Sunday, December 30, 2012

The Rise of the Fifth Estate - Greg Jericho

There's a touch of irony in Michangelo's David gracing the banner of Grog's Gamut, the humble blog that slew the mainstream media goliath during the 2010 Australian Federal elections campaign. His post Election 2010: Day 14 (or waste and mismanagement – the media) famously attacked the performance of the national press gallery. It was a gem:
Here’s a note to all the news directors around the country: Do you want to save some money? Well then bring home your journalists following Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, because they are not doing anything of any worth except having a round-the-country twitter and booze tour.

It is a sad thing to say but we could lose 95 percent of the journalists following both leaders and the nation would be none the poorer for it. In fact we would probably be better off because it would leave the 5 percent who have some intelligence and are not there to run their own narrative a chance to ask some decent questions of the leaders. Some questions which might actually reveal who would be the better leader of this country.
Now Greg Jericho has reloaded his slingshot to venture onto the field of the printed page. The Rise of the Fifth Estate is much more than a Cook's tour of 'social media and blogging in Australian politics'. It is a detailed and well-researched look at how the new social media world is changing politics down under. Fans will know that Greg loves a deep dip into data in his blogging.

A hard-copy book about bloggers and twitterers/tweeters may seem a bit bizarre in the digital age. (There is an e-book version of course.) Even so, it should be on the bookshelf of every journalist and top of every journalism academic's course reading list. It is a fitting addition to that niche genre Oz books about new media begun by Antony Loewenstein’s The Blogging Revolution in 2008.

This is a thoroughly readable account of the rise of the political blogosphere and twitterverse in Australia where "we find a coverage of politics that is now broader, but with more niches; that is more intense, but also more reasoned". It lists 324 blogs, ranging across small amateur ones, the occasional politician and think tank, group blogs and professional journalists. (Two are mine.)

He explores the history and nature of the blogosphere, the apparent lack of women bloggers and its prickly relationship with mainstream media. The web is a fast moving target. Some blogs such as Larvatus Prodeo, that are referred to in the present tense, have been archived recently. has not posted since 2010.

Greg discusses the use of pseudonyms at length. He has a very personal stake in the issue of online anonymity. It is the one planted in his back by journalist James Massola of the The Australian newspaper when he outed author of Grog’s Gamut in September 2010. This skirmish in The MSM v Bloggers wars was a backhanded compliment of sorts that has had its upside in Greg’s new media life.

Followers of Greg’s twitter account will know that he’s a sports aficionado who is often overly keen in sharing American football scores and other minutiae. His running commentary echoes Latika Bourke’s media conference reports. The sports interest helps to explain his tweepy competitive streak.

There are plenty of examples of social media as a combat sport in Fifth Estate. Two chapters explore this often “cretinous” pugilistic pastime: Never Read the Comments on trolling the blogs; and One, Two, Three, Four, I Declare a Twitter war on the not-so-sociable media exchanges. It is not normally a place for the faint-hearted.

There is a fairly short examination of the impact of twitter on politics in general and voting behaviour in particular: How Many Votes Are There on Twitter. He’s a fan of hashtags but not #auspol which Greg sees as a cesspool. I find it’s best to filter it by searching only the Top tweets.

The one area of omission in this book is a detailed examination of the impact of Facebook on Australian political discourse. Online campaigning, such as the anti-sexism Destroy the Joint, has taken off on Facebook. DtJ currently has over 22,621 likes, compared with just 4352 Twitter followers. Along with Sack Alan Jones (21,004 on FB) issues related to sexism in Australia have received a much higher profile.

A quick peek at Greg’s Facebook account helps to explain this gap, as he is not a frequent user of that platform. This is also in keeping with his original desire to have an anonymous presence on the web. However, FB is a strand in the political helix that cannot be ignored in the growing complexity of the online political space.

Facebook aside, Greg Jericho is the consummate online practitioner. He has more than maintained that high standard in print. He's definitely someone worth getting connected with, even if you might start a barney together.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Kathryn Fox's Skin and Bone

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

Kathryn Fox's Skin and Bone is a good choice for summer holiday reading if you're into crime thrillers. Her third book, published in 2007, is comfortable but not challenging.

Its young female detective Kate Farrer has most of the characteristics expected of the hero in this genre. She's recovering from a traumatic close-shave that has left demons that she'll have to face. She is a loner, both personally and professionally. And of course she has a new partner at work.

The cover promises a protagonist to rival a Cornwell or Reichs character. Farrer doesn't make a very enthusiastic silent witness, in fact she'd rather skip post-mortems of burnt bodies. There is plenty of forensic detail but none of the pathologists plays a critical or central role in the story, unlike her first two novels.

With regard to detail, it is disappointing that firefighters are referred to as fireman by the author.

Don't try to second-guess the plot too much, as much of it is a bit too predictable. Just go for the ride.

The style is Modern Fiction 101. Is it the lack of adjectives that makes it difficult to bring up a mental image of the main characters?

This novel would probably make a thoroughly watchable tele-movie where those aspects could be developed. In fact the book is more skeleton than skin and could have been fleshed out a bit more.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Georgia Blain's Candelo

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

There are mysteries at the heart of Candelo. Violetta takes her family on holiday at Australian coastal town Candelo: narrator Ursula who is fourteen, her brother Simon and younger sister Evie. They are joined by Mitchell Jenkins who Vi is fostering. Mitchell's magnetic presence changes their lives, and his own, irrevocably.

The story moves between Candelo flashbacks and Ursula as an adult. Her troubled relationships with Vi and Simon are reflected in her struggle to make sense of her own life and loves.

Ursula blames her mother, believing that Vi put her political activism ahead of her children. As she explores both past and present, we visit many dark places and wounds that could not heal without the kind of openness that none of them have displayed.

There is some hope at the end, if not resolution. Prepare to be challenged.

Australian Women Writers: Mariam Issa's A Resilient Life

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

It is a cross post from ThinkBrigade.

A Tale of Two New Years

On New Year’s Eve 2009, fireworks in the Melbourne suburb of Brighton threatened to re-open old wounds from Mogadishu 1991. Somali-born Mariam Issa struggled to overcome memories of war nearly 20 years earlier. It was not typical of her. She describes herself as someone “who goes out with a smile”.
Mariam’s life has been a series of new years: changing countries, changing cultures, changing roles and responsibilities. Her self-published autobiography A Resilient Life was launched at the old Brighton Town Hall in Melbourne’s bayside suburb on 4 December 2012. It is self-published by Harsons Graphics.
It was a large crowd for this kind of event: family, friends and people from the local community. This is a stirring example of Mariam’s belief in a “resilient and adaptable community”. She stresses the importance of breaking barriers. Her life so far has certainly fitted that tag.
Her inspiring speech at the book launch is captured in this video:

Growing Up in Africa

Mariam was born in Kismayu, Somalia, in the tumultuous year of 1968, before moving to Majengo in Kenya where she started school. The importance to Mariam of Hooyo (her mother) and Ayeeyo (her grandmother) is reflected in the book’s dedication and her vivid memories of these strong women throughout the book. With Hooyo’s support, Mariam managed to finish secondary school despite strong opposition from her father.
As a young woman, she moved once again to join her husband Mohamed in Qatar. A move back to his hometown of Mogadishu was short-lived. While her husband was away, the outbreak of war forced Mariam to flee to Kenya, with her two small children Abdul and Abdi. They faced a four-day ordeal on a leaky, overcrowded boat with little food or water. It almost ended in disaster when the authorities at Mombasa tried to prevent them from landing.

A New Continent

Eight very tough years in Kenya as refugees followed. The family of seven, including their daughters Sumaya and Sarah and third son Yusuf, finally emigrated to Australia in 1998 through the family reunion scheme. After 14 years in Melbourne, