Saturday, 19 December 2015

Nothing can come of nothing

I was thrilled to score tickets to the Sydney Theatre Company's production of King Lear this week. I had not studied Lear since high school (more than a few years ago) and I had forgotten so much that I essentially came to it fresh. This is a play about power, relationships between parent and child, parallels and divine justice.

The story is a tragic tale of an elderly King who decides to divide his kingdom among whichever of his three daughters expresses their love for him in the most pleasing way. His eldest two daughters, Goneril and Regan, gush glowingly of their father. His youngest, Cordelia, refuses saying 'nothing', and she is immediately disinherited. The eldest two, and their husbands, are awarded the kingdom. Having given away his power, Lear now finds himself shunned by his eldest daughters, and he descends into madness.

Acclaimed Australian director Neil Armfield AO has helmed this production, bringing together a star-studded cast of actors and putting them through their paces.

The stage is minimalist - starting with a cavernous black, shifting to a grey, before finishing in a blinding white stage - designed to reflect the changing phases of Lear's mind. Designer Richard Cousins has created a subtle set, devoid of props, in which all eyes are on the talent and the words. The storm scene in particular was marvellous, with wind and rain pouring on the stage for over thirty minutes.

As the curtain rises on an empty stage, Marilyn Monroe approaches a microphone and sings a sultry 'happy birthday'  to Lear before pulling off her wig to reveal herself the Fool in disguise. This marvellous opening provides a reason for the court to come together to celebrate the 80th birthday of the monarch.

We then meet Lear, played by the legendary Geoffrey Rush. Lear begins with an arrogance and rage that has come from his decades of ruling the kingdom, his frustration of having no son to be a natural heir, and his ego that requires undivided admiration and loyalty from all about him. As Lear descends into madness, Rush's skills as a mime come to the fore. His ability to transition - through his rubbery facial movements, mannerisms and voice - are compelling. It is a marvellous portrayal of a tyrant who becomes increasingly fragile and delusional.

Nevin's Fool is a curious creation. After the Monroe sequence, spoke with a broad Aussie accent and dressed like Sir Les Patterson.   Her wisecracks are punctuated by percussion from the band.

The daughters played by Helen Buday, Helen Thomson and Eryn Jean Norvill were uniformly excellent. It was also lovely to see Max Cullen as Gloucester. The standouts of the non-headliners were Jacek Koman (Kent), Mark Leonard Winter (Edgar) and Meyne Wyatt (Edmund) and I look forward to seeing their careers progress.

On the night I attended, there was a QnA with the cast after the show. This was an intriguing event, with Rush being generous with his answers. Nevin and others seemed to wish they were elsewhere, were curt in their answers, and left quickly when it was over. I appreciate that they had just spent an exhausting three hours on stage, but it did feel a little dismissive of the audience after the thrill of seeing the production.

It is a rare treat to see an actor of Rush's calibre up close and personal and I feel privileged for having witnessed his brilliant Lear portrayal. I have had the great pleasure of seeing several Sydney Theatre Company productions in the last year or so: Cate Blanchett and Richard Roxburgh in The Present, and Hugo Weaving in Macbeth. STC always produces interesting plays with incredible talent, wonderful set decoration, and artistic direction. I was also able to see Kevin Spacey in Richard III in 2011 which was a real treat. My reviews of these productions are also on this blog.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Beauty and Depth

Last night in Sydney the Prime Minister, the Hon Malcolm Turnbull MP, announced the winners of the 2015 Prime Minister's Literary Awards. I am thrilled that Joan London won for best fiction for her magnificent The Golden Age.

The shortlist for the fiction prize was a tight contest with some well regarded authors rounding out the top five:

  • Peter Carey for Amnesia;
  • Elizabeth Harrower for In Certain Circles;
  • Rohan Wilson for To Name Those Lost; and,
  • Sonya Hartnett for Golden Boys.
I had expected it to be a tight race between The Golden Age and Golden Boys. London had missed out on this year's Stella Prize and Miles Franklin Award, so I am excited that she triumphed for this award.

When I reviewed this book earlier this year, I noted how Australian this book is with its depictions of the landscape, culture and language of Australia. 

The judges of this prize commented that it "is a grand narrative written on a most intimate and modest canvas" and "a novel of great beauty and depth", which captures the book beautifully. 

I should mention the other books that won at the PM's Literary Awards:

Geoffrey Legmann for Poems 1957-2013

Australian History (Joint winners)
Ross Coulthard for Charles Bean
David Horner for The Spy Catchers - The Official History of ASIO Vol 1

Non Fiction (Joint winners)
Marleen Bungey for John Olsen: An Artist's Life
Michael Wilding for Wild Bleak Bohemia

Young Adult Fiction
Claire Zorn for The Protected

Children's Fiction
David Metzenthen for One Minute's Silence 

I must admit to being disappointed that Helen Garner's gripping This House of Grief  was overlooked for the non-fiction prize. It should have won.

For more information on all the winners and shortlisted books, see the PM Literary Awards website.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

End of 2015 Book Lists

As the year draws to a close, the "Best of 2015" lists begin to be published. Inevitably these lists contain very few books that I have actually read, so I enjoy being introduced to books and authors I may have overlooked. I particularly like lists that choose quirky, unusual titles that don't normally get much attention. So, before I compile my own list, let's look at what some of the others have to say...

The New York Times list features 100 notable books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Given that I am always reading, I would have thought that I would have instantly recognised the bulk of the titles with a nod of agreement that they are in fact notable. In turns out however that I have only read one title - the very notable One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway by Asne Seierstad.

I  have started but not yet finished H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald, her memoir of raising a goshawk as she mourns the loss of her father. But there are quite a few titles that I am interested in, such as Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff which looks at marriage from the points of view of both husband and wife. Chigozie Obioma's The Fisherman also makes this list and is on my to be read pile.  I have also been hearing a lot of good things about A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and I am keen to get hold of this novel.

The Guardian has invited a variety of writers to nominate their favourite books of the year. I always find it interesting to hear from writers I admire about what books they have enjoyed. I will take Julian Barnes' advice and read Colm Toibin's Nora Webster as I absolutely loved his previous novel Brooklyn (2009). Margaret Atwood recommend's My Life on the Road, a memoir by Gloria Steinem. I enjoyed Paula Hawkins debut novel The Girl on the Train, so when she recommends Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff I am keen to take a look.

