Monthly Archives: January 2012

The festival is over …

… the Sydney Festival, that is, and it’s been spectacular. In the fraction of it that I got to see (nothing at all in the Spiegel Tent, for example), we’ve had:

murder, including infanticide and uncle-murder
accidental beating to death
grave robbing
race riots
cruel and unusual sexual acts
and two men pushing each other in the chest as they moved around the stage, creating the impression that they were stalling until someone remembered what came next.

At different times I had a  jaw that wouldn’t close, a churning stomach, a singing heart, hands that stung from applauding, a mind in awe. A festival isn’t a festival without one brave failure. This was definitely a festival.

Neal Stephenson’s Reamde

Neal Stephenson, Reamde (William Morrow / Atlantic Books 2011)

At 1044 pages, this is to a normal novel what The Wire or The Sopranos is to a feature film. Characters who loom large in the first couple of hundred pages are killed as summarily as any TV character whose actor has had a better offer. New characters turn up who come from whole other continents. Plot strands that appeared to be central are apparently resolved after a mere 350 pages, and, to mash my metaphors a bit, other strands arise from the ashes and shards that remain of them. As the action moves to a new location, that location is described in loving detail, usually over a couple of pages. Yet, with all those shifts of direction and detailed evocations of place, the narrative stays gripping.

Neal Stephenson is the man who raised the info-dump to the level of an art form. In the climactic battle scene, for instance, when two sets of jihadists are shooting it out with a heterogeneous collection of good guys, he pauses to notice that when machine-gun bullets hit the walls of a log cabin, the freshly exposed wood shows up starkly blond against the weathered outside wood. And elsewhere in the same battle, a character has time to reflect that one’s mental functions are less sharp when one is burning fat than when burning carbs. But there are none of the spectacular digressions of earlier books – no lectures on Babylonian mythology, nanotechnology, computer cryptography, advanced mathematics, or the fashions of the court of Charles the Second of England.

If you haven’t read any Neal Stephenson, I wouldn’t recommend starting with this. Snow Crash is a fabulous cyberspace thriller; Cryptonomicon goes deep into Second World War cryptography and modern electronic security; The Diamond Age is set in a world where nanotechnology is achieving wonders, yet has at its heart a book for small children (and a small child who reads it); The Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World) is a rollicking picaresque novel and also a fictionalised account of the dawn of capitalism, the Enlightenment and the scientific age. Compared to any of them, Reamde is just a thriller.

But it’s wonderful, improbable fun. You can get an idea of the plot from this little ‘story so far’ passage from page 827 (you need to know that T’Rain is a massively popular and profitable multi-user internet game, and it may help to know that Seamus is a semi-disgraced but still potent US secret operative and ‘these three’ are all in their early 20s and not generally inclined to risky living):

Seamus had no idea what level of precautions was appropriate here. Apparently these three had left half of the surviving population of China seriously pissed off at them, as well as making mortal enemies with a rogue, defrocked Russian organised crime figure. In their spare time they had stolen money from millions of T’Rain players, created huge problems for a large multinational corporation that owned the game, and, finally – warming to the task – mounted a frontal attack on al-Qaeda.

I confess that my enthusiasm was beginning to flag in the prolonged climactic battle, where not a lot was happening besides stuff blowing up and people shooting at each other, but generally this was an excellent summer, even all-of-summer, read. And what if my teetering To Be Read pile is calling me to  a world history of genocide, a revisionist account of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the next Book Group title? Neal Stephenson is a major Guilty Pleasure, and I am unrepentant.

Brendan Burford’s Syncopated Picto-essays

Brendan Burford, Syncopated: An Anthology of Nonfiction Picto-Essays (Villard 2009)

I doubt if I would have picked this up in a bookshop or a library. First there was the suggestion of possible illiteracy in the subtitle: it’s surely redundant to say an essay is not fictional, and what is this word ‘picto’? But moving on past that bit of pedantic persnickertiness on my part, the idea of a comic book essay didn’t look all that attractive. But I was given it a Christmas present, along with Ramona Koval’s Best Australian Essays 2011, and behold, the collection of non-picto essays is still in my teetering to-be-read pile, while I’ve read the comic and enjoyed it hugely. It does all the things that one could expect of a collection of essays.

One thing essays classically do is to interest  readers in things they never expected to be interested in. Here Nick Bertozzi’s ‘How and Why to Bale Hay’ and Rina Piccolo’s ‘Penny Sentiments’ (on the history of postcards) are prime examples of the type.

Other essays open up whole new areas of knowledge: here  Brendan Burford and Jim Campbell’s ‘Boris Rose: Prisoner of Jazz’ tell the story of a man who started creating and selling bootleg jazz records around 1940 and progressed to obsessively cutting records of obscure jazz radio broadcasts, so that when he died in 2000 he left a vast collection of one-of a kind recordings; Alex Holden’s ‘West Side Improvements’ tells of Chris Pape, who painted striking murals in a disused New York subway station; Nate Powell’s ‘Like Hell I Will’ brings to shocking life the 1905 Tulsa race riots, though massacre is probably a better word for what happened.

Then there are essays that cover familiar ground, but do so in a way that makes the subject fresh. So in ‘What We So Quietly Saw’ text from FBI reports on Guantanamo prisoner interrogations is rendered poignant by Greg Cook’s stark silhouettes, Paul Karasik manages in eight pages to provide a critical biography of psychologist Erik Erikson, and Alex Longstreth tells the story of August Dvorak’s all but completely fruitless struggles to have his typewriter keyboard layout supersede the eminently stupid qwerty (I had a nerdy joy when I read that all computers now can be switched to use the Dvorak layout, but I can’t see how to do it on mine, so maybe that’s another feature of essays – they don’t always give the full story).

Some degree of individuality, even quirkiness, is essential to the essay form, and the comic book as essay, with its strikingly personal interplay of word and image, inevitably has this element in spades. As a tiny example, take this frame from Paul Hoppe’s ‘Coney Island Ruminations’:

These four people are clearly not ‘New York’. It’s not so much that the abstraction of the text is tied down to a particularity, as that the particularity of the image suggests the vast range of individual experience covered by the text’s eight words. The book offers example after example of this kind of thing. A different kind of interplay comes at the very end of ‘The Sound of Jade’, Sarah Glidden’s piece about accompanying her father to China to adopt a baby. After walking us through the process, including observations of the other adopting USers, statistics of such adoptions, regulations governing them, moments of intercultural awkwardness and emotional rawness, Gliddens ends with a peaceful scene of the new family, then in a final frame we are looking into the room through a window from a slightly elevated angle, and ‘Sarah’ is looking out at us uneasily:

In a way that would be hard to achieve in any other medium, we’re left to do our own thinking about what might lie beneath her unease.

In short, this was an excellent Christmas present.

Andrew Motion’s Natural Causes

Andrew Motion, Natural Causes (Chatto Poetry 1987)

Andrew Motion is one of those poets you can know about without having a clue about his poetry. I knew he was the Poet Laureate who broke with tradition and actually resigned from the post, as chair of the Man Booker Prize committee that produced some controversial short lists in recent years, as someone who is disparaged in passing in hip poetry circles, in short, as someone who had been pigeonholed as exemplar middlebrow. But I don’t think I’d read a single line by him.

I bought this book for $2 at Sappho’s, which probably means there are plenty of copies around, and I should be glad it’s not adorned by student marginalia. I enjoyed it a lot, perhaps because there’s a strong narrative element, and I’m a sucker for narrative. Two substantial sequences stand out: ‘Scripture’, about Motion’s time at boarding school, to which he was sent, barbarically, at the age of seven, and ‘This Is Your Subject Speaking’, an elegiac sequence in honour of his friend Philip Larkin, who died a couple of years before the book was published. There are some sweetly moving poems about his baby child.

I found a nice interview with Andrew Motion on the Oxford Poetry web site, where he talks among other things about his use of his own history:

But I still intend my poems to function as photographs taken from one person’s life, which are put on show to everybody else so that they might perhaps recognise things about their own lives from those photographs. I think that that process is more likely to succeed if you colour the photographs with those feelings which you have to say are yours, and personal. I’m sure this sounds very unsympathetic to the new critics, but that’s how I am.

