Monday, December 29, 2014

Sorry for yet another list but these are my favourite books of 2014.

I read about 50 books this past year, 20 or so less than I usually get through. (I went to France for three months in the middle of the year and spent most of that time walking around Paris and driving around Provence).

So here are my favourites, in no particular order:


I'm a great fan of Martin Amis so any new book by this superb writer I read immediately. This year he released of The Zone of Interest set in a concentration camp in Nazi Germany. It received a few ordinary reviews but they were misreads - oversensitive and dull minded. It's at the top of my list.

Another one of my favourites, Ian McEwan, released The Children Act. McEwan frequently writes  short novels, almost novellas, and they are always gems. He brings a searing focus to seemingly unremarkable everyday events and brings them intensely alive. This was one of those. And he takes very seriously people's working lives, investing them with high drama. Magnificent.

Michel Faber's The Book of Strange New Things was extraordinarily good. Set on a far away planet this was a savage and brilliantly written critique of Earth and its tiresome inhabitants. He pulled it off.

Any new book by Jacobson is a must read for me. (This has been a year for English novelists it seems). J was new territory for this writer who usually immerses himself in domestic Jewish dramas and polemics, often comical, but it was absolutely sensational. Large in scope, imagination and meaning. I loved it.

Irish author Colm Toibin's Nora Webster was superb. It's the story of an intelligent strong-minded woman struggling to raise four kids after her husband dies, and attempting to fashion a new, satisfying, independent and meaningful life for herself. Toibin writes so well about women bound by the provincial and stultifying strictures of a Catholic post-war Ireland. Episodic but dramatic, and in the background the Troubles are emerging. I am so in love with the feisty Nora Webster.

US writer Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See was a totally unexpected literary and commercial success this year. It took everyone in the industry by surprise, particularly his publisher. Sales have gone through the roof (as described here). When I read it I saw immediately why. Its two central characters are young adults during the war years of the early 1940's, a French girl and a German boy. It's got exactly the same appeal as The Book Thief and Jasper Jones, huge successes internationally. I absolutely loved this book. It's an instant classic.

I finally read Italian author Elena Ferrante's My Brilliant Friend, the first in her four-book Neapolitan saga about the intertwining lives and loves of two female friends growing up and living adult lives in backwards Naples in the 20th century. I was hooked. It was astonishing and I've now started on book 2 and will immediately get onto book 3, recently published. (Neapolitan males - ugh. I giovanni sono cosi stupidi!)

Australian author Wayne Macauley's Demons rightly establishes him as perhaps Australia's greatest contemporary author. That's a big statement I know, but I've become so irritated with the predictably effusive praise lavished on our 'greats' like Tim Winton and Peter Carey - who in no way deserve it now if they certainly did once - that it's such a joy to find an author like Macauley producing such fine work. Demons is rich and meaningful in so many ways. A book to debate endlessly. A treat for book clubs.

Finally, a book that was released in April 2013 to no real fanfare. Then it surprisingly won the Prime Minister's Award for 2014 a few weeks ago, shared with Richard Flanagan's very worthy A Narrow Road to the Deep North. I'm talking of Steven Carroll's A World of Other People. Another World War Two setting - this time in London during the blitz. A young Australian bomber pilot falls in love with an English girl possibly modelled on Iris Murdoch, but their relationship is sadly brought undone by the tragedy of war. This is the second of Carroll's novels that features the poet T. S. Eliot and that contrasts his 'thin-lipped' conservative vision with the destructive passion of young love and energy, as a new post-war era emerges. As Iris reflects:
  This is them, the army of the miserable. Look at them, no wild emotions to carry them away. No runaway horses in their hearts. No forbidden words to quietly mouth in the privacy of their rooms as if having personally discovered them. Look at them, and she smiles faintly to herself as she crosses with the lights and pronounces farewell judgement: look at them - cuntless, cockless, and fuckless, the whole miserable bunch.

This is a very fine work indeed. Subtle, nuanced, immeasurably sad and well worth the PM's prize.


Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Capital is my pick for the outstanding non-fiction book of the year (my review of it is here). As with any economic critique that attacks some pretty basic dynamics underpinning our experience of capitalism in the West today, it has not ceased to rile the conservative establishment who are still squealing like stuck pigs (see this).

Any book by Michael Lewis is a must-read if you want to fathom the rules and behaviour governing the new and powerful financial class. Lewis writes lucidly about abstruse topics and brings them alive by making them personal and dramatic. This is an immensely enjoyable and informative book.

These two books about the whole Edward Snowden saga were just superb, particularly Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide. Greenwald absolutely skewers much of the mainstream press for its ignorant, prejudiced and cowardly attacks on Snowden. It's a delicious read.

Of the three books published about Fairfax over the last two years this is probably the best (although the other two, Colleen Ryan's Fairfax: The Rise and Fall, which focuses on the board and ownership machinations, and Pamela Williams' Killing Fairfax about how James Packer and Lachlan Murdoch stole the classifieds from under their noses, are wonderfully enlightening reads too). Hills focuses on the management, whose strategy seemed to be - and in fact still is - the one the US military used to great effect (irony alert!) during the Vietnam war: 'destroy the village in order to save it'.

New Yorker magazine correspondent Evan Osnos' Age of Ambition won the 2014 US National Book Award for nonfiction. It's an extremely fascinating and very enlightening portrait of modern China, focusing on the social and economic lives of ordinary Chinese citizens. It's a bit lacking on the economic analysis front, which I found frustrating, but is otherwise rich in insight. Osnos is fluent in Chinese and lived and travelled widely throughout the country for ten years. An extremely enlightening read.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Wayne Macauley's Demons. Surely one of the best Australian novels of 2014.

Wayne Macauley's previous novel, The Cook, published in 2012was extraordinary in every way. I absolutely loved it. It was resonant with meaning on multiple levels and the evil it depicted was as exquisite as the food its affluent, urban characters consumed. 

In his new novel Demons Macauley deepens and broadens his focus beyond skewering the morally bankrupt inner city creative and professional elites. Their vacuous lifestyle, prejudices and beliefs are a bit too easy a target, so he moves well beyond that to engage in a more philosophical rumination about the shared social fabric that sustains us and the destructive forces that can bring it undone.

A group of well off, middle aged friends go away to a large isolated house for a weekend, without phones and computers. They of course take plenty of gourmet food and wine, and they take it in turn to tell stories about real people and their fates. These stories, all fascinating and dramatic, are the heart of the book and its meaning. All but one of the half a dozen or so stories are true and have death at their centre. (The one that is not true doesn't). 

Macauley exposes the deep and dark abyss - the 'dirty great gaping hole' - under the necessary courtesies, protocols and basic moralities of our social construct. By breaching these necessary constraints we descend not just into an immoral decadence but into chaos and madness. This is a very Australian theme. (It also underpins, incidentally, every Stanley Kubrick film, which is why they are so visceral and powerful).

Macauley also reflects on the nature of stories as bonding narratives, providing meaning, order and community, and whether 'truth' can be as destructive as physical assault if it's simply a reckless indulgence.

Australian literary critic James Ley has a long and very positive review of this novel in the latest issue of the Sydney Review of Books (here), but unfortunately he offers a fairly limited psychological/sociological reading and doesn't go to the deeper moral and metaphysical dimension. He also sees it as generational, claiming the young daughter of the politician is some sign of a more hopeful and responsible generation to come. Nothing could be further from the truth. She's as destructive and morally cold as her parents, using cruel trolling as her modern weapon.

So what we have here is one of the best Australian novels of 2014. It is superb.   

Monday, November 17, 2014

Howard Jacobson's Booker shortlisted 'J': a remarkably good novel.

I've long been a fan of Howard Jacobson's work. He is a superb, probing writer whose prose sparkles with wit and comic exaggeration.

J, his latest novel, is far from being comic however. It was shortlisted for the Booker in 2014, and had it have won it would have been a very worthy winner indeed. It is a remarkable, serious and challenging fictional exploration of a society in deep decay.  
It's a melancholy meditation on history, community, family, and impoverished, stunted lives, all framed by Jacobson's continuing critique of Jewishness in all its vitality and social contribution down the ages.

We're introduced to a society of our time but denuded of all the splattered mud of history and development. A 'colossal social experiment undertaken to restore stability' has been put in place by a bureaucratic organisation called Ofnow, a 'monitor of the Public Mood'. Their job is to suppress memories of the holocaust referred to only as WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED. They try to manage and purify in the interests of harmony and well-being, and their tools are constant vigilance and surveillance. It is Orwellian in the extreme. 

The novel is an intellectual and psychological exploration of Jewishness and hatred: '..those who had been the object of WHAT HAPPENED weren't just any old, interchangeable excuse for civil riot, they occupied a particular, even privileged, place in the nation's taxonomy of fear and loathing'. 

Gradually Ofnow realises they've gone too far. Endless expressions of 'Sorrow' are backfiring. Raw human passion, prejudice and manifest evil can't be eliminated. The process must be better and more subtly managed. A society needs a deep and palpable enemy so a new and more insidious program is initiated - the rebirth of the Jew. 'What happened thereafter was a common tale of history repeating itself, one generation after another passing down its inheritance of shame.' 

But there were positives: an 'excitement at the prospect of a cultural rebirth - musicals with wit, reject-rock, hellishly sardonic comedies, an end to ballads...'

The intellectual richness of this novel cannot be overstated. On virtually every page Jacobson gives us long passages dense with meaning. You will want to read them over and over again to suck out all they suggest.

Truly, a superb piece of work.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Michel Faber's Extraordinary New Novel The Book of Strange New Things.

Here is the big book you should read over the Xmas/New Year holiday season. It is simply magnificent. 

It is such a rich, multi-dimensional novel: full of meaning and suggestion, which deepens its focus as it proceeds. Faber serves up a wealth of challenging ideas embedded in an absorbing narrative. And he seduces with beautiful, clear, silken prose.

The plot is simple enough. Peter is a Christian missionary selected to join a team of specialists housed in an enclosed facility on a distant planet. They are employed by a mysterious corporate outfit called USIC. Indigenous 'aliens' also inhabit the planet.

Peter is an embarrassingly unsophisticated God-botherer. Naive, simple-minded, and constantly sprouting theologically insipid, sentimental claptrap. Some readers will be put off by this, which is unfortunate as there is a substantial point to it which becomes clear as the novel proceeds. His job as part of the team is to venture beyond the complex to befriend and 'civilise' the natives so they cooperate and continue to grow food for the colonisers. 

Peter's wife, Bea (Beatrice), was disallowed by USIC from joining him on his mission. They communicate via email. As the narrative progresses these brilliantly written emails become the heart and soul of the book, and paint the passionate and increasingly feral Bea as a riveting fictional creation. There is enormous drama in their relationship. They love each other with an extreme, perhaps questionable, intensity.