Jeanette Winterson recommends Atwood's The Heart Goes Last, her latest dystopian novel. Laura Barnett suggests Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread which I have started and not yet finished. Edna O'Brien's Little Red Chairs gets a couple of mentions and, since I enjoyed her Down By the River (1996),  I may seek out her latest. A number of writers have recommended the works of Elena Ferrante and I might check her out in 2016.

The Guardian list also has a Part 2! From this list I appreciate Ali Smith's recommendation of Jeremy Gavron's A Woman on the Edge of Time, a memoir of his mother which I think would make an interesting counter point to Kate Grenville's One Life.  The other memoir of interest is Patti Smith's M Train. Damian Barr recommends Alan Cumming's memoir Not My Father's Son which I am currently reading. Naomi Alderman mentions one book I have actually read and enjoyed, Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed.

Slate's Book Review writers Laura Miller and Katy Waldman identified 10 books worth reading. Of Miller's list, The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith is one I think I would like. Jonathan Frazen's Purity is another novel I might get around to next year. Katy Waldman's list appeals more to me. Of the ones she has listed, I am attracted to Groff's Fates and Furies, Macdonald's H is for Hawk, Yanigihara's A Little Life, Ferrante's The Story of the Lost Child, and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Time magazine names 10 works of fiction including Louis de Bernieres' The Dust the Falls from DreamsUndermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt, A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, as well as the novels of Groff, Ferrante and others. Time's non-fiction list includes The Witches by Stacy Schiff, Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Marilynne Robinson's The Giveness of Things, and Macdonald's H is for Hawk.

The biggest list I could find was from Canada's National Post, which lists 99 best fiction and non-fiction books of 2015. Despite the length of this list, the only book that I have read is Jon Ronson's So You've Been Publicly Shamed (#29). This tells me that the awesome Australian authors I have read this year need more exposure overseas as certainly authors like Joan London and Emily Bitto are worth reading!  However this list provides plenty of other titles to be added to my "to be read" pile, including:
  • Hanyi Yanigihara's A Little Life (#98),
  • At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen (#90), 
  • Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt (#87),
  • Margaret Atwood's The Heart Goes Last (#82), 
  • Miranda July's The First Bad Man (#77)
  • The Cartel by Don Winslow (#73)
  • Gut by Guilia Enders (#61)
  • Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own by Kate Bolick (#57)
  • H is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald (#27)
  • Submission by Michel Houellebecq (#21)
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (#1)

Newsweek published a list of the best and worst books of the year. The article is a bit stupid, with categories like most overrated, worst cover, most stupefyingly boring work of history, least essential celebrity biography and the like. Amongst the nonsense is some worthwhile content. The best books include Hanya Yanigihara's A Little Life, TC Boyle's The Harder They Come, and history of the Nazi regime KL by Nikolaus Wachsmann.

Buzzfeed has chosen 24 works of fiction for their "Best of" list. I have not read any on this list, but in addition to Groff's Fates and Furies and Yanagihara's A Little Life, the books on this list that interest me are The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante and Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick DeWitt.

I have yet to see any Australian publications list their "best of...." for 2015, but I suspect there may be some titles on those lists that I have read. The cumulative effect of all of these lists leads me to prioritise some reading for next year and acquire some new books by Yanagihara, Ferrante, Coates and other authors I have not previously read.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

Mister Fifteen Percent

Bill Shorten has been the leader of the Australian Labor Party and Leader of the Opposition since October 2013, following the election of Tony Abbott's conservative government. Over the past two years he has been in the national spotlight, but it seems to me like the real Bill Shorten is not really known.

David Marr, one of my favourite journalists, has written about Shorten in the Quarterly Essay (QE59). Faction Man (2015) explores Shorten's early years, his rise through the union movement, his involvement in the political executions of Rudd and Gillard, and his quest for the top job.

While Shorten is obviously intelligent, he lacks the charisma of Rudd, Gillard, Hawke, Keating and many other Labor leaders. He comes across as wooden and scripted, slightly daggy and bland. But more importantly, his politics are so beige. He has not lived up to the promise of Opposition, and instead has sided with the government on heinous policies and essentially painted himself into a corner.

As Marr writes, "It isn't true he stands for nothing. There is a list of decent Labor policies he's always backed: jobs, prosperity, education and health. What's counted against him is he stands for nothing brave." A damning indictment on a man desperate to lead the nation.

This Essay was published the week that Tony Abbott lost the leadership to the charismatic Malcolm Turnbull, and now Shorten's fate has taken a turn. His standing in the polls has dropped to a pathetic 15% as preferred Prime Minister, yet he is unlikely to face a challenge from within his own ranks because of Turnbull's popularity. So he will stay and lead Labor to the next election.

Marr's previous essays on George Pell, Tony Abbott and Kevin Rudd were far more engaging. But I really don't believe it is Marr's fault that this essay didn't have the same appeal. His subject matter is just so boring, despite his Machiavellian machinations to remove Rudd and Gillard. I was hoping to find more character and less robot, but you can't find what isn't there. That said, Marr is a brilliant writer and investigative journalist.

Also included was correspondence related to the previous Quarterly Essay, QE58 Blood Year by David Kilcullin.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Normal service will resume....

It has been a few weeks since my last blog post and my loyal readers (Hi Mum!) may be wondering if I have stopped reading.  The answer is no, in fact I have been reading too much, all over the place, and consequently not finishing anything.

The problem is twofold. First, I started walking home from work which has seen me shift to listening to podcasts rather than reading. Second, I picked up Norman Mailer's Executioner's Song (1979), an engrossing epic of over a thousand pages and this weighty tome is my bedtime reading.

In the meanwhile, the other books I had started to read have been pushed aside. These include:

  • Faction Man (2015) by David Marr (Quarterly Essay)
  • Career of Evil (2015) by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)
  • Women I've Undressed (2015) by Orry Kelly
  • Go Set a Watchman (2015) by Harper Lee

The problem is added to when the books keep piling up. The latest Quarterly Essay (Laura Tingle) has arrived in the mail and the latest Margaret Atwood has arrived on my eReader. Plus, that podcast I have been listening to is Chat10Looks3 by Annabelle Crabb and Leigh Sales. The two of them always have reading ideas and got me started on the Executioner's Song! I have a lot of reading to do before the end of the year.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Shop around the Corner

When I knew I would be meeting Asne Seierstad at the Sydney Writers' Festival in May this year, I grabbed my old copy of her bestselling book The Bookseller of Kabul (2002) and asked her to sign it for me. I had purchased it back when it came out, and I would have sworn that I had read it as the story was so familiar to me. I must have picked it up and flicked through it, but never actually read it entirely.

After reading Seierstad's latest book One of Us (2015) about Anders Breivik, I thought it would be good to return to her earlier work and be sure that I had read it. A committed journalist, Seierstad immersed herself in the story and with her sharp, enquiring mind she crafted a compelling story.

Seierstad arrived in Kabul in September 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. She donned a burka and went to live with a bookseller and his extended family for four months, during which time she acquired the material for this book. She learns from the family about Afghanistan during the Taliban, about the role of women in society and about the hopes, dreams and fears of this unhappy family.

The Bookseller, his wives, children and extended family live in a few rooms in Kabul. He operates a popular book store, as well as several stalls in hotel lobbies, and has a number of lucrative contracts printing text books in Pakistan.

The patriarch may be an intellectual and a good business man, but he rules his family like a dictator. He speaks openly about women's rights - to work, to dress in Western attire, etc - but keeps his women at home in strictly gendered roles. His sons are not educated as they must constantly work for him. His cruelty is shown in his persistence with an impoverished carpenter who took some of the booksellers postcards, demanding that he be jailed for the crime.

But it is the women in the family who Seierstad devotes much empathy. Sharifa, the bookseller's first wife, who is sent off to Pakistan without a moment's thought when a teenage Sonja catches his eye. Leila, the bookseller's sister, who slaves after her brother and nephews while dreaming of becoming a teacher and finding a life of her own. Bibi Gul, the mother, who seeks comfort in food.

I really enjoyed this book and Seierstad's writing. Her depiction of the pervasive dust, the bureaucracy, the danger, and the desire are all brought to life. I have previously read fictional accounts of Afghani life, such as Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner (2003) and A Thousand Splendid Suns (2007) which I found to be gripping tales (but read long before I started blogging). In parts Bookseller reminded me a lot of Splendid Suns, and the plight of girls and women. Well worth a read.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

Dear Life

At the Sydney Writers' Festival in May 2015 I had the pleasure of listening to Australian author Kate Grenville talk about her latest book, One Life (2015), a memoir of her mother.

Nance was born in 1912 to rural publicans Bert and Dolly Russell. She  felt unloved as a child, continually being sent to live with relatives and wrenched apart from her beloved brother Frank. Her family struggled with their small businesses, and the relationship between her parents was not warm.

Determined not to become her mother, Nance pursued an education. Uncommon for her time, Nance went to the University of Sydney and studied to became a pharmacist. Grenville described in detail the sacrifices Nance made to study and work in order to graduate and join the profession.

As a young woman, Nance was wooed by a number of suitors. She decided upon Ken Gee, a lawyer with Marxist leanings, and married him. The depiction of her marriage is heartbreaking. Ken was always distant, in love with his ideas. She desires warmth and feels trapped because of the children.

The second world war hits and money is tight, Nance goes back to work facing every mother's child care dilemma.  She studies the business carefully and decides she can do this herself, opening her own pharmacy on Sydney's northern beaches. She stares down the sexism she faces from suppliers and customers, and gets on with the job.

I really enjoyed this book. One Life is such a loving tribute to Nance Gee, with Grenville portraying her as a whole woman, a gifted professional, a feminist and a mother. She was a woman of her time. During the SWF, Grenville said she wanted wanted to publish a memoir because the stories of the lives of ordinary women are never told. Through Nance we learn of twenty-first century Sydney and gain an important perspective on the events that shaped our world (the Depression, WWII etc).

More importantly, through Nance we reflect on love, commitment, family, and the ties that bind. Nance comes alive in this memoir, with Grenville's masterful storytelling applied to Nance's own words. My only quibble is that the story fades too soon, rushing through Nance's later years too quickly. I would have liked to have learned more of the older Nance. That said, I recommend this book highly.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

And the Winner is....

Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings has just won the 2015 Man Booker Prize.

Based on the 1976 attempted murder of Bob Marley, it tells the story of Jamaican politics and culture from the 1970s to the 1990s.

I have not yet read this but I am looking forward to it.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Bohemian Rhapsody

Emily Bitto's debut novel The Strays (2014) won the 2015 Stella Prize for fiction, and deservedly so. This is a beautiful, intellectual novel which showcases Bitto's talents.

It is the 1980s and art history lecturer Lily receives an invitation to attend a gallery retrospective of the works of Evan Trentham, a controversial artist that changed the Australian art scene decades earlier. Immediately Lily is catapulted back to her childhood memories of growing up in the 1930s with her best friend Eva Trentham, Evan's daughter. What follows is Lily's reminiscences of her childhood and a story of love, friendship and betrayal.

Only child Lily lives at home with her parents after relocating to Melbourne. She is lonely and in need of company from someone her own age. At school she befriends Eva and is quickly incorporated into Eva's bohemian family which is so dissimilar to her own, providing her the sense of belonging she has longed for.

The Trenthams have captivated the Melbourne art scene - modernist Evan and his wife Helena with her cool beauty. They have created a haven and gathered stray artists to live and work among them, free from the pressures of bills and jobs, where they can devote themselves entirely to their creative endeavours. Calling themselves the Melbourne Modern Art Group, they challenge traditional art and push the boundaries. Maria, Ugo, Jerome and others join the colony.

With the adults focussed on themselves and their art, the Trentham's daughters - Beatrice, Eva and Heloise - have grow up largely unsupervised. They spend their days among the gardens of the Trentham's home and their nights around adult parties and conversations about art, poetry, and politics. Lily becomes yet another stray, spending all her time as a hanger-on in this household.

As Lily and Eva enter their teenage years things change and the intensity of their relationship is tested. Lily reflects back on the various paths she and the Trentham girls take and how their lives intersect and intertwine over the subsequent decades.

I really loved this book and cannot recommend it highly enough. Bitto is a genuine talent and I cannot wait to see what she comes up with next.

Sunday, 27 September 2015

The Dignity of Mosses

As one of the few people on the planet that has not read Eat Pray Love (2006), Elizabeth Gilbert's bestselling memoir, I approached her novel The Signature of All Things (2013) without too much expectation.

I am not sure what lead me to pick up his book. Gilbert was in Australia earlier this year at the All About Women festival I attended, although I did not attend her sessions. But then I saw her on ABC's The Book Club and Marieke Hardy praised her Signature so I thought I would give it a chance.

Set primarily in Philadelphia, the story begins in 1800 with the birth of Alma Whittaker the long-awaited child of wealthy botanical import/exporter Henry and his Dutch wife Beatrix. Alma is a fiercely intelligent child, with her intellect making up for her lack of beauty. She naturally becomes fascinated with botany and can converse with authority on plants of all types. As she ages she becomes fascinated by mosses and spends her life work studying them.

Alma's pursuit of mosses is only matched by her pursuit of love and belonging. She falls in love with an unobtainable man, and then marries another equally unattainable. Then, in later life, realising she has only ever really known the White Acre estate on which she has resided, Alma sets out on an extraordinary journey to Tahiti and Amsterdam in which she makes a monumental discovery.

Gilbert's writing is beautiful - describing orchids and mosses with such detail - and she transports the reader back in time convincingly.  She covers the abolitionist movement, pharmaceutical discoveries, the voyages of Captain Cook, and the discoveries of Darwin. Alma is a wonderful character, vividly depicted, and I enjoyed travelling with this witty, intellectual, woman of science.

Signature is a big, ambitious book and the result was somewhat uneven for me. There were parts I enjoyed thoroughly and became engrossed in, particularly the first half of the book describing Henry Whitaker's upbringing and his work for Sir Joseph banks in Kew Gardens. But in other parts, like the trip to Tahiti, I felt the story dragged and lost momentum. Overall though I would recommend this book, particularly to those with an interest in natural history and a love of plants. This would make a great book club read as there is so much to discuss.

Saturday, 19 September 2015

Shame on You, Shame on Us

Welsh journalist Jon Ronson's latest book is So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015). I had the privilege of hearing him speak on the topic at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas on 5 September 2015. I was intrigued by his views on public shaming so bought his book and read it in the days following the Festival.

Ronson looks at how the Internet, particularly Twitter, has been used to ruin people. Social media has given everyone a voice, but it has also given rise to a virtual mob.

Several high-profile shaming are explored. Justine Sacco, a young PR rep who made a bad joke on Twitter before boarding a flight, landed to find herself trending on social media, the most searched term in Google, and fired from her job.

Likewise, Lindsey Stone posted a joke photo on Facebook for her friends. Months later someone made it public and Stone was reviled on social media and lost her job.

Bestselling writer Jonah Lehrer was exposed for plagiarism and inaccuracies. He was reviled in social media and when he attempted an apology who we shamed even further.

The book has come out just as the Ashley Madison scandal happened in which the personal information of thousands of people from an infidelity dating site were exposed by hackers. This has lead to the public shaming of those named to the point of social ruin and in several instances to suicide.

Ronson shows that the punishment of these public shamings far exceed the action that caused them. Public humiliation, threats, sackings and abuse from often anonymous strangers on the internet cause deep psychological harm. Women are treated far more harshly then men in this arena with threats of sexual violence a common form of trolling.

Shame researcher Dr Brene Brown writes that "shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough." In most of the cases Ronson explores good people were brought down by shame.

He also checks in to see how people are after they were destroyed. Dr Brown writes that "If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive." In Ronson, Stone, Sacco and even Lehrer found a sympathetic ear and perhaps his book will aide in their recovery.

The message here is one of empathy and restraint. Before we all pile on and add our voice to the collective shaming, consider whether we are hiding behind our internet avatars. If we wouldn't pick up torches and pitchforks to chase people out of town, why would we do so virtually?

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Eyes on the Prize

The Man Booker Prize shortlist was announced on 15 September 2015, whittling the 13 titles down to six.

I was somewhat surprised that none of the past shortlisters Anne Enright, Tom McCarthy and Andrew O'Hagan (1999) made it this year.

But I am pleased that The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma and Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings are on the shortlist.

My pick for the winner is Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread (2015). She is one of my favourite writers and I am keen for her to win. But I would also be happy if the prize went to The Fishermen.

Here is the shortlist:
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings - Marlon James (Jamaica)
  • Satin Island - Tom McCarthy (UK)
  • The Fishermen - Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria)
  • The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota (UK)
  • A Spool of Blue Thread - Anne Tyler (USA)
  • A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara (USA)

The winner announced on 13 October 2015.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2015 - Day 2

Day two of FODI (Sunday 6 September 2015) was a great opportunity to attend a range of thought-provoking sessions.

Technophilia - Panel
Marc Fennell chaired a panel discussion featuring Martin Ford and Marc Lewis about addiction to technology.

Ford is a software developer and author of The Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future (2015).  His argument is that artificial intelligence, mass automation and rapidly advancing technology will see many jobs disappear. In terms of technophilia, he talked about the potentially unhealthy dependence many people have on their smartphones and other devices.

Lewis is an addiction specialist who has written The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction is Not a Disease (2015). As a neuroscientist he spoke about how technology can be healthy and cited examples of video games which can teach important life skills. While I purchased Ford's book and  look forward to reading it, I do not think I want to read Lewis' book on addiction.

I had expected the panel to be a lively discussion, but instead it was rather boring. There was a brief moment when Lewis and Ford disagreed and it got interesting, but for the most part it was rather tame and certainly not dangerous. The presentation is not yet available on YouTube.

Knowledge Wars - Peter Doherty
Peter Doherty was an excellent choice for my next session. Winner of the Nobel Prize for medicine in 1996 for discovering the nature of the cellular immune defence, he is passionate about science. He despairs that in the popular press and on social media there is so much misinformation about important subjects like immunisation and climate change.

Doherty makes a passionate plea for ordinary citizens to become informed about science so as to make up their own minds about these important issues. During his talk he spoke about how education has become dumbed down so that our understanding of basic scientific concepts is limited.

He was quite funny in his talk, making digs at politicians, lawyers and judges for their lack of knowledge. His main concern at the moment is climate change and the misinformation being spread about it. Doerty's presentation is available to watch on YouTube.