Andrew Charlton’s Man-Made World

Andrew Charlton, Man-Made World: Choosing between progress and planet (Quarterly Essay No 44, 2011)

Andrew Charlton has a good eye for a quote. He  was in the room at the Copenhagen Climate Conference when Barack Obama arrived, late, at the meeting of world leaders that had been hastily convened to avert a complete breakdown of the conference. It was definitely a behind-the-scenes gathering: the leaders, Charlton tells us, ‘hunched in plastic chairs around a rectangle of contiguous small tables’. When Obama arrived, Hilary Clinton said, ‘Mr President, this is the worst meeting I’ve been to since the eighth-grade student council.’ Apart from flaunting the teller’s insider status, the anecdote’s clear subtext is that the insiders, the powerful elite, are just as flummoxed by global warming as the rest of us.  More than anything else in the essay, it drives home the point that the planet’s current environmental crisis will be resolved, if at all, by human beings bumbling forward as human beings have always done.

The other stand-out quote, which Charlton says is famous, is from Sheikh Yamani, former head of OPEC. When someone asked him when he believed the world would run out of oil, he replied, ‘The Stone Age didn’t end because the world ran out of stone,’ memorably encapsulating a key point of this essay, namely that technological innovation and the discovery of new materials and sources of energy have led to great leaps in human progress in the past, and we can hope will do so again.

Charlton argues that the failure of Copenhagen was caused not by non-cooperation from the US or Europe or muscle-flexing sabotage by China, but by a failure to address ‘the central dilemma of our century: the choice between progress and planet’, the apparently intransigent conflict of interest between the world’s rich minority who can afford to talk about scaling back consumption and the vast majority for whom increased consumption means emerging from grinding poverty:

These two global challenges –poverty and the environment – are the twin imperatives of the twenty-first century. One ravages billions of people alive today; the other threatens billions yet unborn.

Because of this conflict of interest, he argues, ‘our global approach ot climate change has failed:

we have failed to establish a globally binding treaty, we have failed to effectively bring the developing countries into a global solution, and we have failed to develop new technologies sufficient to reduce emissions rapidly.

Like everybody else in the known universe, he doesn’t hold out much hope that ‘market mechanisms’, such as Australia’s price on carbon and further down the track emissions trading scheme, will achieve the necessary targets, and that’s even if they survive assault from Tony Abbott and his buddies.

He calls for a Plan B, which has thee elements: to rethink the key goal, from raising the cost of fossil fuel energy to making clean power cheap; to reverse the relationship between rich and poor countries, so that rather than trying to persuade the developing world to reduce emissions the west works with them to develop breakthrough technology to deliver cheaper energy to the world’; to pay a lot more attention to back-up plans in case of disaster.

The essay is well worth reading, but I don’t know if it moves us forward significantly. At times Charlton’s experience as senior economic adviser to the Australian Prime Minister works against him, as he moves into polemic mode when the subject calls for careful persuasion: his figures occasionally slip from comparative to absolute when the argument requires it, he sometimes jeers at an opposing argument when engagement is needed. This background may also account for the fact that while he argues that reducing Australia’s emissions by even 5 per cent by 2020 is ‘all but unachievable through domestic efforts’, he  ignores grassroots, science-based initiatives such as Beyond Zero Emissions, a detailed plan to reduce emissions to zero by 2020 using existing technology, or Zero Carbon Britain, a similar plan for Britain (the link is to a YouTube talk by the eminently persuasive Peter Harper of the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales). I can’t tell whether he would see these plans as examples of his Plan B or whether he includes them in the ‘glib rhetoric’ he attributes to ‘green groups’.

But this is all good and necessary argument, recognising that there’s a real problem and searching for a solution, which is immensely refreshing compared to the fake debate set up by those who believe – or pretend to believe – that ‘science is crap’.

Speaking of which, I’ve already had my tuppence worth about the correspondence about Robert Manne’s essay on the Australian at the back of this Quarterly Essay.
(Posted during the Wikipedia blackout over the PIPA/SOPA legislation but by no means in opposition to it.)

Overland 205

Jeff Sparrow, editor Overland 205, Summer 2011

Someone in the offline world told me recently he was reading a book called The Left Isn’t Always Right. It must be one of the least controversial book titles of all time: how could ‘the Left’ be always right when lefties are forever fiercely, even violently disagreeing with each other? I mean, hadn’t the author heard of Trotsky? This issue of Overland continues in that fine tradition (of debate, I mean, not of violence). And although recent comments on this blog have described it as increasingly right wing, I think it does a nice job of bringing to bear a perspective that challenges the view that all can be well in a capitalist society.

