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.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

The Booker Shortlist 2018

Today the Shortlist was announced for the 2018 Man Booker prize, consisting of:
  • Milkman by Anna Burns (UK)
  • Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Canada)
  • Everything Under by Daisy Johnson
  • The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner (USA)
  • The Overstory by Richard Powers (USA)
  • The Long Take by Robin Robertson (UK)
So Nick Drnaso's graphic novel Sabrina has fallen off the list, as has Michael Ondaatje's Warlight which I though would have been a shoo-in.

The winner will be announced on 16 October 2018.

Here's what the judges had to say about the shortlist.

Monday, 17 September 2018

Unhealed Wounds

I didn't know much about Rick Morton when I picked up his memoir One Hundred Years of Dirt (2018). All I knew was that he was a social affairs reporter with The Australian and I had seen him a few times on ABC's The Drum and liked what he had to say. So I came to his memoir with few expectations but a genuine curiosity.

Morton grew up on his family's expansive cattle farm, Pandie Pandie Station, just south of Birdsville in outback Queensland. Life on the land was harsh and the Morton family suffered terribly in their isolation. Rick's father Rodney was a violent man who grew up in fear of his own brutish father; this violence was handed down through generations.

When Rick was just a boy, his brother was badly wounded in a terrible fire. The Royal Flying Doctors were called in and his brother, mother and newborn sister were whisked away to the burns unit at a Brisbane hospital. Rick stayed behind with his father and nanny, trying to make sense of events. Fast forward several years and Rick's mother is hovering on the poverty line trying to raise her three children single handed. Rick's brother falls into trouble with drugs, causing problems for the family. Rick has his own scars to bear, and the author is open about his struggles to find his way in the world, dealing with his feelings of isolation and loneliness.

In many ways this memoir reminded me of JD Vance's Hillbilly Elegy (2016) in its meditations on poverty and its call for more equality between rich and poor. Morton litters his book with many facts about drug addition, the lack of a social safety net and the absence of political will to tackle these burning issues. Sometimes these references to journal articles and other external sources are jarring and take you away from the narrative. But other times they are well integrated and show Morton's skills as a reporter. He is keenly critical too of the media's lack of willingness to cover stories related to poverty.

Ultimately this memoir is a story of love for the author's mother Deb, who sacrificed so much to give Rick and his siblings a better life. As I read I thought a lot about my own mother and the many sacrifices she made for my brother and me throughout our lives. Maternal love and sacrifice is a debt that can never be repaid, but in One Hundred Years of Dirt Morton has shown the heroism of his mother and his unending love for her.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Listening and Learning (16/09/18)

My podcast obsessions continues as I seek out new podcasts to enjoy on my commute to/from work each day. So here (hear!) are some of the podcasts I have been listening to lately.

The Teacher's Pet
For many weeks I have been obsessed by the Australian's podcast series, The Teacher's Pet. Journalist Hedley Thomas has spent years investigating the disappearance of Lynette Dawson, a young mother of two who has not been seen since the early 1980s. Two coroner's inquests have ruled that Lyn is dead, presumed murdered by her husband Chris. But the charismatic athlete Chris Dawson has evaded charge for the past 36 years, saying she left him to join a religious cult.

The podcast is a compelling murder mystery, in which we hear from Lynette's family and friends, the police involved in investigating the disappearance, and Joanne Curtis, the teenage lover of Chris Dawson who was moved into his house within 48 hours of Lyn's disappearance.

This is a gripping tale, set on Sydney's northern beaches. With the release of each episode I would debrief with a friend about what had transpired and speculated on what would happen next.

ABC's Australian Story aired an episode about this case on 10 September 2018 and within days police announced that they would be digging up the backyard of Chris and Lyn's former home looking for evidence.

I am hoping that there will be a second season of this podcast, one which covers Chris Dawson's trial for murder.

Slow Burn
The first season of Slow Burn was all about Watergate. In season two, journalist Leon Neyfakh's turns his attention to the impeachment of President Clinton.

Unlike Watergate, I lived through the Clinton years and remember the Whitewater investigation, Vince Foster's suicide, Paula Jones sexual harassment allegations and Monica Lewinsky. But listening to this podcast has brought forward many facts that I had not known or had forgotten.

Being the same age as Ms Lewinsky, I have always felt that she has been done wrong by the media, Ken Starr and the Clintons.  I seethed with rage over Linda Tripp's betrayal of Lewinsky and her attempts to justify her actions. Lewinsky did not participate in this podcast and I sincerely hope that this renewed attention does not place pressure on her.

In the #MeToo era this is a timely podcast about abuse of power, sexual harassment and slut shaming. But it also has parallels to the current occupant of the White House and his blatant misogyny. While the events of this podcast took place over 20 years ago, there are repercussions to this day with many participants back then having roles today (e.g. Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was a member of the Starr investigation team).

The eight episode second season is airing now and I look forward to seeing how it plays out.

Dr Death
Last year I listened to an incredible podcast by Wondery called Dirty John, which followed a true story of an anaesthesiologist who was not all that he purported to be. Wondery has released its newest series called Dr Death, which probes into the life of another man with a secret.

Dr Christopher Duntsch was a Dallas based neurosurgeon who showed great promise. He held himself out to be a skilled back surgeon who many people turned to in the hopes of alleviating their back and neck pain. But when a number of surgeries resulted in serious complications questions began to be raised.

Was Dr Duntsch deliberately maiming or killing his patients? Was he incompetent? An imposter? Under the influence of drugs or alcohol? To find the answers to these questions, listen to the podcast.

Normally I hate podcasts with ads, but the advertisements in Dr Death are hilarious and I actually look forward to them. They are all linked to the theme. For example, an ad for mattresses talks about experiencing back pain and getting a good night's sleep. Another ad refers to needing comfort food after listening to the podcast. Love it.

So those are my latest podcast obsessions. Stay tuned for more Listening and Learning.

If you want to hear about my past podcast finds, you can find them here:

Saturday, 15 September 2018

On Loss and Loneliness

It has been sometime since I last read a graphic novel, but when the Man Booker longlist was announced and included Nick Drnaso's Sabrina (2018) I jumped at the chance to become reacquainted with the genre.

The story is simple, but loaded with complex contemporary themes. When Sabrina goes missing, her boyfriend Teddy is unable to cope. He goes to stay with his friend Calvin, shuts himself into a spare room and withdraws from the world. Meanwhile shock-jocks and social media are screeching conspiracy theories and Teddy is spiralling downward into anxiety and depression.

Calvin is also struggling as he is missing his ex-wife and daughter who have moved interstate. He wants to have a better relationship with them but he doesn't know how. He spends most of his life working shifts in a nondescript military base watching screens. When he returns home he tries to connect with Teddy, who remains despondent.

The world Nick Drnaso portrays is bleak and uninviting. People live in isolation, unable to meaningfully connect. It is a damning critique of the 24-hour news cycle, fake news, and click-bait. A meditation on modern loneliness, where we are surrounded by people but unable to connect.

Using a limited colour palate, and many panels without dialogue, Drnaso creates a lonely world. The style reminded me of Chris Ware and his Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000).

Mundane daily routines are beautifully rendered. Tension builds as the stakes get higher, and I found myself engrossed in what Calvin and Teddy were seperately going through. Despite the melancholy subject matter, I really enjoyed this novel.

I did have some troubles with it. For example, at times I found it difficult to distinguish the characters as some looked similar to others - indeed all the military guys looked identical. While Sabrina is the title character, you don't get much of a sense of her. The abrupt ending left me wanting more.

Sabrina is a beautiful book to behold. The large hardcover is a weighty tome of over 200 pages. As you flick through the pages, you are drawn in and enjoy the physical act of turning each page. This is a book meant to be read in hardcopy, an e-reader would not do it justice.

It will be interesting to see if Sabrina stays on the Booker radar and makes the shortlist. Regardless, I am glad to have had the introduction to this book, and will definitely track down Drnaso's other work.

Sunday, 2 September 2018

Into the Badlands

Australian journalist Chris Hammer's debut novel Scrublands (2018) is a gripping page-turner that had me in its' spell from beginning to end. Despite the novel's length (almost 500 pages), this is a complex thriller with plenty of twists and turns to keep readers engaged.

Riversend is a small, dying town in the drought-stricken Riverina. On a hot summer's day the town's beloved priest commits an uncharacteristic act of violence, shooting and killing five parishioners. A media swarm followed and then quickly moved on, leaving the locals to come to terms with what happened.

Journalist Martin Scarsden has spent much of his career in war zones as a foreign correspondent. He has returned home after a trauma in Gaza, and is trying to put his life and career back together. His editor sends him to Riversend to write a story on the town and its people for the first anniversary after the killings.

Scarsden checks into the aptly named Black Dog Motel and sets about exploring this ghost town, where shopfronts are boarded up or open irregularly. As Scarsden begins to speak to the locals and dig into the events of a year ago, he discovers that previous reports of the incident were not entirely accurate and there is a much bigger story here. The pace quickens as more reporters come to town and Scarsden finds himself in the spotlight and having to face his own demons.

This is a suspense novel with many layers. Hammer's writing is descriptive and evocative, accurately depicting the dust and heat of the scrublands. He writes believably about the landscape and its inhabitants, creating some uniquely memorable characters. The plot line of competing media interests caused me to think of Sonia Voumard's The Media and the Massacre, and the ethics of covering violent crimes.

Scrublands has already been optioned for television and will be produced by Ian Collie, who brought Peter Temple's Jack Irish series to the screen. So that will be something to look forward to.

I am loving the current wave of Australian crime novels and I am intrigued with so many being set in rural areas, like Emily Maguire's An Isolated Incident, Jane Harper's The Dry, and now, Scrublands.

P.S. Jane Harper's next book, The Lost Man, is due for release on 23 October 2018. Can't wait.