced ($32.95) volume, Text Publishing (for a few years now Australia's best publisher in my view), has FINALLY published in Australia (within 40 not 30 days of its original British release) Philip Pullman's intriguing, provocative and highly controversial The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ.

Fervent, believing Christians will dislike this fictional retelling of the Jesus story intensely. There is no doubt it is heretical in the accepted, ecclesial sense. It denies miracles and most importantly Jesus' bodily resurrection. Jesus is a man, nothing more, nothing less, in possession of no supernatural or otherworldly powers, and to whom nothing that conflicts with the normal laws of physics happens. He is a powerful preacher however, whose simple message offers hope to the poor, the sick and the oppressed.

But he has a twin brother called Christ, who has an eye to history and politics, and the need to 'interpret' his brother's message of radical love and poverty so as to make it more palatable, worldly and enduring. He is, clearly, the emerging institutional Church. He is not a saint, this Christ, although well meaning. He is a sinner who sleeps with prostitutes and eventually betrays Jesus with a Judas kiss.

'Christ wrote down every word, but he resolved to improve the story later....For the Kingdom to flourish, it needs a body of men, and women too, both Jews and Gentiles, faithful followers under the guidance of men of authority and wisdom. And this Church - we can call it a church - will need men of formidable organisational powers and deep intellectual penetration, both to conceive and develop the structure of the body and to formulate the doctrines that will hold it together. There are such men, and they are ready and waiting. The church will not lack organisation and doctrine.' 

Pullman's seemingly simple story of a good man and his clever, conniving brother is anything but. This novel is situated in a rich, theological tradition in its quest for the truth of the historical Jesus, the beginnings of the 'official' gospel story, the canon, and the critical first 100 years of the Christian offshoot of Judaism.

It is beautifully written, in graceful, simple and elegant prose, and it brings to vivid life the people and pivotal events of 2000 years ago.

An astonishing achievement really. I urge you to read it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

A Few New Books..(for those of you with time!!..)

Just a few words on some of the books I've read over the last month or so - a wide range of genres, from highbrow to lowbrow, you must admit!

Let's start with the low first:

I guess I've read about four or five Harlan Coben novels in my time, mainly on long and boring plane flights. This one, his latest, is only mildly entertaining, although I must admit that Coben is interesting in that he has a real gift for portraying the emptiness and ordinariness of modern American suburban life. His characters are real people in real family situations. He rarely goes underground, with criminals, murderers, serial killers, and other ugly types. This is middle class fiction, and sort of wholesome, and the focus is usually on teenagers and parents in stressful, but still ordinary situations. I guess Coben writes about what he knows.

Lee Child's new Jack Reacher thriller 61 Hours is much, much better than his last one, Gone Tomorrow. Child actually takes time to explore Reacher as a character, his past, what makes him tick, etc. He comes out of this a fully developed and believable human being and therefore a hell of a lot more interesting. The plot is excellent too. Unputdownable, as all good thrillers need to be!

All the literati across the globe are suddenly into English crime writer Philip Kerr, so I had to read his latest And The Dead Rise Not, just to find out what all the fuss was about. Kerr's central character is ex-policeman Bernie Gunther, who plied his craft in Nazi Germany, specifically Berlin, in the 30's and 40's. This is Gunther's sixth outing. While an enjoyable read on many levels, particularly political, I was disappointed overall. Kerr just tries way too hard to get the slick, private-eye, Philip Marlow patter in there, and it's forced and irritating. It's look-at-me-aren't-I-stylish annoying. And the book is full of structural flaws in plotting and character.

OK, now to the hard stuff:

Nobel Prize winner, Turkish novelist, Orhan Pamuk released his latest novel The Museum of Innocence late last year, and I've sort of been meaning to get around to reading it, you know, but it's sooo long and looks so, like....serious. So when the ABC's First Tuesday Book Club selected it for discussion in May I thought's time.

Now when you read a novel by a Nobel laureate you don't say 'Oh, I didn't like didn't grab me..etc'. Literature at this level judges YOU, you don't judge it! (take note Marieke!). So I feel rather good about exclaiming to all and sundry that The Museum of Innocence is simply superb. It's boring in parts, the central character is a tad annoying, and there's an argument for saying it's 100 pages too long, but when you finish it and you feel that deep level of satisfaction that a good literary experience can bring, these things become trifles.

