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.