Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Public Interest

I had never heard of Sonya Voumard until the Stella Prize longlist was released in early February, but I was intrigued by the sound of her nominated book, so quickly borrowed it from my local library and read it. The Media and the Massacre (Port Arthur 1996-2016) is an investigation into the nature of journalism and the ethics involved in the hunt for a good story.

On 28 April 1996 a man drove to the Port Arthur historic site and opened fire on the tourists and workers, killing 35 and inflicting trauma on dozens more. At the time it was the world's worst civilian massacre by a lone gunman, ushering in an era of gun control. There would be few adults in Australia who would not recall where they were when they heard about the massacre.

Sonya Voumard is a former journalist turned academic, and this book arose from her doctoral thesis on the ethics of storytelling.  Her background gives her an acute understanding of what drives journalists in their work and the ethics they ascribe to. It also gave  her access to reporters and editors to interview for this work.

Voumard writes about how the media covered the massacre, at the time, in the aftermath and on anniversaries. She depicts the journalist's adrenalin-fueled quest to be best and first - first on the scene, first to file, first to get the best photos and best interviews - and the sometimes questionable tactics used to meet deadlines.

Much of Voumard's investigation centres on the best-selling book by Robert Wainwright and Paola Totaro, Born or Bred? Martin Bryant and the Making of a Mass Murderer (2010). This work began as a memoir by Carleen Bryant, mother of the perpetrator, who withdrew from participation in the project when she felt she would not be represented fairly. Wainwright and Totaro persevered, using Carleen's notes without consent thereby opening a legal and ethical can of worms. Voumard explores the breakdown of this relationship, with evidence from various sources, leaving the reader with the distinct view that the authors exploited Carleen and her naïveté about journalism and publishing.

There were other accounts, like Carol Altmann's After Port Arthur (2006) which explores the effects of the massacre that linger a decade later. Voumard also talks to many journalists and editors about the impact the story had on them - the trauma of covering the story and bearing witness to such a horrendous act  - and some had even left the profession.

Her interviews with Simon Longstaff about professional standards are fascinating. It was interesting how little redress is available to someone who has a complaint about the behaviour of journalists.

Importantly, this book is not about the massacre itself or the man who committed the crime. It is about ethics and journalism, and as a consumer of media it made me think about sensationalist news stories and the need to engage critically.

While I appreciated Voumard's thoughtful exploration of the ethical issues, particularly around the journalist and the subject, I felt rather flat when I finished wondering whether there is any hope for a profession that has become some depleted by the 24 hour news cycle and an erosion of standards. My hope is that this book is read by journalists and students of journalism and it causes some introspection and reflection on the integrity of their profession.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Down in the Holler

The cover of the book spoke to me. It is an "International Bestseller", having spent 28 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list (at time of posting) with boastful claims:
  • "You will not read a more important book about America" - Economist
  • "A great insight into Trump and Brexit" - Independent
  • "The political book of the year" - Sunday Times
So would JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) live up to expectations? 

Hell yeah! This is an important, timely memoir that helps to explain the ways in which poor white Americans have been disenfranchised and have consequently grown distrustful of institutions. Since finishing the book a few weeks ago, I have found myself frequently pondering the plight of Americans in the rust-belt.

In part, this is a tale of survival. Vance had a challenging childhood in Ohio - his mother was an addict, bringing an ever revolving door of father figures into the home to destabilise the family. Moving home frequently, Vance relied on his older sister and their grandmother, the outspoken Mamaw, to make them feel safe and loved. Against all odds Vance found a life for himself, first in the Marines, and later at Yale law school where he found a mentor and champion.

Vance uses his compelling personal narrative to address social, economic, cultural and political issues which have arisen and that the government seems ill-equipped to deal with. He describes Middletown Ohio as a small city where life revolved around the Armco steel works. Almost everyone in town was somehow affiliated with the company, and when the company declined, so too did the town. Poverty came when people lost their homes, or sold them at a loss, bringing with it a range of social issues - teen pregnancy, domestic violence, addiction, crime and welfare dependency.

The author talks about the lack of work ethic (characterised by laziness, disrespect and abandonment) while at the same time a culture of consumption in which people would rather buy the latest phone than spend their money on healthy food for their children. Some of the conditions he describes are squalid and unhealthy - like "Mountain Dew Mouth" in which people in Appalachia have such poor teeth because of the volume of soft drink consumed. Vance describes the learned helplessness of many who blame the government, immigrants and others for their woes, but doesn't let them off the hook, insisting they take responsibility for their own circumstances.

