Saturday, 31 December 2016

Black Lives Matter

I thoroughly enjoyed the latest Quarterly Essay (QE64) by journalist Stan Grant. The Australian Dream - Blood, History and Becoming (2016) is a powerful reflection on the place of indigenous people in the history of Australia. In the wake of the recent inquiry into abuses at the Don Dale centre, the attempts by the government to overturn sections of the Racial Discrimination Act, and the hounding of Adam Goodes, this is timely and important essay, which should be essential reading for all Australians.

Grant's essay begins with "The Speech", a presentation he gave at the IQ2 debate in Sydney in late 2015. The transcript of this speech makes up the first chapter of this essay. It is a remarkable speech, but far more potent when viewed as spoken by the man himself when it was "unrehearsed and unscripted".

Following the speech, the video of his address went viral on social media. It attracted commentators and critics. But more importantly it made Grant think seriously about his aboriginality and the place of his people in modern Australia. The result is this finely crafted essay.

Taking us back to the invasion and colonisation of Australia, Grant explores the dark history of the way in which indigenous people were brutalised over decades - from massacres and removal from land, to the stolen generations and interventions of modern times. He compares the indigenous experience to one of new migrants carving out a place for themselves in colonial society.

Grant also shares a history not often told, one of economic engagement, ingenuity and self-actualisation. He talks of a growing indigenous middle class, in which talented, well-educated, aboriginal people are making the most of their skills to define their own Australian dream:

The sacrifice and resilience of our forebears has created a burgeoning indigenous middle class: confident, self-assured. They are redefining what it is to be indigenous … the grandchildren of people who emerged from oppressive Aboriginal missions in a segregated Australia are as at home on the streets of New York as Dubbo.
Grant is someone who is well aware of his own privilege. But he is angered by the requirements of indigenous Australians to decide whether they will be mainstream or black - as if someone has the right to determine who is and is not indigenous and that these two identities are mutually exclusive.

I learned a lot from Grant's essay and look forward to reading more of his work. His book Talking to My Country (2016)  was published earlier this year. I also heard Grant speak at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas when he introduced Alicia Garza to talk about Black Lives Matter, where I recall him questioning the very notion that black lives matter was a dangerous idea. He is currently the Indigenous Affairs reporter for ABC News. I look forward to seeing what comes next from Stan Grant.

Included in this essay is correspondence related to the previous Quarterly Essay (QE62) Enemy Within.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

The Half-Life of Society

This week I attended the Sydney Theatre Company's production of Speed-The-Plow, directed by Andrew Upton. I had no real expectations of the play, knowing only that it was written by David Mamet and has previously starred Madonna and more recently Lindsay Lohan.

Speed-the-Plow is a three act play that spans 24 hours in the life of a 1980s Hollywood film producer. Bobby Gould has just been promoted to head of production at the studio. His office is currently being renovated - leading to a stark set of a half painted suite, minimal furniture and many boxes. He is reading through a stack of manuscripts when Charlie Fox bursts into his office. Fox has been approached by a big actor wanting to star in a prison movie project that Fox had pitched some time ago. The actor has given Fox 24 hours to secure a green light from the studio. Gould and Fox are gleeful when they think about all the money they can make as co-producers of the film and its inevitable sequels. Problem is that Gould can't approve a film of this budget without the approval of his boss, who won't be available until tomorrow.

Enter Karen, the temporary secretary. Fox bets Gould $500 that he can't get Karen to be interested in him. Gould accepts the wager and approaches Karen - would she mind reading through a literary novel and assess its suitability for the screen? The novel is called The Bridge or Radiation and the Half-Life of Society. Gould has no intention of making the film, but if Karen can read it and stop by his home tonight with a précis, then perhaps he has the chance of winning the bet.

The second act is set at Gould's home, presumably some fashionable pad with tremendous views. Karen and Gould sit on the floor, glass of wine in hand, as she tells him about how wonderful the book is. Byrne shines in this scene as she convinces Gould of this book's merits.  The final act is the next morning, back at Gould's office. He has completely changed following his evening with Karen and has some news to share with his old friend Fox.

Damon Herriman plays Gould convincingly. He is a versatile actor who undergoes a complete transformation in the span of 90 minutes - from brash to indecisive, smarmy to haunted. Lachy Hulme is a bold Fox, injecting humour and banter then becoming frustrated and aggressive. The two men play well off each other, and their role reversal between acts one and three is well done.

Karen is played by Rose Byrne, an Australian actress best known for her work in American television (Damages) and film (Bridesmaids, Spy, X-Men). It is her face on the poster and her name that will draw the crowds, despite this play relying on three strong performances. I like Rose Byrne and I thought she was quite good in this play, moving from clumsy to coy to confident.

