Monday 31 December 2018

Book review: Anniversaries from A Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl, Uwe Johnson (2018)

This massive book was originally published in 1970, 1971, 1973 and 1983 and was finally translated into English this year. It’s a kind of collage of impressions of life, mainly in New York, and it relies on the historical importance of the events it retails in (in the beginning, the Vietnam War) for much of its relevance. Picture a German man living in America trying to understand the previous half-century and you get the idea. America in those days still represented progress and such ideas as freedom. Which is definitely not the case anymore (and we should be grateful for our new awareness).

I am hesitant to even publish a review of this book because it runs to about 2000 pages and I only read a dozen or so before giving up in frustration. The problem is that there is a distinct deficit of characterisation in the book so you find it hard to follow any one person through the narrative. There is a woman named Cresspahl (you guess, but are not told) and there is (possibly) her father, but again you’re not sure. All of this uncertainty is quite unnecessary and might have easily been fixed with a little bit of editing.

The lack of consideration for the reader seems to be of a piece with the scope of the book. It’s a book by a political progressive who has turned his foreigner’s eye on the American system. It’s as though a serious work of literature had, by definition, to be inaccessible.

These kinds of reservations might be brushed aside by purists because the book is considered to be a major work of German literature. As already noted, it relies for its imagining on the importance of the United States in what has emerged in popular consciousness as the post-war settlement. But it’s sort of like a dull arthouse movie: so hard to get into that it’s apparently beyond reproach. The fault must lie with the reader who fails to “get it”.

If the book had been set anywhere else it would never have attained the significance it has gained in German literary circles. For me, the work is weak and rambling and lacks a core that can provide the work with the specific gravity it needs to keep the reader interested, but I suggest for the benefit of others that beauties might lie hidden within it. Can someone else please read this book and tell me if it’s any good?

Sunday 30 December 2018

Movie review: The Favourite, dir Yorgos Lanthimos (2018)

I sat through enough of this film to get an idea of its calibre but a friend contacted me while it was on and I left the cinema before the end. I wasn’t sad to go away from this cliche-ridden, mediocre film, which examines part of the life of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) and Lady Sarah Churchill, the duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz).

Drama as well as access to the private lives of these two women is provided by the inclusion of Abigail (Emma Stone), a distant relative of Lady Sarah who arrives at Blenheim Palace asking for work and a place to live. After she arrives at the huge house, Abigail is initially sent to the kitchen to work but one day she is tasked with cleaning the floor and puts her hand in a tub of some sort of astringent chemical that burns it. Then one morning, in pain, Abigail takes a horse from the stables and rides into the forest to look for herbs with which to treat her burns. She also finds something there that she thinks will help the queen, who suffers from sores on her right leg.

Abigail talks her way past a footman and gains access to the queen’s bedroom in Blenheim Palace, where she applies some of her concoction to the infected leg. Lady Sarah interrupts her, sends her away to the kitchen to be whipped, but then finds the remedy has helped allay the queen’s pain. She takes Abigail under her wing and gives her a job as a lady-in-waiting in her household; the job comes with a single bedroom as an added perk.

Anne was only queen for a short time (from 1702 to 1714, first as queen of England, Scotland and Ireland and then of Great Britain and Ireland after Scotland joined England and Wales to form a single political unit) and Lanthimos takes a great deal of pleasure from making fun of the wigs that were popular for men at the time. The makeup is also suitably ridiculous. He uses a distorting lens for some scenes to heighten the viewer’s sense of drama and to render the action grotesque, and cynically lampoons such cultural artefacts of the period as dances.

Dances were places where men and women were able to meet and socialise and were madly popular right through until the Victorian era, when they seem to have fallen out of currency (although country dances continue to be popular in rural Australia today), but for hundreds of years they fulfilled an essential function in society. At dances you could flirt and meet new people and size up prospective partners. Lanthimos merely ridicules the English with his elaborate set pieces. A scene where the duke of Marlborough is engaged in a duck race inside one of the rooms of his palace is designed to serve a similar purpose. I found this sort of tomfoolery tiresome.

I completely fail to understand how a decent romantic drama can be made again and again from novels written by Jane Austen but if you go back 100 years earlier than that you have to make this kind of lame satire that is merely designed to elicit disgust for the ruling classes. I can’t account for the double standards. If this is a realistic “critique” of the manners of the period I am a monkey’s uncle.

The writers did a bad job with the script and the director simply cannot be trusted with anything as complex as characterisation, or even with tone. There is not a single person to like in this film apart from Abigail and this failure renders the drama two-dimensional, like slapstick. It also removes the power of the audience to make decisions for themselves about things that happen in the film and about people who appear in it. A relentless, crushing sense of imminent danger suffocates any possibility for the film to dabble in anything approximating poetry. In a nutshell, this movie is a real stinker and deserves to be ignored.

I also wanted here to say something about the way we popularly imagine history. After watching ‘The Favourite’ I thought how it’s funny that popular culture lags so far behind scholarship despite the way that it's supposed to reflect the aspirations of the broader community. This movie takes some pains to show how hard life was for subalterns in those days, but the characterisation of the serving staff in Marlborough Palace was sketchy at best. The movie contents itself with taking delight in poking fun at the wigs that men used to wear in those days. But the same problem is elsewhere as well. One of the trailers before the movie started was for a new movie about Mary, Queen of Scots, Queen Elizabeth I's arch nemesis.

Once again, a movie about powerful people (specifically, royals) set in the olden days with lots of horses and unwashed noblemen. I'm reminded of Jane Austen's childish spoof of English history, completed when she was a teenager. In it she pokes fun at conventional histories that are about prominent men and women (specifically, royals). In academia, they've come a long with since those days (Austen died in 1817), but it seems that the only place where we celebrate ordinary people is in speculative fiction like the 'Lord of the Rings' series of movies. What are hobbits but ordinary people? There are plenty of movies about superheroes (who are sort of like royals) but not much about the common man and the common woman unless you turn to arthouse movies.

Saturday 29 December 2018

Book review: Less, Andrew Sean Greer (2017)

This novel about a gay writer living in California who is approaching 50 is a bit flimsy and I only made it about 10 percent of the way through it before getting bored. Arthur Less is a minor name novelist who has just broken up with a younger lover, a man who wanted to become a school teacher and who achieved that life goal, but who finds a new lover who wants him to be monogamous. The wedding is scheduled and Arthur is invited but he doesn’t want to go and instead takes up a series of offers from writers' festivals and other kinds of literary engagement, and goes off travelling.

He starts out in New York, where he is to interview a successful science fiction author on-stage. While walking on the street in that city Arthur meets up with an ex-lover and his new boyfriend. At first Arthur fails to recognise Howard but eventually the penny drops. This is the kind of drama this book retails in. Books by writers about the writing life are not uncommon (Rachel Cusk’s 2014 novel ‘Outline', which was reviewed on this blog on 19 September, is one example; there is also Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel ‘Normal People’, which was reviewed on 23 September here) but I have not found one yet that is so sure about the details of the life but seemingly so oblivious to what is really important in life.

There’s something arch and precious about this novel that reminded me while reading of the economical flair of Nabokov, but there is no indication that Greer has any special insights about the nature of existence, the realities of contemporary societies, or anything substantial for that matter. You have plenty of opportunities to admire Greer’s excellent expressive powers but there is little underneath the surface. In fact it’s all surface, and you skid across the top of it like a first-timer on skates at the skating rink.

As for the title, I think the clue lies in the way that genre fiction – including crime thrillers, spy thrillers, science fiction – relies on murder and other forms of violence to advance the plot. The New York event that Arthur goes to is an event held to celebrate the fiction of a science fiction author, and Arthur is scheduled to get up on stage and interview the man.

I am not a big fan of genre fiction but in some cases such novels are now better-written than they have been in the past. There is a sort of sub-genre cross-over zone now where genre and literary fiction tropes are explored in books and such works can satisfy lovers of both formats. But the idea that “less is more” is without doubt a trope for literary fiction. I had a friend who is a lover of science fiction who told me that he feels literary fiction is too narrow in its concerns and is only interested in romance. He has a point in a way, since a lot of fiction relies on a plot that turns on whether a man and a woman will get married. This is the way that people have been writing novels for hundreds of years.

To return to the point, what Greer has done that is so interesting in this context is to tone down the action in ‘Less’ to a pedestrian level in order to cement in the reader’s mind that his is a literary novel, not one of those busy, high-toned genre books. So this book is determinedly literary in its scope, and thus part of its identity is formed in opposition to more popular genre novels.