I have long been fascinated with Appalachia, having spent some time in the Blue Ridge Mountains many years ago. I also enjoyed the series Justified, set in Kentucky's hillbilly country, which explored many of these issues. Through Vance I have a greater understanding of the hillbilly kinship system - loyalty and honour are highly valued in this community. Vance is empathetic to his people and is proud of his heritage, even though he has moved out of the holler.

While I doubt Vance set out to write a book that provides "a great insight into Trump and Brexit", and certainly neither of these events are covered in the memoir, the timing of the publication is fortuitous. Many working class white voters in middle America yearn for days gone by, when manufacturing was big and people had jobs for life at the local factory or mine. They resent the Big City Cultural Elites of the knowledge economy, they resent losing their jobs to automation and outsourcing, and they resent the globalisation forces that are forever changing they way they live.

Issues of class and race are not unique to America and while reading this I could not help but draw parallels to Australia and the rise of right wing populism here. I also thought a lot about The Spirit Level (2009) and the argument that we need to actively build more equal societies. Unfortunately we still lack the political will to address the underlying issues. But eye-opening books like Hillbilly Elegy may make people pause and think about the world we want to live in. It has certainly been thought provoking for me.

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Who Do You Think You Are?

In 2010, Scottish actor Alan Cumming  was invited to be part of the BBC genealogy television show Who Do You Think You Are?  The show takes a celebrity and traces their family tree. Cumming was keen to explore the mystery of his maternal grandfather, war hero Tommy Darling, who died while serving as a British police officer in Malaya.

During the weeks and months that Cumming was filming this show, a mini-series and his recurring part on The Good Wife, another drama was unfolding. His estranged father Alex Cumming told him that Alan was not his son. At age 45, Cumming was suddenly in turmoil as he tries to make sense of his life. This sensemaking is the basis for his wonderful memoir Not My Father's Son (2014).

Cumming has avoided a celebrity memoir of glitz and glamour to tell the story of his upbringing.  His childhood was extremely difficult by his violent, philandering father, who physically and emotionally abused and belittled his children and undermined his wife. Cumming's mother Mary Darling countered this abuse with love, support and encouragement.

The memoir moves back and forth in time, from the 2010 filming of the documentary to Cumming's childhood on the Panmure Estate in Carnoustie, Scotland, and to various times in between. The exploration of the double mysteries - uncovering grandfather Tommy Darling and the surprise of Alex Cumming's bombshell - is a great narrative device.

While some of the memoir is quite dark, Cumming's wit, humility and honesty make it compelling reading. Deeply moving, intimate, funny and intriguing with its' many twists and turns. Cumming's conversational tone makes the reader feel as if you are there with him, a dear friend, sharing his journey. By the time I finished, I wanted to hug Alan tightly and then go out with him for a beer.

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

The Stella Prize Longlist 2017

The Stella Prize is an annual literary award celebrating women writers of both fiction and non-fiction. Named after Australian author Stella Miles Franklin, the Prize was created in 2013 in response to the lack of diversity in nominees for literary awards. It is hoped that through the promotion of excellent books by women, more people will be drawn to their works and inspiration will be given to emerging female writers.

Past winners include:

  • Carrie Tiffany for Mateship with Birds (2013)
  • Claire Wright for The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka (2014)
  • Emily Bitto for The Strays (2015)
  • Charlotte Wood for The Natural Way of Things (2016)

  • On 7 February 2017, the longlist for the 2017 Stella Prize was announced with 12 nominees from over 180 entries. This year there was a heavy emphasis on non-fiction, with a diverse range of topics. Brenda Walker, chair of the judging panel, described the books as follows:
    Many of them address urgent national issues with particular relevance to women, at a time when women are fighting to be politically seen and heard, and to secure their positions in the public sphere.
    When the list was announced, I was surprised to see that I had only read one title and was familiar with a few more, but many were completely unknown to me. Part of the excitement of these prizes is finding new writers and new titles to read.

    The 2017 longlist is as follows:

    Julia Baird - Victoria: The Queen
    Historian and journalist Julia Baird has written an epic tome on Queen Victoria that I have flipped through every time I have seen it in a bookstore, with longing and apprehension. I am intrigued by Victoria and I have heard great things about this biography, which the judges describe as "rich and compelling". But at the same time this is a massive book and I do not feel I can commit to it at this time. Maybe one day.