USIC's residents, including Peter, were all damaged people in their previous lives - drug addicts, alcoholics, petty criminals, beggars, abusers. They couldn't handle the rough and tumble of the world and USIC provided an escape. The notion of escape develops as a major theme, suggesting too that god belief is little more than a vacuous coping mechanism, a psychological crutch. 

Some readers will question the way the novel ends, perhaps with a whimper rather a bang. But in my view it is perfect. Perfectly real.

I can't recommend this fascinating novel highly enough.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Peter Carey's Amnesia. Both very good and very bad.

I approached this latest Carey novel with trepidation. His last one, The Chemistry of Tears, was ordinary and unsatisfying. 

Amnesia on the other hand is both very good and very bad. Carey's coin is eccentricity and he delivers it in spades here. One of the principal characters for example is a thuggish, treacherous oaf called Woody Townes, a property developer who seemingly backs left-wing causes but is undoubtedly a CIA agent trying to bring our brave journalist hero, Felix Moore, down. He's simply absurd and Carey has no idea what to do with him or how to bring him to life. He's just a developer baddy and he cops it in the end.

The meandering narrative, which thankfully avoids all Carey's predictable fantastical indulgences, is littered with minor characters and all they do is add colour and movement. They're all disaffected Laborites in 1970's/80's Melbourne, 'shit-stirrers', 'comrades' and 'ratbags', consumed by the issues of that passionate time (Vietnam, Pine Gap) and lovers of their political hero and moratorium leader Jim Cairns. They live in terrace houses in Carlton and fibro shacks in Coburg. 

The problem is Carey bogs us down in far too much extraneous detail trying to bring these characters and the streets of Melbourne to life. We're buried in pages and pages of family histories, computer games, petty crimes, school and teacher dramas, car accidents, eco-terrorism events and many more. They're all unrelated episodes and ultimately it's an emotionally unsatisfying, incoherent mess. 

And there's the serious political undertone: Whitlam, Rex Connor, Cairns - they were all undone by the CIA. And union leader Hawke refused to call a general strike on the day of the Dismissal because he was got at by the American Embassy. Carey brings no detachment or irony to the telling of these hoary old conspiracies. 

Thankfully the two main characters, Gaby and Frederic, who are young, feisty, rebellious and alienated, are the life of the novel and are superbly fleshed out and real. They are fascinating and hold our interest throughout. 

And the writing is quite superb. There is a sparkling wildness to it, peppered with acute observation and description. As usual however Carey stays on the surface. There is little depth or resonance beyond the obviously political. Australia had its chance to free itself from great power dominance in the 70's but didn't seize it and more accurately was tragically refused it.

If you're a Peter Carey fan you'll love Amnesia. If you're an ageing lefty Labor tragic you'll also probably love it. If you love Melbourne you might love it even more. In a real sense it's a paean to this wonderful, fascinating city.

(Dear publisher: it's badly proofread. Dear author: stop using the ugly word 'shit' and the even uglier 'shitty' so often. It's vulgar and distasteful).

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Linda Grant's Upstairs At The Party. (not a party you want to go to!)

This is the new novel by author of The Clothes on their Backs, which was short listed for the Booker in 2008.

It's a story of ordinary students doing ordinary things at a new British university, and most of them having ordinary uneventful work lives afterwards.

The time is the early seventies, so the women are all reading The Female Eunuch and some of them are discovering politics and railing against capitalism and the ruling class. One boy is actually 'homosexual', who, you guessed it, subsequently dies of AIDS.

This novel fails on virtually all levels. It never engages the reader. It never takers off. It is tedium writ large. TEDIUM.

There is absolutely nothing going on in this book that does not reflect the plain, boring, ordinary, average lives and experiences of all students, like me, who attended university at that time. In the UK they weren't even obsessed with the Vietnam war like we were in Australia because the UK weren't participants. The most passionately political of these students became Trotskyites for god's sake. Something absurd they abandoned straight after university.

There is a lot of talk but the dialogue isn't real dialogue at all. When they're not being rude and accusatory to each other the characters are all declarative, articulating social and political ideas like no real people do. This seems to be the author's intention - to convey some sense of social development in Britain over the last 40 years or so. But the narrative just plods on offering little insight or critique. What's sacrificed is building characters who matter and structuring some plot lines with a bit of drama and tension in them. We get a taste of that in the final 20 pages, offered as some sort of climax, but it's simply not enough.

Why on earth this very ordinary novel was published is beyond me.

Friday, August 22, 2014

David Mitchell loses the plot: The Bone Clocks

English author David Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame, has just released his sixth novel the Booker long-listed The Bone Clocks.
Unfortunately, and I say this as a great fan of Mitchell's, it is up there with his first novel Ghostwritten as one of his weakest. I'd be surprised if it makes the Booker short list, but if it does, it has no chance of winning.

Mitchell has huge strengths and huge weaknesses as a novelist. In fact, he doesn't really write novels at all. He writes stories, and strings them together, mostly tangentially. His last work The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet was an exception and in my view his best.

His armoury includes large dollops of fantasy. He creates supernatural, science-fictiony spirit worlds which are rarely integrated satisfactorily with the intense real world drama of his major narratives.

There are six separate stories in The Bone Clocks, linked by the main character's journey through life, a feisty Holly Sykes. We go from the year 1984 to 2043. Each is roughly 100 pages long.

The stories are more quotidian than is usual for Mitchell. They're more family-oriented, even homey. But they are, each in their own way, fascinating and gripping. 

The problem is the fantasy element. It threads its way into each story and has a whole story of its own towards the end. And it's fundamentally absurd, even puerile. We meet 'atemporal sojourners', 'psychosoterics', and the 'Horologists': these are the goodies. The baddies are the 'Anchorites of the Chapel of the Dusk of the Blind Cathar of the Thomosite Monastery of Sidlehorn Pass'. This gives you some idea as to how silly the whole thing is. And it goes on for 130 pages! (I was reminded of Umberto Eco's tiresome history of the Templars in his unreadable Foucault's Pendulum, and even Harry Potter and his tedious stoushes with Voldemort).

Some readers will no doubt like the fantasy dimension. They'll say it's brilliantly inventive and dramatic, something that a only a master like Mitchell can pull off. I beg to differ. Mitchell's weakness as a literary novelist is fully on display here.

In many of his novels he switches stories and abandons the characters all together. We often never hear from them again. And annoyingly he does it just prior to the needed resolution. It's as if he's strung together a collection and hasn't bothered to connect them into a coherent whole to make a satisfying novel. The fantasy element in The Bone Clocks is at least an attempt to more substantially  resolve and link the stories, but it weakens rather than strengthens them.

The main character Holly has been continually interfered with throughout her lifelong journey by these bat-crazy spirits so how can we take her real world travails seriously?

Each of the five real world stories display Mitchell's enormous gifts as a writer magnificently, even the least satisfying final one which is just a mishmash of our current apocalyptic anxieties - it's 2043 and isolated human colonies are suffering the destruction reeked by global warming, the military aggression of superpower China, leaked radiation, constant food, power, water and medicine shortages, growing religious crankery, the collapse of law and order, the rise of state totalitarianism - there's hardly one missing. It's the Age of 'Endarkenment'. As Holly says at one point 'Let's take it one apocalypse at a time'. And there's a massive Deus ex Machina at the end - Mitchell's favourite story resolution. 

But I love him because of the huge amount of dramatic tension he builds into each of his stories, and the muscular, visceral quality of his prose and dialogue. He's witty, iconoclastic, caustic and savage. Simply a superb writer. He flings delicious prose around like a wild thang.

But a novelist? Not so much.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Linda Grant's Upstairs at the Party. (Not a party you want to go to).

This is the new novel by author of The Clothes on their Backs, which was short listed for the Booker in 2008.

It's a story of ordinary students doing ordinary things at a new British university, and most of them having ordinary uneventful work lives afterwards.

The time is the early seventies, so the women are all reading The Female Eunuch and some of them are discovering politics and railing against capitalism and the ruling class. One boy is actually 'homosexual', who, you guessed it, subsequently dies of AIDS.

This novel fails on virtually all levels. It never engages the reader. It never takers off. It is tedium writ large. TEDIUM.

There is absolutely nothing going on in this book that does not reflect the plain, boring, ordinary, average lives and experiences of all students, like me, who attended university at that time. In the UK they weren't even obsessed with the Vietnam war like we were in Australia because the British weren't participants. The most passionately political of these students became Trotskyites for God's sake. Something absurd they abandoned straight after university.

There is a lot of talk but the dialogue isn't real dialogue at all. When they're not being rude and accusatory to each other the characters are all declarative, articulating social and political ideas like no real people do. This seems to be the author's intention - to convey some sense of social development in Britain over the last 40 years or so. But the narrative just plods on offering little insight or critique. What's sacrificed is building characters who matter and structuring some plot lines with a bit of drama and tension in them. We get a taste of that in the final 20 pages, offered as some sort of climax, but it's simply not enough.

Why on earth this very ordinary novel was published is beyond me.

Monday, August 4, 2014

DBC Pierre's latest novel Breakfast with the Borgias

I bought this in Paris not knowing a thing about it. I'd read no reviews, and the rave review snippets on the cover were obviously referring to Pierre's Booker winner of 2003Vernon God Little (which I enjoyed immensely). 

Thankfully my hunch paid off. This book is simply marvellous. It's a superb, high quality read.

Part mystery, part love story, part family drama, it is beautifully written, and has a maturity of theme and treatment that will surprise most readers familiar with this rather larrikin Australian-born and seemingly madcap writer.

It's only 248 pages long and is the sort of gripping read that most readers will polish off in one sitting. It's that absorbing. When I finished it I started back at the beginning and read most of it again. I wanted to know what clues I'd missed, but I particularly wanted to re-read the rich and thrilling dialogue and Pierre's sparkling, lively prose. 

I can thoroughly recommend this.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Herman Koch's Summer House with a Swimming Pool

If you loved Koch's last novel The Dinner you're going to be real disappointed in his new one I'm afraid.

It lacks all the elements that made The Dinner so superb. There's no tension or subtlety, no suggestiveness or nuance, no sureness of touch. I wouldn't be at all surprised if this was an early manuscript whipped into some sort of shape for publication to capitalise on the huge success of The Dinner.

There is a death and a rape, but we know the killer very early on and the sex was consensual if it happened at all. 

It has the same basic theme as The Dinner. The evil lies in the ordinary man - a teacher in The Dinner, a GP here - rather than the larger than life, vulgar and frequently sinning, actor on the public stage.

But there are far too many red herrings and meaningless characters in this one, meaning the plot meanders all over the place and struggles to retain the reader's interest. It certainly didn't retain mine.

