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.