It’s a tonic to have a book like this where a point of high drama is provided when one man greets another man in the street and the second man forgets the first man’s name. It’s quite different from your usual genre plot, which often involves the deaths of many people and the endangerment of the life of the hero. Or a suicide. Or two suicides. (The more the better, it often appears.) So I can see how we need to have books like Greer’s. I just wasn’t convinced by the poetry it offers to the reader as a vehicle for the ideas it contains.

Friday 28 December 2018

Movie review: Shoplifters, dir Hirokazu Kore-eda (2018)

This sentimental drama has a number of strong messages to make and in many ways it achieves its goals but there was a major problem with plot of this film, one which only appears at the end. On the face of it, the film’s message is one about kindness and decency but in the end I wasn’t hands-down convinced by the main characters and so I think there is another message about Japan that is buried in the characterisation that will be difficult to glean without knowing some Japanese. The film won acclaim at Cannes and has been talked about quite a bit. I saw it at the end of its season in Newtown. The guy who sold me the ticket told me that other films would be screening at the end of the year, and so it was fortuitous that I got to see the film when I did. I had no plans for Boxing Day, so went alone to the movies.

If you can speak some Japanese you will get more out of this film than if you are relying merely on the subtitles. There’s nothing wrong with the subtitles but it helps if you can understand the tone of the speech used in the screenplay. This can help you to orient yourself in relation to the characters that are offered for view. The main characters are in actual fact no better than they should be and it felt odd to me that they were being held up as examplars, but I will get to this aspect of the film later. The speech they use when talking to one another is very demotic Japanese, and there are few moments of heightened drama. This is a kind of filmmaking that is familiar to regular watchers of Japanese cinema. There was something in this film of the plainness and pragmatism of director Juzo Itami. In what follows there will be spoilers so if you don’t want to know how the film ends, stop reading here.

The story is about a “family” that comprises a “grandmother” (Hatsue, played by Kirin Kiki), two “parents” who use the names Osamu Shibata (played by Lily Franky, a man aged in his 40s) and Nobuyo Shibata (played by Sakura Ando, a woman aged in her 30s), a “sister” (who is aged about 20 and who goes by the name Aki Shibata; played by Mayu Matsuoka), and a “brother” (who is aged around 12 and who is called Shota Shibata; played by Jyo Kairi). They all live in Hatsue’s house and one night on the way home on foot Osamu and Shota discover a small girl sitting by herself on the balcony of her apartment. It is winter. They take her in and change her name so that she becomes another “sister” (Lin).

The family survives on the fringes of the mainstream in the casualised workforce. Osamu for a time has a job on a construction site and Nobuyo works in a laundry washing and ironing clothes. Aki works in the sex industry providing services to paying customers (although this is Japan, where prostitution is illegal, so the kinds of services on offer involve a kind of voyeurism). To supplement Hatsue’s pension and the earnings brought in by Osamu and Nobuyo, Shota does some shoplifting occasionally, bringing home snacks, cup ramen in styrofoam containers, and even shampoo when it’s needed.

The family is happy together and Lin eventually convinces Shota to be nice to her. One day, all of them get on a train and go to the beach but Hatsue passes away immediately after this outing and Osamu and Nobuyo bury her in the grounds of the house so that they can keep receiving her pension. (Nobuyo knows the PIN for her bank account, so she can continue to take money out if it even though the old woman is dead.) But one day Lin goes into a shop where Shota is busy shoplifting, and when he sees she is about to be spotted by a staff member, he creates a distraction, grabs a bag of oranges and runs out the front doors into the street. When two staff members corner him on an overpass, he jumps over a concrete barrier and breaks his leg on the road below. He is taken to hospital but the police are involved in the matter and the entire house of cards comes crashing down. The police accuse Nobuyo of kidnapping and of illegally burying a dead body, and she goes to jail. Shota is taken into foster care and starts going to school. In the end Osamu has Shota over to stay in his new apartment and they make a snowman in the parking area out the back of the building. Lin goes back to live with her parents but her mother continues to mistreat her.

What I didn’t get was why Nobuyo didn’t tell the police that Lin’s parents were abusing her. She had an opportunity to do this and in the process she might have mitigated her own guilt in their eyes. There is a final scene when Nobuyo tells Shota about how she and Osamu had taken Shota from a car in a parking lot behind a pachinko parlour. She does this so that the boy can track down his parents if he wants to. It’s uncertain if Shota is going to stay in touch with Osamu. There is a lingering shot of poor Lin on her apartment’s balcony which is designed to claw at the audience’s heart strings but did it quite come off?

What this movie told me is that Japan is suffering a kind of spiritual crisis. After a generation of slow or negative growth due to a shrinking population and a sluggish economy, many people, like the “family” in this film, are doing it hard. But the kind of growth that immigration might bring to the economy is unlikely given Japan’s distrust of foreigners. And the kind of down-home plainness that the Shibatas embody is exactly the kind of barrier to opening up the doors to people who are born and educated outside the country. On view in the film are very ordinary, average people with limited life goals; most Japanese have little time for people raised elsewhere. This film is determinedly Japanese and the people in it are very plain, with prosaic aspirations and mundane dreams. The people in this film are certainly not the kind of political progressive (or “liberal” as Americans say) who would go to see an art film in a small cinema and who would embrace immigration as official government policy.

But still the characters of Nobuyo and Osamu, Hatsue and Aki remain in your mind as somehow emblematic of the best of humanity. To ordinary Japanese people (people in reality very much like like the Shibatas who gather in one memorable scene in the doorway of Hatsue’s house to listen to fireworks going off, and who talk among themselves about the colours and the spectacle), the idea of foreigners coming in and getting citizenship is beyond the pale. The paradoxes that this film holds in its fabric are multiple. Highly recommended.

Thursday 27 December 2018

Book review: Unsheltered, Barbara Kingsolver (2018)

This is my third book by this author and I really, really, really tried to get into it but at around the 18-percent mark I failed. It’s a slow starter, I completely understand that, but I didn’t really see the point and I certainly didn’t find here the poetry that I found in the two other Kingsolvers I have read.

This is a rigidly-circumscribed book that has at its core the idea of “home”. There are two narratives, one which is contemporary and one which is set in the final decades of the 19th century.

In the modern thread of the story we find Willa and her husband Iano, who live in a house in New Jersey in the kind of suburb that you find in Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant 2016 film ‘Paterson’, a film which explores similar ideas about the middle class and the meaning of life. It’s a once-genteel part of town but the house Willa and her family live in, which they had inherited, is built on non-existent foundations. A builder gives Willa the bad news but immediately afterward her son Zeke is forced to come and live with the family because his partner, and the mother of his son, has suicided. As well as Zeke, Willa and Iano there is the fiery Tig and Iano’s elderly father Nick living in the decrepit house. Willa is a freelance journalist and Iano is a lecturer at a university but he doesn’t have tenure, so both members of the intermediate generation belong to the precariat. Zeke has a debt of $110,000 from his years at Stanford and is busy setting up a tech company. Tig had been involved in Occupy Wall Street and has just returned from a stint in Cuba.

Have you got all that?

Now, the first thing to be aware of is that the conversations that take place around the dinner table in the New Jersey house are pretty lame. Tig provides a typical progressive doom-and-gloom narrative that has no roots in reality and Zeke thinks he knows how the world is made but he doesn’t. Iano and Willa try to keep the peace and Nick interjects with sage and gnomic observations. It’s a pointless exercise and you wonder if Kingsolver is in any way more well-educated than the people she populates her story with. Probably not.

I was forcibly reminded reading this book of another book I read this year, ‘All My Puny Sorrows’, by Canadian author Miriam Toews, which ends up with three generations of a single family living together in a large suburban house (review on 12 October). Toews is similarly “liberal” (in the North American sense of the word; in Australia we say “progressive”) and has a sense of the importance of mutual support in preserving social cohesion. It’s a timely tonic that can help combat the corrosive effects of neoliberalism, which has caused so many problems in developed economies since the 1980s.

In Kingsolver’s secondary narrative you have Thatcher and Rose living in a house in the same part of town as Willa and Iano in, but in one of the decades that came after Lincoln. In this muddily-imagined world you have the relieving spark offered by Mrs Treat, who keeps spiders in glass terrariums in her parlour. I waited to see the link between the two primary narratives but apart from the spiders living under glass and Mrs Treat feeding them with her fingers, nothing emerged in time to keep me sticking with the story.

