Tuesday 27 January 2009

Nick Hornby's A Long Way Down appeared in 2005, the year of the London bombings. The tube and bus bombings, when images of street emergency treatment of injured commuters appeared on our TV screens. A few years earlier, in September 2001, the New York disaster had taken place. George W. Bush and Tony Blair were still firmly in place.

It was a darker world. In this world, it is fitting that a book such as this should be published. Hornby is certainly a comic writer, but the themes and issues that crop up in this book make you realise how small the world is. A bunch of failed suicides meet on a rooftop in London and make a sort of pact. They get together, support each other, curse each other, and take "the long way down" (as one of them, JJ, says to another, Maureen, toward the end of the book).

A journalist would talk about 'healing' and 'putting their lives together'. Hornby talks about a whole slew of things, but one is most evident: given a crisis, even the most unlikely set of group members can find commonality where it is absent in their workaday existence.

The community they forge is set off by the trademark comic climaxes that make Hornby's books so fun to read. In a comic novel, nothing is too bad or distressing because the narrative is constantly bringing itself up against the larger reality of Real Life. It is the dissimilarity between the reality of the novel and this other reality, that causes the joke to be on.

It falls on the characters, however, not on us. We're not challenged too hard, because we've always got someone else to laugh at. The characters conform to their author's plan and this is reassuring. But in the midst of this reassuring compote of feelings and giggles we run up against a succession of truths that are hard to argue with. In this sense, Hornby is not just a comic writer, he's a writer of parables.

Perhaps comic writers have always been like this. I suspect that Hornby will become a classic, in the same way as, say, John Mortimer is. There's a recognisable riff going on that binds the reader to the narrative so strongly that a consumer pattern is established. It may not be good literature, but it is satisfying.

And reliable. I found the depth Hornby is able to reach adequate for me to feel content in my choice of this book to read in preference to any of the other 1600 volumes in my library. It felt good to be back on the pavement with Hornby and his creations and I sensed a feeling of happy abandon that I recognise from adolescent reading of books about country veterinarians and animal collectors.

It took less than a day to finish the book. It is possible that I chose this in response to my last read, which was non-fiction and quite depressing, as it chronicled the evils of the fast food industry: a massive low in contemporary society similar, in a way, to the 7/7 or 9/11 catastrophes, but far less visible in the popular press.

I feel that Hornby has found a fitting way to put the feelings these two events conjured up in the public imagination, and I respect him for that. I certainly wouldn't have been able to tackle the issue with anything like the aplomb he displays here. His motley band is a fresh type of 'coalition of the willing'.

Willing, in this case, to keep trying and never to lose hope. It's a message that should be reaffirmed from time to time.

Monday 26 January 2009

Eric Schlosser's Chew On This runs to 199 pages, with about 50 pages of notes. It is illustrated with photos. Its chapters are short and pithy, usually containing information about a single instance of the many undesirable outcomes deriving from the ascendancy of junk food made by McDonald's and dozens of other, mainly American, fast food corporations.

It makes you wonder what business journalists get up to on a daily basis. It makes you wonder if it is true that corporate press releases drafted by public relations operatives and recycled by journalists are monopolising the pages of our broadsheets. Because this kind of material - meticulously annotated and extensively researched - should be what we read when we open the paper in the morning, evening or night.

At the end of the book, Schlosser exhorts consumers - you and me - to eschew the cheap, high-calorie option offered by fast food outlets in favour of home- or quality-prepared, low-calorie and healthy alternatives. Food is important to us, as he illustrates in the book. It's not just Eskimo villages that suffer. Young boys booking in for stomach stapling surgery are not only minimising their quality of life for the rest of their lives. They're also putting themselves at risk of premature death.

A stomach stapling patient needs to take vitamin supplements for the rest of his or her life. Failure to do so causes hair to fall out - a sign of encroaching maulnutrition. This is just one of the many stories Schlosser uses to illustrate a general decline in the standard of living deriving from the consumption of cheap, fast food.

The book is easy to consume, however. It's not particularly challenging and the illustrations do not go as far as, perhaps, all of us would like. But in the same way that Morgan Spurlock illustrated the evils of McDonald's by eating nothing else for months, Schlosser's 2006 non-fiction book brings a little closer a whole slew of unappetising facts.

Because it's not just our bodies that suffer. A single, hilarious example relates to the closing of a Canadian McDonald's following the success of two low-paid employees there in recruiting members for a worker's union. Having failed to bully the staff into refusing to become involved, the company simply shut down the operation - heading off, it would seem, a spread of unionisation through outlets elsewhere in Canada and, heaven forbid, the United States as well.

This kind of corporate chicanery is what business journalists should be writing about. But whenever I open a newspaper, the first thing I do is to throw away the business section. Why? It's hard to read and incredibly dull. I just cannot relate to the journalism it includes. So I toss it in the garbage. Fast journalism. Junk journalism.

Schlosser also shows how farming has stopped benefitting the people who put the most time into the production process: the farmers. The amount of money a beef farmer supplying McDonald's receives from his beef has dropped by about 25 per cent in half as many years.

Staff employed in chicken processing plants torture the beasts, which many not even be dead before they're dropped into a vat of boiling water. Knife cuts are endemic at meat processing plants because - due to the large diversity in the size of the beasts - machine processing is not possible. Different sized cows and steers means that all cutting must be done by hand.

Not only are there health reasons to stop buying and eating fast food, but there are ethical reasons, many of them relating to the economics of fast food production. All the processing is conducted in industrial sized plants. There is no craft - apart from with meat workers - and the way the system works has led, over the years, to lower pay and worse conditions for workers employed in the factories and on the farms that supply them.

Schlosser ends with a plea for us to take responsibility: don't buy the stuff. Will anyone listen?

A recent government advertising campaign designed to make adults aware of the risks involved in overweight has spread throughout Australia. In it, a man walks down a straight path, morphing every few seconds at moments designed to indicate passing years. The campaign seems to be effective. It made me buy a bathroom scale and talk to my pharmacist. It also made me realise that home cooked is better in so many ways.

I can go to McDonald's and buy a meal for about 10 dollars. But it won't last. The high sugar content and the large amount of fat ensure that the burger is assimilated by my body very rapidly. I also don't feel very well a few hours after ingestion.

Alternatively, I can go out and spend, say, 15 dollars on ingredients (fish, for example). I bring it all home and spend about 30 minutes preparing the food for consumption. At the end, I have a large, delicious meal. The next day I can finish the leftovers off for lunch or breakfast.

All round, it's a much better alternative. Over time, I can improve on the skill. I can even use it to entertain a friend, or a group of friends, by cooking a meal and serving it in my own home. I take a bite out of my pumpkin tempura and I can taste the pumpkin. Same for the potato tempura. Same for the onion.

It gives me pleasure, and I feel virtuous. It gives me control over my life and makes me feel good, which is a strong endorsement for any activity in this busy world. All it costs is $15 to $20 and 30 to 45 minutes' time.

It's a win-win situation.

Saturday 24 January 2009

On the back of Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives (published in Spanish in 1998, and in translation in 2007), John Banville, the Irish writer (who also writes detective novels under the name Benjamin Black), says that the novel is "vaguely, pervasively, frightening".

Why? It's because this is a gothic thriller. The gothic form is characterised by (a) mystery and (b) pursuit. The biography of Shelley written in the last ten years or so is subtitled 'The Pursuit' and classic gothic novels of the Romantic period often include pursuits (usually a young woman is being chased by an evil, but powerful, man).

And if Ulises Lima and Alberto Belano are mysterious protagonists, who is Juan Garcia Madero? Is he the interviewer who, after the initial piece of narrative and in advance of the concluding narrative - narratives that document the adventures of Modero and a young prostitute named Lupe - talks to so many people about his enigmatic friends?

The other book this reminded me of, of course, is Le grand Meaulnes, the classic adolescent thriller by Alain-Fournier. And then there's the biographical exempla presented by the French poet Rimbaud, who absolved himself of any complicity with the middle class by simply leaving it, ending up, in the end, running weapons in North Africa.

This is a long novel, over 570 pages in translation, and it includes sections set in Africa. It is not 'about' poetry, so much as it uses poetry to illustrate larger realities. We are confronted by the growing conviction that somehow poetry is a different kind of calling but that, by focusing on two poets (and their movement, 'visceral realism'), it can be universalised to encompass anybody's existence. And, indeed, society itself.

A literary backwater, Mexico, we feel. A small, introverted, and highly bitchy sort of environment to mix in, and make a livelihood in, if you're lucky. Belano and Lima are not lucky. Both Chilean exiles, they end up at the four corners of the earth having strange adventures. But underlying all of these is a ruthless adherence to a set of precepts that, somehow, are already present in their attitudes toward poetry. The label is not important.

Or is it? It turns out that 'visceral realism' is a label that had already been used, by a woman named Cesarea Tinajero, in the 1920s. It was a time of war.

I suspect that the label is unimportant but that it is important to Bolano (who died at a fairly young age in 2003) that comparisons with his own life are avoided because this is a great work of art, and any simplistic formulation on the basis of fact would miss the point.

In its bulk - where we are presented with 'interviews' with actors with often tenuous associations with Belano and Lima - it's like a stream of water we're fishing in. We cast our lines and wait for a bite. Each story provides more and more information. Finally, we are pretty sure what type each of the two men is. But it's a waiting game.

That you can write a novel about two unsuccessful poets whose only claim on our sympathy is their evident decency and courage, is something extraordinary. And while the book often seems to be leading nowhere, Banville's reaction is correct: we're hooked.

Bolano's next novel (his last, in fact), 2666, was published in English recently. Bolano has the kind of blog-fuelled cult following reserved for writers who exhibit extreme anti-establishment characteristics but who are also engaging to read, like William T. Vollmann. I'm not sure when I'll get around to reading the new book but there's a clue in The Savage Detectives that Bolano was aware of its subject matter at the time he was writing the earlier novel.

Like so much about Bolano, a poet who said that he would write prose because it paid better, this is curious.

