Thursday, December 26, 2013

Some Popular Holiday Reading

A few comments on some recent popular fiction I've read over the last month or so:

Jennifer duBois' Cartwheel was inspired by American student Amanda Knox's predicament in Italy where she was charged and found guilty of the murder of her flatmate but was subsequently acquitted (although that judgement is currently under review). DuBois is at pains to point out however that her novel is entirely fictional, and she's set it in Buenos Aires in Argentina.

It's received pretty good reviews but in my opinion it's a major failure and for a very obvious reason. It's massively over-written. Every emotion, thought, action and reaction of every character, no matter how minor, is analyzed to within an inch of its life. There's a yawning disconnect between the overwrought hyper dramatic philosophising rhetoric and the simple story. An uncomplicated crime drama is far too small a canvass for this sort of stuff and inevitably gets buried. Endless psychologising does not good fiction make. And the ending proves my point. It's a complete, undramatic fizzle, as if the author forgot she actually embarked on a crime novel.

Like a classical musician playing a pop song, we get a clash of registers, and it's all wrong.

Hannah Kent's debut novel Burial Rites is based on the true story of the last execution in Iceland in 1829. Agnes Magnusdottir was condemned to death for her part in the brutal murder of two men.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It's beautifully written in spare uncomplicated prose and moves along at a decent consistent pace. And the resolution is just perfect. 

Sometimes it gets a bit exposition heavy as all the characters are introduced and the story's elements and context put together. We're looking back at what happened and various players are filling things in for us. There are a few too many irritating minor country yokels for my sophisticated tastes, but eventually we get a full spread of ordinary reactions to a 'murderer in our midst', from ignorant prejudice to the more intelligent and sympathetic. 

Kent keeps a steady hand all through this, and the tension builds. We're never sure of the truth till right at the end. I can't give the ending away other than to say it's a massive tick for the Danish/Icelandic justice system. Superbly done.

British writer Robert Harris' An Officer and a Spy is, quite simply, brilliant. BRILLIANT. His last novel, The Fear Index, was dreadful, but this is outstanding. He's returned to his home turf of politics and history. It's a compelling novelisation of the French military and political scandal of the late 1800's known as the 'Dreyfus Affair', perhaps the most famous miscarriage of justice in history. All propelled by a vicious anti-semitism. 

What makes this book so engrossing is the story's relevance to our own times: an intelligence system gone rogue, justice corrupted in the name of national security, the persecution of a minority aided and abetted by a conservative establishment press, the age-old instinct by the powerful to cover up their crimes, and the relentless hounding of a whistle blower. 

Read this book.

Every new Rankin is worth reading, but his latest, Saints of the Shadow Bible, is fairly ordinary and far from one of his best. It's for Rebus fans only.

Rankin sets up a nice contrast though between old policing methods and the new: John Rebus, a drinking, smoking, street smart, can do, rule breaking and effective operator, with a real nose; versus Malcolm Fox, the teetotalling, fastidious, process-driven, bureaucrat - 'paper pushing rather than blood and guts' as Fox's father puts it.

Not bad, but I wouldn't rush out to buy it. 


Monday, December 16, 2013

The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel

Mark Rubbo, MD of Readings, suggested I do myself a favour and read this extraordinary book. His enthusiasm for it was infectious so I bought it, and $45 later, am sooo glad I did!

It's simply one of the best books I've read all year. And there have been loads of great books published in 2013.

As the author himself notes 'My Promised Land is not an academic work of history. Rather, it is a journey through contemporary and historic Israel, recounting the larger Israel saga by telling several dozen specific Israeli stories that are significant and poignant.'

What emerges is an overwhelming sense of a nation in the midst of an existential crisis - a nation in denial. Surrounded by a sea of 1.5 billion antagonistic Muslims, 300 million seething Arabs and 2 million angry Palestinians, and a rabid, nuclear-arming Iran committed to its destruction, Israel exists on the edge of a precipice - this despite all that it has achieved for its liberated, creative and dynamic people over the last 100 or so years.