What’s there to be excited about in this book? I found the tiresome cogitations of Zeke and Tig to fail the most basic test of good sense. How either of them are supposed to be offering anything founded in facts was completely beyond me. Do people this misguided really represent modern America? The sad straits of their parents might add some pathos to the story but how all this is supposed to tie in with people who lived five generations earlier entirely escaped me. This is a dull novel by a talented writer who needs to do more reading.

When are Americans going to realise that it’s not capitalism that is at fault, but rather their own political settlement. It’s not some vaguely defined “system” that is broken but rather the American way of running things. Other developed countries do very well, thank you very much. But Americans will never learn anything that does not originate within their own borders. This is their fate and possibly it will lead to their downfall.

Wednesday 26 December 2018

Book review: The Lost Man, Jane Harper (2018)

This competent thriller was for me an exasperating read for much of its length. It urges you forward and drops crumbs in your path to guide you, but you are left grasping for clues until you are practically at the end of the book. Time and time again I felt the need to give up but something kept me tapping the pages and in the process the drama has a finale that contains a rebuke that is all the more compelling for its gentleness.

I’m not a farmer and while I lived in a regional town for a number of years I have never lived in a rural area, so I don’t feel completely confident saying whether this book’s message is deserved, although I spent several years writing stories about agriculture for magazines and my uncle and aunt were dairy farmers. But the way things turn out seems to be quite natural – nothing felt forced – and frankly I can’t think of a better compliment to give a book.

The drama turns on the death of Cameron Bright in the remote outback on a property he owns. It is just before Christmas. The nearest town is Balamara, and it is located 1500km west of Brisbane. Nathan, Cameron’s brother, is the character through whom the entirety of the novel is focalised, and over time you build a strong feeling that attaches to his personality. It’s not clear to the police how Cameron had been marooned away from his car, which is found nearby, but it is clear that exposure to the elements in this unforgiving environment resulted in his death.

Nathan is not without skeletons in his cupboard. He had married the daughter of the owner of a nearby property but that relationship turned out badly. One day, when Nathan is leaving town, he passes the man, whose name is Keith Walker, as Keith is having a heart attack. He doesn’t stop. The two men had exchanged sour words shortly before. The town ostracises Nathan and he fails to follow up on a brief romance with a Dutch backpacker named Ilse because of the general opprobrium aimed at him. Ilse marries Cameron and is soon pregnant.

Nathan, Cameron and Bub, the three Bright brothers, had grown up with a violent father. Carl died in a car accident but his wife, Liz, survived. Living on Cameron’s cattle station as well as Liz is Harry, a long-time employee who helps run the property. Also on hand are two backpackers, and Nathan’s son Xander. There is an unexpected pregnancy and discovering who the father of the child is helps Nathan uncover the truth about Cameron’s death.

The thing that runs through this novel is the importance of individual conduct. In such an isolated place, the way people behave is a strong determinant for the health of the community. Carl was a poor example for his children but Nathan turns out ok. Bub still has scars from early mistreatment. Cameron, who remains a presence throughout the narrative, eventually comes into focus as a dark figure. While Nathan eventually finds out who did what and why, the secret is a long time coming and the dedicated reader will be rewarded with a surprise at the end of the book.

What struck me while reading this book was the way all of the characters are given their due. As in a Jane Austen novel, each person is delineated in enough detail to allow the reader to include them in the story. And each character is a complete form, with their own personality and with a backstory. Nathan’s ex-wife, Jacqui, is treated with respect and the figure of Glenn, the regular town policeman, is very well-drawn. So the characterisation is strong, but I also found this to be a novel with a well-conceived central idea. While you are busy trying to figure out the reason for Cameron’s death, the author is carefully assembling a set of messages about kindness and the importance of community that reflect a deep understanding of the Australian bush.

It’s not just about dust and distances, it’s also about character and morals. You rely on your neighbour and so the way each person behaves assumes a kind of mythic quality. People in the bush tend to be more considerate of how others feel than city folk, and also more conscious of the impression that they personally make on others, which can be something that may occasionally convince young people brought up in rural areas to want to escape to the anonymity of the big city.

For a crime thriller like this, where things are reduced to their bare essentials, the locale chosen by the author seems appropriate. The only element I felt was missing from this drama (backpackers, who provide a measurable quantity of the labour in rural communities, are represented here) is workers associated with the gas industry. The particular area where the book’s events take place is in the general vicinity of where large conventional gas operations are located. There are also a lot of unconventional gas extraction wells (for coal-seam and shale gas) dotted around the countryside in Queensland. These types of installations require people to erect and maintain them.

I think that most people will be able to find something here to like. For me in the end there was a sense of peace that was distinctly at odds with the feeling that animated the majority of the book. This is a great treat for people looking for a page-turner to read during the holidays.

Monday 24 December 2018

Buying a new computer monitor

Three days ago I was in front of the computer screen in the morning as usual when it started to malfunction. Grey fuzzy areas appeared at the bottom of the display and they flickered and occupied the whole screen, then the sequence repeated itself. I knew there was something wrong with either the display or the graphics card in the PC.

The display had been dodgy for many months. It had been bought for me by one of the technicians sent out by the company I usually call to help me when things go odd-shaped with the desktop. He had ridden his motorbike down to Ultimo and I had gone in my car and we had parked in the street and entered the store. He had chosen the display and I had paid for it, then we had gone back to my place with the thing in my boot. But for a while it had been acting up. It would flicker for a couple of hours each morning, then the whole screen would be filled momentarily with diagonal lines and colours before it settled down to operate normally. Until the morning of the 21st, that is.

I phoned my regular technical support company but the operator was quite clear that they did not help with installing displays. So I bit my tongue and got in the car and drove to the shopping centre, where I parked. I went up in the lifts to the second floor and had a chicken-and-avocado panino and a bottle of orange juice. Then I took the lift down to the electrical retailer on the first floor. The store had only opened about 30 minutes earlier and it was Christmas so there were not enough staff around. I waited there until someone became free and then pointed at a screen. He had dark skin and I told him about my computer problems but he didn’t appear to be very interested even though it was mostly his company that was selling me faulty products.

He logged my purchase in a terminal and then took me to the cash register, where a line of people waited. One Anglo man, aged in his 60s, was very vocal about the lack of staff, and complained loudly to everyone who could hear him that he would contact the chain owner to make his views known. I understood his feelings but I thought it was bad form to lose your temper at Christmas. It was something that didn’t match the spirit of the season. When it was my turn, I paid the purchase price with a credit card. I took the box out the front doors of the store past the security guy and went to the parking ticket machine. It told me there was nothing to pay and so I took the lift down to the floor where my car waited, put the box in the boot, and drove home.

In my apartment I unpacked the new monitor and put the old monitor on the floor preparatory to taking it down to the loading bay where bulky items are discarded by residents. I plugged in the HDMI cable and the power flex and tried to turn the computer on but nothing happened. I used my laptop, which I had opened up earlier in the day during the hours I had waited for the retailer to open, and searched for a computer help firm. There was my usual company and below it another listing for a company based in Sydney. I phoned them and spoke to the operator, who told me that someone would come out that evening at 7pm. I hung up and went back to the laptop.

Later, my phone rang and it was the technician calling from a job in Roseville. He said he had some free time earlier in the day when he could fit my job into his schedule, and asked if he could come over straightaway. I assented. About 30 minutes later he called me again and I went down in the lift and let him into the parking garage. We put his van behind my car and came upstairs to the flat. He was aged around 30 years and had very short fair and a thick, dark beard and turned out to be both polite and informal. When we were in the lift he told me that the company I usually use for technical support had stopped providing services for hardware. I asked how this could be possible and he said something I don’t remember clearly but that was like, “I know, right?”

He had the same name as the prophet of Islam and he checked all the bits and pieces and their connections, and then sat down at the desk and configured the new screen. I offered him a glass of water but he declined. He wasn’t happy with the frequency the screen was operating at and did something to the computer to increase it so that cursor movement was less jerky. He chose a set of dimensions for the image and asked me if it was suitable. I had a look at TweetDeck with the settings he had chosen and I could see enough columns, so I told him it was fine. Then he installed a new version of the BIOS for the computer that he had found on the manufacturer’s website. He asked me about the paintings on the walls and I said that they had been bought but that when I was young I had made art and had wanted to go to art school, but that my father had made me go to university instead.

I told him that I had had a lot of trouble with computer hardware in recent years. The PC he was using was the third in a series that the retailer had supplied me with. Each time I get a new tower it works fine for about six months then something goes wrong. I usually have to take it back to the store to get it fixed, which can take more than a week depending on the fault, and which normally results in them issuing a replacement unit. With the current one, I had to halfway remove the headphone jack from the socket in order to get sound to emerge on the headset. If you push the jack all the way in you can’t hear anything. He told me that the short lifespan of electronic equipment was intentional and that electronics manufacturers were “criminals”. He said that his company also supplied computers that they build using trade parts.