The play itself is rather dated. It is a satire of the Hollywood movie machine that endlessly produces blockbuster sequels, and was undoubtedly seen as more risqué in the late 1980s. Today it seems rather shallow and void of any urgency. I am not sure why it was chosen for revival, other than to provide a vehicle for Rose Byrne to tread the boards in Sydney. It also felt like it should have been staged in a smaller theatre, as the set took up only a portion of the stage and could have been more contained.

Ultimately, I enjoyed my night at the theatre but would not consider this a must-see. I much preferred my previous trips to STC to see The Wharf Revue, All My Sons,  King Lear, and The Present.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Life as you know it...

In my post US election funk, I found it hard to engage with any new book - picking up and putting down several novels, without the ability to connect with any of them. I read copious amounts of articles on the aftermath, all of which have culminated in my view that 2016 has been the year that the world has gone to hell in a handbasket. Good thing I love dystopian fiction, as I fear dystopia is going global soon.

But then I found Joan Didion. Her remarkable book The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) has given me the reboot I need to get out of my funk and engage with life again.

In late 2003, Joan Didion and her husband of forty years John Gregory Dunne visited their adult daughter Quintana in a New York hospital. Several days earlier Quintana had suddenly collapsed and was placed on life support. Her parents returned home, sat down to dinner, and Dunne suffered a massive heart attack and died. Suddenly widowed and trying to care for her only child, Didion tries to make sense of what has happened to her family. This book documents her first year of widowhood, and how she comes to terms with her loss.

Repeated throughout this memoir is a recurrent phrase:
Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.
This ordinary instant is timeless - and Didion returns to the moment when her husband had his heart attack repeatedly. Could he have been saved? Did he know it was going to happen? If they had made different decisions in the years and months before - an alternate holiday, an overseas posting, a different place to live - would the outcome have been different?

Almost twenty years earlier John had an angioplasty which saved his life. John has spent the years after believing he would die from a cardiac event, while Joan viewed the intervention as a permanent fix to a temporary problem.

I loved how she described marriage and the nature of relationships. The critical eye she turns on herself as she tries to make sense of her situation. She writes beautifully about self-pity and the notion of grief as something that should be handled quickly and quietly. She describes it thus:
The very language we use when we think about self-pity betrays the deep abhorrence in which we hold it: self-pity is feeling sorry for yourself, self-pity is thumb-sucking, self-pity is boo hoo poor me, self-pity is the condition in which those feeling sorry for themselves indulge or even wallow. Self-pity remains the most common and the most universally reviled of our character defects, its pestilential destructiveness accepted as given. (p193)
There were passages that made me think of those I have lost - my father, my grandparents - and my struggle to see them as gone. She talks about coming home, in the months after John has passed, desperate to tell him some piece of news:
I am dropping my keys on the table inside the door before I fully remember. There is no one to hear his news, nowhere to go with the unmade plan, the uncompleted thought. There is no one to agree, disagree, talk back. (p195). 
Each person grieves for those they love in their own way. Didion chose to channel hers into this memoir. I came to her book without expectation. Reading it made me feel slightly like a voyeur in someone else's tragedy. But the book didn't feel tragic to me. It was a wondrous example of self-reflection, a critical gaze in a ghastly time, an honest attempt at sense-making.

It is strange to think that this memoir has made me feel more hopeful and positive, but it has somehow. And that is really magical.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Random Reads (13/11/16)

This has been the worst week I have had in a long time. Like many people I had lulled myself into believing that hope would triumph over hate; that the voters' remorse expressed after Brexit would encourage a greater voter turnout; that this long, bitterly divisive campaign would end in a celebration of the shattering of the glass ceiling and the building of bridges not walls. But alas, hate won.

As a consequence much of my reading this week has been a postmortem. Some of the highlights are:
  • An American Tragedy by David Remnick in the New Yorker wrote about the despair felt by those who did not vote for Trump. Remnick writes "That the electorate has, in its plurality, decided to live in Trump’s world of vanity, hate, arrogance, untruth, and recklessness, his disdain for democratic norms, is a fact that will lead, inevitably, to all manner of national decline and suffering." 
  • Economist Paul Krugman wrote about The Economic Fallout for the New York Times. He writes "under any circumstances, putting an irresponsible, ignorant man who takes his advice from all the wrong people in charge of the nation would be very bad news." He predicts the Federal Reserve will come under increased pressure and that a global recession is now looming.
  • In The Guardian there was an article by Jonathan Freedland called "The US has elected its most dangerous leader. We all have plenty to fear." Freedland pulls no punches calling Trump "an unstable bigot, sexual predator and compulsive liar." He puts the election of Trump in a  global context and expresses concern for minorities in America.
  • Sarah Churchwell writes "Hillary Clinton didn't fail us. We failed her" in The Guardian. This is a great article about misogyny in America, as Chuchwell picks apart what happened to Clinton and links it back to fiction about women in politics. 
  • I also read an article that was published back in May 2016. Andrew Sullivan wrote for New York Magazine "America has never been so ripe for Tyranny" in which he predicted the election of Trump. I loved this article as Sullivan goes back to Plato's Republic and sees the rise of a populist showman in response to too much democracy. This brilliant article concludes with an unheeded warning:  For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.

Naomi Klein receiving Sydney Peace prize
from Prof Gillian Triggs
On Friday 11 November I had the pleasure of attending the Sydney Peace Prize presentation at Sydney Town Hall. The prize was awarded to Naomi Klein for her work on the environment. Klein spoke about the election of Trump and what it could mean for the planet - especially given that he is surrounded by climate change deniers. Klein's message was one of hope - of small acts of resistance and heroism, of listening to our indigenous peoples who have cared for the land for centuries, and of caring for our planet.

In the room were other heroes of mine: Aboriginal activist Senator Pat Dodson introduced Klein, and Human Rights Commissioner Professor Gillian Triggs, a woman of tremendous conviction and integrity, presented Klein with the award. Triggs received a standing ovation from the sell-out crowd.  The video of this event is now on YouTube and it is well worth a watch.

So despite the crappy week, I will choose optimism over fear. I will continue to support causes I believe in and to stand up for the disadvantaged. I will believe in a better America in years to come. 

Note: I had written much of this a week ago with the intention of publishing on 13 Nov. That I hadn't actually uploaded this post speaks to the malaise I have felt. Will post despite the lateness and post something happier next.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

The End of the Road

It's election day in America. Finally, the citizens can go to the poll, cast their votes, and thereby put an end to the longest, most bitter, divisive and contemptuous campaign in American history. Xenophobia, racism, bigotry, misogyny and hatred have been the pervasive narrative of this campaign, at least on the Republican side. I hope that once the votes are counted, Clinton will win and she will bring the country together again. 

As a political scientist, I have a keen interest in American politics and I freely admit I am rooting for Hillary Rodham Clinton. Not only is she the most experienced person ever to run for office, she will make history as the first woman to be elected to the highest office in the land. 

Trump is an embarrassment - to the Republican party and to America. How he managed to become the Republican candidate leaves many shaking their heads, and the party itself will need a serious postmortem. Of course... frighteningly, he still could win.

The latest Quarterly Essay (QE63) is Enemy Within - American Politics in the Time of Trump by Don Watson. In this Essay, Watson heads to middle America - to Wisconsin - in an attempt to understand the Trump phenomena and the disenfranchisement of many voters. Here the gap between rich and poor is most pronounced with high levels of child poverty, lack of affordable health care, and incarceration. This lack of equity is of great interest to me (see The Spirit Level) and something that desperately needs addressing by the American government. 
Watson explores how the two parties are deeply divided. Republicans have the alt-right and a more centrist view. Likewise the Democrats have Clinton liberals and Sanders left wing social democrats. Neither party is united and the two party system is deeply flawed.

I always enjoy Watson's writing style, and the travel memoir passages are enjoyable. But, I felt like there was nothing new here in terms of political commentary, although perhaps I am over-read on this subject and others would not feel the same. 

So America, Vote Wisely!

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Rage Against the Machine

I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!

Having just finished Clementine Ford's Fight Like A Girl (2016) I feel angry at the crap women have to put up with everyday. I have felt the pressure to look and act a certain way, been asked about my fertility in a job interview, been paid less than a less qualified man for doing the same job, had men explain things to me, not been heard in meetings, been afraid, attacked, judged and ignored.  Ford's book was instantly relatable on many levels.

Part memoir and part manifesto, Ford writes about her childhood eating disorders, her struggles with mental health and body image, her sexual experiences, her abortions and her battles with online trolls. I found her writing humourous, readable, bold and brave. She holds nothing back, even though she knows she is arming those who seek to destroy her.

What I liked about Ford's book was her wit and the brashness of her language. Ford's voice comes through loud and clear as she says it like she sees it. I found many of her arguments compelling, particularly her exposure of the hypocrisy of the Not All Men and the White Ribbon movement (when sports clubs talk about the problem of violence against women then defend their players on charges of assault) and the media response to the Jill Meagher murder while ignoring the deaths of aboriginal women.  I also enjoyed her pop culture references (shout outs to Leslie Snope and Jessica Jones among others). I came away with a better understanding of Ford and what motivates her.

But I was frustrated by Fight Like a Girl too. First, the book is in need of a good edit as there are far too many passages that repeat themselves time and again (like references to the sea of man-baby tears). Her arguments would have been more compelling if the writing was sharper. More than that, I was frustrated by the lack of a clear call to arms. Ford urges "It's okay to be angry" - which is great. I get that and I am angry. But now what?  Other than getting mad what do we do with our rage? This is not the love letter to girls she thinks it is.

Ultimately, there isn't anything new here. I am glad I read Ford, but in terms of feminist memoir and manifesto, I much prefer the insight and wisdom of Roxane Gay and Gloria Steinem.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Random Reads (30/10/16)

In the lead up to the US Election and with Hallowe'en just around the corner, I have been reading some spooky stuff lately.

The tragic accident at Dreamworld in which four people died on a seemingly tame ride has lead the news all week. The event itself was horrific, but the handling of the aftermath by the company has been woeful. From seeking to reopen the park quickly (while still a crime scene), to the allocation of large bonuses to the executive, and the fact that CEO Deborah Thomas didn't know whether or not families had been contacted, resulted in a massive PR disaster. Advertising guru Dee Madigan penned an interesting article for the Guardian about how this crisis was managed so poorly.

New Yorker magazine has an article by Jeffrey Toobin about Justice Clarence Thomas, who has just served 25 years on the US Supreme Court. Toobin argues that Thomas has served on the fringes of the Court, having not authored landmark opinions on important cases.  I must admit I haven't thought much about Thomas in recent years, but I remember well his confirmation hearings in 1991 and the accusations of sexual harassment by Anita Hill. I was outraged at the treatment of Hill and by Thomas' eventual appointment. I highly recommend Toni Morrison's collection of essays Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power (1992) about this controversy. 

The World Economic Forum has published its's Global Gender Gap Report 2016 this week. Australia has moved down the rankings to 46th place (behind all of Europe, Scandinavia, New Zealand (9th)) so that we are now substantially lagging behind countries like Bolivia (23rd), Rwanda (5th), South Africa (15th) and elsewhere. Ten years ago we were 15th, so what has happened (or what has not being happening)?  Well, we have not done much to close the wage gap, reverse the decline in women's participation (through child care and paid parental leave), or to increase women in senior positions. While we have women attending university at equal numbers to men, once women hit the workforce they are disadvantaged. With our current lack of political will, we will likely continue to fall further as more countries realise the empowerment of women is the key to economic prosperity.

Finally, I love the article in the Atlantic this week by Siddharta Mahanta "Women in Movies Running in Heels" which uses the new movie Inferno as a catalyst for discussing how impractical it is for women in action films to run around in heels. Pointing to Jurassic World and other films in which women have to outrun dinosaurs, bullets or assassins in impractical footwear, Mahanta argues that if there had been more women involved in the production of blockbuster films women would likely be kicking butt in sensible shoes. Here, here!

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Booker Prize 2016

The winner of the Man Booker Prize was announced yesterday. In the lead up to the announcement there was a lot of hype that the prize would go to the bookies' favourite, Canadian author Madeleine Thien for her book Do Not Say We Have Nothing. The other front runner was Graeme Macrae Burnet for His Bloody Project, which has seen a dramatic increase in book sales since the shortlist was announced.

Ultimately the prize would go to Paul Beatty for his novel The Sellout. This is the first time an American author has won the Booker prize.

The Sellout is a satirical novel about a young black man who ends up in the Supreme Court having to defend himself for having reinstated slavery and segregation in his hometown of Dickens, California.

As a commentary on race relations in America, it seems like a clever choice for the Booker this year. From what I hear it is an outrageously funny book, and I look forward to reading this novel when I whittle down my to be read pile.

While I am saddened that His Bloody Project did not win, I am pleased that the Booker has increased the profile of this brilliant little novel.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Strike Back

The third instalment of Robert Galbraith's crime novel series, Career of Evil (2015), sees private detective Cormoran Strike and his trusty sidekick Robin Ellacott hit the streets on the trail of a serial killer.

Hot on the heels of their last adventure, Strike's detective agency is doing well with many clients keen to use the services of the man who solved the Lula Landry and Owen Quine cases.

This novel begins with Robin receiving a box by courier which contains a body part - so they have to find out who the limb belongs to as well as who the sender is. Strike has a handful of suspects in mind - all men from his past with a violent streak and a reason for targeting Strike.

As Strike and Robin try to rule out each of these potential killers, the killer is also watching their every move. To complicate things further, Robin is in the midst of planning her wedding and Strike is trying to decide if he really wants to date the glamorous but dull Elin.

There is a lot of suspense in this page-turner, with twists and turns along the way. But what I really loved about this book was that we learned more about the backstory of both Strike and Ellacott. Things that have been hinted at in the past are fleshed out in more detail, about Strike's groupie mother, his time in the military and his injury.

More importantly, we learn about Robin - her ambitions and her history - and she becomes a more complete character. She evolves in this novel to become Strike's partner in this business - on stake outs, interviewing potential witnesses and taking on a much more active role. I can't wait to see what she gets up to next.

I know JK Rowling has been extremely busy with the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child play, the Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them movie, and more. But I do hope she slips into her Galbraith skin and pens the next novel soon.

In the meantime, the BBC is producing a series of Cormoran Strike mysteries for broadcast in late 2017. Should be great!