His new book, The Knowledge Wars (2015), is a science book for non-scientists, encouraging us to look for the evidence in the information presented to us. I spoke to Doherty as he was signing my book and he was delightful.

Bad Education - AC Grayling
My final session was the one I was most looking forward to today. British philosopher AC Grayling delivered a presentation on education that was inspiring, witty and thought-provoking. Education is a passion of mine so I was keen to hear what Grayling had to say.
His main argument centred on how we tend to think of education as a necessary tool for getting a job instead of education for broader life skills. Grayling argued that "education is for life and for living". He made a passionate plea for the Humanities to be taught alongside STEM subjects and highlighted how the study of history, literature, philosophy, languages and the arts make people better human beings as they better understand the human condition. His presentation is available on YouTube and well worth viewing.

Grayling was delightfully erudite, joking about how we should all be reading Plato in the bath. The hour passed so quickly and I could have listened to him forever. After the session I spoke to him as he signed a copy of his latest book The Challenge of Things - Thinking Through Troubled Times (2015). He told me a joke about lawyers as we talked about my work in education. He was very impressive and I look forward to reading his book.
So that was my Festival of Dangerous Ideas for 2015. The highlights for me were Naomi Klein and AC Grayling - both delivering powerful presentations. I also thoroughly enjoyed Peter Doherty, Peter Greste and Jon Ronson. 

I have a lot of reading to do, having come home from the Festival with a stash of signed books, including:
  • So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2014) by Jon Ronson (Read September 2015, see review)
  • The Rise of the Robots (2015) by Martin Ford
  • This Changes Everything (2014) by Naomi Klein
  • The Challenge of Things (2015) by AC Grayling
  • Knowledge Wars (2015) by Peter Doherty

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2015 - Day 1

One of my favourite events each year is the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI), an annual event run by the Sydney Opera House and The Ethics Centre. In the past few years I have heard many fabulous speakers and writers including: David Simon; Hanna Rosin; Evgeny Morozov; Anne Summers; Dan Savage; Salman Rushdie; Kajsa Ekis Ekman; Lydia Cacho and many, many more.

Here is a summary of what happened on day one of FODI (Saturday 5 September 2015) for me:

Capitalism and the Climate - Naomi Klein
Canadian author Naomi Klein spoke about her latest book This Changes Everything (2014) about climate change. Klein started by talking about Australia's indigenous people and made a compelling case for greater respect and understanding of indigenous people around the world. She then talked about refugees and the humanitarian crisis arising our of the Syrian civil war. She was pointed in her comments about our government's stance on asylum seekers and critical of offshore processing.

Klein went into detail about Nauru and the plight of its citizens, being wedged out of their tiny island by mining excavation on the inside and rising sea levels on the outside. She made the point that the guards of war refugees today could become climate refugees tomorrow.

Articulate, intelligent and compelling, Klein delivered a wonderfully crafted speech. She spoke of empathy and human dignity, and made a plea for all of us to be kinder to the people around us. Klein's presentation has been filmed and uploaded on to YouTube, which is well worth watching. She also has a documentary film of This Changes Everything coming out soon.

I knew of Naomi Klein as she was a year or so ahead of me at University of Toronto. In 2000 I picked up a copy of her bestselling No Logo (2000) and was really impressed by her analysis of branding and globalisation. So I was delighted to talk briefly to her after her presentation and have her sign both No Logo and This Changes Everything for me while we spoke of Toronto.

Journalistic Freedom - Peter Greste
A week ago the Egyptian court finally handed down its verdict in the retrial of the Al Jazeera staff Peter Greste, Mohamed Famy and Baher Mohamed, sentencing them to three years. Today I had the pleasure of hearing Greste speak about his ordeal and about the threats journalists face around the globe.

Greste spoke with Mark Colvin about how he ended up in Egypt, his arrest, his time in prison and his release. He spoke about how journalism has changed over the course of his career. In early days being a journalist was dangerous because of the situation journalists were often found in - war zones, natural disasters etc. Now journalists are often targeted by kidnappers and assassins and used as bargaining chips.

He reminded the audience that he has been convicted and is still fighting to clear his name, and fighting to have his colleagues released. His session was a powerful reminder that journalism is not a crime and that social media can be used to bring about positive change.

Shame Culture - Jon Ronson
I had heard of Welsh Journalist Jon Ronson and his books - The Psychopath Test (2011), The Men who Stare at Goats (2004) - for a number of years. But it is his latest book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed (2015), that interested me in this session.

Ronson's presentation focussed on shame culture in the internet age and how public humiliation has become rampant on platforms like Twitter. His presentation focussed on how a mob mentality can take over and people can use the anonymity of Twitter to shame others. He pointed to examples like Justine Sacco who posted a joke tweet before boarding a flight to Africa, and landed to find that she was trending on Twitter, being shamed as racist and fired from her job.

Ronson and Jon Safran spoke about shame culture and how easy it is to be caught up in the mob mentality. The audience questions were interesting, particularly about whether shaming can ever be a good thing - citing the example of MP Bronwyn Bishop's travel expenses.

I am quickly working my way through Ronson's book and will blog about it shortly (Update: read review). His presentation is also available on YouTube.

What I Believe 
The last session for the day was an interesting discussion featuring Frank Brennan, Peter DohertyMalarndirri McCarthy, AC Grayling, Helen Razer, Adrienne Truscott and Jon Ronson.

I had expected it to be a panel discussion with interaction among the guests. Instead each person was given ten minutes to deliver a monologue on their beliefs. This was interesting but I found it went on a bit long. The highlights were Frank Brennan and AC Grayling. I have linked all of the speakers to the YouTube video of their presentations.

Day two of FODI will feature Peter Doherty, AC Grayling, Martin Ford and others.

My previous festival experiences can be seen on this blog:

Saturday, 29 August 2015

A Night to Remember

This week I had the great fortune of seeing the Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Present. Directed by John Crowley, the ensemble cast included Richard Roxburgh, Cate Blanchett, Chris Ryan, Jacqueline McKenzie, Toby Schmitz, Marshall Napier, Susan Prior and many more.

Set in Russia in the mid 1990s - as evident in the fashion, music and dialogue -  Anna (Blanchett) has invited a gaggle of friends to her country house to celebrate her 40th birthday weekend. Among the partygoers are her adult stepson Sergei (Ryan), his new wife Sophia (McKenzie), disillusioned school teacher Mikhail (Roxburgh) and his wife Sasha (Prior), obnoxious doctor Nikolai (Schmitz) and his young girlfriend Maria (Anna Bamford). Unknown at the outset, there are a number of past relationships, secret infatuations and unfulfilled desires among this group.