I can't recommend this beautifully written, compassionate, and thrilling book highly enough. Do yourself a favour and read it.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The iPhone and Android Dog Fight - a Fascinating Story

The subtitle says it all really - it was a war and it was a revolution.

Respected technology and media writer Fred Vogelstein has written an amazingly detailed and lucid account of the incredible corporate drama around the invention of Apple's iPhone and Google's competitor the Android operating system.

He gets inside the two companies by talking to many of the key managers and engineers involved from day one. There's much more than technical and design stuff here, though there's plenty of that. There are highly personal stories of friendships destroyed, betrayals, enmities, hatreds, etc. All the rich details that make this recent history so fascinating and important. 

I really couldn't put this book down. It reads like a novel - a blow-by-blow intense unfolding story. And it brings Steve Jobs and his management style alive, as well as Google's Sergey Brin, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt.  

'Google wants to kill the iPhone. We won't let them. Their Don't be Evil mantra? It's bullshit.' (Steve Jobs)

Friday, November 22, 2013

If you want to get beyond the tedious partisan bullshit that passes for mature economic debate in this country then you could do a lot worse than read this important new book by highly regarded Australian economist Ross Garnaut.

It is an exceptionally good piece of work. Garnaut surveys and critiques our economic fortunes over the last 40 or so years, but concentrates mainly on the two key periods of the Hawke/Keating 'Reform Era' in the 80's, and the China boom years since 2000 which are now decidedly coming to a swift end. 

He labels this post 2000 period of rising national wealth and personal incomes 'The Great Australian Complacency'. His point is we've seriously dropped the ball on economic reform while we gloated about our good fortune, and as a result are very vulnerable to a great economic deterioration in the near future.

The best parts of Garnaut's thesis are the chapters outlining his ideas for reform: Federal/State relations (yes, that old chestnut, but Garnaut's suggestions are radical and refreshing); the public sector, particularly health and education; utilities; transport; infrastructure; financial services; corporate welfare (he wants it seriously wound back - yay!); the tax system, and lots more. 

He concludes with an excellent and quite damning critique of our efforts on the climate change front (particularly Abbot's proposed abolition of the ETS and his Direct Action proposal), the increasingly strident and perverse lobbying efforts by industry sectors opposed to essential economic reforms (like the appalling campaign against the mining tax by the mining industry), and the Murdoch media's uncritical sucking up to the flimsiest of conservative agendas. 

His message is crystal clear: unless we take up the challenge of seriously increasing our productivity and competitiveness Australia's economic future looks grim indeed.

Our politicians need to read this remarkably good little book, and so do you.

(And by the way Black Inc Books, why no bloody index, you cheap sods?)

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Garry Disher's Best Yet - Bitter Wash Road

Bitter Wash Road is Australian crime writer Garry Disher's strongest work to date. It comes pretty close to Peter Temple's classic The Broken Shore in achievement. It's not your average crime thriller. It's a social critique of considerable substance. As well, it has a strong coherent plot, beautifully resolved.

Disher invokes a genuine country Australian atmosphere in all its dry unforgiving hardness. The menace is so thick you could cut it with a knife. We're talking territory not far from Snowtown here - a dark, backward place, where deviance thrives.

The main character, Hirsch, is a former whistle blower in the detective division of the South Australian police force, and hated. He's been demoted, shoved back in uniform and shunted to a one-man hole miles from nowhere to the north of Adelaide. 

His police colleagues in the wider region are mean, dumb, ugly and threatening. It's a brutal, racist and sexist culture. And Hirsch's reputation for 'treachery' proceeds him.

Hirsch uncovers massive corruption, murder and paedophilia. The region's farming, commercial and legal establishment, as well as senior police, are all involved in some way. 

But Hirsch is no push-over. He's got courage, moral and physical, in spades. After being served up so many lame and deeply irritating main protagonists in the recent rash of new fiction from Australia's 'iconic' literary novelists over the last few months it is just so refreshing to be presented with a sympathetic main character who can credibly be described as a hero.

If you've not read any of Disher's Wyatt or Peninsula thrillers then Bitter Wash Road is by far the best introduction to this major writer you could read. I can't recommend it highly enough.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Christos Tsiolkas' Brilliant Barracuda.