My review of Galbraith's The Cuckoo's Calling (2013) and The Silkworm (2014) are available on this blog.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Random Reads (16/10/16)

This week there has been so much in the news about Donald Trump and his attitude and behaviour against women that it has been almost overwhelming. As a feminist with a keen interest in political science, I have watched the events of the week unfold with anger and disappointment. Anger at the way in which Trump has defended himself (boys being boys, locker room banter) and disappointment at the way in which the Republican party has now responded. So many Republicans are now trying to distance themselves from Trump by saying they have daughters or granddaughters - as if they wouldn't know his behaviour was wrong if they didn't have female relations!

The thing is, none of this is new. The accusations against Trump span decades and his misogyny is just another element to a man who is fundamentally unfit to be President. Surely, the Republican Party would have vetted him before choosing him as their nominee. Surely, they would have looked for all the skeletons in all the closets and made sure there was nothing that would damage his (their) reputation. More likely it is a case of wilful blindness - they knew all about his behaviour and didn't see anything wrong with it at the time.

The good news is that Hillary will most likely become President. The Republicans will spend the next four years (a least) trying to figure out what they stand for and hopefully a leader will emerge who can see that divisive, anti-immigration, anti-women, politics is not what is needed to face the challenges in the world.

I have read some interesting articles this week about the whole Trump thing, including:
  • Trump Goes to War by Molly Ball in the Atlantic reveals how the 'unshackled' Trump is now that Republicans have abandoned him.
  • Burning Down The House by Timothy Egan in the New York Times, a powerful opinion piece on Trump's behaviour towards women.
  • The Quiet Tragedy of Melania Trump by Emily Jane Fox in Vanity Fair. This is an interesting article about Melania and what she has had to put up with during her marriage. 
The triumph of the week was Michelle Obama's passionate, articulate smack down of Donald Trump. She spoke so well about Trump's misogyny and it's impact on women and men. There is a great article, Michelle Obama Schools Donald Trump by Maureen O'Dowd in the New York Times. If you haven't seen it, you can watch it on Youtube (below).

Meanwhile, her husband penned an interesting article for the Economist called The Way Ahead. In this article, President Barack Obama attempts to answer the question 'what is happening in the American political system?'. He makes a passionate case for restoring economic dynamism to build a stronger economy through jobs and growth. 

In other news, the new Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres (former Prime Minister of Portugal) was appointed. I must admit I was disappointed that Helen Clark was not selected.  Francoise Girard wrote an excellent blog post for Ms Magazine called, We Need a Feminist Secretary-General at the United Nations, which looks at Guterres' record on women's issues. We will have to wait and see if he lives up to his promise.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Random Reads (09/10/16)

So this week there has been a LOT of hoo-ha about the alleged outing of Elena Ferrante. For those living in caves or just defrosted from cryogenics, Elena Ferrante is the nom-de-plume of an Italian writer of the Neapolitan novels which have taken the world by storm.

Ferrante Fever hit fever pitch this week when Italian journalist Claudio Gatti claimed to have found the real author, a translator who has come into some money via an Italian publisher. Gatti's desire to reveal Ferrante's identity seems to come from a place of vindictiveness, not idle curiousity, and outing her has  caused outrage and bemusement.

There are a lot of interesting articles about this around the interweb this week.
  • British author Jeanette Winterson wrote about The Malice and Sexism behind the 'Unmasking" of Elena Ferrante for the Guardian. In her fascinating article, she calls the outing a 'deliberately malicious act'.
  • Likewise, Noreen Malone in a New York Magazine article writes that Gatti's logic has an 'unfortunate whiff of 'she was asking for it'". Malone concludes that perhaps we are disappointed in who Ferrante might actually be - she is an ordinary woman and not 'a literary or feminist pinup'.  
  • Tom Geue wrote in the Conversation about how we should respect Ferrante's anonymity. 
  • Mary Schmich from the Chicago Tribune wrote about how Gatti has spoiled the fun of fiction lovers. She writes 'I prefer to read fiction for what's on the page, not for who's on the book jacket.' - here, here.
  • Rebecca Falkoff of the Guardian wrote about the differences in reception of Ferrante's work in Italy and translated texts around the world. While not specifically on the outing of the author, it makes for an interesting read about gender and authorship.

I liked that we didn't know who Ferrante is. She has the right to privacy and it is not in the public interest to know who she really is. She has given us her brilliant work, and that should be enough. We know her as she wants us to know her. As far as I am concerned, Ferrante is still a mystery. 

So many of my favourite authors wrote under a pen-name - George Eliot; George Sand, Karen Blixen, Robert Galbraith - all of them women seeking to find a safe creative outlet. Leave them alone and let them write!