Thursday 22 January 2009

I thought many times watching The Wrestler: "This is me." Not once but many times. And for once the blurb on the film trailer is true: Mickey Rourke is perfect in this role. The clapped out, triple by-pass pain junkie who never got past the sound of the crowd, like a fisherman never gets past the sound of the surf.

Marisa Tomei is ideal as the ageing pole dancer who scouts around the dark room looking for a man who'll pay for a lap dance. It's a believable proposition. Her small breasts are not saggy and her ass is not too big. At least for me, although the garish tattoos wrapped across her hip and shoulder don't do it for me.

A high point is reached when Rourke's off to another gig, tootling his wheel and clapping to the hard rock on the car stereo with a petrol refinery outlined in the distance behind the iron struts of the bridge he's crossing. It could be any city. It's definitely a big city.

The smog turns the sunset red and orange, colours that glow as they sillouhette the effluent stacks and the snaggles of pipes that hum, but only when you get up close.

This is a post-Tarantino movie. It's soft as ice in a cold drink at the end of a hard week. But it's got the fluorescent, long-haired gleam of heavy metal posters and day-glo suburban accessories. Tomei's crocheted cap is eloquent when she meets Randy 'The Ram' outside a secondhand fashion shop on a strip mall in a nondescript zone of the city.

She doesn't have her thong on and Randy is just out looking for a present to give to his daughter, a vampire-loving lesbian who lives at no. 29 High Street, Anycity. The snow is part of the landscape. Randy's gift gets him one lunch but when he fails to turn up for a dinner date, she throws him out. The Bold and the Beautiful meets Pulp Fiction.

When Randy takes to the ring, everything fits perfectly into place. Funny how the male spectacle is so 'out there' that you need sunglasses to watch, while the female spectacle plays out in almost total darkness. No guy wants to see the other guy sitting next to him on an identical stool. But in the ring, well, you've got all flavours.

Randy's final match is a 20-year rematch against The Ayatollah. We're back in 1991. A black man with a short beard, his opponent waves an Iranian flag about as he hefts his paunch across from one side of the enclosure to the other. Randy's got green tights on, a scar like an eight-inch worm down the middle of his chest, and tinted hair (he's naturally brunette).

Another highlight is Randy on the deli counter in the local supermarket. It's a role he takes to easily, being naturally gregarious. But when a fan spots him, he freaks out. What with the daughter shutting his fatherhood gig down and a six-foot berk in a baseball cap picking his true ID, Randy throws in the hairnet and takes to the road.

There's something calm and welcoming about this low-rent flic. It's got a dreamy timbre and Rourke's delapidated smile blends into the role cleanly. When I left the cinema I sort of mooched along the street taking in the flashing lights and the lonely truth that breaks out when you see a car's headlights shining on the bumper of the car in front.

We're all in this together. That's why this film gets five stars from me.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Slumdog Millionaire's 'beggar porn' is captivating as long as it continues but once the boys grow up - the good Jamal and the bad Salim - we're frightened by an excess of poignancy. It's difficult to portray children. Humour is required.

But once the realms of adulthood are entered, romance is mandatory and, in this case (being Mumbai) greed. A tendency to favour cliche and forced dramatics is hard to resist.

Danny Boyle, the director, did not resist. He is most famous for the extraordinary Trainspotting, a harmless romp through the West's slacker dropout cult. The new film didn't entertain. We have some memorable scenes but they all occur in the first half. Such as an anti-Muslim mob bashing the boys' mother to death in the washing pond, or the beggar king having a kid's eye put out with hot acid so that he can beg more effectively.

Once Salim, perched on a floor of an apartment block under construction, says that he is "At the centre of the centre", you know it's all downhill. And while there's tremendous satisfaction to be enjoyed in Salim's shooting of the beggar king, his abduction of Latika - Jamal's lost love - in a train station where Jamal has promised to be every day at 5pm, is just standard crim pap.

I left the theatre. I also wasn't convinced by the police questioning of Jamal - the "slumdog" of the title. It's enough, I thought, that he managed to get on the show. Why persecute him mindlessly, to gratify the preconceptions of an ignorant Western audience, and to set up a satisfying denouement, when Jamal finally triumphs over the forces of evil that keep him apart from his childhood sweetheart?

Anyway, I was very thirsty. Unfortunately, Powerade wasn't on sale in the convenience store's refrigerated cabinet. I was forced to slake my thirst with a Nutrient Water. A small sacrifice, since they both cost the same and, most importantly, neither contains much sugar.

It's sad that thoughts like these become dominant in the aftermath of a failed screening, but that's the truth in my case. The accolades presented following the film's release are unwarranted.

So I award the film three stars for the first half, and only one for the ending. Of course, maybe I got it all wrong and Jamal never gets the girl. Maybe she runs away from the corrupt property developer who punches her in the face and sets herself up selling cosmetics door to door. Maybe she becomes a millionaire anyway.

In essence, Latika is the most 'interesting' character in the film. What happens to her should concern us. What the police dish out to poor, brainy Jamal, the call centre tea-wallah, is just too silly to comprehend.

Naturally, the story is based (who knows?) on a true account. In which case I'll have to wear a garlic chapati on my head for a week.

Monday 19 January 2009

I started to do this post but I was depressed and didn't. I sat down and started reading Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, which made me feel better. So here I am. This is the post.