Barracuda is not as absorbing a read or as sprawling a story as The Slap. It's more focused and limited in scope. Yet it has much the same power - all the dramatic intensity that brings everyday suburban Australia alive. Few authors have Tsiolkas' ability to so vividly convey the messy, untidy reality of people colliding emotionally, psychologically and intellectually.

On the strength of his swimming ability young Danny Kelly has won a scholarship to one of Melbourne's elite private schools - 'Cunts College'. He comes up against a poncy, bullying culture and it makes him one angry lad. He's working class and a wog.. 'They made him feel dark and short and dirty'. Meet the class society in so-called egalitarian Australia.

Danny is ferociously, even pathologically, competitive and he's slowly turning into a sad, mean-spirited prick as well. There's something close to evil in him.

After his swimming career ignominiously collapses he turns into a bitter and twisted mongrel, a bully himself. His schoolmates call him 'Psycho Kelly', a 'cry-baby'. He felt 'slovenly'; he felt 'shame'. And he's full of self pity. He knocks back the opportunity the school and his parents give him to repeat year 12; he knocks back his former coach's offer to resurrect his swimming career. The coach still believed in him.

He's a deeply emotionally limited young man who comes to blame his father for his failures. But his family is actually loving and supportive, and his father grounded and wise. Danny's your complete loser. 'He'd HAD a future...he'd fucked it up'. Eventually he comes to hate Australia's whole sporting culture, particularly its bogan manifestation: 'Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi'. The broadcast of the Sydney Olympic Opening Ceremony sends him screaming from the pub.

Tsiolkas serves up multiple set pieces and confrontations, all dramatic but they register the social experience of Australia perfectly. His characters are nothing if not intensely and recognisably real.

I think the anti Australian thing is overcooked though. He works a bit too hard to present the working class as real and the middle class as fake, selfish and up itself.

Part Two of the novel moves into Danny's adult life. He's now 'Dan'. We explore family, friends, lovers, gay sex, religion, identity, literature and, repeatedly, his intense shame for his failures and lack of achievement. It's an ever richer tapestry as he moves beyond his narrow upbringing and grows up. He reaches out and makes peace with his family and friends. He even reaches out to his old school 'friend' and swimming buddy Martin who, for good reason, ignores him.

Finally he achieves a real measure of peace. His demons are gone.

There is one dimension to this novel that bothered and annoyed me. Tsiolkas sets up a constant contrast between Danny's hyper dramatic inner turmoil and his polite, sober articulation of his thoughts to his family and friends. Like Danny, so many characters have 'rage inside'. This rage becomes a mantra and eventually empties of all meaning. 'He could crush him if he wanted to'. What's with these violent inner thoughts all the time? It's High Romanticism, verging on the melodramatic, and it's tiresome. All the so-called rage is unresolved. At one point Danny spews bile all over his father - 'you failed me dad' - but then suddenly makes cooing, apologetic noises as he quickly cools down. 

The over-dramatisation will annoy quite a few readers of more Anglo sensibility I think. Personally I can only take so much hyped up, Latin emotion.

I'm tempted to summarise the novel thus: 'Danny Kelly comes from an immigrant family - mother Greek; father Scots/Irish- where passions and working class resentments are ratcheted up to 11 out of 10. Unsurprisingly, it makes the boy'. 

That's of course being unfair. I think.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Brad Stone's The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon

This is a fascinating book. It's a comprehensive, well-written and incredibly detailed history of Amazon from its beginnings in the mid 1990's to now.

It's also the story of Amazon's brilliant and half crazy founder and CEO Jeff Bezos.

Stone takes a very strategic perspective. He's a seasoned business journalist and it shows. Every major move Amazon has taken over the years - hirings, acquisitions, policies - is analysed in the sort of detail that could only have come from very senior insiders.

But it's far from a whitewash either. The negatives are all there, including awful tales of a frequently toxic workplace culture. One manager who left in disgust says 'my challenge with Amazon is finding a way to describe it without making me puke'.

Bezos is frequently rude, abrasive and cruel, and prone to outrageous displays of violent anger in meetings. Yet he's a strategic genius. 