In other news.... Hillary Clinton rides high after her debate triumph, and Donald Trump continues to win the hearts and minds of women everywhere with his love of the fairer sex. He loves women so much he cannot help kissing beautiful women and grabbing at them. If we needed more evidence of his absolute unfitness to be president, we got it in the form of a 'sex tape' of sorts when a recording of his misogyny was released to the press. Some of the more enlightening commentary comes from:
  • Susan Matthews at Slate writes about Trump's lack of a filter.
  • Jessica Valenti at the Guardian writes that Trump represents 'just how jevenile and ridiculous America is when it comes to the way we think about women and leadership' 
  • Nicholas Kristoff has written a fascinating piece, Donald Trump Groper in Chief, for the New York Times about his dealings with a couple in the 1990s. 
  • Finally, the New York Times Editorial Board has written a piece on The Sleaziness of Donald Trump, which calls out high profile Republicans - Paul Ryan, Mike Pence etc - and asks why they continue to stand by such a dirtbag.
I reckon Trump's biggest problem is his sense of entitlement. As a wealthy, privileged white guy, he is used to getting his own way in business and in life. He has demeaning views that objectify and alienate women. He is not fit to be President of anything.

Huw Parkinson prepared this mashup for ABC's Insiders, which is genius:

Finally, one of the best things I have seen on the internet this week if the Pantsuit Flashmob for Hillary. Enjoy!

Monday, 3 October 2016

A Crofter's Tale

In August 1869, seventeen year old crofter Roderick Macrae committed a ghastly murder, killing three people in the tiny Scottish community of Culduie in Ross-shire. Arrested and imprisoned in Inverness awaiting trial, Macrae documents the events that lead up to the crime for his lawyer Andrew Sinclair.

Macrae's memoir is the underpinning of His Bloody Project (2015) by his ancestor Graeme Macrae Burnet, who purports to have uncovered the manuscript while investigating his genealogy in Western Scotland.

His Bloody Project is a marvellous concoction told in a series of documents. In addition to Macrae's memoir, there are witness statements from neighbours, autopsy reports, media coverage from the trial, and an extract from J Bruce Thompson's posthumous reporting of his meeting with Macrae.

The novel is of course fictional, but Burnet writes in such a way that you are convinced it is all true. He finds an authentic voice and crafts an intricate and compelling tale. It is known from the opening lines that Macrae committed the crime, but what unfurls is a whydunnit - what caused young Roddy to murder and what was his mental state?

Roderick Macrae is an unreliable narrator, but then again so are all the witnesses and doctors and others whose documents have been compiled.  As a reader I became engrossed in this story, feeling the Macrae's were hard done by, and rooting for Roddy to be spared the gallows.

Burnet has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize (which is how this book came to my attention) and I will be delighted if he wins.

There are so many things I loved about this novel - its structure made up from various accounts; the convincing depiction of class structure (crofters, landowners etc); the use of Scots dialect (there is a glossary hidden halfway through the book, but I relied on my resident Scotsman for translation); and the authenticity of the trial.

His Bloody Project brings to mind other novels that explore historical crimes like Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace (1996) and Hannah Kent's Burial Rites (2013), both of which are reviewed on this blog.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

Random Reads (02/10/16)

I read a lot of interesting things each week, but only tend to blog about the books. So I thought I might add a new blog segment every so often on the random reads I come across.

This week much of my attention has been on the US Presidential Debate. I watched it with great interest, and then spent far too many hours absorbed in the commentary. It was an amazing event - historic in that it was the first time a female candidate for US President featured in the debates, but more importantly because it was a masterclass by Clinton.

Some of the interesting commentary is:

  • Jonathan Mahler's article for the NY Times - I Muted Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton During the Debate. I Still Knew The Score  - which focussed on the body language of the candidates. Mahler covered many of the things I noticed while watching - Trump's hand gestures and facial expressions, Clinton's confidence.
  • Likewise, this article - Measured Clinton beats Bombastic Trump - explored the character of each candidate through their body language. I did take issue with this article where they stated that Clinton interrupted Trump - I think if they counted interruptions, they would find the ledger is stacked the other way.
  • My favourite coverage on the debate was NPR's Fact Check: First Presidential Debate - in which the transcript of the debate is annotated with fact checking by journalists. Reading this confirmed the outrageous lies of the Trump campaign.
  • I also watched a few comedians cover the debate, but none as sharply as Samantha Bee. Watch her Full Frontal analysis.

Of course the debate wasn't the only news this week. More importantly, Brangelina broke up, causing the internet to go into meltdown. 
  • Check out the Guardian's article on How Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt Defined the 21st Century Fame Machine - which speaks of the cult of celebrity and how it was cultivated by the couple.
  • My other favourite article in the Guardian is how Madame Tussauds has rearranged their waxworks to seperate the couple by a respectful distance. 
For something different, check out Vanity Fair's interview with legendary Canadian crooner Gordon Lightfoot. 

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The Booker Shortlist 2016

When the Booker prize longlist was announced in July, I noted in my blog post that there were only two books on it that I was really keen to read: The North Water by Ian Maguire and His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet.

As if I needed an excuse to visit a bookstore, I knew that the Burnet might be hard to find in Australia and nowhere seemed to have it stocked (some had never heard of it). In fact, there has been news that the publisher is having difficulty keeping up with demand.