The novel is set in the fabulously interesting and ancient city of Istanbul in the mid-70's, and it explores the intense and passionate love between a rich young man and an astonishingly beautiful, but poor, young girl. As it turns out her beauty becomes toxic and destructive, and ultimately tragic for both of them. This novel could not have been written in the West. It takes far too seriously some very traditional themes of virginity, fidelity, marriage and family. But that's precisely what makes it so fascinating and powerful. Highly recommended.

The Norseman's Song is a new novel from Melbourne poet and former speechwriter Joel Deane. It is dark and unremitting in its very sure-footed exploration of human cruelty, violence and death. It has echoes of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness - 'the horror, the horror' underpinning our fragile social cohesion, and how easily the bonds preventing our descent into hell can be destroyed. Deane's is a mature, rich and powerful vision, and his novel deserves to be widely read. Not for the faint hearted, but I loved it.

Which nicely brings me to On Evil, a new literary-philosophical work from one of my favorite writers and thinkers, Terry Eagleton (I raved about his Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, in May last year in this blog). Unfortunately On Evil is nowhere near as good, and I found myself frequently nodding off while reading it. Eagleton never clearly states his case, but chooses to let it emerge through his subtle engagement with a number of literary classics, philosophical treatises and historical events such as the holocaust. The blurb calls this 'a witty and accessible study'. I'd call it anything but!

If you love Marcus Zusak's The Book Thief (and who doesn't?) you will also love the new English translation of German novelist Hans Fallada's Alone in Berlin. First published in 1947, this gut-wrenching novel is a masterpiece in its graphic portrayal of German society under the Nazi regime. Truly invigorating.

Contemporary American writer David Shield's Reality Hunger proclaims itself as a manifesto for writers of non-fiction. It's a call to arms, an attempt to destroy the concept of fiction as a still relevant art form. The book comprises 618 relatively brief but strong and succinct statements, many of which are intriguing, suggestive, resonant and powerful. For example: number 405: 'Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings'; number 529: 'We are adrift, alone in the cosmos, wreaking monstrous violence on one another out of frustration and pain'. Well into the book you start to realise, if you hadn't twigged at the start, that this entire work is a strung-together series of quotations from other writers. This is only acknowledged, reluctantly, and at the insistence of his publisher, at the end. Which proves Shields' major thesis that all art is a re-use and re-cycling of prior works, an exquisitely post-modern statement for our times. Interesting, but pretty uninteresting at the same time. I was not real sold at the end.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Failure of Free Market Economics: Martin Feil

I came to know of Martin Feil when I moved to Melbourne and started to read The Age. Feil was a regular contributor to the business pages and I found him a very strange beast indeed. He seemed like a total throwback to me. I've always been a passionate supporter of free trade, open markets, deregulation - the whole 'economic rationalist' kit and caboodle. Paul Keating, the godfather of this school of economic thinking and policy in Australia, has been my hero for 30 years. Feil, on the other hand, hates Keating with a passion (but to give him his due, hates Howard and Costello too!)

So what sort of strange concoction is this man? I had to read this book to find out.

Feil's essential thesis is a quite familiar one:

'We are simply spending too much on imports, and exporting virtually no value-added products'  (p. 157)

'Decades of unremitting tariff-lowering - without the erection or retention of compensating non-tariff barriers - have led to entirely predictable adverse results. Imports have increased their share of virtually every market within Australia for merchandise goods. This has resulted in negative current-account balances for every year since 1973.  In turn, these negative balances have created a known foreign debt of  $700 billion.' (p. 219)

Feil laments the fact that we've destroyed our manufacturing base in the process of dismantling the protectionist regime Australia had built up over the previous century. Thus our industries can't compete with imports, and we have few products to export to help balance our accounts. Minerals, agriculture, education and other services are nowhere near enough.

His enemies are legion: Australian politicians; the whole economics profession; the Productivity Commission; the retail, hospitality and services sectors of the economy ('that produce nothing tangible'); and banks of course.