The story of the development of the Kindle and all the decisions that were taken over the three year period, including the arguments with publishers and suppliers, is fascinating. And how did the infamous $9.99 price point for ebooks come about? It was just Bezos' 'gut call'. 

Amazon developed as, and still is, a relentlessly innovative and disruptive operation, as well as a calculating and ruthless one. It has 'an absolute willingness to torch the landscape around [it] to emerge the winner'.

A particular strength of the book is its stories and insights around Amazon's numerous acquisitions, many of them complete failures. Far more failed than succeeded.

This is one of the best business books you'll read. It is that good. Highly recommended.  

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Dave Eggers' marvellous new novel The Circle

Dave Eggers' last book, Hologram for the King, was a major disappointment. Its various strands didn't mesh and its strident political message was decidedly dated and reactionary. It was an unpersuasive call for the protection of an older, traditional manufacturing-based America.

The Circle, however, is quite simply wonderful. Its focus is sure, its politics far more sophisticated and contemporary, its characters believable and its plot intriguing. It's all pulled off with exceptional imaginative power. 
Essentially it grapples with the hot topic of privacy in the digital age. The Circle is a huge digital corporation - clearly a fusion of Google, Apple, Amazon and Facebook. It 
is run by 'three wise men' who are really sad, vacuous nerds with lame Utopian visions: 

'We can solve any problem. We can cure any disease, end hunger, everything, because we won't be dragged down by all our weaknesses, our petty secrets, our hoarding of information and knowledge. We will finally realize our potential'.

The Circle's innovations are many: tiny cameras in every public place ('all that happens must be known'); tracking chips embedded in kids' bones ('an age without worry'); a dating site that knows all the 'secrets' of everyone ('secrets are lies'); necklace devices that disclose all politician's activities ('going clear'); all government services, including voting, channeled through The Circle, membership of which is mandatory; and lots more.

Its mantras are simple:

                        Secrets are Lies
                        Sharing is Caring
                        Privacy is Theft
Massive breaches of privacy are commonplace. There is no respect for personal independence or individualilty. It's 'the world's first tyrannical monopoly' as one non-believer says. It flourishes via a constant, intrusive surveillance.

Eggers is superb at getting right inside the culture of this ultra-modern corporation. He makes you feel a real part of it. 

New employees need no persuasion to embrace such a vibrant, progressive 'community'. It's a subtle process but total and invasive. Health checks, for example, are compulsory, with all data passed to the employer: 'To heal we must know. To know we must share'. The Circle provides 'wraparound wellness services'. Believe me, it's cringe-worthy.

But unknown to these innocents there's nasty stuff going on. Politicians critical of the Circle's monopoly get fitted up, as do all other public figures who complain. Pornography and other offensive material is suddenly found on their hard drives.

In a Truman, reality-TV way, cameras positioned everywhere around the corporate campus feed video of the main character's activities every minute of the day to millions of viewers around the world. Via social media they respond, swept up in the absorbing drama of this mega-corporation's life and wholesome mission.

Eggers sets up two possible and realistic endings. But in my view he chooses the right one.

As I said, a superb, thoughtful novel and an extremely enjoyable read.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Tim Winton's new novel Eyrie

Most Australians love Tim Winton. A minority finds him ordinary. I'm in the latter camp. (Geordie Williamson in The Australian is in the former. His fawning review is typical).

As a novel, Eyrie, I'll be honest, is pretty much a disaster. Sure there's the sparkling prose - it  leaps off every page with extraordinary vitality. In fact Winton's inventive similes have become such a stylistic tic that you can sense the effort gone into creating them. But the plot is too simple and the main characters, while superbly drawn, far too irritating. 
The reader gets no pleasure out of this. It all grinds on and on leading, basically, nowhere. 

Winton captures the character of an older mainstream Australia, particularly the working class and the underprivileged with all his formidable linguistic dexterity. He's as blokey as they come and his register is an Australian patois that most of us haven't heard for decades if at all: 'her world had been flying like shit off a shovel'; 'face like a spanked arse'; 'He felt as useful as a hip pocket on a singlet'; 'Flayed like a Filipino penitent'.