So when I stumbled upon a single copy of His Bloody Project in a Canberra bookshop, I quickly bought it and began reading. I have not yet finished as I am taking it slowly to prolong my enjoyment. But I plan to pass it on to my mother in a few weeks who will find it of interest.

The Booker prize shortlist was recently revealed and it will come as no surprise that I am delighted that Graeme Macrae Burnet is on the list.

The shortlisted novels are:

  • The Sellout - Paul Beatty (US)
  • Hot Milk - Deborah Levy (UK)
  • His Bloody Project - Graeme Macrae Burnet (UK)
  • Eileen - Ottessa Moshfegh (US)
  • All That Man Is - David Szalay (Canada/UK)
  • Do Not Say We Have Nothing - Madeleine Thien (Canada)

There is no obvious winner now that major names like Coetzee and Kennedy are out. So perhaps His Bloody Project has a chance... Winners will be announced 25 October 2016.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Life and Death in a Small Town

On a whim I picked up a copy of Australian author Emily Maguire's novel An Isolated Incident (2016). This is a gripping thriller which exposes the dark truths of violence against women. It was such a good read that I found myself unable to put it down.

Set in Strathdee, a fictional town in the Riverina, which was once a stopover on the road from Sydney to Melbourne until the bypass was built and the town fell off the radar. The body of twenty-five year old Bella Michaels is discovered in a field, raped and brutalised. She was last seen leaving the local aged care home where she worked.

Bella's sister Chris is a local barmaid and sometimes prostitute. She is naturally devastated by the loss of her only sibling. Her grieving is made all the more difficult by the surge of media interest, gossiping locals, well meaning acquaintances, and the reappearance of her ex-husband Nate who she has never got over.

May Norman, a Sydney based journalist, writes click-bait stories for an online paper. She has been assigned to cover the murder and finds herself conflicted by her reporter's instincts and intrusion into the lives of those mourning Bella.

The book has an interesting structure with chapters alternating between Chris' first person narration, May's third person account, and articles May writes for her website. I really enjoyed the frank, unapologetic language, and the Australian voice which comes through in both these women and those around them. These are flawed characters, both self-destructive and troubled, but genuine and real.

This is a familiar story - a woman goes missing, is found dead, the media swarm and then lose interest, the police appeal for information and cross suspects off their list, marches take place, memorials are erected, the family grieves and then everyone moves on. But Maguire approaches this story in a new and interesting way.

The power of this book comes from Maguire's exploration of double standards women face (open sexuality, being the 'other woman', women who are 'asking for it') and society's blind eye to domestic violence. Throughout the book there are glimpses into family violence, where wife bashers are known to police and accepted as normal by neighbours. Everyone knows someone who is involved in domestic violence but no one acts. It is timely and necessary to keep domestic violence in the spotlight, and work to change attitudes. That a work of fiction can address this serious, complex issue in a compelling way, is a testament to Maguire's talents as a writer.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2016

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) took place last weekend (3-4 September 2016) and I attended eight sessions over the two days. FODI is an annual event run by the Sydney Opera House and The Ethics Centre.

As a frequent FODI goer, when this year's program was released I was slightly underwhelmed. The program seemed a bit blokey and not as dangerous as I would have liked. Perhaps hosting the All About Women Festival in March has seen a  shifting of the program with a few women who would be speaking at FODI, moving over to AAW. Normally there are multiple sessions competing for my attention, all taking pace at the same time. This year, I picked my eight sessions and did not feel I was missing out too much on other talks taking place at the same time.

Here is a summary of what I saw during my FODI:

Day One - Saturday 3 September 2016

Break a Rule a Day - Lionel Shriver
I was keen to hear Lionel Shriver speak as she is a bit of a mystery to me. I have never heard her interviewed or read much about her. I thoroughly enjoyed her novel about an American school shooting We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003) and have admired her writing. She is a prolific author of thirteen novels and while I have not yet read her latest novel, The Mandibles (2016),  about the collapse of America, I have read number of positive reviews. 
At FODI, Shriver sat down with Michael Williams to talk about being a libertarian in America, her opposition to a ridiculous tax system and her inability to vote for Clinton or Trump. Shriver isn't one for laws, rules or conventions. She spoke about being a cyclist and having to obey traffic rules, the thrill of jaywalking, and refusing to conform.
Michael Williams and Lionel Shriver

For all her talk about blind obedience to draconian rules, I didn't find her thinking overly controversial. It was an interesting discussion, but not really dangerous.

The Government We Deserve? - Annabel Crabb and David Marr

Two of my favourite journalists are Annabel Crabb and David Marr. No matter how many times I see them, they are always fresh, witty and intelligent. Both of them have written Quarterly Essays on the current leaders of our main political parties, and this session - after the first Parliamentary sitting week and around six weeks after the election results were known - was a timely discussion about the government we now have.

Like an old married couple, the two bantered and quipped about the rise and fall of fortunes of Malcolm Turnbull and Bill Shorten, the diabolical Senate, and current issues the government needs to (but probably won't address) such as refugees, climate change and marriage equality. The most dangerous idea from this session was David Marr's thought that Turnbull could cement his leadership and secure a long career as Prime Minister by challenging the hard right of his party and addressing the key issues that actually matter to Australians.

David Marr and Annabel Crabb
Closing the Modern Mind - AC Grayling
I love Professor AC Grayling, and I will attend him talk about anything. Last year he spoke about education, which is a particular interest of mine. This year he was talking about the 17th Century and the explosion of thinking that came from the likes of Descartes, Spinoza, Locke, Hobbes, Galileo and others.

Grayling spoke for much of the hour about how minds were opened during this period, and he didn't really get around to the modern mind closing until the questions at the end. His point was essentially that censorship

I didn't get a copy of his latest book The Age of Genius - the 17th Century and the Birth of the Modern Mind (2016). It looked very interesting but I still haven't got around to the Grayling I picked up last year, so I exercised restraint.

Why Black Lives Matter - Stan Grant and Alicia Garza
Stan Grant and Alicia Garza
This was the session I was most looking forward to, and I think the best one I saw at this year's festival. Alicia Garza is one of the founders of the American #BlackLivesMatter campaign, which grew in response to the killing of young black men like Treyvon Martin by police. She spoke for about 45 minutes about equality, racism and gun violence.

She spoke about casual racism, institutionalised disadvantage and white privilege. She was then interviewed by Stan Grant, journalist and author, and they spoke about Australia's indigenous people and their plight. I am keen to read Stan Grant's book Talking to My Country (2016) about being aboriginal in modern Australia.

This was an informative, powerful session, and a great way to end the first day of FODI.

Day Two - Sunday 4 September 2016

On a beautiful sunny morning, I headed back down to the Opera House for another day of great discussion.

Thatcher Made Me Laugh - Alexei Sayle
Richard Glover interviewed British comedian Alexei Sayle about the latest instalment of his memoir, Thatcher Stole My Trousers (2016).  They spoke about Sayle's upbringing in Liverpool, how he became a comedian, his time on The Young Ones, and the challenges of stand up. Sayle's family life was challenging, growing up with a hard to please Communist mother.
There were lots of laughs in this session, as would be expected. Glover asked an interesting question about dysfunctional families giving rise to comedians, to which Sayle agreed and spoke about the ability to control a room when your own life is out of control. This was an unusual session for FODI. Not so much a dangerous idea as comic relief. But it was a fun way to start the day.
Richard Glover and Alexei Sayle
The Propaganda Machine - Dee Madigan
Dee Madigan is an advertising guru, well known for her regular appearances on The Gruen Transfer. She has managed many political campaigns for the Labor party, including the Queensland state elections won by the relatively unknown Annastacia Palaszczuk, and the recent Northern Territory election which saw a record swing against the incumbent Country Liberals.

Madigan spoke about political advertising and showed examples of historical advertising (although her powerpoint was shocking). She spoke about the propaganda in the latest federal campaign (e.g. mediscare) and how it works. This was an interesting, humorous session about politics and advertising and it was great to learn from Madigan's experience.

Michael Williams and Dee Madigan

Mercy - Panel and Performance

The scales of justice at Mercy
The last session I attended was an absolute highlight. The topic was Mercy - and the intersection of compassion and the law.  It began with actors from the Bell Shakespeare performing some scenes from The Merchant of Venice - particularly those where Shylock seeks to get his pound of flesh and then is tricked by Portia and shown no mercy.  Then Jane Caro hosted a panel discussion about Shakespeare, mercy and modern times.

The panel included AC Grayling, feminist and Shakespeare scholar Germaine Greer, former High Court Justice Michael Kirby and Deng Adut, a former Sudanese child soldier who came to Australia as a refugee and is now a lawyer. They dissected Shakespeare's work and then talked about the lack of mercy in modern Australia - as evidenced through our stance on refugees, aboriginal children in custody and the like.

It was a fascinating way to bring this subject to life - smart, thought-provoking, and creative. I really enjoyed this and could have stayed longer with this session.

That was my FODI for 2016. Overall I felt it wasn't as strong as past events, but perhaps I didn't pick the most dangerous subjects. I didn't think there was enough to chose from and I find that there is a distinct lack of women speakers at the event (made up for by the All About Women Festival?).

There was a fair amount of controversy in other sessions, particularly as Andrew Bolt was speaking and a police presence was required to search attendees prior to entry. I didn't attend as I can't stand him and wouldn't pay money to hear his bile.

Normally I come home from FODI with a bag load of books. This year I only bought one - Philippe Legrain's Open World - the Truth about Globalisation (2016). I missed his session but am keen to read his book.

My previous festival experiences can be seen on this blog: