Monday, 31 December 2018

My Reading Year - 2018

Another year of reading has come to an end, and what a great year it has been. My reading goal for 2018, as documented in my challenge was 30 books, which I didn't quite reach having read only 24 titles this year.

My list included a number of books which I wrote about in my first of January planning for 2018 post. I managed to get through a many of these books, including:
In an attempt to diversify my reading I created my own reading bingo card with various categories (achievements highlighted below).  This was fairly successful, although I missed out on a lot of categories I had intended to pursue.

BNGO
Adapted into a
Film/TV Show
Biography 
or Memoir
New York Times
Bestseller
Booker Prize
Shortlister
Poetry
Collection
Current Affairs
/ Politics
Set in Space
or at Sea
Pre-20th Century
Classic
Fiction Based
on a True Story
New-To-Me
Author
Short Story
Collection
Published
in 2018
Free Choice
Set in the
Future
First Novel
in a Series
Written by a
Nobel Laureate
Mystery or
Crime Novel
Stella Prize
Shortlister
Banned Book
20th Century
Classic
Set during
Wartime
New-To-Me
Genre
Lesser-known Book
by a Famous Author
Essay Collection
Book on the
1001 List

So here's what I read in 2018:

Fiction
When looking back over the novels I read in 2018, there were quite a lot of crime/mystery books. Highlights were JK Rowling/Robert Galbraith's latest Coromoran Strike novel, Lethal White, and Australian author Chris Hammer's debut novel Scrublands. I enjoyed Jane Harper's latest outing,  The Lost Man, but it wasn't a patch on her previous novels with Detective Aaron Falk.

Wondering what all the fuss was about, I read Lee Child's first Jack Reacher novel, Killing Floor, which left me perplexed by its popularity. Another dud was Agatha Christie's The Murder on the Links, which I read as part of my 'Poirot in order' pursuit. Even though I didn't particularly enjoy either of these books, I don't feel my time was wasted - sometimes you have to read the bad to recognise the good.

I read two Helen Garner's this year: her delightful The Spare Room and the newly released collection Stories. I much preferred the former with its crisp prose and hidden complexities.

Strangely, two novels I read in 2018 were set in a graveyard! Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book was an enchanting, award winning children's book. But my greater feat was finally reading George Saunders' Booker Prize winning Lincoln in the Bardo. I had wanted to read it for some time but had found it hard to get in the rhythm. This year I succeeded and am pleased to have read it.

One of the novels I greatly enjoyed this year was Mohsin Hamid's Exit West, a magical realism book focussing on the lives of refugees. It is a novel for our times, as is graphic novel Sabrina by Nick Drnaso, which explores loneliness, isolation and despair when a loved one goes missing.

Of the dozen novels I read this year the one I would most recommend to others as a gripping, page-turning read is Chris Hammer's Scrublands. I really enjoyed this multi-layered suspense novel and have already shared it with many family and friends. Part of a current wave of Australian bush-noir, Scrublands has plenty of twists and turns to keep readers engaged.



Non-Fiction
I read a lot of biographies and memoirs this year. Top on my list was historian and journalist Julia Baird's monster bio Victoria: The Queen. At 700+ pages, Victoria took up a lot of my reading space but it was well worth it as this is a fascinating look at the long-reigning monarch.

One of my heroes is US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. So I was keen to read Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik's Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Unlike traditional biographies, this book blends pop culture, music lyrics, fan art, and more into an interesting portrait of an incredible judge.

Two memoirs tugged at my heart-strings. Journalist Rick Morton's One Hundred Years of Dirt tells of his upbringing on a remote Queensland station, the violence and poverty his family endured and the sacrifices his mother made for her children. Bri Lee's astonishing memoir Eggshell Skull centred on her year as an associate for a Queensland District Court Judge and her subsequent experience as a complainant in a case against her assailant.

I was absolutely engrossed by Sarah Krasnostein's  The Trauma Cleaner. This biography about the incredible life of Sandra Pankhurst was absolutely compelling, forcing readers to set aside their assumptions about how other people live.  Another fascinating book was Chloe Hooper 's  The Arsonist, which looked at the devastating Black Saturday bushfires and the trial of one of those who caused them.

I really enjoy reading well crafted essays. As Samantha Irby's We Are Never Meeting in Real Life topped many 2017 best book lists, I began this year with her funny, snarky and cynical collection.  At the other end of the spectrum, Rebecca Solnit writes with great intellect and thought on issues affecting women in her Men Explain Things To Me. Tackling gang rape, sexual harassment, genealogy, isolation and more, I really admired Solnit's feminist approach. I also read two Quarterly Essays, by Richard Dennis (QE70) and Laura Tingle (QE71).

As part of my commitment to Working Out Loud (WOL), I read Julian Stodd's The Social Leadership Handbook and attempted to complete the accompanying workbook.

I only read one book on American politics this year, Bob Woodward's Fear: Trump in the White House, and that was enough! I need to declare a Trump free zone and limit his influence on my reading life.

The best non-fiction book I read this year was, without doubt, Sarah Krasnostein's The Trauma Cleaner. The story of Sandra Pankhurst and her remarkable life is incredible, but Krasnostein also inserts the heartbreaking stories of Pankhurst's hoarder clients. This is a story of empathy and belonging, and one which I have recommended, gifted and shared with so many people this year. 

Poetry
I had a pretty bad year with poetry in 2018. Normally I try and seek out fresh new voices but this year I only read one collection - Rupi Kaur's The Sun and Her Flowers. The fact that I read Kaur is strange since after reading her disappointing Milk and Honey I swore I would read any more of her work.... Oh well.

Best of 2018
Of all the books I read this year the two works I regard most highly are Sarah Krasnostein's  The Trauma Cleaner and Chris Hammer's Scrublands. Honourable mentions go to Bri Lee's Eggshell Skull, Julia Baird's Victoria: The QueenHelen Garner's  The Spare Room and Robert Galbraith's Lethal White.

Saturday, 29 December 2018

A Confederacy of Dunces

US Secretary of Defence General Jim Mattis resigned his position in the Trump government on 20 December 2018.  In his very public resignation letter he stated unequivocally that
"... our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive systems of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies."
Mattis' resignation came shortly after President Trump unilaterally decided to withdraw American troops from Syria, against the advice of the military - leaving civilians and allies in great danger.

The departure of Mattis did not surprise me, as that exact same day I had just finished reading Bob Woodward's 'fly-on-the-wall' expose, Fear: Trump in the White House (2018). An extreme nationalist, Trump is a protectionist and has increasingly isolated himself from his allies. He has torn up trade deals and the Iran Nuclear Agreement, backed out of the Paris Climate Accord, imprisoned immigrant children, aligned himself with dictators, threatened NATO, and attempted to build a literal wall. Trump believes power equates to fear, and he has set about disrupting all norms to keep the world on edge.

Award winning journalist Woodward has managed to gain access deep within the White House and spoken with many named and unnamed sources including Gary Cohn, Rob Porter, Reince Priebus and Steve Bannon. Through these contacts Woodward paints a terrifying picture of the President as an illiterate, ill-informed, hate-filled, vengeful bully.

As a keen follower of global politics, much of Fear was already known to me. But what I found astounding was the lengths some of the President's men would go to in an effort to tame or circumvent Trump. Documents requiring signing were removed from the President's desk, aides slowed down his agenda by delaying his orders, secret meetings were held, memoranda was written to appeal to Trump's ego, and the gatekeepers tried to limit his access to people who would fuel his worst instincts. Trump's contempt for those around him, the way he belittles and publicly humiliates those he relies on, is appalling. With the departure of Mattis, Kelly, Tillerson and more, I am worried that there will be no one left to temper his idiocy; Trump is now surrounded by yes-men who cannot constrain him.

Ultimately, I believe it is Trump who is afraid. The Mueller investigation is tightening around him. His family is under the spotlight and his corrupt Foundation has just been disbanded. He is fighting countless lawsuits and many of his former partners in crime are now corroborating with authorities. With all of these personal attacks, he rages on Twitter to distract and debase. I wonder how far Trump's narcissism goes and whether deep down he knows he is temperamentally unfit for the office he holds.

Fear is just one of dozens of books about Trump's Presidency, and undoubtedly dozens more will be written before his tenure is out. I found Fear to be well written and interesting, but in reading it I couldn't help but feeling great fear for the downfall of the office of the President, the decline of America, and the danger of our world.

Friday, 28 December 2018

Tales from the Crypt

Each year I give my two nieces, currently aged 8 and 11, books as Christmas gifts. I enjoy trying to track down books that I think they may enjoy - from graphic novels like Phoebe and her Unicorn, to classics like Anne of Green Gables. I try to do my homework to make sure they are age appropriate and, wherever possible, I try to read the book in advance. This year I gave them:

  • The Mulberry Tree by Allison Rushby
  • Friday Barnes, Girl Detective by RA Spratt
  • Ruby Redfort Look Into My Eyes by Lauren Child
  • The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
I managed to read Gaiman's book before the holidays and think it will be greatly enjoyed by the recipients.

The Graveyard Book (2008) begins with a scary, dark scene in which a knife-weilding man enters a family home and kills all inside except an infant boy who has escaped from the home and wandered into a local graveyard. The dead shelter the boy and two of the ghosts adopt him and name him Nobody Owens, Bod for short. Silas, a groundskeeper of sorts, becomes his guardian and teaches him ghostly behaviour like fading, haunting and dream walking. Bod is told never to leave the graveyard and as such gets about exploring the crypts and tombs, meeting all sorts of undead. 


As the years go by, Bod grows older and he longs to move beyond the cemetery gates. He befriends a young girl named Scarlett who visits the graveyard, journeys out to the centre of town, and later he attends a local school. But the best lessons are the ones he learns from the ancient inhabitants of the graveyard.