Anna is at a crossroads. Recently widowed by the death of "The General" she finds herself alone, at 40, with many debts. Consequently she has invited two wealthy older men to the party, Yegor (David Downer) and Alexei (Martin Jacobs) with the hopes of perhaps snaring one of them to secure her future.

From the moment Blanchett walked on stage it was clear that The Present was going to deliver a terrific evening of theatre. Over the next three hours the audience laughed aloud at the witty dialogue, absurd scenarios and drunken antics of the partygoers. I had not expected so much hilarity - the party scene alone was worth the price of admission.

Crowley's staging was brilliant allowing overlapping dialogues, and displaying the highs and lows of the gathering. The sets were clever and the music was perfect - The Clash's 'London Calling' and Haddaway's 'What is Love' among the highlights.

Andrew Upton has done something wonderful in adapting Anton Chekov's untitled play, commonly known as Platonov. He has made it feel fresh and contemporary, and very Australian despite it's Russian setting. The dialogue, peppered with slang and curse words, is sharp and savvy.

Blanchett and Roxburgh are definitely the drawcards and the do not disappoint. Roxburgh channels his Rake with Mikhail's womanising, drunken antics. Blanchett is incredible, delivering such a range of emotions, that it is hard to keep yours eyes off her. But both of them respect the ensemble nature of the play and allow the rest of the cast to showcase their talents.

The Sydney Theatre Company produce such great work and has been blessed to have Upton and Blanchett at the helm these past few years. They will be missed when the leave Australia later this year.

My review of the Sydney Theatre Company's Macbeth, starring Hugo Weaving is also on this blog.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Good as Gold

Joan London's The Golden Age (2014) is a beautiful gem of a novel. Set in 1954 in Peth, Western Australia, at a children's polio convalescent home, The Golden Age is the residence of infants and young children who are recuperating from their illness. Days are spent learning to walk again, attending to school lessons, and a lot of time lying in bed in the heat of Perth's summer.

At 13, Frank Gold is the oldest resident and doesn't quite belong. Transferred from the local hospital's Infectious Diseases Ward, his arrival at The Golden Age is beautifully described: "He felt like a pirate landing on an island of little maimed animals. A great wave had swept them up and dumped them here. All of them, like him, stranded, wanting to go home" (p.2).

Frank is used to not fitting in. He and his family fled Hungary during the second World War and arrived in Perth. His parents Frank and Ida did not know what to make of the strange parochial outpost on the other side of the world and missed the charms and customs of their European home. But young Frank worked to fit in, catch up in school, and become increasingly Australian.

Frank is a poet and sees beauty and poetry in all things. He carries a prescription pad around in his pocket and as he wheels himself around the convalescent home he finds places to escape and moments to compose his verse. What inspires him most is Elsa, another resident, with whom he forms in intense relationship.

There are so many things I loved about this novel. London's writing style greatly reminds me of Alice Munro, my favourite short story writer. London writes in a mature voice with crisp, concise prose. Her words create a dreamy sense of nostalgia and are evocative of an earlier, simpler time.

Each chapter is almost like a short story. Through these vignettes she gives insight into the lives of nurse Sister Penny, Ida's experiences during the war, a trip with convalescing children to the sea. She captures moments in time and brings them together to create a marvellous whole.

I also loved how Australian this novel is. She depicts the landscape, the language and the culture of Australia in a way that made me want to send a copy of this book to all my Australian friends overseas.

My only quibble is with the imagery on the cover of this edition - a photo of a young man on a train. I thought perhaps this was supposed to be Frank, but he takes no train journey in this book so I don't get it. I should have asked Joan London about the cover when she signed my copy at the Sydney Writers' Festival in May. Oh well...

The Golden Age was deservedly shortlisted for numerous awards in 2015 including: The Stella Prize; The Christina Stead Prize for Fiction; The Literary Fiction Book of the Year; and, The Miles Franklin Award. It was joint winner of The NSW Premier's People's Choice Award.

Friday, 7 August 2015

In Cold Blood

On Friday 22 July 2011 Anders Behring Breivik brought terror to Norway. He set off a bomb in the heart of Oslo's government sector before driving north, alongside the picturesque Tyrifjorden to Utoya Island, where he executed teenagers and staff at a labour youth camp. By the end of the summer's day he had murdered seventy-seven people and turned himself into the police.

In the aftermath there were many questions. Who was Anders Breivik? Was he a madman or a terrorist? Could this have been prevented? And above all, why did this happen? 

Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad set out to uncover the answers to these questions and documents her findings in her latest book One of Us - The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway (2015). 

At the Sydney Writers' Festival in May 2015, I attended a session where Seierstad spoke about this book. When I met Seierstad afterwards at the book signing I told her that I was unsure whether or not I wanted to read this book. The subject matter is so uncomfortably horrible, and I didn't want to give any attention to Breivik. But Seierstad is such an impressive writer, I decided to give this book a read.

The first section of the book paints a picture of Breivik as a troubled child in a dysfunctional home. A loner, abandoned by his father, at home with a mother who did not know how to parent, Breivik becomes isolated. He tries but fails at many things - becoming a graffiti tagger, operating businesses (selling fake diplomas) and becoming a mason. He does not fit in anywhere and spends five years as an adult in his room playing video games. This section of the book was a bit slow for me, largely because I had heard Seierstad describe his history at the Writers' Festival. 

She then goes on to talk about Breivik's 1500 page manifesto on the Islamisation of Western Europe which he tried to send to thousands of email addresses on the morning of the terror campaign. Breivik was no writer, and his declaration is essentially a cut-and-paste of various blogs and websites he has prowled and quotes he has misused. He calls for an expulsion of immigrants in a rant against multiculturalism, feminism and the Labour party.

Seierstad at the Sydney Writers'
Festival in May 2015
The chapter titled 'Friday' describes the day of the terror in graphic detail. It is a compelling story of mayhem and innocence lost. It builds to a climax, almost like a mystery thriller, and is deeply emotional - feeling frustration at the bungling of the police, disbelief at the relentlessness of the attack, disgust that it is so easy to buy guns and bomb materials online, fear alongside the children running for their lives, dispair as the parents await news of their children's fate.  It is masterful writing and an extraordinary feat of journalism.

The court case and the sentencing follow (amazingly, he was sentenced for just 21 years). Breivik was found to be responsible for his crimes. He now resides in prison and complains about the poor conditions of his confinement. He never achieved the fame and glory he was seeking. Nor did he reverse multiculturalism through fear, but rather pulled the people of Norway together against hatred.

Reflections one year on from the survivors and the families who lost loved ones are heartbreaking. What I really appreciated was how Seierstad shifted the focus from the narcissistic Brevik to his victims. Meeting Bano Rashid, Simon Saebo, Anders Kristiansen, Viljar Hanssen and others throughout the book made a deep impression. So many young lives, with so much promise, now dead or wounded. Their families' loss is profound and unending. The message that resonated at the end of the book is one of community, belonging and resilience as a response to terror.

Meticulously researched, cleverly written, One of Us is a compelling book reminiscent of Truman Capote's classic In Cold Blood (1966).  I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in journalism as Seierstad delivers a masterclass in storytelling. 

Thursday, 30 July 2015

The Booker Longlist

On 28 July 2015 the Man Booker Prize Longlist was announced. Thirteen titles are on the longlist from authors around the globe.

There are a number of familiar faces like Anne Enright (winner in 2007 for The Gathering) and previously shortlisted authors Tom McCarthy (2010) and Andrew O'Hagan (1999). But there are also a range of first time authors like Bill Clegg, Chigozie Obiama and Anna Smaill.

I am currently reading Anne Tyler's A Spool of Blue Thread (2015) and enjoying it immensely. I do have a soft spot for Ms Tyler, having loved her Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982).

I have heard great things about The Fisherman by Chigozie Obioma. The story of four brothers in Nigeria who go fishing on a forbidden river, as told by the youngest brother.

Marlon James' A Brief History of Seven Killings sounds fascinating. Based on the 1976 attempted murder of Bob Marley, it tells the story of Jamaican politics and culture from the 1970s to the 1990s.

Here is the longlist:

  • Did You Ever Have a Family - Bill Clegg (USA)
  • The Green Road - Anne Enright (Ireland)
  • A Brief History of Seven Killings - Marlon James (Jamaica)
  • The Moor's Account - Laila Lalami (USA)
  • Satin Island - Tom McCarthy (UK)
  • The Fisherman - Chigozie Obioma (Nigeria)
  • The Illuminations - Andrew O'Hagan (UK)
  • Lila - Marilynne Robinson (USA)
  • Sleeping on Jupiter - Anuradha Roy (India)
  • The Year of the Runaways - Sunjeev Sahota (UK)
  • The Chimes - Anna Smaill (New Zealand)
  • A Spool of Blue Thread - Anne Tyler (USA)
  • A Little Life - Hanya Yanagihara (USA)

The six book shortlist will be announced on 15 September,  with the winner announced on 13 October 2015.

Sunday, 5 July 2015

Go hard or go home

Every nightly newscast for as long as I can remember has had a story about war in the Middle East. In the 1990s I recall the fighting under the first President Bush and, even though I was living safely in North America at the time, the distant war seemed very close to home. Since 9/11 and the War on Terror, there has been a constant battle waging and it has been hard to keep up and make sense of it all. Why are people killing each other? What role does religion play? How real is the threat at home? When will it end? So many questions, so few answers.

I heard David Kilcullen speak at the Sydney Writers' Festival and he spoke with such clarity and sense that I was keen to read his Quarterly Essay, "Blood Year: Terror and the Islamic State" (2015, QE58). Kilcullin, an expert in counterinsurgency, was an adviser to General Petraeus and Condoleeza Rice. He is extremely knowledgeable and passionate, and has written a very interesting, if confronting, essay.

However, this Quarterly Essay is not an easy read. The first half was so dense with the historical underpinnings of the current 'crisis' that I regularly had to stop, go back and re-read to ensure I understood what he was talking about. There are a lot of acronyms and names to remember. But it was important that he took the time to spell out the motivations and alliances of all the main players in Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Northern Africa and beyond, as it shows the complexity of a situation that is too often simplified by politicians and the media.

During the aftermath of 9/11, Kilcullen advocated for a policy of disaggregation to 'dismantle, or break up, the links that allow the jihad to function as a global entity." (p7) Instead, President Bush chose an us/them strategy with his 'axis of evil' speech that served to bring groups together against the West. Disaggregation would have 'rendered bin Laden irrelevant, so it wouldn't matter whether he lived or died.' For America, however, bin Laden needed to be dealt with despite his marginalisation.

Turning to Iraq and Afghanistan, Kilcullen likens 'the invasion of Iraq to Hitler's invasion of Russia' (p13) in that Iraq held no immediate threat when Bush invaded, and resources were needed in Afghanistan but were redeployed against Saddam Hussein. As things play out in Iraq, and the new President Obama was in need of an exit strategy, Kilcullen felt 'they were conflating leaving Iraq with ending the war.... the hard reality is that once you're in a full-blown insurgency, your choices are tightly constrained: you either leave well, or you leave quickly' (p31).

Kilcullen then looks at the rise of ISIS (p61) and asserts that IS is on the verge of becoming a State as it meets all the common criteria of statehood. I did not realise how big IS has become, how much land it occupies, how many people live in its territory. The chapter on IS was fascinating, not least of all because Prime Minister Tony Abbott has ramped up the rhetoric to a fever pitch with his nightly rants about death cults. So I was keen to understand the way in which IS evolved and what its motivations are.

Looking at a 'strategy for the future' Kilcullen says there are four threats: 1) domestic radicalisation, which we have seen in events in Ottawa, Boston, Sydney, France and elsewhere; 2) foreign fighters, largely a question of border security; 3) the effect of ISIS on other groups (e.g Boko Haram); and finally 4) the war IS is waging in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere.

Kilcullen argues we need to go in hard, militarily on IS with different rules of engagement. He writes, 'this is a case when the job will become much harder, require much more lethal force and do more harm as time goes on: we have to go in hard, no, or we'll end up having to go in harder, and potentially on a much larger scale, later - or accept defeat' (p80). There does not seem much political will in the West for following this advice, but I imagine there are many politicians, military leaders and strategists who have read this Essay and are contemplating their next move.