My brother was an expert with technology, I told him, but I was hopeless, hence my always calling technicians to come and fix equipment. He said that that might be true but that my brother might not be very good with art and books. I said that my brother read science fiction. He told me he was not a big one for books either, and went back to the computer screen and the task at hand.

When he had finished he asked if he could take the old monitor and I agreed. I gave him all of its cables and we went down in the lift to the ground floor where his van had been parked. In the lift he asked me what I had planned for the rest of the day. I told him I would probably read a book and then have a quiet dinner alone. In the garage, he put the monitor in the back of his van, which had the company name painted on its panels, then I explained how to get to the garage exit. I told him I would meet him there to let him out then walked through the garage to the front doors. When he appeared in the van I opened the roller door and waved goodbye, then got in the lift and went home to use my computer.

Sunday 23 December 2018

Book review: An Elephant on Your Nose, Warren Reed (2018)

This smart, refreshing procedural gives the reader a rare thing: access to the Japanese psyche and through it to the delineations of Asian realpolitik. I’m winging it of course, but the author of this book used to work for Australia’s overseas spy agency, so presumably he knows whereof he speaks. From my point of view, living in Japan for nine years gave me some special insight as well.

I’ve seen two reviews of this book, both from publications based in Hong Kong. They might be publications where Reed has contacts, I can’t be sure. Both of the reviews are complimentary about the geopolitical content of the novel. The world is changing and Asia is closer to the centre of it than it has been for 200 years. But one of the reviews criticises Reed’s use of multiple focalisations to portray the drama, saying, “The book is let down by his tendency to overexplain, excessive narration, stilted dialogue, lessons in history, and some lapses of judgment.” I agree on the count of the historical glosses that appear at the beginning of the book although they are very short and hardly constitute a solecism. The other reservations held by the reviewer, whose name is Richard Lord, completely miss the point.

In fact, Reed has borrowed a leaf from the book of a master of Japanese prose, Kenzaburo Oe, many of whose works fulsomely reward scrutiny. Oe won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1994 and his later novels do what Reed’s does: respect the multiple vantage points that are involved in any narrative. This is an ensemble piece. As in a later Oe novel, Reed’s novel balances the intertwining viewpoints of many characters in an intricate diorama that unfolds gradually to expose the consciousnesses of all participants at the same time as the action unfolds. Politics and personality intertwined like a vine. Reed also looks beyond the standard narrative spy novel “money shot” provided by the canonical collar, to uncover hidden meanings in the world he so deftly creates. In the case at hand, a major player in the story is revealed as a foreign agent, although no-one in the story initially had any idea of this fact.

The story in Reed’s novel is a lot of fun. A Chinese source has uncovered a terrorist plot set to target Japan and Bella, an MI6 operative who is in the country to help the Japanese set up a centralised spy agency, is drawn into the action. She is joined by a young Japanese politician named Sakamoto and a Chinese intelligence operative named Li in an effort to catch the culprits. The Japanese side tries to uncover more information about the plot and sends Sakamoto to China to find out details; there he is regaled by a senior Chinese politician with a plan to establish an Asian mutual assistance organisation to rival the UN. More details then emerge from China as Japan signals it is interested in the plan. The political aspects of the drama are deftly handled (and the flips that come at the end are masterful).

With a female Korean-Japanese named Kim and a Japanese technology specialist named Saito, Bella goes to Nagasaki where a cargo of lethal weapons is due to arrive in the country via a fishing trawler from Korea. The way that Reed weaves his tale provides moment-by-moment revelations of critical importance and we get to see a group of people from many different countries working together in the pursuit of a single goal. Reed told me in an email that successful intelligence work usually comes from close cooperation, often between people of vastly different backgrounds. I can understand why someone like Lord might view this sort of close work as a bit tiresome, but if you have read Oe and have any understanding of Japan you must see that merely privileging a single protagonist is just not the way things are done there. Further, if you think about it, there are a lot of different people involved in a counter-terrorism operation like the one described in this book. That kind of scope is best served in fiction by giving each of the people involved a unique voice. This is a book that provides expression to the commonality, rather than singling out one individual to be the sole point of focus for the narrative.

If I have any criticism of the characterisation in the book it is to regret that the relationship between Bella and Li, which is revealed at the end of the book in a letter from Bella to Li, which he reads in a car on his way to the airport, where he is due to catch a plane back to China, is not more elaborately developed. This is the only shortcoming I had but this kind of detail might have just been beyond the capacities of the author, who in all other respects shows himself to be a competent practitioner.

On the other hand, Reed’s portrayal of the Japanese media, which is relatively tame compared to what exists in other democracies, is convincing. You sometimes wonder why the Chinese are so dead set against democracy when Japan shows them how it can be done for a community living with a culture that prizes consensus over conflict.

Reed has published books with Harper Collins before and has an author page on their website but this book appears to have been self-published. I didn’t recognise the name of the publishing company shown on the copyright page. I got this title in my social graph when I was out and about. I know this because normally I note down the titles of books on a piece of paper next to my desktop computer, but for this book there is a note in my mobile phone’s notebook program. I think there was a post in Facebook I saw that told me about it. I post reviews of books on Facebook on most days so clearly the ad was targeted to someone like me.

Saturday 22 December 2018

Book review: Picnic in the Storm, Yukiko Motoya (2018)

This collection of short stories, which has been released in the US as ‘The Lonesome Bodybuilder’, is by an author who has won numerous prizes in Japan but I couldn’t see how that had honestly occurred. I was bored when I got most of the way through a story in the collection titled ‘An Exotic Marriage’. That was at about the 61-percent mark in the book. The story was long and meandering and didn’t appear to have any specific core idea to keep everything together. Eventually, it just lost all the impact it might have had and I gave up with it.

The shorter stories were better and I managed to read a few of these but I still didn’t see the appeal to the prize judges who have in the past read Motoya’s books with such evident pleasure. (There might seem to be something perverse about a Japanese person who aspires to gain critical acclaim, but all authors will, and do.)

There is here none of the intensity that you get with the poetic vision of Murakami although there are some supernatural elements in action in these stories. I felt reading this book something similar to what I had felt reading the work of Yoko Tawada, another Japanese female author, who is a novelist. In both cases there is a lack of strength in the conception of the ideas behind the work and a looseness in the structural framing of the narrative.

The subject matter of these stories is modern suburban Japan and there are attempts to fashion a sense of magic out of the mundane events that characterise most people’s lives in that country, but the execution fell far short of the promise offered by the acclaim the writer has earned in her native Japan. 

Friday 21 December 2018

Karl Stefanovic stories on the SMH website

Channel Nine had just taken over Fairfax media’s brands, including the stately Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (of Melbourne). The SMH had been founded in 1831, so it predates Australian democracy by a generation. Since the 1970s the SMH had provided objective, unbiased coverage of national events. It is one of the top-five news websites in the country going by the metric of monthly visitors.

When Channel Nine finally got permission from the federal consumer watchdog to take over Fairfax, things moved quickly, going by reports in rival outlets. The Guardian runs reliable news about the media in this country, and reports there were that staff at the SMH were given a printed script to use when answering the phone from the day of the takeover, to make sure that all communication undertaken in a professional capacity were on-message. Some people lost their jobs. At least two mastheads were merged, at least on paper (practical separation might have taken a bit longer to achieve).

Then things carried on as normal until Wednesday 19 December when two stories about Channel Nine host Karl Stefanovic appeared on the websites of both the SMH and The Age (there were the same two stories on the website of the Brisbane Times, the Nine broadsheet outlet in that city, and one on the website of WA Today, the company’s Perth-based broadsheet). This man had been relieved of his position on the couch for a breakfast show that runs on Nine every morning. Stefanovic had been a popular presenter for Nine but he had recently divorced his wife and married a younger woman. According to the breathless coverage in the “news” stories on the two named websites, this move had damaged his brand. There were other details but it’s all just too tawdry and pointless to repeat them here. I can’t be bothered with the mindless little machinations of the TV studio that has now assumed control of the stable eminences of journalism, the two major broadsheets, the ones that are supposed to be the outlets of record and which, now, have been overrun like a sterling old family business might be overrun by a bunch of uneducated louts.