The global financial crisis, which Feil delights in calling the global financial disaster, is shoehorned into assuming the almost theological role of an Armageddon, an inevitable and justified outcome of the disastrous free market policies the developed world has pursued over the past 30 years. To make this case Feil almost comically exaggerates the magnitude and severity of this event, even its reach into the deepest, unknown and wilfully unmeasured recesses of our economy. He needs such an outcome to bolster his anti free-market thesis. The fact that Australia seems to have escaped comparatively lightly from the GFC is in his view illusory. Just you wait! 'How can anyone argue with a straight face that free-market economics is still some eternal economic truth?' (p.142)

One of Feil's major arguments in this book is that, while Australia was perhaps justified in removing its high tariffs regime, it should have left in place, or created, a legion of 'non-tariff barriers' to replace it in order to continue a good measure of protection for our manufacturing industries, just like every other country on the planet has done. He lists the sorts of barriers he favors, and they include this:

'Simply slowing down the supply chain through technical Customs queries, making demands for additional information, and routinely engaging in the dilatory clearance of goods by the authorities....In the case of perishable products, this may result in the loss of the entire shipment'. (p.212)

In other words Australians should resort to the base level of corruption, inefficiency, malpractice and common trickery of much of the rest of the world. I'm sorry sir, that's not my country.

On the positive side, Feil's book has some marvellous statistics and information in it, and there is much to agree with. It's well-researched, well written and a good read. (Did you know, for instance, that since 9/11 Australia's defense budget has increased from $12.6 billion to $26.7 billion in 2008-9; that Customs has forgotten about trade facilitation and now focuses on our infantile obsession with border security; that its staffing has grown from 3900 to 5450 people, and its budget has almost doubled; that the Australian Federal Police has increased its staff from 4200 to 6000? What a growth industry security is!) 

It's just a pity the basic thesis of this otherwise fascinating book is so seriously flawed and unpersuasive.   

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Michael Lewis' new book on the GFC: The Big Short

'The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him'. (Leo Tolstoy, 1897)

In the late 1980's Michael Lewis wrote Liar's Poker, an expose of Wall St that became an instant classic. It is one of the great business books of all time. Now he's followed that with The Big Short, an utterly absorbing story of the origins of the Global Financial Crisis, the incompetent and deluded (but very rich) Wall St morons who caused it, and the handful of savvy, smart outsiders who saw it coming but were universally panned, condemned and ignored.

The book is full of some 'compulsively fascinating characters' as the blurb says. But the real joy of the book for me is that it so clearly explains all the complex financial instruments that were at the heart of the sub-prime mortgage problem. By the time you get to page 140 you can immediately comprehend the following sentence and appreciate the real drama behind it:

'Only now did he fully appreciate the central importance of the so-called mezzanine CDO - the CDO composed mainly of triple B rated subprime mortgage bonds - and its synthetic counterpart: the CDO composed entirely of credit default swaps on triple-B-rated subprime mortgage bonds'. 

The Big Short is a must read - in so many ways a fable of our times.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Ian McEwan's Solar

I devour any new novel by Ian McEwan, so I couldn't wait to read the much anticipated Solar. Much anticipated because apparently it was 'a sort of comic treatment of climate change', and how could McEwan do this and pull it off? Comedy? After the ultra earnest On Chesil Beach? You have to be kidding!

Well, pull it off he does. Solar is superb. It's not a comedy - there are simply some very funny elements. And it's not about climate change - that is simply the intellectual setting, if you like.

This book is really an absorbing exploration of a very contemporary, post-modern obsession: fact v fiction; truth v narrative; the construction of an appealing, acceptable face to the world.

On the surface it's a simple story. Professor Michael Beard, Noble prize-winning physicist, spirals into total dissolution - physical, moral, social, intellectual. It's a long, slow suicide. But McEwan makes him entirely sympathetic. The man's passions, appetites and lusts can't hide a deep insecurity within, a longing for genuineness and integrity that constantly elude him.

There are some laugh out loud moments in the book that are more Ben Elton than Ian McEwan, but I predict Solar will be another very well-received novel for this eminently readable author. In some ways it out-McEwans McEwan. This master of the quotidian round, at home or at work - shattered as it always is by an event that fractures - outdoes himself here, propelling the story to its inevitable conclusion. Whether it has the sort of 'literary' merit always associated with this Booker prize-winning author, that will be endlessly debated.