It kicks off with Swedish scholar Mattias Gardell’s ‘Terror in the Norwegian woods‘, which places the recent killing spree in Norway in the context of the return of fascism to Europe. He moves well beyond the easy but still telling point that when the news of the killings broke, many pundits pronounced that it was the work of Muslim terrorists, but when the identity and beliefs of the killer were discovered, the same pundits said it was clearly the work of a lone madman, and not in any way connected to their hate speech – he moves beyond that point to a chilling account of the increasingly vocal and co-ordinated anti-Muslim movement in Europe and in the US, which would be an oddity if it weren’t for their influence on political leaders.

Next, Robert Bollard’s ‘ Who was Bet B?‘, tells the story of his own discovery of Aboriginal ancestry, and explores its implications. Among other things it provides a multidimensional, nuanced context to the brutish attacks on ‘light skinned Aborigines’ we’ve been hearing a bit about recently.

Xavier Rizos’s ‘Will the market save us?‘ could well be subtitled ‘The carbon tax for dummies’, and I mean that in a good way.

Brad Nguyen’s ‘Morality begone!‘ does a neat job of exposing the inadequacy of moral outrage as a tool for understanding, especially in relation to events like the riots in London in August last year. He doesn’t argue that morality has no place, but that relationships of power needs to be taken into account. ‘We can all agree,’ he writes, ‘that events such as 9/11 are the results of acts of evil. But why shouldn’t we let ourselves locate such events within the totality of global capitalism?’ He goes on, ‘If you so much as mention [US] imperialism, you open yourself up to charges of justifying the atrocities of 9/11.’ In a fabulous twist, he invokes Jesus, with a challenging reading of the injunction to turn the other cheek. (This isn’t the journal’s only surprise for those who confuse secularism with hostility to religion: Peter Slezak’s ‘Silence resembling stupidity‘ argues forcibly that the anti-Islamic stance of the ‘new atheists’ – Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins – actually plays into the hands of  those who would wage neo-imperialist and -colonialist wars.)

There are a couple of debates – Stephanie Convery and Katrina Fox on PETA’s use of pornography in its animal rights activism, Ali Alizadeh and Robert Lukins on Australian Poetry, the new peak industry body for poetry. The poetry one, as you might expect, is the more heated (‘Robert Lukins’ is … devoid of almost any substance with which to engage,’ says Alizadeh, unfairly in my view). The animal rights one has the higher moral tone (‘Let’s get our priorities right,’ says Fox, arguing that we shouldn’t object to PETA’s obnoxiousness when other people do much worse things – I guess you can tell where I stand on that one). And there’s a profound panel discussion about language and politics in Indigenous writing, featuring John Bradley, Kim Scott and Marie Munkara.

There are stories and poems, notably an excerpt from Alexis Wright’s forthcoming novel, Eileen Chong’s ‘Mary: A Fiction‘, and Angela Smith’s ‘Jennifer Maiden woke up in The Lodge‘, which I persist in seeing as a tribute to Jennifer Maiden rather than an attack.

Notice all those links! The thing about Overland  is that most of its content is online, and the Overland blog has follow-up interviews and discussions. This interview with Robert Bollard is a fine example. Still, reading it in hard copy has its pleasures, not least of which is the sense of righteousness that comes from sending money their way.

Robert Whitaker’s Anatomy of an Epidemic

Robert Whitaker, Anatomy of an Epidemic: Magic Bullets, Psychiatric Drugs, and the Astonishing Rise of Mental Illness in America (Crown Publishers 2010)

When I told my ENT surgeon I was reading a book about science and the use of psychiatric drugs, he said, ‘One of those books about evil psychiatrists, is it?’ I was only about a third of the way in at the time, and replied, ‘No, I think the villain of the piece is the drug companies defending their huge profits.’ ‘Ah,’ he said, shocking me just a little, ‘psychiatry is about a hundred years behind the rest of medicine in terms of being evidence based.’

In fact, this book mounts a convincing case that psychiatry is not a hundred years behind at all, but is in a whole different paddock. Basically Robert Whitaker has done a meticulous survey of the scientific literature about ‘mental illness’ (my quote marks) and the effects of psychiatric drugs, and holds up to the light the startling difference between the received wisdom on one hand and what the science shows – or fails to show – on the other. In fact, it seems, the evidence indicates that drugs used to deal with anxiety, depression and schizophrenia are not only ineffective, but do more harm than good and in the long run are causing widespread devastation. Towards the end of the book he lists no fewer than sixteen major studies conducted since 1990, all contradicting the mainstream version the efficacy of psychiatric drugs, and says he can find no mention of any of them in any US newspaper. In such matters, of course, newspapers depend on press releases from professional organisations and government agencies, and it seems that the US psychiatric profession has thrown its lot in with the big pharmacological companies. Likewise the relevant government body, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the major patient advocacy group (which, like opinion leaders among psychiatrists, receives staggering level of funding from big business). The websites of neither the NIMH nor the advocacy group make any mention of the uncomfortable science.

Whitaker writes well. He appears to be meticulous in his reporting of the science. I’ve taken a while to blog about it because I didn’t want to write in a state of rage. But let me say now, calmly, that anyone who has ever been prescribed psychiatric drugs, anyone who routinely or occasionally prescribes them, and especially anyone who is being advised to give them to their children, should read this book. Whether the drugs are for depression, anxiety or schizophrenia, this holds true. The fact that someone is wearing a white coat and has a lot of money and big words at their disposal doesn’t make them a scientist. The fact that people’s lives are made miserable by ‘mental illness’ doesn’t mean that prescribing drugs for them is an act of compassion rather than a way to suppress the symptoms that disturb the rest of us at significant cost to the sufferer. The fact that psychiatric drugs are opposed by Scientologists and people who want to blame the mother doesn’t mean they’re good for you.

The most striking thing about the book for me was something I read after I’d finished it. I was concerned that Whitaker’s argument coincided pretty closely with my own understanding of things before I read it (see final paragraph below). So I went looking for responses and rebuttals. As it turns out, Whitaker has a web site where he provides links to just such writing: the slippery logic and shaky data of the rebuttals delivered by leading psychiatrists provides emphatic confirmation that he is on the money.

There are alternatives. The book and Whitaker’s web site include examples of projects that have produced very promising results before attack from the psychiatric profession and withdrawal of funds closed them down, and a couple of examples where the projects managed to gain funds not controlled by the forces of darkness (oh dear, I obviously haven’t calmed down quite enough! but really, the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority, with 200 million dollars in its pocket, was able to successfully challenge the iron-clad assumption of the courts that anyone who objected to being given psychiatric drugs was ipso facto incompetent, where elsewhere no one has had the resources to challenge the expert witnesses for the status quo). There’s a region in Finland where schizophrenia has virtually been wiped out by an approach that involves (I’m simplifying) open dialogue with someone with signs 0f psychosis and caution in prescribing drugs.  In Australia, the Personal Helpers Mentors Program, while not antagonistic to psychiatry, has a non-medical approach which goes a long way to helping people to function well and to manage their symptoms.

Some friends of mine are on the way to opening the Pajaro Valley Sunrise Center in California, a residential facility for people wanting to come off psychiatric drugs. Because, of course, you can’t just stop taking drugs that change the functioning of your brain without bringing on terrible reactions (which, according to Whitaker, is used as an argument for keeping people on them for life). I was mildly supportive before reading this book. Now I’m in danger, as my brother in law says, of becoming a proselytiser.

Ruby Blues in the car

Jessica Rudd, Ruby Blues (Text 2011)

This was our read-aloud on the car trip from Melbourne to Sydney, and it served well enough. I had a sinking feeling at first, as I was required to deliver a number of strained comedy routines that didn’t quite work, but by about page 20 I found I was laughing aloud quite a lot. It’s a genre piece, chick lit: much description of clothes and make up, a touch of Feminism 101, quite a bit of embarrassment of the heart and loins (I was reminded of Marieke Hardy’s TV creation Laid). The eponymous Ruby is the chief adviser to an Australian Prime Minister whose popularity is plummeting, and the chick lit adventures are supplemented by a plot involving political intrigue and blackmail, which manages – just – to provide a central thread.

One of the selling points of this book is that the author is Kevin Rudd’s daughter. This creates an expectation that though it’s manifestly fiction, the book will build on insider knowledge. Well, I wouldn’t put much store by such an implied promise. For example, fairly early on someone reminds Ruby that she has to prepare the PM’s briefings for Question Time, and 30 minutes later she has the folder ready. Um, without wanting to make too much of it, I’ve heard the odd anecdote from a PM staffer, and I’m pretty sure that job takes something closer to four hours. And Ruby’s intern- assistant Bettina, the source of most of the laughs, is a vastly improbable creation.

That, plus little things like poignant being used by Ruby, presumably with Jessica’s approval, where in English we would say pertinent, and a stretch towards the end where nothing is happening except some characters renting fancy dress, makes me slow to recommend the book. But we did laugh. And we did read the whole book, which is more than I can say for AC Grayling’s Descartes, a much more substantial text that just couldn’t keep the driver awake and was discarded after about 30 pages.

Why would Jeanette Winterson be normal when she could be happy?

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (Jonathan Cape 2011)

20111227-185519.jpg I read this aloud to the Art Student (who insists, in the face of mounting pressure, that her nom de blog not progress to ‘the Artist’) on a leisurely drive from Sydney to Melbourne. We made it through all but 30 pages. It was a good choice for the gig.

The book is in two unequal parts. In the first, longer part Jeanette Winterson revisits territory she covered in her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit: her relationship with her adoptive mother, a terror to Jeanette as a child but a gift beyond price to a novelist. The title of the book quotes the response of Mrs Winterson, as she is often called here, when teenaged Jeanette told her she was in love with a woman. Another of her striking utterances may have been almost as attractive as a title: ‘The trouble with books is you don’t know what’s in them until it’s too late.’ The experiences recounted in this section have clearly been thought about long and deep. I haven’t read the novel, and don’t know what’s distinctive about this version. There are some colourful bits about her mother’s response to the novel, but at the end of this section, roughly two thirds of the way through the book, there was no obvious reason why it had been written at all.

And then, after a two-page ‘Intermission’, it takes off. In the second section, which a note at the end tells us was written as the events it describes unfolded – that is, without knowledge of the outcome – the author tells of a period of severe mental distress that followed the break-up of a long-term relationship and her discovery of some papers that seem to be her birth records. This leads to a search for her birth mother, which is eventually successful. The whole long first section provided necessary background and orientation: we need it to grasp the force of the emotional turmoil and the extraordinary effect of some key phrases, which might otherwise seem to be ordinary, even platitudinous. What we get is a revelation about the powerful feelings that can attach to an adopted person’s search for birth parents. We also get an account of an experience that in another person might have been medicated, but here is an extraordinary, if painful, process of discovery and blossoming.

This is a marvellous book.

Compare and contrast

I’m way behind in my book-blogging. Here’s a little thing that may amuse you, but you’ll have to work for it.

In April 2010, when Kevin Rudd was still Prime Minister, I posted a wistful piece of unrhymed doggerel, ‘Open Letter to Jennifer Maiden‘, in which I pleaded with JM to write about Kevin and Julia, and played around with some rhymes for Rudd and Abbott.

A month or so ago, Overland 205 included Angela Smith’s poem, ‘Jennifer Maiden woke up in The Lodge‘. Infinitely superior to my effort, it mimicked JM’s voice, and implied a similar yearning to read what she would write about the Prime Minister.

And then, in Black Inc’s Best Australian Poems 2011, edited by John Tranter, Jennifer Maiden herself answered our prayers with ‘A Great Education’, which swoops from indignation and something that could look like contempt to exactly the kind of insight you would expect from JM. I can’t give you a link to the poem. You could buy the book (I haven’t yet, I thought I might get it for Xmas so settled for reading this poem in the shop – I think this poem alone would justify the expense). Or you could:

Step 1: go to the book’s page on the Black Inc site
Step 2: click on the Google preview button
Step 3: search for “A Great Education”
Step 4: click through to the second result.

It turns out the poem was published in the Age roughly a year ago. Perhaps Angela Smith was commenting on it rather than pleading for it to happen. Either way, I doubt if you’ll see these three poems mentioned in the same breath anywhere but here.