Sure, there are some nice elements. The depiction of the everyday life and times of an experienced doctor is very well done. Koch captures the disillusion and 'seen it all before' cynicism exceptionally well, and spins some delightful comedy out of it. You'll never look at your GP the same again. He also has an uncanny ability to bring the dynamics of marriage and family relationships to life in all their glory and horror. There's no sentimentality here.

In essence though the book is a major disappointment. Three stars out of five.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Miles Franklin Award winner Evie Wyld's All the Birds, Singing.

This novel, which is exceptionally good, beat off the front runner for this year's Miles Franklin award. This was a surprise and a profound disappointment to many people, who had considered Richard Flanagan's magnificent The Narrow Road to the Deep North a sure thing.

So did I. (

Word on the grapevine is that the judges were split. Whether that's true or not, I consider they made the wrong decision, just as they did last year in choosing Michelle De Kretser's Questions of Travel.

Wyld's book is a spare and beautifully written story of a young woman's flight from horror, pain and abuse. In a real sense it's a testimony to the ugliness of men. We are spared no lacerating detail of the harsh, brutal treatment handed out to the woman by the cruel and violent men she encounters in country Australia as she flees from the consequences of a tragedy she caused as a reckless 15 year old  in Darwin. Eventually she finds her way to a peaceful Isle off the coast of England where she lives alone and tends sheep.

But the dark beast of horror still pursues her.

While brilliantly rendered Wyld's novel has a fairly narrow scope and no where near the ambition, emotional power or intellectual depth of Flanagan's. You have to ask yourself whether the Miles Franklin judges have been spooked by the breakaway Stella Prize for women writers. Is a decidedly masculine work like Flanagan's handicapped from the start?

As I said, the judges, for the second year in a row, have made the wrong decision.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

J.K.Rowling's The Silkworm

This is J.K.Rowling's second crime thriller in the Cormoran Strike, Private Detective, series.

The growing relationship between Strike and his admin assistant Robin is the heart of the book. It is very well done, particularly Robin's tense relationship with her fiancé Mathew and his distaste for her underpaid job. I was so hoping that she would dump this upper class witless prick and bed Strike, but, alas, it wasn't to be.

The central part of the book however - the crime thriller aspect - is pure unadulterated rubbish. A famous novelist is brutally murdered and everyone associated with him - his publisher, editor, agent, wife, lover, a fellow author - is in the frame. The victim had submitted a manuscript for his next book that lays into each of them. It's a savage, thinly disguised exposure of all their perversities and dark secrets. The manuscript is called 'Bombyx Mori' ( Latin for silkworm).

Strike's previous case, the murder of a young celebrity model, made him famous because he solved the crime and outsmarted the police. The media loved it.

So Rowling has him outsmarting the police again. Ho hum. All the suspects in this new case are hugely unlikable but, this being publishing, they all like to talk over lunch or drinks. They're a miserable bunch of sexual deviants, drunks and conceited bores. It's just horrible spending so much time with them, but Rowling's obviously got it in for all of these book industry types and we all have to suffer.

The denouement is rather absurd. Strike works out who the murderer is, but as readers we have to wait for dozens of pages before we're told. In the meantime the police, of course, have charged someone else. The murderer's identity is supposed to resolve all those unanswered questions and tie  all the loose ends up, but it's just a puzzle by now and the whole thing is pretty meaningless and uninteresting, and Rowling indulges in some awful sentimentality. I'd given up caring.

I doubt I'll be reading the third Strike novel. 

Sent from my iPhone

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Janette Turner Hospital's The Claimant

This 600 page monster has left me sort of flabbergasted and confused. 

I just can't figure out what I think of it. Half the book is an utterly beguiling story of a boy from a wealthy, aristocratic background who grows up in France in his mother's chateau, and who befriends the plucky daughter of his mother's caretaker. The children are home-schooled by a young classically trained Jesuit priest (of dubious sexual inclinations) and both are revealed as highly intelligent. Their relationship deepens. Both characters are warm and intriguing and very engaging. It's the 1950's and they are children of the French Resistance. It's the heart of the book, very dramatic, and I loved it. 

The other part of this novel, however, is a major let-down. In fact the first 120 or so pages are all over the place. We're in the land of today's trashy media, as vulgar as reality TV. Strange characters come and go and we're left unengaged. We're talking the Vanderbilt family fortune and the grasping herd of misfits and uglies desperate to suck on its teat. Hospital's gone overboard - there's even a Bernie Madoff!

The French boy is a Vanderbilt of integrity who is offended by it and wants nothing to do with it. 

The book is his journey from riches to rags. As Hospital says in her Author's Note at the end 'Only now that I have finished the novel have I realised that I have been overturning an American literary archetype. The Claimant is The Great Gatsby in reverse.'

There is a completely bizarre Australian connection. The French boy, desperate to escape his identity and past, turns up in later life at the end of the novel as a farmer in Queensland. The French girl joins him. This is so contrived as to be embarrassing. It is cloying, sentimental and cringeworthy, and I got the real sense that this Queensland born and bred author was just indulging in that sin that besets so many - a bit of Queensland boosterism. 

There's melodrama. There's gothic. There's even this line: 'They made savage love, like tigers' (p546). 

Oh please!

(Here is an excellent review in The Australian by Peter Craven. Here is a lame review by Lucy Nelson in the Sydney Morning Herald, who can't even spell the name of the main character!)


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ian Plimer's Not for Greens

I've always found myself more comfortable on the margins of Conventional Wisdom critiquing it rather than on the inside articulating it.