In my view, Michael Beard is a wonderful creation, and he deserves to live forever!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Requiem for a Species: Clive Hamilton's new book.

Clive Hamilton's Requiem for a Species is an extremely well-written, passionate and angry treatise on humankind's seeming unwillingness to confront the alarming global warming that threatens our very survival. Hamilton is not so much an alarmist as a catastrophist. He reviews, lucidly, the latest climate change science, and questions what it is that is holding back dramatic and necessary political and economic action by virtually all governments around the world. He slams all sceptics, accusing them of only shameful political agendas.

This is a post-Copenhagen book. It takes for granted that CO2 emissions will continue apace, that resolute political action is now far too late and in any case will be insufficient and tokenistic, and that humankind is in for a very rough future as the 21st century unfolds. It's a clear-eyed, terribly depressing portrait, with only small glimmers of hope.

Robert Manne's lead article in this month's The Monthly magazine is similarly pessimistic. (

Both Hamilton and Manne, not being scientists themselves, clearly belong to the James Hansen climate science camp. Hansen has recently toured Australia and is usually referred to as 'the world's leading climate change scientist', and I've briefly reviewed his book in a previous post. (

I'm not a scientist either, but I've read enough to know that there are plenty of other scientific perspectives on this issue, perspectives that we need to seriously consider before we run off and collectively slash our wrists in despair, or indeed take political and economic actions that are unnecessary and unwise. Hansen's views are essentially based on the physics of CO2 in the atmosphere, a physics that is calculable and formula-based. Effects are measurable. A certain increase in CO2 means a certain global temperature rise; a certain global temperature rise means a certain amount of ice melting; a certain amount of ice melting means a certain amount of sea level rise; a certain amount a sea level rise means a certain amount of havoc to human populations. Etc. All will follow as night follows day. All measurable and therefore predictable.

Here is a quote from Hansen that perfectly sums up his view. It is a quote I find absolutely shocking because, as an intelligent layman, I am asked to believe it: '..with humans on the planet there will never be another ice age...A few geologists continue to speak as if they expect Earth to proceed into the next glacial cycle, just as it would have if humans were not around. That glacial period would begin with an ice sheet developing and growing in northern Canada. But why would we allow such an ice sheet to grow, and flow, and eventually crush major cities, when we could prevent it with the greenhouse gases from a single chlorofluorocarbon factory? Humans are now 'in charge' of future climate'. (p.229)

To my mind this defies common sense and ordinary human experience. It's myopia writ large. Ian Plimer has a great line in his book Heaven+Earth that addresses this hubris: '..humans are an insignificant short-lived recent terrestrial vertebrate living on a planet where natural forces are many orders of magnitude greater than any human force.'

Despite what we are continually led to believe, this 'physical', formulaic atmospheric science has not been universally embraced by the world's climate scientists as the sole or even dominant perspective in the field. It ignores so many other dimensions of the world's climate system - solar cycles, cloud behaviour, ocean dynamics, precipitation patterns, etc. Climate science is a rich, complex and developing field of study, containing much uncertainty and much that is still unknown.

Clive Hamilton and his peers have much fun name-calling skeptics like me as 'old, white males with far too much time on their hands'! There's truth in that, as many skeptics are simply embarrassing, ignorant, conservative know-nothings who give credence to fools like Christopher Monckton. And far too many skeptical scientists have become so angry with the way they've been sidelined in the debate that they've allowed themselves to be captured by political charlatans and fools. Professor Bob Carter is a perfect example. He's written some excellent articles on climate change but he's also written some absolute rubbish. This piece for instance was rejected by the ABC's the DRUM two weeks ago presumably because it was so dreadful, but was subsequently published in Quadrant Online:

There are new climate change books being published virtually on a daily basis. I'm still waiting, however, for the one that nicely brings all perspectives together and offers a well-honed critique of the state of play that can move the debate forward in a calm, measured, rational way.

That may be impossible, as it requires a wisdom that far transcends anger. We're a long way from that yet.

Monday, February 22, 2010

An Enthralling, Gripping Read

Regular readers of this blog may remember my rant against novelist M.J.Hyland for professionally branding herself 'MJ' and not 'Maria'. I called it a major marketing and literary mistake.