Many of his references are dated too: Roy Rene, Flip Wilson; Farah Fawcett; Julie Christie; Brigitte Bardot; '4x4's.

The principle character is Tom Keely, a disgraced former environmental activist and now a recently divorced, pill-popping drunk, who may or may not have had a nervous breakdown. He's descended low and making no effort to get a grip. His parents, do-gooders and esteemed in their community, cast a long authoritative shadow over their progeny. 

But Keely seems pretty normal otherwise. As he walks around his local streets in Fremantle his antipathy to the usual inner suburban suspects - the 'dog folks', the 'yummy-mummies', the 'Facebook  hipsters and metrosexuals' - all deliciously spice up the narrative and provide a breezy social critique which is the closest Winton comes to injecting any larger meaning into his tale.

Two other main characters force their way into his depressing world - Kai, a magnetic but troubled and mysterious six year old, and his crazy nan Gemma.

Gemma is your typical lowlife leech. Vulgar, in-your-face, self-obsessed, resentful of everyone and everything, and incredibly annoying. It's a testament to Winton's skill at characterisation that she is so annoying. 

Some reviewers have called this novel an anti-mining treatise, as if mining defined all modern societies. It's not even attempting that. Keely was burnt by his struggles for the environment, but Winton indulges in no strong polemic here. He doesn't celebrate or condemn. 
It's a story of a former middle-class idealist thrust into the unlovely brutal world of the underclass and, surprise surprise, bumbling his way to failure. 

That's why in the end the book never never really takes off. It never ignites. The ending, more a fizzle, typifies that.

Disappointing. Winton's gifts should be put to better use.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Mark Lamprell's The Full Ridiculous

This is a rather lightweight but delightfully comic novel, written with loads of charm and verve. It won't take you long to read.

The hyper-dramatic story line is mainly about parenting: the teenage kids are under the impression that the family is 'disintegrating' and in 'chaos'. All rubbish of course.

In fact the family is loving and rock solid. The two kids are completely normal. It's the father who's panicky, lame and out of touch with reality. It's the year he 'falls apart' after being run over and slightly injured.

He needs to get a grip. At one point he accurately reflects on his mental state:  'why can't you calm down and stop catastrophising?' and later: 'You're an anxiety-ridden-self-indulgent-useless-no-good-piece-of-worthless-shit-weak-as-piss--pussy'. Exactly.

But one deliciously drawn dopey police constable has a nasty habit of sticking his beak into the family's affairs and makes their life hell.

It's an easy read and to be recommended if you're looking for a bit of a tonic.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Jhumpa Lahiri's The Lowland

This novel is on the 2013 Booker shortlist, to be decided next week. It will not win it, and in my humble opinion should not be on the list at all. 

In matters of form and content it's pretty traditional fare, quite contrary to what the chair of this year's judging panel, Robert Macfarlane, described when announcing the shortlist: "We were drawn to novels that sought to extend the possibilities of the form … We wanted novel novels."  

The early chapters focus on the radical politics of India in the 1960's, influenced as it was by Maoist revolutionary thinking. There are two brothers and the youngest gets mixed up in this. He's passionate, vital and idealistic. I thought, this is going to be good - a powerful political novel. 

But then that focus suddenly ends and we're moved to the US, where the more conservative older brother decides to settle. The story now becomes a family saga, albeit a good one. We're sucked into the personal histories, tragedies, conflicts and tensions, all the standard stuff, including the usual 'Big Secret'. The family members make major decisions and choices that pursue and haunt them forever. 

There are three main US-based characters - Subhash, his wife Gauri and their daughter Bela. They are isolated, stranded and seemingly rootless in a freedom obsessed country, but focussed on pursuing their individual dreams. 'They were a family of solitaries. They had collided and dispersed.' (p262). Lahiri really brings them alive. As characters they are fascinating and wonderfully drawn.

Is there any wider meaning in any of this though? In the contest between Indian and American society America wins hands down. India is bad, America is good. The Indians who have fled to the US experience no racism, violence or even economic struggle. Lahiri offers no critique of the US at all, not even obliquely. It's a land of freedom and promise, a pleasant middle class lifestyle and, seemingly, free education. No matter that it's the noisy sixties with its Vietnam protests, race riots, assassinations, and the rest. None of this is even hinted at. India, on the other hand, is a condemned place of abject poverty, cruelty, disease and violence, and imprisoned by rigid customs and social structures which even its celebrated Ghandi-led independence from Britain has not ameliorated.

It's a bleak view of the rich culture and society of India. It also suggests that only radical, violent, grass roots action of the failed Maoist sort could ever bring real reform. 

So apart from the usual depiction of life, love, tragedy, treachery, lies and death in all their glorious majesty I'm not sure what this novel has to add.

In summary, a real disappointment.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Alex Miller's Coal Creek

This is a rather slight story, certainly not one of Miller's best. 

We're introduced to Bobby Blue, a 20 year old country boy who loved his bible reading mother. Is he wise beyond his years or an immature, deluded, pompous, insufferable prick of the first order? Miller has us wondering. 

Bobby's clunky uneducated reasoning is constantly on show, and Miller captures his voice superbly.

It's an ancient Australian tale really, and by now pretty cliched - city versus bush knowledge; the mysteries of the ancient land appreciated by locals including indigenous elders and even animals, but not by 'coastal' newcomers. Bobby, a bushie, registers all this and knows it intuitively.

Miller, though, slowly and subtly reveals his rustic narrator to be be less of a country sage than a common provincial ignoramus. Emotionally immature, he can't resist the lure of a 13 year old girl, and stumbles pathetically even when he's doing the right thing in choosing not to run away with her. 

On the other hand the coastals' twisted logic is just as dumb. They're ruled by fear, irrationality and crude prejudice. We're talking about a newly arrived policeman and his ambitious wife. Yuppies. The 13 year old is their plucky daughter.

There's a climax. People are shot. Popular prejudices prevail and even the justice system is disgracefully compromised. The truth has no chance - the country boys are obviously guilty. The insipidity of the cold, coastal mind and its innate fear of the dark unknowable interior is victorious.

One has little sympathy in the end though for Bobby- someone who's too fucking stupid and unmotivated to defend himself against outrageous prejudice, and more importantly, defend his life long friend from execution.

The final scene, a reconciliation with the now adult girl, presumably a celebration of love, is cloying and sentimental. He spent 14 years in gaol because of her. I got angry.

Unfortunately I can't recommend you read this. There are far deeper books you should spend your time with.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Richard Flanagan's incredible The Narrow Road to the Deep North

In this world
we walk on the roof of hell
gazing at flowers. 

This novel is an extraordinary achievement from Australian novelist Richard Flanagan. Quite simply it is root and branch astonishing. A powerful, rich, gut-wrenching masterpiece.

It stands head and shoulders above most novels I have read over the last few years, so I make this prediction with confidence: this novel will be short listed for next year's Miles Franklin, the Prime Ministers award AND THE BOOKER and could well win all three. 

Flanagan has gone right to the edge here. It's a novel not just about love and war. It explores the very extremes of those human realities.

Some reviewers will tell you this is a novel about war hero Weary Dunlop. It's not. It's much, much more than that. Anchored in historical events and personalities, it fashions and transcends them with exquisite artistry, exploring the deepest meanings and dimensions of our shared human plight. Weary Dunlop is a skeleton around which Flanagan sculptures a masterful work of depth and majesty. 'The strange terrible neverendingness of human beings'.

The novel conveys the lived experience of the construction of the Thai Burma railway with enormous and relentless emotional power. The reader is plunged unsparingly into the horror of the POW camps and the extremity of human evil: 'the hideous labour, the beatings, the torture'. It's visceral stuff and not for the squeamish.

If there is such a thing as male/female polarity, then this novel is about as masculine as you can get. It's tough, grimy, unforgiving, but written in the most lyrical of prose.

If you're at all a sentient human being then it will shake you to your bootstraps and frequently bring you to tears. 

After the war there is the reckoning - with justice, normalcy, reality. The touching scene of the mates visiting Mr Nikitaris' fish shop in honor of their dead friend brought me to tears.

The utter inability of the Weary Dunlop character, Dorrigo Evans, to adapt to domesticity, and of the Japanese camp warden Nakamura to bed his inner turmoil is sympathetically told. Hell dogged them. Forged in the deep, they couldn't thrive in the shallows. They're damaged men, as if emerged from the darkest netherworld.

There's a Dickensian dimension to the narrative - a lost baby, horrendous fires, lies and misunderstandings, coincidental sightings, and the aristocratic Evans and his public duties. But all these plot points add richness to the ultimate meaning and profundity of this incredible work.

'For an instant he thought he grasped the truth of a terrifying world in which one could not escape horror, in which violence was eternal, the great and only verity, greater than the civilisations it created, greater than any god man worshipped, for it was the only true god. It was as if man existed only to transmit violence to ensure its domain is eternal. For the world did not change, this violence had always existed and would never be eradicated, men would die under the boots and fists and horror of other men until the end of time, and all human history was a history of violence.' (p307)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

David Marr's Quarterly Essay on George Pell

This QE is Marr's fourth, and it is easily his best. Which surprises me, Marr not being a Catholic or believer, etc. But that's probably why he's been able to assess Pell clearly and objectively, just based on the extensive research he's obviously done.

He focuses on Pell's handling of the sexual abuse crisis in the church over decades, and very effectively brings all the threads together to produce a damning indictment. Believe me, this QE will make you angry!

Beautifully written and well worth reading.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Eleanor Catton's The Luminaries

Right from the start you know this is going to be a good read. A faux 19th century big baggy monster set in an exotic location. It reminded me very much of the awesome David Mitchell of Cloud Atlas and Jacob de Zoet fame.

How can a 27 year old produce such a mature, luscious, intriguing story, rich in social detail and human insight.

It's long though, because of the constant repetition involved with so many characters going through the same discovery process around the same set of incidents. This means regular recounting of the story to remind the reader what's taken place previously. It's really not that complicated a plot, centered around a gold heist, but flesh is added to the bones progressively, and by the end it's become a rich and satisfying feast indeed.

Most of the 12 luminaries also suffer from extreme verbosity, and there are plenty of back stories. So we're faced with a novel of 832 pages, and one that demands close reading and concentration. As well, Catton has a habit of subjecting all her characters to lengthy  psychological assessments. Here I think she's trying a bit too hard.

It becomes somewhat claustrophobic and burdened by detail but nevertheless it does deftly convey in microcosm the moral, social, economic and political pressure points of a small but thriving mid-19th century community. The luminaries, eminent citizens, are a fascinating, representative mix - one even a whoremonger, another an opium dealer.

I enjoyed this absorbing novel immensely. It's quite magnificent. Of all the novels shortlisted this deserves to win the Booker. If the judges give the prize to sentimental favorite Jim Crace's rather lightweight Harvest, then the Booker deserves to be swamped by Americans in the future. 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Jim Crace's new novel is the Booker favorite apparently. It's set in an English peasant farming community in pre-modern, pre-literate times. 

Superficially it's a simple pastoral tale - 'the amity in everything' - but soon develops into a story of violent social upheaval.Economic 'progress' brings personal and communal disruption, conflict, brutality and revenge. 'Witches' are outed, outsiders are blamed, banished and pilloried, and former friends suddenly become enemies for no real reason.

The problem I have with the book is that these themes are not new. There's nothing original here. The writing is strong, muscular and poetic, particularly in its descriptions of nature in all its moods, but there is little reach into deeper, more resonant meanings. There are no surprises, no dramatic shifts, nothing to break the calm, measured progress of the narrative. It's a book that will not stay with you.

I find that disappointing, particularly in a year when JM Coetzee's extraordinary The Childhood of Jesus did not even make the long list. That remains a travesty.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

At first I thought Cairo was going to be a pretty standard 'Sophisticated Europe/Provincial Australia' narrative. Louche arty types, whiskied up, railing against their boring, backward country. It's a familiar trope. Germaine Greer stuff - you may have heard of her.