It’s sort of like the crazy drama unleashed by John Self in Martin Amis’ 1984 novel ‘Money’, a work that tore strips off the body of the crass commercialism of the era when neoliberalism emerged in the west to challenge the strong post-war counter-culture that had come out of WWII. Anti-meaning had come to challenge the creation of meaning. Cash had come to offer resistance to values. Commercial interests had come in to take away from government the responsibility for running essential services. (We have seen how privatising monopolies has worked to the detriment of the community in Australia, with rising energy prices.)

If this is how Nine intends to use the SMH and the Age – as parts of its PR effort, as vehicles to use to promote dull and useless TV shows – then my subscription will be at risk. I shall be watching the SMH closely to see if I can find signs of a deterioration in the quality of the journalism produced. So far I’d have to say that there has been. I am sure that the managers at the Guardian would be happy to receive my dollars every month.

Thursday 20 December 2018

Book review: Tangerine, Christine Mangan (2018)

This psychological thriller went well until about the 75-percent mark then it suddenly fell apart, the reader’s credulity stretched to a thinness that was quite unable to support the burden of the narrative tricks introduced to achieve the ending the author had picked out for herself. I will include spoilers in what follows, so if you don’t want to know how the book turns out, stop reading here.

The story involves two young women, the literary Lucy and the fey Alice (who reminded me, for some reason, of Joan Didion, with her frail emotional equilibrium and her reliance on having a man in her life to ensure her happiness). Lucy and Alice were roommates at a college in Vermont; Lucy having gained a scholarship and the privileged Alice having been sent over from England, where she grew up, to be educated. The two become good friends but when Alice develops a relationship with a young man named Tom who attends a nearby educational institution, Lucy contrives to sabotage Tom’s car. Tom is killed and Alice is injured.

Alice recovers her health and marries a man named John and they move to Tangier, where most of the novel takes place. The year is 1956, the year of Morocco’s independence. John has some sort of official position and he’s probably a spy. Lucy finds out John is sleeping with another woman and tries to get Alice to separate from her husband by telling her, but when Alice refuses to budge Lucy contrives to kill John with a rock, then manages to convince Alice’s aunt Maud that Alice is mentally unstable. Lucy ruthlessly gaslights Alice and eventually escapes the country, having agreed with Maud to help look after Alice in a mental institution in Spain.

The novel ruthlessly exploits genre tropes borrowed from chick lit and also from Gothic fiction. The author of ‘Tangerine’ wrote a thesis on Gothic novels at university and this is her first novel. I found the beginning hard to get through but then with a little patience realised that the melodrama was a product of a mixture of genre themes and methods, and provided a suitable set of tools for the ideas being explored. Until the thing falls over when Alice refuses to identify Lucy to the police as the killer. The police come to her flat and are sitting right there on the couch and Alice says nothing to them and I didn’t believe what I was reading.

Alice has another try at getting herself off the hook when she goes to see a con artist named Youssef Lucy had used to make false papers for herself, and whom Lucy had convinced the police was John’s murderer. But Youssef refuses to play the game with Alice, and she gives up. These elements of the plot meant that the whole edifice groaned on to the denouement in a way that would see Alice’s life ruined. Why Mangan wanted this to be the outcome is hard to fathom, but clearly she thought it serves her artistic purposes.

The use of genre methods to realise the goal of giving a female lead the type of agency normally given to men – Lucy rides off into the sunset in the end, free of obstacles and with the rest of her life left to live, while Alice is confined to a room and is probably drugged senseless – I found depressing. I thought that the author’s points could have been equally well made if Lucy had been found guilty of John’s death. There would have been plenty of opportunities to make the same points that Mangan seems to have been intent on making, without on paper destroying the life of an innocent woman.

There is therefore in my mind a kind of mania in Magan’s vision, a kind of revanchist extremism that she herself points to with a few select words in the text: words like “patriarchy”. The risk of pursuing your goals with a singleminded intensity is that you might end up hurting people who have done nothing wrong – people like John and Alice – and so Mangan seems to have a message for feminists. I read all of this disappointing book but couldn’t finish it fast enough.

For a while there things were different. For a long time while reading the book I was making comparisons in my head between this novel and Jane Austen’s stylish ‘Northanger Abbey’, which came out after the author’s death, in 1817 (though it had been finished by 1803).

Austen’s novel is a spoof of the Gothic genre popular at the time, notably the novels of Ann Radcliffe. The Gothic mode was a way for the society at the time to use the canonical Other – in this case places in Catholic southern Europe – to articulate uncertainties that existed in the community about its own social structures. The use of the Other to achieve this goal was highly original (the only similar formal tactic I can think of is the knightly romance of the Renaissance, of some 200 years earlier) and the Gothic reigned supreme for the best part of a generation in England and in Europe more broadly. While Austen’s 1817 novel pokes fun at the methods used in Gothic fiction, it also points out quite clearly that society could, in fact, offer dangers to the unsuspecting young woman (the Gothic heroine was almost always a nubile young woman). So while it scores its points at the expense of writers like Radcliffe, it shows that the author was aware that the Gothic mode offered people a way to investigate real issues in contemporary society. This aspect of Austen’s book reminded me of Mangan’s novel.

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Book review: The Bus on Thursday, Shirley Barrett (2018)

This perfect little dark, comic novel is equally full of surprises and gentle wisdom. It’s a book about love and death, desire and hope, and it’s told with a winsome humour all of its own. It’s a real find but because it deals with issues that are particular to women – notably, but not only, pregnancy and breast cancer – it is most likely that most critics will not take it all that seriously. Which is a shame.

The drama involves a young woman named Eleanor Mellett who has broken up with a long-term boyfriend and who subsequently develops cancer. She has chemotherapy and a mastectomy – one of her breasts is removed – and she moves back into her mother’s home in Greenacre (a plain suburb in Sydney’s west; she had lived prior to that in trendy Annandale). She then takes up a position as a primary school teacher in a small town in the Australian Alps named Talbingo (which actually exists; the Talbingo Dam is part of the Snowy Mountains Scheme).

Eleanor is short-tempered and impulsive but is quite normal in most respects. She tends to lose her temper with people, even people who are close to her, and this causes her trouble on occasion. But that kind of trouble is nothing compared to what happens when she moves to Talbingo.

The previous teacher was Miss Barker and everybody, including the children, loved her. She disappeared unexpectedly one day and it wasn’t known at the time Eleanor arrives in town what had happened to her. The truth eventually comes out in the course of the narrative, which has a rather unsuccessful metafictional device at the beginning: Eleanor is supposedly blogging her recovery from the affliction, but this ruse isn’t exploited much beyond an initial stab and eventually you completely lose sight of it. In the end it is unsustainable given what happens to Eleanor and probably Barrett’s editors should have gotten rid of it. A straight third-person narrative would have been fine as the story is strong in any case and there is plenty of action to keep you turning the pages.

The story hinges on a boy named Ryan who is a little too old for the class. Ryan’s parents had died and he is being looked after by his brother Gregory. Eleanor ends up having an affair with Gregory and Ryan imposes himself on Eleanor, telling her that Miss Barker had also invited him to her house (which Eleanor is now living in). One night when Eleanor is stalking Gregory she discovers Miss Barker’s body in the “Pondage”, which is a body of water in the town associated with the hydroelectric system. Eleanor also works out that Gregory and Miss Barker had also been having an affair. Eleanor doesn’t tell anything of what she discovers to the police, because that would involve her telling them that she had been stalking Gregory. This turns out to be a bad decision.

I won’t go into any more details about the basic plot than this but the book also contains a number of secondary characters that are as idiosyncratic as real life usually is. There is Glenda, the office manager at the school, who doesn’t like Eleanor very much. There is the woman at the register in the shop where Eleanor buys groceries whose name is Janelle and who gives Eleanor disapproving looks. There is Friar Eugene Hernandez who runs services at the multidenominational Christian church. There is a bird-like woman who runs activities for local residents in the church. There is the policeman who Eleanor tells about finding Miss Barker’s body. A little town like Talbingo contains worlds and everyone Eleanor meets seems to have some crackpot theory about cancer and what it is caused by.

This novel reminded me of Bridie Jabour’s ‘The Way Things Should Be’, which is the story of a family that comes together in a small country town for the occasion of the wedding of one of the daughters. As in Jabour’s book, which I reviewed here on 27 July, the story of Eleanor in Talbingo vibrates with ancillary suggestion. There are threads linking Barrett’s fiction to other stories in the world, and you get the feeling that the whole novel is some kind of metaphor for life. This is what I really mean by Barrett’s gentle wisdom. In addition to the spooky undertone that travels along the narrative arc like an insistent bass note, there are supernatural elements in this novel, like the bus of the title that appears at specific moments either as a warning or as a way to exit the madness the narrative describes. This element of the plot reminded me strongly of Steven Spielberg’s legendary film ‘Duel’ (which came out in 1971; Barrett is my age so she would probably have seen this film when she was a teenager). Truly, this is a special book.