Well Eva Hornung has fallen into the same trap by changing her surname from Sallis to Hornung mid-way through her illustrious career. Whatever her personal reasons or circumstances, it's just the wrong thing to do. It trashes all the fragile, emotional connections that bind brands to their loyal customers and believers, connections that take time and painstaking effort to build in the first place. As well, it has to be said, Sallis is a much more felicitous name than the clumsy Germanic Hornung. It rolls easily off the tongue. I trust Text, Eva's publisher, fought long and hard with her about this. Pity they lost.

Next, the cover. It's another marketing mistake. Like so many covers it was quite obviously done by someone who hadn't read the book. This is not Lassie or any book about a dog. In fact the reason I have come late to this book, which was originally published in March last year, is because of the cover. I'm not a dog lover, and have never owned a dog. I passed over this book because I was not attracted to reading a book about a dog; or a book about boy who was a dog, or thought he was a dog; or about a dog who thought he was a boy - whatever.

Now these beefs are off my chest - to the book itself.

Quite frankly, Dog Boy is one of the best novels I've ever read. It is simply amazing, and I'm going to bore all my acquaintances for ages by pressuring them to read it. It's enthralling, gripping, quite extraordinary in its imaginative reach and power, and in the beauty and absolute clarity of its language. Not a word in this book is wrong or inappropriate or misplaced or just there for effect. And best of all it resonates with deep layers of meaning. It's a book that pushes the boundaries of our sympathy and understanding, and demands we confront the seemingly familiar and comfortable in a whole new way.

And I love the way it's set in Moscow. It's so right.

I can't rave enough about this wonderful book. I'd describe it as perfect, just perfect.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Recent Movies

Usually, movies dealing with poor, embittered, socially deprived, psychologically damaged students from rotten homes with cruel, alcohol and drug infested, sexually molesting 'parents', and with determined, committed, talented, gifted, dedicated, never-give-up, middle class, tertiary educated, physically attractive teachers, are best left right alone for the stinking pile of cliches that they invariably are. It's To Sir With Love ad nauseam.

So Precious should be avoided like the plague. Not only is the main character, Precious herself, one of the physically ugliest leads ever to grace a screen, the saviour teacher is one of the most beautiful. The director nails the cliche to your forehead without apology. 

However see this movie for the performance of the supporting actor Mo'Nique. She is riveting as the wholly bad mother. She is an exquisite creation, and her masterful use of underclass, street dialect straight out of Harlem is as richly invigorating as all good language is. The other good performance in the film is from that ridiculous diva Mariah Carey, who plays a social worker. It's a minor role but Carey pulls it off to perfection.

I'm one of the handful of people on the planet who tried valiantly to finish the book The Road but couldn't. I found it as boring as batshit - endless pushing of that god-forsaken trolley by a father and his son along deserted roads in a god-forsaken aftermath landscape...every waking day! To me the author never succeeded in getting beyond the physical into the metaphysical, so all we got were incidents, then more incidents, then more...It had to end by the death of one of them and of course it did. (The death of the two of them would have made it tragedy. The death of just one makes it sad, and sadness is this book's emotional world, imbuing it with far less meaning and resonance.)

The film is a faithful adaptation of the book. Enough said.

We've seen enough prison movies throughout the history of cinema to know the dynamics of them backwards by now. The prisoners milling around in the exercise yard, plotting, confronting, exchanging, whispering; the cruel guards; the heartless administration; the foul, stinking food...there's very little that's new. 

What really impressed me about A Prophet however was that there were no guards, no administration, plenty of good food. The entire focus of the film was the psychological and emotional growth of a young, 19 year old prisoner doing his six year term, and how he navigates his own way through the group dynamics and power centres of the prisoner community. It's a long film, but slowly you get the point. This young, uneducated guy is smarter and more intuitive than most, and his great gift is his immigrant Arab background and how he uses it. Early in his term he opts for protection from the Corsican Italians, led by an old vicious crim (powerfully played by Niels Arestrup), but at the end the Arabs prevail, mainly by force of numbers, and he's one of them. You know when he's released that Europe has another powerful criminal mastermind to contend with.

Comparisons have been made to The Godfather, and that seems pretty right to me.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Mankell's The Man From Beijing

I used to be a big fan of Mankell, based on his marvellous Kurt Wallander series (recently on TV with Kenneth Branagh as Wallander).