But it's not that at all. It's a pretty standard action drama built around a true crime that took place in Melbourne in 1986 - the heist of Picasso's Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria.

Womersley has created out of this an absorbing popular tale. It's written with enormous charm and style, without pretension, and peopled with lively characters.

The problem is it falls well short of its literary and imaginative promise. Inspired by an actual event it remains anchored to it, and never has the chance to take off as a more probing, socially critical literary effort. 

And it desperately needed a final 'Thirty Years Later' chapter.

Womersley's previous multi-award winning novel Bereft was far more accomplished. But read Cairo nevertheless. It's hugely enjoyable.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Catholics and Gay Marriage

Two things firstly:

1. I deeply respect the Judeo-Christian tradition, particularly in its Catholic expression. I spent six and a half years in a Catholic seminary including four years in Rome, so I know something about it.

2. I am in favor of gay marriage.

Although the Catholic church will never grant gay marriage equality, it should grant it recognition.

Gay marriage is an issue for the secular state. The church doesn't own the term 'marriage', much less the legal architecture surrounding it.

The official Catholic position is that the sacrament of marriage, in its 'fullness', can by definition only be between a man and a woman, as only such a union is fundamentally 'open' to the pro-creation and nurturing of children. (Concepts such as fullness and openness have a long history in Catholic thought.) 

But Catholics can believe in the primacy of heterosexual marriage without resorting to a mindless denigration of gay marriage. In fact surveys show that a majority of Catholics are of that persuasion.

Catholic thinking on homosexuality, like contraception, is still very immature. Orthodox moral theology demonises the 'sin' as ontologically evil, but forgives the 'sinner'. This means the church has a long way to go before it will even come close to embracing  gay unions, much less celebrating them liturgically. 

But, at a minimum, surely the church can privilege heterosexual marriage as a matter of belief while supporting the state's absolute right to legislate otherwise.

There is no conceptual conflict on other issues of faith and morals like divorce and abortion which the state allows in specific circumstances and Catholic belief doesn't.

Christendom is long gone. We live in a secular, pluralistic, tolerant, multi-faith society, ironically a gift of the Judeo-Christian tradition. It is no longer realistic for Christians to expect, much less demand, that society honour without qualification their particular belief and value system.

Believing in religious freedom also means believing in the legislative freedom of the secular state. The church can organise, protest, lobby and persuade, but it cannot de-legitimise. 

Perhaps one day, after an adult church abolishes celibacy and ordains women and the openly gay, it will find itself ready to celebrate and embrace gay unions, thus honouring the deep love and public commitment of the participants. 

I'm not one of those who believe this will never happen. The Holy Spirit resides in the people, and the people will eventually have their way.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being.

This is a highly imaginative story of a young teenager, Nao, caught between the two worlds of Japan and California, as she struggles to find meaning in her unhappy life. Her discovery of her 104 year old great-grandmother, a zen monk; her fraught relationship with her depressed, suicidal, father; and, most particularly, her shocking experience of extreme bullying at school - are all described in vivid detail in her diary that seems to have floated across the sea after the tsunami of 2011 to Canada on the other side of the Pacific ocean.

It is found by Ruth, the author, whose reading of it, and some heartrending letters contained in the same package from the monk's WWII soldier son, affects her profoundly.

Did Nao and her father die in the tsunami? This in unanswered, which is disappointing, especially as Ruth finds out independently that Nao graduated from her Tokyo high school and attended Montreal University. Why didn't Ruth follow that up? Perhaps she's still there.

Instead she retreats into recounting a rather fantastical dream, where she meets the father and helps him chose 'life' rather than death. Is it a dream, we are asked to believe, or a parallel world of 'reality'?

So in the end we get frankly ridiculous. It descends into 'Deus ex Machina' territory by inviting us to believe her husband's suggestion that quantum mechanics, with its abstruse theories of 'multiple realities', offers the answer! A real emotional let down.

This is emblematic of the one big structural flaw that lets the novel down in the end - the intrusion of the real life of the author, her husband and her Canadian township into the fictional  narrative. This limits Ozeki's imagination as a novelist and reduces the book's power immeasurably. A real pity.