You can visit Jo Linsdell's Booktastic Thursday Link Up here. Jo invites book bloggers to link to their reviews.

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Book review: On JM Coetzee, Ceridwen Dovey (2018)

This book is mercifully short but it still seemed to me to be flabby and self-important. In reality it’s a memoir of the writer’s own mother, who wrote a monograph on the Nobel-prize winning author JM Coetzee in the 1980s. Dovey makes much of her mother’s interest in the South African writer but unfortunately  none of her mother’s original ideas about Coetzee’s work have survived the writing process.

I felt as though the publishers had assembled a checklist of talking points to accompany this book. You can imagine them ticking them off one by one as they assess the book’s suitability for a supine and unimaginative market: “Postmodernism!” Tick. “Postcolonial theory!” Tick. “Feminism!” Tick. One by one the main points are rounded off like the facile quotes that famous authors give hopeful marketers who want to ensure strong sales for the latest piece of insipid fakery they are packaging for the trade market.

The only interesting thing in the book is where Coetzee tells Dovey’s mother, in a letter, that postmodernism had been “done” a long time ago by Cervantes and Sterne. Occasional insights like this one are a tonic in the routine flow of the narrative, which was in general of the same standard as the blurbs written by staff at publishing houses, trying to entice consumers in Australia’s tiny market to chance a few dollars on some new work of fiction that is self-reflexive or that has metafictional aspects.

The fact that Coetzee’s most recent work is not up to scratch will not have occurred to Dovey, for whom every syllable that escapes from the master’s word processing program is a source of childlike wonderment. This is the problem with prizes like the Nobel. I don’t unthinkingly share Dovey’s enthusiasm, and certainly would never aspire to write anything as predictable and lacking in real merit as this book. I had my favourite authors when I was a young man, so I can understand the sentiments that this book retails in, but I think that anyone with a modicum of good sense would have understood that this work is just not up to scratch. Its editors should have known better than to cynically fleece the public by giving them second-rate thinking on a name author.

Monday 17 December 2018

Book review: The Wych Elm, Tana French (2018)

I gave this crime thriller a solid crack but it was just so slow. So long. Interminable scenes where the recovering Toby is trying to talk with the police or where he tries to get his life in order. For some reason this book is also being marketed as ‘The Witch Elm’. I couldn’t work out the reason for having two different titles for the same book.

The story as far as I got (about 16 percent of the way through) was that Toby is a PR staffer at a small commercial art gallery. His boss sets in train a show with artists who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, and Toby finds out that another employee has been making some of the paintings on the sly. The manager finds out and Toby is not sacked but on the day he has a tense interview with his boss he goes out drinking, gets home on foot but still drunk, and then is woken up in the middle of the night by two burglars.

The two men beat him senseless and Toby ends up in hospital, lucky to be alive. The police come around to question him but he doesn’t tell them about the problem he had had at the gallery. They don’t know who robbed Toby and take him home on the day he is discharged but he can’t tell them what they need to know. He stupidly keeps the debacle that took place at the gallery from them. I couldn’t work out how this would work in real life.

From the point of view of poetry, Toby is just not very convincing. I didn’t really understand his relationship with his drinking buddies, Sean and Declan. The constant mindless ribbing that characterises their relationship is annoying and a bit unrealistic. As though French thinks that men are just stupid bogans who think of nothing but drinking and masturbating. The scenes where Toby is alone with his mates don’t entirely convince.

And even though Toby has had his sense of self almost totally shattered by the violent attack that left him practically without life, he still manages to keep his shit together when talking with the cops who come to interview him. I don’t buy this aspect of the story. Someone who had been as thoroughly shaken up as Toby had been would have had a lot of difficulty keeping his mouth shut when asked questions about his past that he clearly knew the answers to. There is no trace of such a struggle in the book.

The way that Toby, who is apparently well-educated and aware of his surroundings, manages to make mistake after mistake is not just alarming. It seems like the writer needs these opportunities to get him into trouble so that, presumably, something hidden can be revealed. I found Toby a bit dense and unselfconscious. His stupidity, as revealed in how he reacts to the intrusion into his apartment on the night he is beaten half to death, ends up being just another indicator of general incompetence.

I found it hard to care about Toby, and quite happily gave up reading this genre bestseller. The problem that genre more broadly has with things like characterisation are fully on view here: two-dimensional people whose only purpose is to serve as vehicles that advance the plot, and a lack of concern for the preciousness of human life. Toby hardly had to be thrashed so completely by the two robbers; half of the intensity could have done the job just as well.

Sunday 16 December 2018

Book review: Milkman, Anna Burns (2018)

This earnest feminist screed represents another failure of the Booker Prize judges to make a sensible choice. I read a bit of it but it’s so stubbornly serious and airless, like an iron box in which all your feelings as a reader are trapped, unable to fly, that I soon gave up. Women might have more luck with it. For me, it virtually screamed the word “victim”.

The basic story is troubling and determinedly so. It’s set in Northern Ireland in the 1970s (?) and is about a young woman, aged 18, who starts getting unwanted attention from a sectarian fighter who hates the authorities to the point of violence. Her sister and her boyfriend are introduced but the unremitting insistence on the Milkman with his suggestive banter and sudden appearances suck all the life out of her life, and the reader is subject to the same lack of freedom. You can see trouble coming from the start, and it’s always there, like a monkey on the back of some fictional character out of a fairy tale. Needs relief in some part of the narrative; there is a dizzying lack of room for the reader’s imagination to move in this precious piece of politicking.

Saturday 15 December 2018

Book review: November Road, Lou Berney (2018)

This hardboiled number failed to keep me interested for more than a chapter-and-a-half. Its two-dimensional characters do not engage the reader enough to keep you reading. The opening chapter is about a New Orleans underworld figure named Frank Guidry who ends up having sex – an act that is graphically described – in his luxurious apartment in that city with a young woman who approached him when he was sitting at a table in a bar. Guidry had earlier sold out an old friend of his named Mackie who had fallen out with a crime boss named Carlos.

The second chapter features a mother named Charlotte who has two small girls and a husband who drinks too much and has trouble keeping a job. Charlotte needed a lot more depth to remain coherent in the splash of events that cascade along the narrative arc in this chapter. I didn’t see why I should be interested in her, her children, or her husband, although it is clear that you are supposed to be.

There was no apparent connection between the story in which Frank appears and the one that features Charlotte. But the threads of narrative themselves are slight and lacked the sort of spark that can engage the reader and keep you turning the pages. With genre fiction often you have a problem with characterisation. The plot is pushed forward by general tropes that have a basis only in literary convention, and the nuances that normally go toward making up the people who are involved in the drama are lost in the schematic imaginings that animate the story. I found Frank merely unsavoury and Charlotte merely pitiful.

And the way that genre denies the legitimacy of literary tropes like stream-of-consciousness or complex metaphors cements it in the reader’s mind as a reactionary form of writing, as though all those newfangled gimmicks were somehow inauthentic and foreign compared to the down-home, plain-speaking simplicity of the American genre take. The early scene on the streets of New Orleans in this novel have all the dullness and predictability of a beer commercial screened during the final game of the season.

This is anti-literature, and it is so determined to erode the credibility of the mainstream that it rolls out every stale trick in the book. It’s so bland to be almost mistaken for the avant-garde, in case you were in the US and were looking for an authentic style of writing to match the impossible visual clich├ęs of filmmaker David Lynch. It’s true that on the other hand there is plenty of bad experimental fiction around the place, but this is just going too far.

Friday 14 December 2018

Aboriginal genocide and the distortion of history

On 27 November at 8.56am the Auschwitz Memorial Twitter account in Poland tweeted, “When we look at Auschwitz we see the end of the process. It's important to remember that the Holocaust actually did not start from gas chambers. This hatred gradually developed from words, stereotypes & prejudice through legal exclusion, dehumanisation & escalating violence.”

All of this is true, but for conservative Americans these will be hard things to listen to. There is a hard-right flank in the community there that harbours ill will toward minorities and that wants us to look away as it changes the debate to make it easier to demonise people who look different from them. Republican politicians are broadly sympathetic to such people and use rhetorical techniques to “dog whistle” in public, or in other words to call up negative emotions in certain people in order to further policy aims, without actually using words which would attract censure from people in the centre. It’s a kind of oblique hate speech, but it’s one that won’t necessarily result in a swing against them at the ballot box (of course, as we saw with the result of the Victorian election in November, it can backfire if taken too far).