But not any more. His latest, non-Wallander, novel is simply atrocious.

It's an exercise in political grandstanding rather than a traditional tightly plotted piece of crime fiction that Mankell fans have come to expect. Not only that, it is poorly constructed and meanders all over the place, introducing real and fictional characters at whim to advance an absurd story that Mankell presumably considers has contemporary political heft.

Long passages set in Beijing jossle with equally long and tedious passages set in Africa, mainly Zimbabwe. Mankell is obviously a tired and bitter old lefty, romanticising Mao and the old communist party and demonising Deng and the new, more liberal and neo-capitalist forces unleashed in recent decades.

He also favors Robert Mugabe's rule in Zimbabwe, for god's sake, not even mentioning, let along favorably, the popular democratic movement over the last decade, the awful violence unleashed on it by the regime, and the electoral process that's been corrupted at every turn. Then there's the economy! Echoing Mugabe's absurd claims, Mankell wants us to believe it's the continuing legacy of British colonial rule that's the real problem.

A thorough-going whitewash, this book is truly a disgrace.

Don't be seen with it.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Democracy American-style: Recipe for Chaos

Americans ought to just stop lecturing the rest of the world about democracy.

Even though the Democratic Party in the US has an historically huge majority in both the Congress and the Senate, as well as a Democratic president, the political system is virtually in lockdown. It seemingly is incapable of passing legislation that delivers much needed reform, for example on health. 

There is no such thing as party discipline. Moderates and conservatives on both sides of the aisle just do want they want to do and vote how they want to vote. They answer to popular opinion in their home state, or, more accurately, opinion as whipped up by shock jocks.

If an Australian political party had the sort of majority in both houses as the Democrats enjoy in the US, they would be in seventh heaven. Reformist and bold legislation would be passed by both houses without drama, and the government would face the verdict of the people if it got things wrong (as happened to Howard on Work Choices).

It's a ruthlessly efficient numbers game. Legislation gets through. Reform gets done. No bullshit necessary. If the Opposition doesn't like it, tough. Appeal to the people and get yourself elected next time around.

In the US however, Obama faces almost impossible odds. Because he has, after the Massachusetts election, only 59 (yes, 59) out of 100 Democratic senators, he is highly unlikely to be able to get his health care reforms through. He is forced to appeal to bipartisanship, that is, appeal to angry Republicans who hate him and everything he stands for. 

I'm no expert on US politics. But I do recognise systemic failure when I see it.

Americans - no more lectures to the rest of the world please. 

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Apocalypse Never

Over the last nine months or so I have been spending a lot of time and energy trying to get some intellectual clarity on what is patently the most overwhelming issue of our time - climate change. 

I have read 13 books, two Quarterly Essays and numerous articles, watched half a dozen videos and visited three or four well-regarded web sites on a regular basis. I have explored the scientific, environmental, social, political and economic dimensions of this complex issue.

I have tried to be open-minded, and valiantly tried to come to grips with the science behind it all. I've been like a dog with a bone, trying to pin it down until even the most abstruse stuff became reasonably clear to me. That's how I've always worked. I don't sleep too well unless issues I'm wrestling with are sort of resolved.

Most importantly I have read both sides of the issue in roughly equal measure - the consensus view and that of the sceptics.

Previously in this blog I wrote about sceptic Ian Plimer's Heaven+Earth and how good I thought it was. Having read much more now, including a good sprinkling of very negative and dismissive reviews of this book, I have to agree that Plimer got a lot wrong, mainly in the details, due to a general sloppiness that should simply have been avoided. Hopefully, if he produces a second edition, which he should, a lot of this will be corrected. His basic vision however, the reach and depth of it, is overwhelmingly persuasive.

Three books I've read over the last few weeks (all published just prior to Xmas) are also essential reads: James Hansen's Storms of My Grandchildren; Christopher Booker's The Real Global Warming Disaster; and Peter Taylor's Chill.

Hansen is universally recognised as perhaps the world's leading climate scientist. He is certainly the most well known, having been a key player in bringing global warming to the world's attention since the 1980's. He was instrumental, for instance, in bringing Al Gore into the frame. Storms of My Grandchildren is, remarkably, his first book, and I say remarkably because it is so well written. Literate, passionate and very persuasive, Hansen has that rare and natural talent for making difficult scientific concepts very clear and digestible for the non-specialist reader. 

