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)