    Georgia Blain - Between a Wolf and a Dog
    This novel takes place over the course of one day in Sydney.  Esther is a family therapist who works to bring people together, while personally her own relationships are strained. The judges described the late Georgia Blain's final novel as "a triumph: finely structured, suspenseful and morally acute."  I am not familiar with Blain's work but by all accounts she was a fine writer.

    Maxine Beneba Clarke - The Hate Race
    The judges describe this memoir as "an important account of growing up in suburban Australia in the 1980s and 1990s." Maxine Beneba Clarke, an Australian of Afro-Carribean descent, faced discrimination and casual racism, and through this book she shows the complacency of white Australia and the reluctance to deal with issues of race. I have seen interviews with Clarke and have read some of her poetry, but have not yet read this book.

    Catherine de Saint Phalle - Poum and Alexandre
    I must admit, I have never heard of this book, nor its author. Catherine de Saint Phalle is a Melbourne based author and this is her first work of non-fiction. It is a memoir of her unmarried parents and their lives in Paris. The judges describe this as a "tender portrait of a lifelong partnership [that] deserves to be an instant classic of the biography genre."

    Madeline Gleeson - Offshore
    Lawyer and researcher Madeline Gleeson has written this important book about Australia's offshore refugee regime on Manus and Nauru. She explored the first three years of offshore processing, since it began in 2012 and what it is like behind the wire for the refugees and the staff in detention centres. The judges described this book as "a rigorous and comprehensive narrative on one of the central challenges of our times: the care for those who seek asylum in Australia when life in their own countries becomes untenable." Important indeed.

    Julia Leigh - Avalanche
    At the 2016 Sydney Writers Festival I heard Julia Leigh speak about this book. It was so heart-wrenching to listen as Leigh shared her story, but I cannot bring myself to read this book. Leigh is a novelist and at the age of 38 she started IVF in an effort to have the family she longed for. She started writing this book at the point when she decided to stop treatment, and as such it is a raw, emotional, and courageous tale of IVF and the cycles of joy and despair felt by so many women for whom IVF is unable to help.

    Emily Maguire - An Isolated Incident
    I read this book in 2016 and really enjoyed it. A page-turning psychological thriller set in rural Australia, Maguire switches perspectives between two different women as the mystery unfolds. I can see why this was nominated as it is a taut novel which addresses issues such as domestic violence, sexism and discrimination from a feminist perspective. My review of Maguire's book is available on this blog.

    Fiona McFarlane - The High Places
    This collection of stories brings McFarlane back to the Stella Prize, as she was shortlisted in 2014 for her debut novel, The Night Guest. The judges call this collection "consistently brilliant, inventive and memorable... richly observed stories about complex people and situations, told by a gifted writer." I love short stories, especially Alice Munro and more recently the work of Tegan Bennett Daylight. I look forward to reading this.

    Elspeth Muir - Wasted
    Muir was inspired to write this book after her young brother killed himself after getting intoxicated and jumping off a bridge. Alexander was celebrating completing his final exams, and was not looking to harm himself. Following the shock and grief of this event, Muir put her skills to work to write about her bereavement and explore how alcohol is consumed by young people. The judges write that "questions about celebration, bravado and the mitigation of intoxication from within and outside the family are raised in this engaging, generous and multifaceted book."

    Heather Rose - The Museum of Modern Love
    This is the seventh novel of Tasmanian author Heather Rose. The judges describe this as "an ambitious novel that demonstrates the value of art as a catalyst for love, connection, and an apprehension of mystery." The novel ponders deep questions through characters attending a retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Sounds interesting, and I totally I love the cover of this book. Update June 2017: read review here.

    Cory Taylor - Dying: A Memoir
    Taylor wrote this book while she was dying from cancer. A life-affirming memoir about dying, novelist Taylor details why she wanted to choose the circumstances of her death. While I have no doubt this book is well written, I don't feel like I want to read this book. Having recently read Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (2005), I know that books about death can be inspiring and uplifting, but I think I will pass on this at this time.

    Sonya Voumard - The Media and the Massacre
    In 1996 Australia was shaken by the Port Arthur massacre in which a lone madman opened fire at a historic site in Tasmania, killing 35 and wounding dozens more. Twenty years on, Voumard has explored the way in which he media responded to the crime. Described as part memoir and part ethical investigation, this book looks at the journalist profession and their responsibilities. This book sounds fascinating to me and I have just reserved it at the library. Update February 2017: read review here.

    The Shortlist will be announced on 8 March - International Women's Day - with the winner revealed on 18 April 2017. Better get reading!

    Sunday, 5 February 2017

    Random Reads (05/02/17)

    Another week has passed and yet it seems so much longer, with Trump's Executive Orders and actions banning refugees, cutting funding to women's health, repealing affordable health care, facilitating the construction of pipelines through native land, lessening regulations on Wall Street, building a wall along the Mexican border, reorganising security councils to put Steve Bannon in the mix, and withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And then he picked a fight with Australia!

    There have been many fascinating articles to read this week about the downfall of American democracy. Here is a sample:
    • Benjamin Wallace Wells writes in The New Yorker about A Dangerously Isolated President which highlights the way in which he is ruling with little thought for Congress and its legislative powers. 
    • David Frum has an excellent piece in The Atlantic about How to Build an Autocracy. He highlights how Hungary has ceased to become a free country in the last ten years through a non-violent campaign of intimidation and pressure. He writes that the US is not immune to corruption, and there will be little opportunity to stop Trump from excess: 
    A British prime minister can lose power in minutes if he or she forfeits the confidence of the majority in Parliament. The president of the United States, on the other hand, is restrained first and foremost by his own ethics and public spirit. What happens if somebody comes to the high office lacking those qualities?
    But it is not all terrible. Some of the more interesting Trump-related pieces are:
    • The Independent published 2017 isn't 1984 - it's stranger than imagined. Apparently sales of George Orwell's 1984 have skyrocketed. I am reckoning they are being used by the Trump administration as instruction manuals on how to create the Ministry of Truth (for the Alternative Facts), the Ministry of Peace and the Ministry of Love.
    • Likewise, Electric Literature writes that Dystopian Novels are All the Rage. Literature as resistance!
    • Legendary JK Rowling has taken to Twitter to respond to people who do not like that she does not like Trump. There is a good summary of her takedowns on Bookriot.
    But enough about Trump!

    This week I enjoyed reading Jane Bozarth, Crystal Balling with LearnnovatorsIn this interview with Dr Bozarth, she talks about how she became a learning and organisational development thought leader. I really enjoyed her book Show Your Work (2014) about how to capture knowledge within an organisation through working out loud. She talks about how you can use Snapchat and Pinterest for learning.

    I was saddened to hear that Bharati Mukherjee passed away on 28 Jan 2017. I remember reading Jasmine (1989) as part of my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto. Jasmine was a young widow who moved from India to Iowa and has to recreate herself with each move she makes to adapt, assimilate and find her own identity. I haven't thought of that book in over 20 years, but it may be worth reading again.

    My first feminist hero, Mary Tyler Moore, passed away this week too. I remember watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show (in rerun) as a tween, admiring character Mary Richards' pluck and independence. I loved her joyous hat-tossing and have often sung the theme song in my head when I felt satisfied with professional accomplishments. Sarah Larson writes a wonderful article about MTM in The New Yorker. Thank you Mary!

    Saturday, 4 February 2017

    Heat and Dust

    A few months ago I read the wonderful An Isolated Incident (2016) by Emily Maguire about murder in a small town in rural Australia. I really enjoyed Maguire's book for both its feminist storytelling and its evocative portrait of the sunburnt country.

    I was reminded of Maguire's book when I picked up Jane Harper's debut novel The Dry (2016). Further, I was also reminded of Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1966) in which a family is massacred on a rural property and local law enforcement is trying to understand how and why it occurred.

    The Dry is set in the fictional town of Kiewarra, Victoria. Federal Police investigator Aaron Falk returns to his hometown to attend the funeral of his childhood best friend Luke Hadler. The community is divided as it appears that Luke killed his wife and son before killing himself.

    Murder-suicide is not uncommon when times are tough and the drought has been hard on farming families like the Hadlers. Luke's parents ask Falk to investigate so they can put their minds at ease, and Detective Raco welcomes the assistance. But the longer Falk stays in town the more he has to confront the demons of his past.

    Harper has recreated small town Australia and its relationship with the drought in a realistic way. Sun-bleached paddocks, dusty landscapes, crops and animals that are desperate for rain, boarded up shops on main street, and people struggling to cope.  Everyone has a secret, and some people will go to extraordinary lengths to keep theirs.

    What I enjoyed about this page-turner was the way in which Harper drip feeds clues. A letter with the words "you lied" sparks questions - to whom? about what? - that only get answered as the book rolls on. Characters emerge and their backstories are fleshed out. The story twists and turns until the whodunnit reveal.

    I really enjoyed Harper's novel and I am looking forward to her next offering. According to the author's website, she is working on another novel for release in 2017 which features Aaron Falk. Could he be the next Cormoran Strike? Maybe, just maybe...