What I particularly liked was that each chapter is a self-contained story, which makes for perfect bedtime reading. I also enjoyed the way each new ghostly character was introduced via what was written on their headstones ('Traveler Lay Down Thy Staff'). This is an enchanting book, with a fine balance of darkness and light. 

The Graveyard Book won a stack of awards including the Carnegie Medal (UK) and  Newberry Medal (US) for the best children's book.

Thursday, 27 December 2018

Preparations for the Social Age

Earlier this year I picked up Julian Stodd's The Social Leadership Handbook (2nd ed, 2016) and the accompanying workbook Social Leadership - My First 100 Days (2017). I am a regular reader Stodd's articles and blog posts and always found him to be a refreshing thinker with practical ideas.

At work, I am currently working with a couple of staff on building their social capital within our organisation and beyond. So I read Stodd's Handbook with a view to seeing whether it would help me to help them in this endeavour, and whether the Workbook would be something that they would benefit from exploring.

Having read a fair few leadership and management books in my time, Stodd's approach is delightfully different. He argues that social businesses will build trust, encourage innovation, and be more adaptive. Likewise, social leaders are able to navigate this new ecosystem by being able to operate in both formal and social spaces.

Stodd has created a model of social leadership he calls NET - Narrative, Engagement and Technology. The Narrative section is all about storytelling, curation and sharing. Engagement is about agility, community building and reputation. The Technology section focuses on social capital, collaboration and co-creation.

The Handbook is extremely easy to read and can be consumed in little morsels at a time for those who cannot commit to long stretches of reading and reflection.  At times I found the book a bit repetitive, but then I have read much of Stodd's work, and see this as a positive reinforcement.

Admittedly, I did struggle with the Workbook. Initially I tried to set aside time at the end of each day to undertake the daily task. Some were straight forward like pondering where knowledge lives in your organisation (day 4), while others required discussion with colleagues like considering where stories are used in your organisation (day 20). The ones on my own were easy, but by leaving it to the end of the day, I would often find I had missed opportunities to engage with a colleague where required. As a consequence my 100 days has taken me significantly longer and remains unfinished.  But what I did find was that I enjoyed dipping in and out of this workbook, rather than working from cover to cover.

I also want to comment on the physical books. The Handbook is a sturdy hardcover with pastel colour scheme, filled with 'hand-drawn' illustrations. Just the right size for commute reading, with helpful chapter summaries. The spiral bound workbook is petite, able to lie flat for easy use and beautifully crafted. The two go together well. Stodd also has a podcast and a MOOC to accompany this series.

As someone who practices working out loud and critical reflection, I found this Handbook and Workbook wonderful tools to further my practice. I have used the ideas in my workplace, particularly in how I curate and share, and encouraged colleagues to engage with many of Stodd's ideas. I would recommend these tools to anyone looking to change their leadership practice or those working with new managers to build their social leadership abilities.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

Black Saturday

On 7 February 2009 a series of bushfires blazed across Victoria killing 180 people and destroying over 2000 homes and a million acres of land.  An extreme heatwave of mid-40c temperatures and dry high winds created the right conditions for a rapid and extensive blaze. While some of the 400 fires were caused by accident - such as lightening or felled power lines - others were caused by arson. A Royal Commission investigated the fires, the response by authorities and the controversial 'stay or go' evacuation policy.

Australian author Chloe Hooper's latest book is The Arsonist (2018), subtitled 'a mind on fire', attempts to discover why someone would deliberately light such a debilitating fire. Hooper follows the detectives, the lawyers and the trial of the accused arsonist.

The Churchill fire in Central Gippsland began in a pine forest with two seperate ignition points 100 metres or so apart. Within days of the fire investigators knew it was arson and quickly honed in on suspects. By 12 February a local man, Brendan Sokaluk, was arrested and charged with arson causing death, intentionally lighting a bushfire and various other offences.

Sokaluk claims he was disposing of a cigarette and accidentally started the blaze - a scenario which is disputed and disproven. Instead, it is claimed that he deliberately lit the blazes and then went home and sat on his roof to watch the inferno which killed eleven people.

Sokaluk is not a cunning criminal mastermind - rather he had a terribly hard life growing up with undiagnosed autism. He was consistently bullied and found it hard to make and maintain friendships. His personality quirks and child-like behaviour caused problems at his maintenance job. His only friend is his beloved pet dog Brockie. Sokaluk's Legal Aid team find it hard to get him to understand what was happening to him and are continually wondering if he knows the magnitude of what he has done.