Admittedly, I still feel slightly sick about John Hersey's Hiroshima (first published in 1946; this edition, with an afterword entitled 'The Aftermath', which is chapter five, and which carries on the stories of the individuals Hersey started chronicling for the first edition, was published in 1985).

It's particularly sickening, for me who is well-knowledged about Japan, to realise that nothing was done for the hibakusha (survivors of the bomb) until 1954, a full nine years after the blast. And this only occurred due to outrage fuelled by nationalism in the wake of fallout striking a tuna fishing boat, the Lucky Dragon No. 5, near Bikini Atoll.

This is where the US conducted atomic testing. It is also where the word 'bikini' - as in female swimwear - derives from. The story of the tuna boat fed into the story we now know as Godzilla.

Once this event occurred, the Japanese government passed a law in support of hibakusha. The law led to financial support. But the shame of the initial explosion meant that survivors were pretty much ignored by their countrymen and -women for a decade.

My feeling of illness had nothing to do with, for example, the keloid girls. These school-aged girls had been sent out by Hiroshima's authorities to pull down houses in fear of the use of incendiary bombs by the Americans. Tokyo had been razed using these devices, and the leaders in the southern city feared that a similar strike was due.

Keloids are the highly disfiguring scars that resulted from being exposed to the blast at close range.

No, my feeling of despair had nothing to do with them or the men and women hersey chronicles. Rather, it had to do with the writing itself. It didn't have anything to do with the reluctant triumphalism even Hersey displays (at one point he talks of the "great nuclear experiment"). It had to do with the dry style.

I'm not sure why it bothered me, but it certainly did. I was unable - not just unwilling - to write the post in the mood I found myself in. Something about Hersey's ghoulish curiosity made me feel sick. There's not a lot of compassion in the book. It's as dry as a ten year old match.

Nevertheless, it's a good read. The front cover blurb says that anyone who is able to read should read the book. I don't know if I'd go that far. I certainly would like Hersey to talk more about why the hibakusha were ignored for the most part of a generation by the Japanese government.

I feel it has to do with the sense of shame the explosions in Hiroshima and Nagasaki caused the country to feel. It has something to do with the depressing need of the Japanese to submerge themselves in a larger cause. Their religious attachment to the royal throne is symptomatic of a deeper psychological malaise, I feel.

Anyway, the post's written now. If you can read English, I suggest that at some point you try to get through this book, having got through the post. The scenes painted of the night immediately following the blast are very entertaining.

Sunday 18 January 2009

1974, when Patrick White's short story collection The Cockatoos was first published, was a time of change in Australia in many ways. It'd be nice to think that White put out the collection in honour of the Whitlam government's ascent, but that's probably a little optimistic.

Nevertheless, 1974 was a time of regular Oz habits. I remember it would have been the time I started learning German and hanging around in the high school playground on winter mornings, getting close enough to a 44-gallon drum of burning refuse to keep out the chill. I guess I learned to swim about this time, too. White's new book was not on the radar.

Mum said White was a mysogynist. But this would be later on, when I was old enough to give a rat's about Australian literature. 1974 was the year after White won the Nobel Prize for Literature. A moment of clarity, perhaps?

'Clarity' is the word that seems to fit all of these stories. At some point in each of them, a character achieves clarity and, perhaps, goes on to lead the rest of their life. There are epiphanies but not many forked roads. And while White dabbles with stream-of-consciousness, these attempts are so intermittent and the effects so questionable, that it is reasonable to assert, as a reviver did yesterday in The Sydney Morning Herald, that Australian literature may not be stylistically adventurous, but it is able to reach the heights on occasion.

This book is one of them. From Harold Fazackerley's realisation that his wife is a stupid bitch, in 'A Woman's Hand', to Ella Natwick's realisation that she loves her husband unconditionally, in 'Five Twenty' (a perfect little story), from Ivy Simpson, in 'Sicilian Vespers', seeing what a dick Clark Shacklock really is, to Felicity Bannister, in 'The Night the Prowler', knowing that she didn't love her betrothed, and could never marry him, we are fully entertained.

White's great achievement, of course, is that we "see" things happen. His carefully modulated prose allows us access to other worlds. But on top of this, White also provides equanimity. There are no totally black, and no totally white, characters, here.

The main characters also tend to come packaged in sets of two, rather than in individual boxes, with the exception of 'The Night the Prowler' although here, too, we get Felicity's mother and father, and even her fiancee. 'The Night the Prowler' is different in another thing, too. Here, Felicity is young - she's just turned 21 or close to, whereas the main characters, in the majority of the other stories, are elderly.

A stunning collection by a writer who just seems to get better as time goes by.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Richard Seaver wanted to "make a fool of" himself but only gained applause. By positively reviewing two works by Samuel Beckett - Molloy and Malone Dies - Seaver started a ball rolling that continues to gather no moss.

After getting Beckett a publisher in the US, the itinerant University of North Carolina graduate returned to the States and started work at Grove Press. It's a famous house. It's a little more famous now that Bruce Weber, for The New York Times, has written a glowing obituary of Richard Seaver, who died at the age of 82. He was born in 1926, three years before my mother.

