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:

Saturday, 3 September 2016

The Trouble with Harry

I love Harry Potter. J K Rowling is a genius and the wizarding world she created has given me and millions of readers so much joy over so many years. I have read all the Potter books many times, seen the films, played the video games, spent far too many hours dueling in Pottermore, had my photo taken at Platform 9 3/4 in London, and been sorted into Ravenclaw. Yes, I love Harry Potter.

So naturally I was ecstatic to hear that Rowling had a new story to tell, the eighth story which takes up 19 years later featuring Harry Potter as an adult. This new story would be written as a play and launched at the same time as it premiered in London's West End. Keen to return to Hogwarts, I purchased Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (2016) and boarded the Hogwarts Express.

In many respects it is a journey I wish I had not taken. While I loved being back in familiar places with characters I love, this play did not work for me. I don't want to spoil the plot, but essentially this story is about the children of Ron, Hermione, Harry, Draco and others and their adventures. There are familiar faces (Hagrid, McGonagall etc), devices (floo powder, spells etc) and settings (Hogwarts, Privett Drive). But in some respects this is a weakness - the story should have moved on, away from the past into something new.

It is interesting to see Harry as a forty year old father, but there were so many things that annoyed me. Ron comes across as a total buffoon, and while he was never the sharpest tool in the shed, here he is an absolute idiot. I had imagined Hermione would have had a more glittering career and chosen someone other than Ron to be her life partner. But it is good to see them roughly the same age as me, grappling with life in the way that many muggles do.

It is important to note that Rowling crafted the story, but Jack Thorne wrote the play, and I think it is lacking Rowling's gift for language.  As a result, in some places it sounds like poorly written fan fiction. There are some twee conversations between father and son that lacked conviction.

However it was intriguing to read the play and imagine how in they would stage it. There are so many scenes, special effects moments, and quick costume changes. If staged well, it will be an absolutely magical night of theatre (or two as it is a five-hour play told in two parts). Not that I will ever get to see it... even though I will be in London next year, the tickets are already sold out!

Perhaps I should have known better. At the end of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (2007) Rowling wrote an epilogue featuring Ron, Harry and Hermione 19 years after the events in the book. They have gathered at Kings Cross to send their children off to Hogwarts. At the time, when I read the epilogue, I felt betrayed. I didn't want to be told what happened to them, but rather to imagine them as forever young or come up with my own postscript. I read that book as I travelled the Trans-Siberian railway and when I got to that part I almost chucked it out the window into the Gobi Desert!

I will always love Harry Potter. I just prefer to leave him as he was, the Boy who Lived.