Hooper is a gifted writer, describing the fire as an incredible, devastating beast.  With the same investigative skills she employed in The Tall Man (2008), Hooper conducts extensive research to understand bushfires, and interviews people impacted by the fire - police, victims, emergency services and more. Reminiscent of Helen Garner's investigative work (like This House of Grief), Hooper is a keen observer and attempts to understand the 'why' of what has transpired by sifting through the ashes. While its writing, pacing and gripping story made The Arsonist and easy read, the subject matter is not easy at all. The stories of the survivors and those who were lost are devastating. Hooper tells these heartbreaking tales with dignity.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

The Brothers Bright

For months I have had the release date of Jane Harper's latest novel, The Lost Man (2018), in my calendar and I actually schedule time in my diary to acquire and read it. My excitement over this new release was based on my admiration for Harper's two previous novels, The Dry (2016) and Force of Nature (2017).  I inhaled her latest page-turner with the same eagerness and delight.

Set in outback Queensland, the three Bright brothers - Nathan, Cameron and Bub - live on isolated, neighbouring properties. Somewhat estranged, Nathan and Bub come together when their brother Cameron is found dead at the landmark Stockman's Grave. What was Cameron doing there, in the middle of the desert, in 40-degree heat, almost ten kilometres away from his vehicle? The car had not broken down, was fully loaded with water and other provisions. With all of his survival skills, why would Cameron venture out on his own?

In trying to determine what happened to Cameron, we are introduced to his wife and daughters, his mother, backpackers and workers on the land. Each one has secrets and as the mystery unravels we learn that there is much more going on here than first appeared. It is a place of hard living in an unforgiving and brutal land.

Much of the story is told through the eldest brother Nathan. Since childhood, he and Cameron never quite got along and their estrangement only grew. Nathan spends most of has days fixing fences and his only interactions are every six weeks or so when his online delivery of provisions arrive. His teenage son Xander has come home from Brisbane for the Christmas holidays and Nathan finds it hard to connect when they have such different lives.

While reading this I often thought about Rick Morton's memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt  about growing up on a large station in outback Queensland. He described a similar childhood of School of the Air, social isolation and a complex, brutal upbringing.  Harper channelled this completely in her novel. She has the ability to lure readers into the environment and make you feel as though you are there among the heat and dust. Her evocative descriptions of the harsh landscape and the weather allow you to immerse yourself in the story. She has also created vivid characters - particularly Nathan, Cameron's daughters, and Xander - and doles out clues to the mystery in such a way that keeps readers guessing.

Harper's previous novels featured Detective Aaron Falk, a character I have grown to love and hope to hear more from. I knew that he would not appear in this book and I was admittedly a bit apprehensive. While I greatly enjoyed The Lost Man, Falk was definitely missed and I long for his return! Will have to wait for the her next novel, which judging by her annual release pattern, is only a year away.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

My WOLWeek 2018

The week of 12-18 November 2018 is International Working Out Loud Week. Held twice annually in June and November, the week is designed to promote the practice of working out loud - sharing work in progress.

John Stepper, author of the book Working Out Loud (2015), describes working out loud (WOL) as follows:
'Working out loud is an approach to work and life. It helps you achieve your goals and feel better about your work while you discover more possibilities.'
I got interested in working out loud while being immersed in the learning and development profession in a previous role. I had the good fortune of coming in contact with brilliant WOL advocates and practitioners like Simon Terry, Helen Blunden, Michelle Ockers, Dr Jane Bozarth and many more. In previous WOLWeeks I tinkered around the edges, working out loud in a very limited, quiet, safe way. This year I took a leap forward, well out of my comfort zone, with a week of sharing my critical reflections on my work in progress within my organisation.

When not reading and blogging about books, I am the CEO of a children's charity. Over the past 18 months I have been gradually working to shift our organisational culture to bring about a renewed focus on learning, collaboration and performance. Even though I am in a position to make changes, I know I cannot bring people on a journey without leading by example, walking the walk.

Since joining the organisation last year, I have been sending out fortnightly email communiques to over one hundred employees in which I share what is happening across our organisation and what I have been working on and learning. Once our Intranet was created in early 2018 (yes, 2018!) I began blogging and starting conversations about our work on Sharepoint. The take up has been slow, as our organisation has been late in adopting technology and is still a bit Sharepoint-shy, but I am starting to make headway. Although I would often post things without any engagement, I persevered and found that people were lurking and listening. They may not comment publicly, but they would tell me privately how much they valued my sharing and what they got out of it. I knew I had crossed over in September when I attend a major industry conference and I tweeted and blogged about what I learned there. I was pleasantly surprised by the feedback from diverse staff who would stop me to discuss my learnings as I travelled through our organisation. People were listening and eager to engage and share.

In the weeks leading up to this WOLWeek I started telling colleagues about it; planting a seed. Then on 12 November I began to blog daily following the 'Seven Days of Working Out Loud' without really knowing what to expect or how far I would go.

On day one I shared my purpose, talking about why I have chosen to spend my career in the non-profit sector, what I am passionate about and why I chose to work at my organisation. The next day I talked about how I built a network, connecting to diverse people despite being an introvert. For day three I wrote about my contributions and those who have contributed to my work with shoutouts to those who have helped me in different ways.  On the fourth day I took an even bigger leap sharing my imperfect work in progress on a Strategic Plan project I am developing, inviting feedback and involvement. For day five I talked about how it is okay to ask others for assistance and how I have overcome my own reluctance to seek help. On day six I talked about gratitude and finding different ways to show appreciation. On the final day I summarised my WOLWeek experiences and invited my colleagues to continue on the journey with me through joining a WOL Circle.

Each post I wrote ended with a handful of reflective questions, an invitation to provide feedback and a genuine offer of any help I could give. A couple of colleagues responded to my posts on Sharepoint and others commented in person - each one contributing ideas and paying it forward. While it wasn't exactly a tsunami of a response, it was enough to make me feel that what I am doing is worthwhile. I am happy with the tiny ripple in our little pond and have confidence that one day a wave will begin to form.

In writing this WOL blog I opened myself up to my whole staff team, sharing my work and how I approach it. I shared stories of my successes and failures, exposed my fears and vulnerabilities, and spoke of my aspirations for myself and my organisation. In doing so I may disappoint some colleagues who think leaders should be infallible and know all the answers - I'm not and I don't - but I am okay with that. I have put myself out there and even surprised myself by how much I was prepared to share. My whole organisation can now hold me to account - which is, admittedly, a bit scary. WOLWeek has reminded of the necessity of critical reflection in my professional life and given me momentum to keep moving forward.  I can't wait to be part of what happens next...

Tuesday, 6 November 2018

Matterlightblooming Phenomenon

George Saunders won the Booker Prize in 2017 for his experimental novel Lincoln in the Bardo. 

Set in a graveyard, young Willie Lincoln, son of the sitting President has arrived and is placed in a crypt. Not yet realising that he is dead, Willie meets Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III and other ghostly inhabitants, all of whom believe they are merely sick, lying in their 'sick-boxes' and will one day recover. Each is disfigured by unfulfilled desires, refusing to succumb to the 'matterlightblooming phenomenon' where they move on to the 'other place'.

Lincoln visits his embalmed son in his crypt, holds him tight and weeps for his loss. His grief is all consuming and told in extracts and quotes from numerous books. These commentators judge the Lincolns for holding a party while their son was ill, and question the President's behaviour.

My first attempt at reading the book was unsuccessful. I found it difficult to read because of the many different characters and the way in which the name of the speaker appears after the text. Reading it in fits and starts on my daily commute, I couldn't get into the rhythm of the narrative and identifying who said what. Frustrated, I tossed it aside, but for some strange reason it still called out to me.

I tried something different the second time around. I downloaded the audiobook on Audible and read alongside. Hearing Nick Offerman, David Sedaris and a cast of over a hundred read the story aloud was so much more engaging and allowed me to appreciate Saunders' language and wit.

This is an ambitious novel. Written like a play or a script, I particularly loved how Saunders would  have a dialogue between Bevins and Vollman and then suddenly have them quoting each other. Bawdy characters, wonderfully dark and saucy, mix with the more serious and serene.

More remarkable were the chapters made up of quotes - real and fake - from various sources. Many of these were voices purporting to be of Lincoln's time - notes from socialites and householders, soldiers and congressmen - who were critical of Lincoln and his politics. The audacity of creating fake academic sources, the setting of the bardo, the characters and the writing style all showcase Saunders' genius as a writer and his willingness to creatively experiment with our ideas of a novel.

Lincoln in the Bardo is a divisive novel - with lovers and haters passionately opposed. I can't say I loved this novel, but I am so pleased that I persevered. 

Sunday, 4 November 2018

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas 2018

The Festival of Dangerous Ideas (FODI) took place this weekend (3-4 November 2018) for the first time since 2016. The Ethics Centre event, previously associated with the Sydney Opera House, it is now connected with UNSW Centre for Ideas and has moved to a new home on Cockatoo Island.

I have been attending FODI for years and what I love about it is being introduced to new thinkers and new ideas. In the early years I found the FODI program quite provocative with speakers that would get ones blood boiling. More recently however I felt the program has lost a bit of its edge. Indeed this year I found it hard to find enough sessions I wanted to attend. But I decided to spend a day at the Festival and here's what I attended:

In Praise of Economic Inequality
My first session was a panel discussion about economic inequality. Economists Richard Holden and Judith Sloan joined Constitutional lawyer Rosalind Dixon and journalist Nick Cater to discuss wealth and income. This was an interesting topic and the panel covered a number of important issues.

Looking at entrenched disadvantage, the panel talked about what would best assist a child born into poverty. There was heated debate about school funding and class sizes with Holden advocating strongly for smaller class sizes and Cater stating they make no difference (he's wrong by the way). Sloan pointed out that complex problems need interventions on a range for fronts - housing, health, education - as one approach alone is not sufficient. Dixon reminded us that we need to not take Medicare and education for granted as there are a lot of things Australia does right.

When talking about wage disparity, Sloan suggests that neurosurgeons should be paid substantially more because they have longer to study to enter their profession. Fair enough. But how do you justify high salaries elsewhere - in sports, celebrities, CEOs - where that scale may not apply? Why should a Kardashian earn more than a teacher?

There was a brief discussion on universal basic income which would have been a great debate in its own right. This was linked in to a point about Artificial Intelligence and the loss of certain jobs, which may mean a need for a jobs guarantee. Lots to unpack here and more time would have been needed to do this topic justice.

What If We Are Wrong?
Next up I attended the session of American journalist Chuck Klosterman. I had not heard of him before learning he was coming to FODI and I was interested in his idea of what tomorrow will think of today. Klosterman wandered back and forth across the stage with great animation. As I sat in the airless oven of the conference hall,  I kept thinking of how roasting he must be in his suit and tie. 

He spoke about his book What if we're wrong? and the way in which we often see things in the past as laughable now. He said 'the history of ideas is the history of people being wrong.'
Klosterman also spoke about the way we learn. He said that when his parents were kids everyone had to learn by rote, memorising large swathes of poetry and other texts. Now we have machines that do this for us so we have different ways of accessing memory. Rote memorisation is a huge waste of time. No one will ever do long division again, when they can use their phone.


His presentation was interesting albeit waffly, but the Q&A with Marc Fennell was insightful. Klosterman said in the future people will think many of our current ideas are wrong, citing our treatment of cancer with poisons, our eating meat and our playing of gridiron football as barbaric given the high volume of concussions that occur. This gave me a lot of food for thought. I would add our treatment of asylum seekers to this list.

Privacy is Over
The next session I attended was with American Google data scientist and author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz and Turkish New York Times columnist and academic Zeynep Tufekci. They were talking about big data and privacy and had very different views.

Stephens-Davidowitz is the author of Everybody Lies. He spoke about how Google can know that someone has pancreatic cancer three months before it is diagnosed based on your search patterns. He says that big data is worth sacrificing privacy because of what can be learned by government, business and more. He said that companies like Google can adjust algorithms to assist in public health - for example, searches related to depression, self-hard and suicide can yield results to hotlines and support networks.

Tufekci is the author of Twitter and Tear Gas. She said that there is power in big data but that regulation is needed. She says users are not fully informed about their data uses. Informed consent won't work because we don't even know the possible uses of our data.

The two got into furious debate about de-identified data as Tufekci argued there is no such thing when someone can get two or three pieces of data and rebuild a profile. She also said that data cannot be secured and that all data should be viewed as 'not yet revealed as hacked'.

They talked about the use of data in political campaigns to target and even disenfranchise people. This is not new, but as Tufekci pointed out now politicians and business can access your data cheaply, easily and at scale.

There was an interesting question from the audience about recent laws diminishing privacy in the name of combatting terrorism and whether big data can stop terrorist attacks. Tufekci says data is better used for public health as there is not enough good data to predict terrorism.

Kill All Normies
My last session at Cockatoo Island was to hear Angela Nagle talk about the online culture wars and her book Kill All Normies.  She spoke about how users of 4Chan and Tumblr - microblogging and imageboard sites - have been used by the alt-right and ultra PC leftists. Originally on the margins, these have now become part of the mainstream discourse and have real political consequences.

Nagle tried to be both critical and empathatic of the subjects in her book but was attacked from both sides. She said the online culture wars are making us all dumber and crueler, limiting debate to shouting from opposing fronts. She things we are on our way to a point where meaningful debate is no longer possible, but that we need to produce institutions that will nurture criticism.

I was a bit disappointed with this session. Nagle is smart and has a lot of interesting things to say. But the delivery was flat and unengaging. I think Nagle would have been great on a panel with Tufekci and Klosterman.

Without buying a single book (shocking, I know), I left the island for the mainland and the session I was most looking forward to.

The Hitch
The gala session at FODI was a sold out Sydney Town Hall event called 'The Hitch'. Dr Simon Longstaff from The Ethics Centre explained that the late Christopher Hitchens delivered the inaugural keynote at FODI in 2009, a rollicking address which exemplified everything FODI stands for.

In reinventing FODI with its new partner UNSW, The Ethics Centre wanted to honour Hitchens with an annual address. They invited Hitch's good friend Stephen Fry to deliver the  address on the lost art of fabulous disagreement.

His forty minute lecture was warm, funny, erudite and on-point. He spoke lovingly of his friend and how he would go into battle for his convictions. In contrast, Fry described himself as a hailstone - firmer than a snowflake but still likely to melt in the heat. Where Hitchens would thrust into a fight, Fry would hide in the undergrowth and wait for the noise to pass.


Fry hypothesised on what Hitchens would make of today's world and how much we need his help to make sense of Trump, Brexit, and other world events. We are living in Lord of the Flies, he said, as no adults are in charge anymore and there is no Gandalf or Dumbledore to save us.

Fry posed some dangerous ideas of his own. First he said we should all refuse to include Trump in the newsfeed. Neutralise him by treating him as a Dr Seuss character the Trumpelow: 'He swells every time his name is mentioned, so shut up and watch him shrink'.

He then suggested we get rid of human testosterone to end aggression. He referred to two camps on the sides of an ever-widening grand canyon, shouting, pitchforks raised, while the rest of us cower in the valley below. He called for a plague on both their houses. He said there is no way to unite against a common enemy, like an alien invasion, because we have proven ourselves incapable of uniting against existing threats like climate change. So best we just disengage and refuse to be drawn into these opposing camps.

His final dangerous idea was simply to be kind. He said 'when people are acting like assholes, it doesn't automatically cancel it out to start acting like an asshole yourself. Be better.'

Fry is a human thesaurus and at times he could go a bit heavy on the adjectives. But I really enjoyed his self-depreciating, thoughtful and wise presentation. The best part of FODI by far.

Final thoughts
One last thing about the new FODI. Cockatoo Island is an incredible space. I love that we have such an interesting, historical spot in the heart of Sydney. However, I don't think that it is best suited to this sort of event. The cavernous industrial rooms have no air movement and no air con, so on a 32c day everyone was in agony with the heat. This, coupled with uncomfortable seating, made me long for the Opera House again. Plus, being on the island limited my attendance, as I would have been persuaded to spread my sessions over the two days. The ferry ride back to Barangaroo was problematic as we spent 15 minutes circling Darling Harbour as we were too early for the berth. A frustrating end to the day.

My posts about past FODI events are available on this blog:

Sunday, 28 October 2018

More Morsels of Verse

Last year I read Rupi Kaur's bestselling collection of poetry, Milk and Honey (2015). While I enjoyed some of the poems, I wasn't overly impressed by the collection, especially by many of the short verses which I described as fortune cookies. So, I wasn't really interested her next collection, The Sun and Her Flowers (2017).

Having just finished another 600 page whopper, and doing a lot of deep reading for work, I found myself needing something light and breezy to consume so I turned to Kaur's latest collection.

Divided into five parts - wilting; falling; rooting; rising; and blooming - the poems and Kaur's drawings align with these themes.

'Wilting' focuses on romantic break ups, with many sad poems about love gone wrong and trying to rebuild life again alone. I found these poems to be quite similar to Milk and Honey and was thinking about giving up on the collection as if I had read it all before.

But then I got to the 'rooting' section - with many poems about immigration and the voyages of refugees. I found this to be quite moving - poems about journeying across the sea, admiring the broken English of parents, the bravery and sacrifice that people make in the quest for a better life. There was quite a lot of depth here that I found missing in her other verse and this section alone saved The Sun and Her Flowers for me.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Man Booker 2018 Winner

The Man Booker Prize for fiction was announced on 16 October 2018. From a Longlist of 13 titles and a Shortlist of five, Anna Burns was the winner of the 50,000GBP for Milkman.

This win returns the prize to the Commonwealth as, after three consecutive years of being won by American men, a woman from Northern Ireland has claimed victory. It has also been five years since a woman last won the prize, when Eleanor Catton won for The Luminaries in 2013.

Set in Belfast in the 1970s, during the Troubles, Milkman is a stream of consciousness story narrated by an 18 year old woman, middle sister, who is rumoured to be having an affair with a person known only as the Milkman. The novel explores truth and gossip, with a unique writing style.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, Chair of judges, said:
None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns' utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is the story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.
The book has seen sales increase dramatically since the award was announced. Publisher Faber & Faber must be delighted.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Blackmail and Bridles

Cormoran Strike is back! Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling) has produced a hefty tome, a 600+ page monster of a mystery in Lethal White (2018), the fourth instalment of this wonderful series. The story is complex, with many twists and turns and sufficient red herrings to sustain the intrigue.

The story begins where the last book, Career of Evil (2016), left off. It is Robin's wedding to her long term boyfriend Matthew Cunliffe and tensions are high at the reception. Strike has showed up, much to Cunliffe's dismay and Robin's delight. As the newlyweds set off on their honeymoon, there is misery and regret on many fronts.

Flash forward one year and Strike's agency has bloomed as a result of his success. He has put on additional staff and taken a diverse range of clients. London is in the thrall of the 2012 Summer Olympics. One day Billy Knight appears at the agency, disheveled and anxious, claiming to have witnessed a murder when he was a child. Without anything more to go on than that, Strike seeks out Billy's brother Jimmy who tells him this recollection is untrue.

Jasper Chiswell, Minister for Culture, contacts Strike and claims that he is being blackmailed but for what he will not say. Robin goes undercover at Westminster to learn more and quickly discovers that the Minister for Sport, Della Winn, and her lecherous husband Geraint despise Chiswell. Robin also meets Chiswell's many adult children - all with names like Izzy and Fizzy - and his dissatisfied wife Kinvara.