I'm usually disgusted by obits. In the case of Matthew Hayden's career as an international batsman, the extended verbal farting by the popular press has brought a familiar stench to our reluctant nostrils. Compared to Seaver, Hayden was a blip on history's least well-read page.

Seaver stuck his neck out and waited for it to be chopped. Instead, he managed to just rest his brilliant head on a comfortable pillow. Weber's obituary should be compulsory reading in schools. Leave Hayden for the brainless and safety-seeking. Seaver belongs in a different empyrean.

I chose a front page from an old copy of Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn for this post. It's not a first edition, but it is from the Obelisk Press - the racy French publisher who subsidised avantgarde work like Miller's by selling bodice rippers that used words such as fente and vit ('cunt' and cock' for the uninitiated).

Seaver also translated a lot and the obit contains a surprise - he was the mysterious translator who worked on The Story of O, whose author (Dominique Autry) outed herself in 1994. The editor's wife spills the beans now.

Most public-sphere obits are filled with the same old same old. The same old glowing tripe that borders on the toxicity of enriched uranium about the deceased being an apple of an eye and a true champion. I've always regretted these stories. In Seaver's, I'm less likely to blame, than praise.

Well done Weber and the NYT for fronting up and celebrating a name of rarity. The International Herald Tribune (7 January) and The Sydney Morning Herald (13 January) carried the same story. The Washington Post carried another story, by Alexander F. Remington, titled 'Censorship-Fighting Editor Richard Seaver'.

It's worthwhile to read both.

Monday 12 January 2009

A book that revels in its 'smoke-and-mirrors' suspensefulness, that gains traction in your mind by copying your suburban predispositions intimately, and which is also filled with intelligent writing, must be a book to remember. I wonder.

In The Effect of Living Backwards, Julavits' most profound discovery - that we revel in the familiar, that we only recognise what we've seen before, or what we've been told to see - relates to her final shot, and is linked back on those discoveries because it's to do with the rivalry between the elegant, sophisticated sister who becomes dispirited and the dumpy, 'good' sister who lives a fulfilling life.

It's to do with the life of the imagination, despite how the sameness of 'home' is a constant threat to sanity. But the cliche is mesmerising in its simplicity.

Julavits' truly inventive verbal and notional play centres on a putative Swiss Institute of Terrorism. We're some time in the future. Students are able to move between role play and reality in a final, perfect continuum of uncertainty. From practicing life in uncertain situations to the real thing.

It's the perfect escape from the humdrum of domestic existence. Except that, in Julavits' novel, the protagonist is caught up in a moment of internecine warfare between competing cliques of the Institute.

The result is a piece of controlled mayhem in the telling of which the author is able to examine notions of power ("Hell is other people") and loyalty, the comfort of strangers and the hatred existing between siblings. It's a curious book and one that might eventually become a classic. I can see the orange covers of a faux-retro Penguin lining bookshelves in a city store.

The experience changes Alice, of course. This is a novel after all. It allows her to remove herself from the mundane and enter into a pact with herself: no longer the pretending social worker cum waitress, Alice can blossom into something far larger. She can not be a cliche of failure, and becomes instead a cliche of success. So much for 'genre' fiction.

If these cliches are worth anything, it's worthwhile to note that the book is also, absolutely, a suburban drama. All those far-away place names, the romantic professions. It's wallpaper for a funhouse the author has lavished her skill on embellishing with as much intelligent prose as possible.

But the truth really is that it's a small world we live in nowadays. Published in 2003, the book is ideally positioned amid the cataclysm of September 11 and subsequent political manoeuvres to restrict freedoms. All that's passing, now. But for a while it seemed real.

Nevertheless, we are living in a small world, and the strange has become less quaint with each passing Sunday night foreign affairs broadcast. We're all starting to look the same. Even 'suburban' is starting to take on new meanings as we realise how much good can be achieved in one of them. And how they are ubiquitous.

Julavits' narrative of lies - the story of the hijacking - is interspersed with 'shame' chapters, which are truthful. These are glimpses into the past of actual characters, outside the hellish, flickering scramble for reality found in the rest of the novel.

They are rest breaks in a long journey, during which you only desire to read the final word. You wait for the end, and it comes, at last.

But this is the odd thing in such an inventive piece of fiction: you've seen it all before.

Saturday 10 January 2009

Pico Iyer's The Lady and the Monk begins within the knowledge gained by the author - a cacophony of bumbles - and ends with the image of a man, alone in a room, reading a book. Actually, only one of these things is true. The book ends with a late-summer nocturnal event, but the literary nature of Iyer's dreams and aspirations brings us back, inevitably, to the point where they first were germinated: in the scholar's room.

Iyer makes much of the notion of 'space' the Japanese have. (It is salutory to recall that the book was researched in the last years of the 1980s and published in 1991 - a decade before the rise of China as a player in the international imagination.) In his book, Iyer's use of imagery strains to accomplish a similar trick.

So it is that we recall the night when Iyer and Sachiko first kissed. There's not a lot of talk about lust and sex, but presumably it all happened. He's a lot more forthcoming on the ways Japanese culture expresses itself in the consumer age, than on the ways he and Sachiko disported themselves in private.

Which is possibly as it should be but, still, it's a bit decorous. There are occasional hints. And the way that Sachiko finally realises her dream tells us that her relationship with this odd man from America has, truly, altered her way of being. If not her very being.

Iyer lives in Japan today and I would like to know what he thinks of this book now, that so many years - in fact two decades almost - have passed. I wonder if he understands more about the way the Japanese screen out knowledge as an inconvenience, as a threat to internal stability. I wonder if he understands the lack of human rights, in Japan. I wonder if he gets the fact that the individual - as we understand the term - does not exist there.

There are hints in the book, but one would expect a more mature understanding would bring more substantial fruits.

Regardless, this is an exceptional book. The beauty is in the detail, if not the poetry. Most of the latter is fairly routine. But it's adequate and designed not to fatigue with too much innovation. Iyer's expressive powers are more than adequate for the task. I suspect that the secret to his success is his great facility as a writer, and his hard-earned habits of application.

The book is really about how Sachiko remodels her life. As such, it is her we follow with our hearts as the narrative runs on into the 300 page bracket. It is Sachiko we root for, who we condemn, who we develop sympathy for. Sachiko is Iyer's great accomplishment.

Iyer gets along with people easily, it seems. But his creation - Pygmalion is referred to but not directly in relation to himself - has a genius for getting things right. In this sense, we feel that Iyer himself has been subtly changed. A later decision to base himself in Japan merely underscores this suspicion.

He liked what he saw. Initially, what he expected was some shadow of the literature he had consumed about Japan. Evidently, this love of Japanese literature was of long standing, and encompassd a great volume of it. Much more, one expects, than most other foreigners there had mastered.

So it is the particularity of Iyer and Sachiko that makes their story so easily generalised. Staying in Kyoto - the old, small, sleepy town in central Japan - removed Iyer from the frantic bustle of secular Tokyo. But it was a synpathetic environment within which to launch himself upon a study of the archipelago and its inhabitants.

Any other place would have spoiled the mix of Buddhism and literature. I'm not sure how the title links in with the story but, presumably, Iyer sees in himself something of the monk. This may be true.

We look forward to the day when the author revisits the theme. Perhaps he has stayed in touch with Sachiko over the years? Perhaps he has new stories to tell. Perhaps it would start something like this: "I once wrote a book about a striking woman I met while spending a year in Kyoto. Over the years we have stayed in touch. Most recently, Sachiko wrote to me from Holland, where she lives now..."

I'd like that.

Monday 5 January 2009

In The Blogging Revolution, Antony Loewenstein offers bloggers a tantalising glimpse into an area with which they are very familiar. But the book is not actually about blogging per se.

Instead, Loewenstein gives a broad perspective as to how blogging can or cannot perform a liberalising function in non-democratic countries.

Loewenstein's impetus is what Richard Stanton, in All News Is Local (McFarlands & Co, Jefferson, North Carolina, 2007) considers to be the major malaise of the Western media (p 13):

Most issues are too big to be distilled into sound bites, vision and fifteen-paragraph front page stories. But the Western news-gathering model and its associated techniques require distillation in the partial belief that citizens can only engage with issues and events that appear to effect or have an effect on their individual existences. This is a fallacy. ... Localisation assumes a number of things, foremost that citizens are unable to differentiate between issues and events that are real and those that are fabricated.

Loewenstein seems to be a real journalist - he wrote for a number of media organisations before becoming a freelancer - as well as a real thinker - he refuses to accept the relevance of the 'local' requirement in news. In the book, he frequently rounds on the Western media and points with a quivvering finger at the allusive, fragmentary, contradictory, and partial ways that, say, the democratisation of non-democractic countries can become expressed by people living in them.

Yet the author basically believes in the value of free speech. This is an easy one, however. Why he believes in it, we never really know. Presumably it has something to do with the fact that people do not like getting put in jail, raped, tortured, and ostracised by society for merely saying controvesial things.

But the book rarely touches on blogging itself: the physical, day-to-day drama of being your own writer, editor, publisher and marketer.

This is most distressing when he deals with individuals writing in the Middle East. Here, we meet many people who are bloggers. But the actual drama of their activities - which could provide an enthralling narrative with ample meat - is entirely absent. Instead, Loewenstein is content to spend a few days in one country, a few days in the next - we go from Iran to Syria, to Saudi Arabia, to Cuba etc - and chat with a small sample of writers and (in the case of Cuba, where he found no bloggers) 'dissidents'.

We never get to hear the opinions of the readers. We never - and this is surprising - get to hear the opinions of the censors (except via news stories published in the West and anecdotes from bloggers). So we don't really get a 'feel' for how the writings of these bloggers have affected the daily life of a country.

The book is fast-paced. The best sections, you feel, are to do with China - about which much has previously been written. We don't get many pundits speeking about blogging in Iran but there's no shortage of pundits on blogging in repressive China.

You also feel that Loewenstein is slightly blind to nuance. He notes (p 186) that a self-censoring China is emerging ("Self-censorship has become the primary form of control in China"). But on the previous page he misses a key element of the reaction his new friend, a young woman named Mica, expresses when they meet for the second time.

Clearly, Loewenstein had had a big effect on the woman. She's just spent time in Starbucks talking with a guy who's writing a book on blogging. The next day

... Mica said she had been thinking about our conversation and her inability to speak proficiently about politics. It clearly troubled her.

Mica had said, the previous day: "my father reads the newspapers and loves to discuss politics, and that's a very typical Chinese old male thing". Both these events point to the fact that, until now, Mica had never even countenanced talking about politics seriously, with a well-read and well-organised mind like Loewenstein's. She's a bit bowled over.

Mica is just being Chinese. She doesn't consider herself to be, in our Western sense, an 'individual' but, rather, a member of a tribe. Her tribe is the group of people who are using the internet most these days, and that's why 99 per cent of Chinese blogs "talked about food and daily life" (p 199).

She's just being normal. And the Chinese authorities know this. This is why Loewenstein shouldn't be surprised that English-language sites are allowed through the cordon while Chinese-language ones are not. Most Chinese people don't speak English.

Mica has, suddenly, on exposure to Loewenstein, placed herself in another group and, like a Revolutionary victim writing a self-confession, had chastised herself. Now that she found herself in this context, a lot of things that previously existed beyond the radar of her consciousness, had suddenly loomed a lot closer.

And that's why the Chinese method is working. And that's why Western corporations should simply not deal with the regime. Because given the tools, the Party will do what it pleases. But, here again, Loewenstein doesn't actually talk to any of the people sitting on the other side of the censor's computer keyboard.

Overall, Loewenstein does a good job. The main caveat would be that the book is a bare glimpse. He might have been better advised to write a whole book about, say, the Egyptian experience. This would take more time but, ultimately, would give a better and clearer picture.

Just the sort of picture the author wants to see when he picks up an Australian broadsheet: not just soundbites, but great, bleeding slabs of raw meat. It's good for the soul as well as for the teeth.

Sunday 4 January 2009

Politkovskaya's corrupt Russia owes the cause of its malaise to Vladimir Putin, now the country's prime minister.

Occasionally this disordered and episodic series of essays, chronicling truly fabulous levels of corrupt conduct in the army, and among the judiciary, the police, politicians, businessmen (who she calls mafia), all the way down to kindergarten mothers concerned about negative influences from a young Chechen boy, notes that 'we' must stop the rot.

She is pointing to the Russian middle class but that entity remains stubbornly silent, Politkovskaya avers, in the face of horrendous acts of civil, military, administrative and legal misbehaviour.

As long as Putin remains in place as the top poobah in the lodge, nothing, she says, will change.

We look in vain to Tolstoy or the nineteenth century novelists to show us how this sort of thing used to work before the Revolution of 1917. Politkovskaya's most often-repeated condemnation of the current regime (the book was published in 2004 before Putin 'abdicated') is that it resembles nothing so much as that of Stalin.

But her appeals to a middle class are grossly outnumbered by accusations aimed at what she characterises as the 'throne'. The top-down system of autarchy cannot be escaped, and Politkovskaya is as liable as the next person to point a querulous finger only up, never sideways.

People like Putin count on this type of behaviour for their stability.

The book's confused structure is possibly a sign that there was nobody to check facts and perform other essential editing functions required to produce it. Who could check stuff that would, two years after publication in English, lead to the author's death?

Scanning Wikipedia, it seems that Politkovskaya was warned, some years before the fatal Saturday, that death awaited her on a Moscow street. She was actually shot while standing in the elevator of her apartment building, but the message to other would-be investigative journalists is unambiguous: stay away.

She was furthermore targeted by members of the military police, OMON, who attempted to scare her with an arrest, exposure to a rocket launcher along with a death threat, and a poisoned cup of tea.

There is no shortage of candidates for her murder. A chapter that chronicles, with an hilarious type of disbelieving abandon, the corruption that allowed a Ural vodka bootlegger to become one of the country's leading industrialists, alternates between vituperative remarks about the courts and a kind of amplified sideline barracking, in which both teams are despised and spat on.

Certainly, no shortage of candidates.

The little people, whom Politkovskaya occasionally brings into the picture, especially after the Nort-Ost theatre terrorist attack, where she played a part as an intermediary with the terrorists, and had the opportunity to get close to some average people, infrequently enter her frame. The book is a personal challenge to the president.

He clearly has come off best from the match.

Chechnya is where Politkovskaya made her reputation, so it was not surprising that she was fingered by the freedom fighters to be their intermediary with the forces of order, gathered outside the Nord-Ost theatre. It remains to be seen whether that event will be adequately investigated, in time. The author obviously has reservations as to how it was instigated and executed.

Like the good investigative journalist she was, Politkovskaya believed that the book should not be closed yet.

It also remains to be seen if I can discover anything more about Russian atrocities, including thousands of 'disappearances', in the North Caucasus.

Saturday 3 January 2009

To review the movie Frost/Nixon by Ron Howard you need to step away from the brash powerflics given in the trailers, and away from the thundering chords in it backgrounding a heroic power contest. Because what Howard has done is to redeem the corrupt president by default.

Frank Langella is brilliant as Richard Nixon, just as the sets and background story given to Frost (Michael Sheen) - the trendy hotel interiors and the voluptuous Caroline Cushing (Rebecca Hall) - are more than entertaining. They set a tone within which Nixon's seriousness combined with his self-proclaimed outsider status conspire to render the president statesmanlike.

The finale - a present to the president during a last meeting at his California oceanside mansion - underscores how fragile a reputation is. Howard's choice here gives Nixon a more than human face. Perhaps this was his intention. In any case, the story and the film are very good.

It is hard to see this film gaining any great honours. The concept is too small by general standards. I mean, how to promote the story of the making of a TV interview? What are the moments of tension around which such a scenario could be played out?

In fact, Howard and his writers have done a sterling job. Few would appreciate how difficult was Frost's job. First to conscript John Birt (Matthew Macfadyen), who "took a break from LWT to produce David Frost's interviews with disgraced former US President Richard Nixon", according to Wikipedia. Then to get an agent's agreement with the subject.

But the struggle didn't end here. He brought in two experts to help with background and research. One of these, James Reston, Jr. (Sam Rockwell), would eventually provide the basis for the material that would lead Nixon to confess to a crime. Reston is a curious figure - a Washington insider but a researcher, he's the quintessential controversialist with a rather large axe to grind.

Bob Zelnick (Oliver Platt) is Reston's foil - a died-in-the-wool investigative journalist who, like Reston, has taken a risk being involved in a project that might either fizzle completely, or win more enemies in a deeply introverted environment where, unlike Frost, he must continue to earn a living after the interviews complete.

On the obverse side is Jack Brennan (Kevin Bacon), a hard-line Republican yes-man with a tendency to stifle debate by any means possible. Brennan almost kills the series of interviews (there are 12 in all).

But Frost and his henchmen fight back, doing a bit of impromptu sleuthing in an effort to curtail Nixon's ability to channel questions into self-serving directions. Nixon wants to reenter the mainstream of politics. Frost wants (and, even more, Reston wants) to collar him. They want an apology.

They get it, of course. The interview is legendary. But the personal relationship struck up between the man who took the biggest risk - David Frost - and the subject with most to gain (and lose) - Richard Nixon - provides avenues that Howard is able to use to cast a few select lights across the otherwise rocky features of a man who, as president, believed that anything was allowed.

And it's all about Italian leather shoes. Who would have guessed.

Thursday 1 January 2009

Fabulous fireworks and fiendish crowds made NYE 2008 a striking affair. It was my second time in recent years to go down to the water of Sydney Harbour to see pyrotechnics and mingle with the throng.

And throng they did, with a vengeance. I am not young and not apt to drink in public places. It is disturbing to me to see so many intoxicated people - mainly young people, aged under 30 - carousing in the streets as though tomorrow would never come. Many would greet the new year with a hangover.

The worst crowds gathered in the aftermath of the pyrotechnics, as thousands made their way to Milsons Point Station attempting to secure a berth on one of the free trains provided by CityRail. A dangerous situation emerged. The screaming, energetic crowd filled an underpass of the northern approaches to the bridge, depriving many - some parents brought their young children with them - of oxygen and movement.

Ugly scenes resulted from the crush. "Police, coming through," repeated a young man with slicked up hair and no shirt, as he led a parcel of humanity through the crowd waiting, patiently, for a chance to board a train. There were also real emergencies. I asked one young man if the girl with him was alright. She was slumped standing up, her head lolling about like a broken puppet.

"Take her out!" I yelled. "She's claustrophobic," he answered, but he did what he was told regardless of his charge's lack of physical danger. People jostled slowly forward, edging past the tunnel's entrance toward the station entrance a few hundred metres up the hill.

The fireworks ended at about 12.10am. At 2am we finally made a train, dodging the revellers along the narrow platform of Milsons Point Station. The train proceeded to Wynyard. Here it stopped. The doors opened and an amplified voice was heard urging the passenger in carriage eight to stop doing something. Still the train didn't move.

Not for want of trying. I pressed the emergency help button twice to try to get some information about the train. No answer was the reply. The sound system was mute after the warning to the passenger on car eight. We were cattle and the overseers were silent.

By this time of the evening any feelings of pleasure remaining from the fireworks had well and truly worn off. A couple of passengers began retching. Passengers scrambled to save their clothes. Still nothing moved. The doors opened once more.

The train had been stationary at Wynyard for 20 minutes. I barged off the train with my friend and we made a circuitous route down the city's length, onto a bus, and out to where the car was parked in Darlington.

I arrived home at around 4am. It was like escaping a disaster. The thousands of drunken youths on the streets give me little hope for humanity in 2009. The slackness of CityRail's performance even less.

We photographed a possum in Victoria Park, nibbling away at something. A pair of girls passed, one holding onto a pair of silver, high heeled shoes. Their rapid steps retreated. We made it home. We even picked up some food to eat in the early hours, in Newtown.

Things return to normal, regardless of how impossible, even improbable, they seem at the time. I slept a few hours this afternoon, although I'd had almost nil to drink the night before.