Far-right culture warriors hate it when you talk about the Nazis because it exposes their real motivations. The truth is a tonic in contemporary debates because it reveals people for what they actually are. But people on the left are sometimes equally unwilling to face thee truth. On Twitter, @dearnonnatives tweeted, “Saying ‘the early settlers were illegal immigrants’ is harmful. They were not immigrants, they were colonizers. There’s a difference. Colonizers came here to take over the land and kill us. Immigrants are just trying to live a better life.”

You find this kind of view voiced by people on the left all the time with regard to the Aborigines of Australia. I had a long conversation with some people recently on Facebook about this issue and a lot of heated argument resulted because it seemed like I was playing down the loss of life on the frontier during the colonial period. But the facts of the case militate against the use of the word “genocide”. It is true that there was a determined official push to kill Aborigines in Tasmania but official policies on the mainland were not so rigid.

You only have to read history books that deal with the frontier during the colonial period. None of the reputable ones use the word “genocide” for a start. But what strikes me when reading these books is how many different stories there are. It's not one story all the time. To take one book for example, 1995's 'Waterloo Creek' by Roger Milliss, which is about the Myall Creek massacre in 1838. For one thing, some of the Wirrayaraay in the area were being employed by a local stockman on the day the killings took place. Then there was the convict, Anderson, who tried to help the unfortunate women, men and children the settlers rounded up. Then after the massacre happened there was a man in a nearby town named Foot who took the news all the way to Sydney (it happened on the Liverpool Plains) so that the authorities could learn of it. Then the governor asked a local magistrate named Day to investigate the killings. Then of course there was the trial (or, more correctly, two trials) as a result of which some white men were hanged. Other books tell similar stories.

Different states had different responses to the Aboriginal populations that lived in their territories. In Queensland they had the notorious “native police” who were used to control the indigenous tribes, and the use of euphemisms to disguise what they did (“dispersal”) was commonplace. But these measures were not used in all states at all times. Many settlers had good relations with Aboriginal people for most of the time, and employed them on their farms to mutual benefit.

But people who support a progressive agenda don’t care about truth, they just want their favourite policy to win in the contest of ideas that constitutes contemporary politics. And, as always, the most extreme viewpoint will get all the attention, which is why the people on the far-right I spoke about at the beginning of this post are so popular in the public sphere. Then there’s the pushback, so a word like “genocide” is thrown around with wild abandon by the left-wing culture warriors as they fight their opponents using all the rhetorical devices they can muster in support of their opinions. The first casualty in war, as we know, however, is the truth.

Thursday 13 December 2018

Book review: Human Race, Ian Mortimer (2014)

Subtitled ’10 Centuries of Change on Earth’, this book goes into detail at various times in history to show how things in the past were the cause of major changes, but have since been forgotten by people in the broader community. I read part of the chapter on the 14th century as that is an era of particular interest for me, but I couldn’t really get into the book.

While it is adequately detailed to allow you to grasp the importance of the things that the author singles out for regard, I found the book disappointingly dull and uninspiring. I cannot put my finger on the problem other than to say that nothing that Mortimer singled out for attention seemed to me as of particular significance.

To give an example of what I’m talking about, Mortimer in the chapter on the 14th century focuses on the rise of nationalism in the period, and the consequent increase in the importance of vernacular languages. Now, this is something that I am particularly interested in as it dovetails with my own conception of later Medieval history as a time when major changes were afoot that might have been invisible to people living at the time. And vernacular literature is one such phenomenon. But Mortimer doesn’t talk about Frencesco Petrarch at all, despite the fact that, with his earlier countryman, Dante Alighieri, Petrarch almost single-handedly sparked the conflagration that would become the Renaissance, with his vernacular poetry and his interest in classical manuscripts.

So Mortimer missed out on an opportunity to link his ideas with larger trends that characterise this period of history, and that would become more important with the rise of religious fundamentalism associated with the era that came immediately after it. It seems like a small failing but I think that Mortimer should have taken a more popularist approach to his task, and linked what he wanted to say to larger narrative conventions (Martin Luther, Renaissance theatre) that people in the wider community will already have at their command. It doesn’t hurt to give people hints as to how to interpret the material that is original and rare that you are showing them.

The other thing that is a little disappointing is that the book seems to be determinedly Anglocentric, by preference making much of advances that originated in England. This is really strange for a book that purports to be of universal significance (although it is purely focused on European history).

Wednesday 12 December 2018

Debate over a Voice to Parliament has to get beyond emotion

There seems to be a radical disconnect between the Aboriginal community and the mainstream when it comes to discussions of the Reconciliation Council's 2017 report. I have written about this report at least twice on this blog since August 2017 when it was released. Left-wing culture warriors are not helping to bridge the divide however, and there is a startling lack of facts in any of the discussions that are taking place online.

The Liberal Party has said that a Voice to Parliament would function as a third chamber in Parliament and both prime ministers – Malcolm Turnbull and Scott Morrison – have refused to bring the issue to the people for a vote. The report itself says "the structure and functions of the [Voice are] to be defined by Parliament". There is a document publicly available, a discussion paper, that goes into some detail about how a Voice might work. It is called ‘Hearing Indigenous Voices: Options for Discussion’ and I think it is available on the Parliament House website. I forget how I got hold of my copy, but I printed it out and have read part of it. The document runs to about 50 pages and goes into a lot of detail about how a Constitutionally-mandated Voice could operate.

The thing to know at this point in the process is that there is a lot of detail available but not much of it is being used in conversations that are taking place. Presumably someone in the Liberal Party has read the discussion document (in addition to the Reconciliation Council’s report). But as far as I know no-one in the broader community has referred to it apart from the fellow on Twitter who helpfully brought it to my attention. If you do a Google search for the document there are no news articles that reference it, for example.

The document offers two different options for how a Voice would function. In either case there is a lot of detail to consider, and none of this interesting material has been mentioned in the public sphere as far as I’m aware.

So unless the government starts to look at the matter with some industry and application nothing will be resolved. If the government won’t talk about it the media will ignore it. Meanwhile the LWCWs get more and more incensed and the Aboriginal community turns to rhetorical tactics such as sarcasm in an effort to sway the government and make it act. It seems that Aboriginal people want the matter to be brought to a vote by the public before the actual details are worked out. This seems to be the message I am getting from that community in the public sphere. This seems to me to put the cart before the horse.

It's not hard to come to the conclusion that the government has reached, moreover. What would happen if the Voice came to a different conclusion than the House of Reps or the Senate, or both? How would such an impasse (on a piece of legislation the Voice was asked to adjudicate on) be resolved? How would you decide which bills were to be looked at by the Voice? Who would be electing the representatives who would sit on the Voice? How do you decide if someone is Aboriginal or not?

A Parliamentary committee toured the country to get input from people in different communities and made a report to the government in November of this year. I don’t remember hearing much about it in the media at the time and there is one Australian Broadcasting Corporation story about it. But until the government makes an announcement it is unlikely that the press gallery will look into the options that are being considered by different people in Australia. There has clearly been a lot of discussion about these matters involving a lot of people. But the debate has not started in public because the government doesn’t want it to.

There are still so many questions to answer in the case, including whether the Voice will be based on a piece of legislation alone or also on a Constitutional amendment. Some think that having the right to a Voice enshrined in the Constitution will make it less easily dispensed with by any future government, but simply using a bill in Parliament would be easier to action in practice. Meanwhile, the LWCWs just slam you for daring to ask them and the government is not budging. The Opposition says that it will put the matter to a popular vote but that is still no guarantee that it will succeed in actual fact. Referendums do not usually pass in this country and I cannot see this one getting up without bipartisan support.

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Book review: Black Man, Richard Morgan (2007)

This noirish police procedural is alternatively titled ‘Thirteen’. It starts with promise but soon gets bogged down with technobabble invented to give fanboys their jollies.

The story of black COLIN assassin Carl Marsalis that opens the story has merit but he is taken out of the picture after a couple of chapters and then you are faced with the trials of COLIN policewoman Sevgi Ertekin. (COLIN is some sort of pan-continental government that controls space travel in the solar system.) The story is that a spaceship comes down in the ocean off San Francisco and Sevgi and her partner are sent out from the east coast to find out what happened to the occupants, who appear to have been surgically dismembered and eaten.

The pseudo-technological claptrap that results from this set of circumstances was intensely trying and I gave up reading after less than 15 percent of the book had elapsed. You get loaded down with information about space travel, the intricacies of suspended animation, and the relative distance at different times between the Earth and Mars. The plot stalls as the author fills you up with details you will presumably need in order to make judgements about the characters involved and about the crime that has been committed. It feels like you have to do what the Romans allegedly did when they went to banquets: get rid of the food you have eaten so that you can stuff more in. I now know what a turkey feels like at Christmastime.

With "real-world" fiction (genre or literary), the ground rules are understood and there's no need to describe basic things. And all humans have basically the same motivations, at least, all men and all women. Men and women share some motivations, and there are some things that separate them, and so condition the way they behave. Aliens (or the genetically-modified human, Marsalis, who is a character in this novel), on the other hand, need more backgrounding to be fully realised.

The hardboiled style that is used to develop character in this novel is also trying. It excludes so many types of emotion and tends to focus you on the nuts and bolts of the world that is being created. It’s like a series of memes is being used to describe existence. The relations between people are all filtered through this distorting lens, a lens that flattens out the characters you are presented with, and who have such an important function in the novel.

Monday 10 December 2018

Book review: All Among the Barley, Melissa Harrison (2018)

I didn’t read much of this book I have to admit, but the reasons for that are complex and I will get to that later in this review. To summarise quickly, I found this novel to be mawkish and determinedly middle-brow. It seemed to embody a certain kind of English exceptionalism centred on rural life and the Great War. The author is an acclaimed novelist in the UK and writes a column for one of Rupert Murdoch’s vanity newsletters, the Times of London. She is completely unknown in Australia. I don’t know if she has a following in the US.

The drama centres on a girl named Edith June Mather who is aged probably in her mid-teens. The start of the novel (the part that I read) is located in the 1930s. Edith is at school and she helps around the farm but her main occupation seems to be reading novels. Promising material, you would think. She lives on a farm with her mother and father and brother Frank. Her sister Mary has married and has gone to live with her husband.

The first problem with this book lies with its use of technical language. Farmers might have more luck with this story than a city-slicker like me. I had to look up the word “rick” (meaning a pile of hay), for example, and could not identify the function of the big machine was that was brought to the farm in the early pages. It seemed to be a thresher but it was never explicitly stated. Harrison embeds the functioning of the farm into the narrative in a very intimate way, and if you are not au-fait with how a broadacre operation functions then you will be at a disadvantage when reading this book.

Edith’s status as an outsider was the thing that most pained me. I had come across the author on Twitter when she had posted a thread that contained a story I thought would be interesting to some of the people who follow me. I suggested to her that I take the thread and put it in a blogpost so that it could be shared more easily. Some of the people I had in mind to read the content are not very familiar with things that others find intuitive on social media, and I thought having a simple link to share would make it easier to propagate the message in the thread. But Harrison rounded on me and took offense that I would presume to offer any advice about how to use social media, how to blog, or how to write. I was dumbfounded by this reaction. I had merely been doing a kindness and had been punished in a most high-handed manner by someone whose idea of a hero for a novel is someone who loves words and is a bit of an outsider. Sort of like Lady Catherine de Bourgh depicting herself in a letter to a friend as Cinderella. The hypocrisy is as substantial as the irony is thick.

The affront I felt at Harrison’s treatment of me coloured my experience of her book, and I found it impossible to go on with it. In the end my impression of the book was that it is suitable for tweedy middle-aged women who buy Laura Ashley print bedspreads, watch ‘Antiques Roadshow’ and ‘Midsomer Murders’, and think that England is all about larks and fairies and old Saxon myths. As if the modern world were a thing to resent and that the passing of the old ways were something to regret. I think Harrison most likely voted ‘Leave’.

Saturday 8 December 2018

Why I can’t abide Lee Lin Chin

I wrote this a months ago and sat on it for almost half of the year, and decided to go ahead and publish it today.

The ‘4 Corners’ program on the ABC on 30 July, about Cambodia’s bloodthirsty autocrat Hun Sen should give everyone in Australia who are regretting the departure of SBS newsreader Lee Lin Chin second thoughts. Lee Lin’s plummy vowels and clipped consonants might be idiosyncratic here but they remind me of those of the leaders of Singapore, a quasi-democracy dedicated to preserving the influence of old men in government.

Singapore is a big investor in countries like Myanmar and Cambodia where the rights of ordinary people are swept aside by faceless men who have the power of the courts, the police, and the army at their disposal. It’s not just China investing in these places. Singapore is a big participant in the schemes that leave ordinary people in Cambodia without the means of supporting themselves.

In Singapore itself, the government routinely launches vexatious court cases in order to prevent the Opposition from contesting elections. Which is exactly what Hun Sen and Vladimir Putin did to their opponents in order to make sure the outcomes of elections recently held in their countries were not in question. In Singapore, the People’s Action Party are hell-bent on keeping the same party in government that has ruled the country since 1959, when it was still a British colony and before it was expelled from Malaysia in 1965.

They even gave their ex-prime minister, Lee Kwan Yew, the title “minister mentor” of the country from 2004 to 2011. His son, Lee Hsien Loong, is the current PM. It’s a joke. Malaysia is light-years ahead of Singapore in the democracy stakes. What kind of example does Singapore, an ostensibly democratic country, hold out to other Asian countries? None. It’s a decrepit gerontocracy.

Chin travelled to Singapore after she left SBS, and more recently has been offering her services to the Australian Greens and the Australian Labor Party as a candidate for a seat in the upcoming federal election. But she should now be denouncing the gerontocrats in Singapore and so using her public profile for good, instead of helping its corrupt leaders remain in power.

Thursday 6 December 2018

Why the anti-encryption law would be unworkable

The following came into a thread I saw on Twitter from Peter Logue, who used to work as a journalist. I contacted Peter in a DM and with his son's help we produced this for publication. Peter says his son has worked in game development in Australia and China. His son then worked for a few years with Appster before setting up an IT consultancy called SixSix with Carl Rigoni, who ran an innovation division at Australia Post. His son deals with software development and encryption and security issues on a daily basis. Some of his son’s peer group are senior advisers on IT security to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the Department of Defence, and the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet.

My eldest son has worked in IT and game development for over 15 years. He’s now a consultant to many major companies and works with software developers. Here’s what he says about the proposed anti-encryption legislation the government is trying to get through federal Parliament: It’s not actually possible to implement it in a modern software company.

To give you an idea of why it's not possible, picture the following scenario: I manage a software development company that is building some technology that uses encryption. This technology is being built for a client of mine that chose to work with my company because of our good reputation. With the new legislation, the government can contact one of my employees behind my back and tell them to build a backdoor into the software without my knowledge. If the employee tells me about it, they could be facing jail time under the new rules.

With my management tools though, I track every minute of their work and every line of code that they write is reviewed and automatically tested. If there’s anything unexpected in there it will cause the automated tests to fail, which will highlight the presence of the rogue code. Even if my tests don’t pick up on it, I can see that this developer is taking far longer completing the work than they should (because they are spending time working on features for the government). I ask the developer about this, and they can’t tell me about it, so I check the work that’s been done and see that the software is compromised. At this point I start jumping to conclusions, and I might think it’s a Chinese hacker stealing our work or something like that, and report the employee to the police. What happens then?

I don't think the people that wrote this bill understand how technology development works. That’s probably the reason why much of the wording of this bill has been left vague or undefined. If political parties want to get votes to prove they have robust cybersecurity policies, then enacting laws to make local cybersecurity weaker is not a good way to do it. It's arse-backwards anti-security and will undermine international confidence in the Australian technology sector.

This comment from u/Groovyaardvark on Reddit sums it up well:
One of the ways #AABill gets access to systems is by commandeering employees of companies to write backdoors. But they’re not even allowed to tell their employer, or face jail time. I went through the mechanics of this, and realised how out of touch Canberra is...
Peter’s son adds the following conversation to describe how the laws would apply in real life once they are enacted:
"Johnson, why are all of your tickets building up!? What are we paying you for?! We will need to discuss a performance improvement plan.”  
“But, sir, I've been working really hard on this err... other project...”  
"What project?"  
“'s umm...I can't tell you."   
So the choice is, A: Get fired, B: Go to prison.  
“I'll pack up my desk I guess.” 
I wonder who will be the next lucky developer chosen to secretly undermine and destroy their employer’s products behind their backs?

UPDATE 7 December 2018 6.25am: The bill passed through both houses of federal parliament yesterday on the last sitting day before the end-of-year break.