The plot gets increasingly complex as it goes on, with storylines related to horses, far-left radicals, politics, infidelity, and more. To say more would lead to spoilers, so I will stop here. The mystery will keep readers guessing to the end, when all the different threads come together.

The life of a detective is not an easy one. At one point Kinvara tells Strike what she thinks of his work: "What a really, nasty, seedy job you do." As she said it I reflected on some of the compromising positions Strike, Robin, Barclay and other team members entered into in an attempt to meet their clients' needs: posing as other people; pretending to befriend those they are investigating; following cheaters and philanderers; digging up bones and risking their lives. The job is physically and emotionally draining, especially when surveillance is involved. It puts a strain on their relationships.

Beyond the main story, in Lethal White we learned more about Strike and Robin. Ghosts from Strike's past keep rearing their heads and Rowling shares much of his inner thoughts and feelings.  I particularly loved the way in which Robin's character was portrayed - full of anxiety, self-doubt, curiosity, gumption and empathy. Robin is complex, flawed and very human. I admire the way her relationship with Strike ebbed and flowed, showing the deep bonds they have. The depiction of Matthew Cunliffe (every-boring-entitled-white-guy-ever) was also genius - with his upward mobility and desire to keep up with the Joneses. He is the bad boyfriend/dud husband who does not even try to understand Robin and her passion for her job. Peripheral characters like investigator Barclay, police officer Wardle, and Strike's former flame Charlotte are also well depicted.


Despite its' length, I found myself savouring the book, wanting to delay the ending as long as possible. However, it would have benefited from a flow chart of the many intertwined characters. It will be some time before the next Strike book is written and released, but the good news is that BBC has announced they will be adapting Lethal White as a four part series. So that is something to look forward to.

I have previously read and enjoyed Robin and Strike's adventures in Career of Evil (2016), The Silkworm (2014) and The Cuckoo's Calling (2013). Can't wait to see what they get up to next.

Sunday, 30 September 2018

Believe Women

This week I have been mesmerised by the confirmation hearings of US Supreme Court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh. I watched as he lashed out against his accusers, as he talked back to Senators asking questions about his binge drinking, as he attempted to justify his actions during high school and college as the antics of 'boys being boys'. When he ranted and raved, all I could think about was his grotesque sense of entitlement and his absolute unfitness for the office he seeks to hold.

Meanwhile questions are being asked about why Professor Christine Blasey Ford and other accusers have waited so long to come forward. Dignified and resolute, Ford detailed her remembrance of the events 36 years ago and its enduring impact on her life. The constant narrative in sections of the media is about why these women didn't come forward at the time of an incident, with the subtext being that they must be lying. Any woman who has ever experienced sexual harassment or assault knows the answer. The confirmation hearings are a prime example of why women don't come forward: the misguided presumption that women lie.

While this was all unfolding I was reading Bri Lee's memoir Eggshell Skull (2018), about her experience of the Queensland legal system when she sought to bring forward a complaint of indecent assault that had happened many years prior when she was in primary school.

Lee worked as an associate for a Queensland District Court Judge, a job that saw her travel to regional towns around the State for a year, while she completed her Practical Legal Training to become admitted as a solicitor. The cases she heard were largely related to domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse and exploitation. As she listened to complaints against fathers and step-fathers, she contemplated the strength needed to bring a complaint and how the jury could acquit these men (which they inevitably did). She grew sickened at the ways in which the complainants were re-victimised by the legal process.

At the end of her year as an associate, Lee has decided two things: that she didn't really want to be a lawyer; and, that she was determined to bring charges against her assailant.

What follows then is a two year battle to have her case brought to court. The delays, the bureaucracy and the whole process is designed to ensure complainants don't seek to have justice pursued. Once the complaint is made, the process is out of the complainant's hands and they are at the mercy of the police, the Crown prosecutors and the delay techniques of defence counsel. To endure the courts system is an epic act of resilience that requires a fierce determination and the support of a loving family.

It was heart breaking to read this memoir, but I believe it should be essential reading for every law student and everyone working in the judicial system. I could relate to Lee on so many levels: as a law student, as a woman who can claim #MeToo, and as someone who is appalled at the way in which women are treated by a patriarchal justice system.

Lee wrote a question that I cannot stop thinking about:
Why can a man be charged with negligent, reckless driving after getting himself drunk, but he can argue the same level of voluntary intoxication led him to honestly and mistakenly believe a woman consented to intercourse, and be acquitted of a rape charge accordingly? (p 226)
I thought about this as Kavanaugh spoke of his love of beer and how he would go out on the cans with his friends in high school and college. I thought about this as I read Padma Lakshmi's account of her assault at age 16, which she never told people about. I thought about this as I listened to Professor Ford testify.

My sincere hope is that as more people come forward and add their stories to this growing chorus we won't have to ask questions like this. The presumption will shift and women will simply be believed.