Which is why I've been fascinated by the writings of the so-called 'climate skeptics' for a number of years now. They've had an awfully bad run in the main stream media, and thus not too many people read their books. 

But Professors Ian Plimer and Bob Carter - both geologists - have written excellent and challenging books, as has Nigel Lawson, former British Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Plimer's just released Not for Greens is another of his trademark hard-hitting, passionate, take no prisoners offerings. His voice is that of an old curmudgeon banging remorselessly on about the larger truths in the climate debate - larger, more important insights, fed by geology.

According to climate scientists Plimer is a 'denier' from a parallel universe. But for a boy from Broken Hill like me, whose father spent his entire working life underground, that universe is a far richer and more intellectually satisfying place than the visions of apocalypse manufactured by today's climate alarmists.

Plimer is a natural born polemicist. He writes with verve, wit and frequent unremitting savagery. He's always pungent and spares the reader no technical detail in getting his message across. The book demands your concentration. 

The energy chapter for example is superb, and worth buying the book for alone. He's simply excellent on the deplorable economics of renewable energy sources such as wind farms, solar and biomass; And his explanation of how fracking works, its economic importance, and the politics around it is fascinating and persuasive. 

But unfortunately the book has so many weaknesses it's hard to know where to start. Firstly, Plimer would get far more traction and credibility if he stopped talking exclusively to old white men, and accepted the challenge to talk to younger people. His extreme cartooning of the Greens for example is a real turn-off. It's low rent and embarrassing. On virtually every page he resorts to stuff like this: 'The great thing about an underground mine is that it is a green-free zone' (p230). And possibly gay-free as well? Any decent publisher would have cut this rubbish out.

The book has a stupid title and a totally meaningless subtitle. The blurb on the back cover is woefully inadequate and was obviously written by the author himself - always a bad thing. It gives no hint as to the real substance of the book. Typically, for so many Australian books these days, there is no author photo, no index and the copy editing is shameful. It's also been badly (if at all) proofread. In other words it's been put together by rank amateurs.

(Dear editor: it is quite commonly accepted in Australia these days that 1000 million is one billion. So the earth is 4.5 billion years old, not '4500 million'. This dated editorial style irritates all the way through the book). 

There are too many manufacturing and chemical details re iron and steel production down the years that are simply not key to the book. A good editor would have chopped this. There's no need for the reader to be informed in detail about the Bessemer process of steel making, how magnesium oxide is made, or how nickel sulfides are mined. This is a series of lectures from Mining 101 and they go on and on and the students are asleep at their desks.

However Plimer's enthusiasm for mining is infectious and he does succeed in conveying the enormous complexity that mining operations involve. We're not just a quarry, just 'digging up and shipping stuff out'.

I've read all of Plimer's stuff over the years, so I'm used to his cantankerous style, but I've little doubt that most readers will be thoroughly put off. If one of these days he could get himself a mainstream quality publisher who could manage his wayward emotional outbursts and discipline him to focus more clearly on the gentle art of persuasion he could do himself and a much wider public a great service.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide

A few months ago I favourably reviewed (here) Guardian journalist Luke Harding's The Snowden Files. It was the story of whistle blower Edward Snowden and the Guardian's heroic role in disclosing the data he extracted from the NSA (National Security Agency) while working as a contractor for the US Department of Defence.

Glenn Greenwald, a columnist for the Guardian at the time, and the one trusted journalist sought out by Snowden to facilitate the publication of the story, also builds in this just released book a dramatic narrative around all the events, issues, personalities and conflicts associated with the whole, incredibly dangerous enterprise. 

It's a beautifully written story of passionate, courageous journalism and a gripping read.

Edward Snowden himself is portrayed as an amazing young man. His courage, integrity, intelligence, strategic and media sense, and utter commitment to honesty is inspiring.

He did not want to go to prison, he said. 'I'm going to try not to. But if that's the outcome from all of this, and I know there's a huge chance that it will be, I decided a while ago that I can live with whatever they do to me. The only thing I can't live with is knowing I did nothing.' (p51)

Greenwald's passion and obsession with exposing the truth, doing justice to Snowden, and not giving an inch to subservient, 'government embracing' media is a lesson to all so-called political journalists.

He outlines in detail all the NSA's surveillance systems, including how Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, YouTube and other tech companies were compliant and cooperative despite their denials.

'Taken in its entirety, the Snowden archive led to an ultimately simple conclusion: the US government had built a system that has as its goal the complete elimination of electronic privacy worldwide...The [NSA] is devoted to one overarching mission: to prevent the slightest piece of electronic communication from evading its systemic grasp.'

Threats against Greenwald by government spokespeople and establishment-defending journalists, who refused to refer to him as a journalist, resorting to handles like 'co-conspirator' and 'activist', were, and continue to be, shameful.

The absurd personal attacks on Snowden by the mainstream press, even quality press like the New York Times, the New Yorker and CNN, were lazy and dishonest lies.

Greenwald gets very reflective in the latter third of the book. He asks how and why the establishment protects itself, and reviews the literature on the psychological effects of the awareness of surveillance on people as they go about their normal lives.

The final chapter, The Fourth Estate, is an insightful essay on journalism and its relationship to the instruments of government and power. It's also a damning indictment of so much of contemporary journalism which has stooped to be little more than a mouthpiece for government interests.

No Place to Hide is a seriously good and worthwhile book. It's also a riveting read.

(Apologies for the lousy cover image above. It's Penguin's 'Commonwealth' edition and it's a strikingly bad cover anyway. And there's no photo of the author nor any index. Cheap.)

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair

I have to confess I'm a bit of a sucker for books that come with four or five frontispiece pages of highly positive review snippets from around the world, like these:

'By the end you're exhausted and delighted by the relentless stream of literary adrenaline which the narrator has continuously injected into your veins' (Le Figuro)

'Dicker writes a story full of such intelligence and subtlety that you can only regret the fact it comes to an end. A novel that works on so many levels: a crime story, a love story, a comedy of manners, but equally an incisive critique of the art of the modern author.' (Elsevier).

There are twelve more of these, all heaping lavish, breathless praise on this first novel by young Swiss author Joel Dicker.

The problem is the book is simply awful - an unmitigated disaster on just about every level.

The core narrative is the love affair between Harry Quebert, a writer in his mid thirties, and Nola Kerrigan, an apparently gorgeous, blond, 15 year old teenager. Yes, she's fifteen. The setting is a small town in New Hampshire.

They spend a lot of time together, in Harry's house, and even go on a four day vacation to Martha's Vineyard, where they 'lived as if in a dream, in that beautiful hotel by the ocean. They swam, they walked, they ate together in the hotel's large dining room, and nobody looked at them or asked them any questions. On Martha's Vineyard, they were able to live.' 

No, we're not told by the narrator whether they were intimate, that is, whether they HAD SEX. All through the book the notion that Harry, this mature, sympathetic character, who recognises his love for this young girl is wrong and must end, but makes no real effort to do so, is in all probability indulging in a heinous crime, well that uncomfortable fact is simply ignored. We're in the realm of 'pure joyous love' here people. That is good and great, right?

All the characters in the novel, and there are plenty, are bold stroke and dramatic stereotypes. The young are good, the police are corrupt, small towns are full of provincial, ignorant types, etc. Some of the characters are even delightfully rendered, like the brash Barnasky, the New York publisher, and the young narrator Marcus' mother, a delicious Jewish creation. 

Books like this always have multiple and baffling twists and turns and this one is no exception. The problem is the ultimate resolution is about as emotionally unsatisfactory as it is possible to get. It's a complete mess. It's barely credible and quite silly. As a reader I felt deflated and sort of angry. 

So here's my quote, if the publisher would like to include it: 'The reviews quoted here, apart from mine, are rubbish'. 

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Edward St Aubyn's Lost For Words

St Aubyn's magnificent Patrick Melrose novels have led us to expect sparkling, lively prose from this superb wordsmith and he doesn't disappoint here. The crispness and precision is all there - there's not a word out of place. It's writing of the highest order.

Lost For Words is a satirical takedown of the literary world's obsession with prizes. The selection process for the Elysian Prize - obviously the Booker - is under way and the judges' idiocies and prejudices are on full display. Once a Booker shortlist nominee himself St Aubyn's own cynicism about literary prizes could not be clearer:

'It's a prize for literature', said Mr Wo. 'I hope it will go in the direction of literature...Personally I think that competition should be encouraged in war and sport and business, but that it makes no sense in the arts. If an artist is good, nobody else can do what he or she does and therefore all comparisons are incoherent'. 

This satire has all the caustic edge and savagery to make it a thrilling read. St Aubyn exquisitely lampoons many genres, fiction and non-fiction, and his aim is as true as can be. The most brilliant take-down is the critical review, polluted as it so often is by a faddish postmodernism. The French critic Didier, flamboyant and wild, is a marvellous creation:

'Evidently..we are in the presence of the text-as-textile, as the fabrication that weaves a dissimulating veil over its apparent subject, expressing the excess of figurative language over any assigned meaning or, more generally, the excessive force of the signifier over any signified that tries to contain it'. 

The febrile, desiccated and corrupted British establishment bumbles along, lauding 'relevance', indulging in a lazy populism, and trashing England's unique literary and cultural heritage in the process, leaving space for Russian thugs on the one hand and Chinese corporate interests on the other. 

Ironically, at the Awards Dinner, the Chinese CEO of the sponsor company and his highly intelligent wife seem the only literate adults in the room.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Thomas Piketty's Magisterial 'Capital in the Twenty-First Century'

This is the book everyone's talking about. If you are at all interested in economics, particularly economic history, and if you are at all cranky about the crop of liars, frauds and economic illiterates currently governing us, then it's a must read.

I've spent the past week reading all of its 685 pages (one has the time, you know, when one's retired) and I must say it's been an enthralling experience. I'm not an academically trained economist, although I did a unit of economic history at university eons ago, but I've been obsessed with the subject ever since I discovered the brilliant and Nobel prize winning economist Paul Krugman two decades ago. I've read all his books, Slate and New York Times columns, and his thousands of blog posts ever since. The man is a liberal, progressive voice of sanity in today's economic and political madness.

Now I have another hero - Piketty. His central thesis is that over the last 300 years the return on capital has been significantly higher than the growth rate of the economy, and thus incomes, in every Western country including Japan. The only exception to this was the period between the two world wars last century when capital was destroyed on a grand scale - by bombed buildings and infrastructure on the one hand, and expropriation and runaway inflation on the other. Since then capital has resumed its inexorable growth, ensuring wealth and power is increasingly accruing to the top decile of the population, especially the top one percent. Rapidly growing inequality is the result. The middle class forty percent and the bottom fifty percent of society become increasingly resentful and powerless, and this can only have rather dire consequences for social cohesion into the future. 

Governments can do things - like introduce annual taxes on capital holdings; reverse the flattening of progressive taxation of incomes that has taken place since the Reagan/Thatcher years - but this requires global will and courage, and the wealthy increasingly control governments anyway. 

A couple of insights stand out. From the beginning of the Christian era until the year 1700 world population growth was virtually non-existent - less than 0.1% per year. Economic growth was similarly stagnant. In the last three centuries however population growth has been significant, at 0.8% per year. In the 20th century it was bullish, at 1.4%. This propelled considerable economic growth. However that growth is projected by the latest UN forecasts to fall to 0.4% by the 2030's and settle, once again, to around 0.1% in the 2070's. Thus economic growth will similarly decline, propelled as it is mainly by population growth. Incomes - wages and salaries - will follow. 

The return on capital, however, will continue at around 4%-5% each year for a long period of time. The phenomenon of 'patrimonial capitalism' will dominate. As wealth accumulated in the past grows more rapidly than output and wages, according to Piketty, 'the past devours the future'.

(Gina Rinehart anyone? Jamie Packer? The Murdochs? Their power grows, the rest of us labouring suckers shrink).  

Piketty relies on comprehensive databases of economic and social statistics from many countries (including Australia and New Zealand) that he and his colleagues have painstakingly built over the last fifteen years. Thus the many graphs and tables presented (115 in all) are fascinating in themselves. Simply perusing these can convey the whole story succinctly.

He is a natural-born teacher. This book is a narrative, providing context and perspective for today's realities and debates. He provides constant introductions, summaries and recaps as he goes. As a reader the main arguments and themes are always clear. The book is very logically organised.

The writing is clear and non-academic in style. He uses the personal pronoun 'I' not the impersonal 'we'. Thus he intimately connects with the reader in the telling of this 300 year story, even when the math equations get a bit heavy.

The English translation is, on the whole, pretty good, though the word 'concretely' (meaning 'in practice') appears far too often. Is it even a word?

In summary, a ground-breaking, wonderful, fascinating and very important book. 

(Paul Krugman's very positive review in the New York Review of Books is here)

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The exquisitely banal A Death in the Family by Karl Ove Knausgaard

It's taken me too long to get around to reading this but I'm so glad I did. Everybody and his dog seems to raving about it.

This is the first volume in a mammoth six book project by the Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard. Hugely successful in Norway, the first three books have now been beautifully translated into English by Don Bartlett. 

This is autobiography laced with fiction. It's the story of Knausgaard's early years as a child, a teenager and a young man. It centres around his problematic relationship with his authoritarian, distant father, who, in his son's words, was 'an idiot'. His father, socially inept, friendless, divorced, eventually becomes a drunken slob and dies slumped in a chair. 

What distinguishes this 'novel' is that it challenges and, frankly, bores the reader with page after page of sheer banality. It's banality writ large. It's a forensic analysis of the unremarkably quotidian. There's nothing particularly special about Knausgaard's family, his school or his friends. He's a smart, good-looking kid, and the girls rather like him. He likes to party, get drunk and smoke. Gee.  

The book occasionally comes to life with delicious passages of social and political observation, but they are unfortunately too rare. He 'detests', 'despises', 'opposes' all sorts of important and trivial things - from the way people dress, to what they think, to their dumb political ideas.

Two thirds of the way through, after having fallen asleep yet again, I couldn't decide whether this book was the most boring thing I've ever read, or a sublime meditation on the magic of the mundane.

It's often just plain irritating. At one point the author and his brother suspect that their father may not actually be dead after all. It can't be taken seriously, as it's meant to be. Then there's the time shifts - there's always time shifts! - but they add nothing. There's no meaning enhancement going on.* 

And the brothers spend days cleaning the filthy, putrid, faeces-strewn house where their father finally expired. Why didn't they hire a professional cleaner FFS? 

There's no irony, no wit, no distance, no judgement, no critique. Knausgaard takes himself so fucking seriously.

In all the detail and precision I wanted someone, sometime, to go to the toilet, and even take a shower! Right at the end Knausgaard actually does both. Thank god.

But the longer you spend immersed in these 400 densely typeset pages the more you realise you are coming under their spell. And that Knausgaard's overriding preoccupation with death, decay and transience is sucking you in. And his portrait of Norway and its physical beauty - its landscapes, its cities and towns, its friendly people, its strong social life - all this is overpowering and resonant.

So a recommendation: if you start this journey, which you should, then stick with it. Yes, I will read the next five volumes.

* there are run-on commas galore too. Ugh!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Fiona McFarlane's The Night Guest

It takes a while to kick in but as this novel progresses it develops as a subtle and beautifully written portrait of old age, with its rhythms and unsettling disassociations. We see clearly what can only be the main character Ruth's early and painful descent into Alzheimer's.

But there's another powerful dimension to the story - it's quite a brilliantly paced psychological thriller. The sense of menace increases as Frida, the 'carer', is revealed as anything but. Ruth, sensitive, intelligent and not short of money, is a widow residing alone in a large family home by the sea. She becomes increasingly powerless and vulnerable, falling prey by the end to forces well beyond her comprehension and control.

The ending is tragic and ensures the novel as a whole reverberates with meaning. It will stay with you long after you've put it down.

McFarlane's debut novel has been shortlisted for this year's Stella Prize. It won't win it - Clare Wright's The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka ticks too many boxes - but its shortlisting is well deserved.