Christopher Booker is on the other side of the argument well and truly. He originally founded the satirical magazine Private Eye and has in recent years, through his weekly Sunday Telegraph column, become the most conspicuous global warming sceptic in Britain. It would be fairly easy to dismiss Booker as a right wing nutcase, as many critics have (that is the usual fate of sceptics unfortunately), but that would be a profound mistake. His book, in my humble view, in the way it marshalls an enormous amount of detail and constructs its absorbing narrative, is one of the best of the bunch. Like in the Naked City, there are many stories about the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) and how it goes about its business of constructing consensus, and this is just one of them. For the history, politics and economics side of this debate you couldn't do any better than Booker.

Chill: A Reassessment of Global Warming Theory by Peter Taylor, is the one book I would advise you to read if you had no time to read anything else. Taylor is a highly regarded science analyst and has been an advisor to European governments on environmental issues for over 30 years. The beauty about Taylor's book is it reviews the scientific literature that has gained prominence over the last five years or so (post the IPCC reports), and that presents a new and critical perspective on the consensus view articulated by the IPCC. Whereas sceptics traditionally assault that view with claims of conspiracy, corruption and politicisation, Taylor allows the emerging and confounding new science of solar and ocean cycles to effectively demolish the 'establishment' naturally. Not that the world should be complacent. But we should be focussed on the real environmental problems not the illusory ones.

If a side has to be taken, then I've certainly ended up a sceptic. But, hopefully, an intelligent and well-informed one.

We are all familiar with the ancient and medieval literary device known as 'Deus ex Machina', which referred to the common practice of dramatists and poets of introducing a new character or event into the plot that magically resolved the story and brought things happily to an end. 

I am persuaded that we are seeing a similar syndrome today, in our modern story of climate change. It could be better termed 'Homo ex Machina'. The complex threads of Nature's story can't easily or satisfactorily be identified, so Man has been thrust onto the stage to bring resolution. 

So our modern story might be an ancient one after all. What a happy thought!


Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Flags and Republics - oh no, not again!

Two age-old Australian debates seem to be stuttering into life yet again, returning like the whiff of ancient and annoying farts.

I am passionately in favor of Australia becoming a republic and getting a new flag, but even if I live to be 250 years old I'll never see either come to pass.

Regarding the republic, of course most Australians would prefer it if the country sloughed off its colonial remnants, stopped borrowing the convenient constitutional machinery of another, older and more mature country, and got on with its own governance affairs like a proper, independent grown-up.

It's not the monarchists who will forever hold us back, with their insipid but dying sentimental attachments and the insidious insulting of our intelligence by implying Australians haven't got the wit to devise their own safe, secure constitution with all our current checks and balances embedded. No it's the republicans themselves who will forever hold us back with their tiresome and vitriolic debates about how the President should be chosen and what powers such a head of state should have. In 1999 the republican referendum was lost not just because John Howard corrupted the process from the word go by his framing of the question, but because a large clutch of dopey, populist, direct election republicans effectively derailed it. I see no sign of this passion abating - ever.

Walking the city streets today on Austalia Day I saw countless numbers of Aussie flags draped over the shoulders of young people, and, frankly, it made me sick in the pit of my stomach. Unlike the great majority of other countries, Australia has a flag that privileges its Anglo-Saxon, British heritage. And whenever I see young people, especially hoons and yobs, parading it about, almost thrusting it down your throat, I'm sensing the subtle but visceral message of white supremacy and Anglo superiority. It's in stark contrast to the Canadian flag for instance, which every non-Anglo immigrant could celebrate and flourish with the pride of belonging.

Once again we'll never get rid of the Union Jack in the corner, as when the rubber hits the road on these sorts of things in this country, our basest instincts unthinkingly prevail. Racism is very very subtle, which is why it is so powerful and entrenched. 

I remember about 20 years ago when I was responsible for editorial and production operations in Wiley a cover and blurb for a book about some feature of Australia came across my desk for approval, and the author was described as a 'seventh generation Australian'. I demanded that tag be deleted, much to the surprise and chagrin of the editor. She had no idea what I was talking about.

Enough said.