Having absorbed this Essay, Kilcullen answered many of my questions, but also opened my mind to many more. It will be interesting to see how it plays out, but in the meantime things will get a lot worse before they get better. We will wait and see, which unfortunately may be the worst thing we can do.

Also included was correspondence related to the previous Quarterly Essay, QE57 Dear Life by Karen Hitchcock.

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Arsenic and Old Lace, Revisited

In January 2015 I read and reviewed Caroline Overington's Last Woman Hanged (2014), the true crime story of convicted murderer Louisa Collins. I greatly enjoyed the story of the legal battles to convict Collins and the insights into Australia's judicial history.

Historian and genealogist Carol Baxter has published her own account of the trials and execution of Louisa Collins in Black Widow (2015). I attended Baxter's book launch on 10 June and heard her speak about the impressive research she had done to uncover the story and her interest in this part of Australian history. Not only did she mine the archives and comprehensively scour news reports and transcripts, but she also sought expert advice on colonial law to confirm her understanding of the court proceedings in the context of the time in which they occurred.

Black Widow unfolds like a murder mystery, starting with Collins illness and death. If the reader was unaware of Louisa Collins fate, the court room dramas of two inquests and four trials would leave the reader anxious as to whether or not she would be convicted. At the book launch Baxter was keen to ensure she did not give too much away so that the reader would find out for themselves that Collins was convicted and sentenced to hang.

The focus on Collins' legal battles is extremely interesting. Against the backdrop of state politics, the rising women's movement, and the overseas horror of the Jack the Ripper murders, the Collins' case is of historical significance. Baxter compares the public sentiment towards Collins as that of Lindy Chamberlain in more recent times, which was an interesting parallel.

Originally to be called The Lucretia Borgia of Botany Bay, publication of Black Widow was delayed and the title changed when Overington's book was published first. The six month gap between the books has allowed for each to be assessed independently, but also compared where required.

The similarities between the Overington and Baxter books are obvious - both concern the same case and have used much of the same primary sources for their research. I preferred Baxter's writing style to Overington and enjoyed the way in which the story unfolded in Black Widow. However, I do not share Baxter's conclusion that Collins committed these murders beyond reasonable doubt. Overington presented compelling evidence of other means of arsenic poisoning and pokes so many holes in the case that it I remain unconvinced of her guilt.

Baxter considers Collins to be 'Australia's first serial killer' but I am not convinced. Firstly, how many deaths does one need to be responsible for in order to be a serial killer?  Even if she did kill both of her husbands, I would have thought two murders does not a serial killer make.

To be convicted of murder there needs to be both actus reus (the guilty act) and mens rea (the guilty mind). With the death of her first husband, Charles Andrews, there is a motive for murder (to be free to be with Collins) but the murderous act is largely circumstantial. With the death of her second husband, again there is circumstantial evidence of the guilty act, but what is the motive?

Regardless of whether or not she actually committed these crimes, the legal case against Collins was fundamentally flawed and the fact that she had three hung juries before conviction is an unprecedented abuse of the legal system.

I am happy to have read both these books and would recommend them both... although I would encourage a gap between reading so as to enjoy each independently.

My review of Overington's Last Woman Hanged is also on this blog, as is a summary of Overington's session at the Sydney Writers' Festival on capital punishment.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

A Trip to Italy

Watching news from this year's Cannes Film Festival, I was intrigued by a new Todd Haynes film staring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara. Carol (2015) is based on a book by Patricia Highsmith, published first in 1952 as The Price of Salt under pseudonym Claire Morgan. So I started combing my bookshelves to see whether I had this in my collection. Instead I found The Talented Mr Ripley (1955) which I immediately started to read and could not put down.

Tom Ripley is a small time scammer living in New York. He is rather unhappy and unsettled, with no real friends or employment. One day he is approached by Mr Herbert Greenleaf, owner of a shipping company, who wants Ripley to travel to Mongibello  Italy to persuade Greenleaf's son Dickie to return to America. Ripley has only a passing acquaintance with Dickie but is keen to be funded to travel to Europe.

In Italy, Ripley meets Dickie, befriends him and explains the errand he is on for Dickie's father. Dickie is happy in Italy - painting, swimming, and spending lazy afternoons drinking with his friend Marge Sherwood. Ripley quickly immerses himself in Dickie's world, much to the dismay of Marge and eventually Dickie himself.

Things turn sour and, when Ripley feels Dickie is about to unfriend him,  Ripley kills Dickie on a boating trip. He then assumes Dickie's identity, moves to Rome, living off the regular cheques sent from Dickie's trust fund, and cutting off ties with Marge and others in Mongibello.

Ripley, as Dickie, then has to hide away from people in his old life and is constantly afraid of being discovered. When the police begin to try and track down Dickie, Ripley shifts between being himself and pretending to be Dickie. It is a high stakes game he is playing, as the police begin to suspect Dickie has been involved in criminal behaviour or has killed himself.

The novel quickens pace as Ripley struggles to stay ahead of the police, Dickie's friends and family, and his own paranoia. Will he be caught? Will he inadvertently give himself away?

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the complex character Highsmith has created. Ripley is not just a common sociopath. He loves art, literature and language. He longs to fit in, but he is uncomfortable in his own skin and wants to be someone else. He is gay, but in a time when this was not accepted, he cannot be himself. He longs to be loved, if not as Ripley then as someone else, even though he knows he can never really escape being Tom Ripley.

In 1999 Anthony Minghella adapted this novel for the screen in a beautiful, critically acclaimed movie staring Matt Damon as Ripley, Gwyneth Paltrow as Marge and Judd Law as Dickie. I have not seen that film since it came out, but I remember it for its beautiful scenery and compelling performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman (as Freddie Miles) and Cate Blanchett (as Meredith Logue - who does not appear in the book). I will have to watch this again now that I have read the book to see whether it matched my memory. Now that I have traveled to Italy, I am keen to see it again and be reminded of the places I have been.

Highsmith continued the Ripley tale in a series of novels, known as the Ripliad:

  • Ripley Under Ground (1970)
  • Ripley's Game (1974)
  • The Boy Who Followed Ripley (1980)
  • Ripley Under Water (1991)
It will be interesting to see how Ripley has fared over many years and how Highsmith has written this character over almost forty years.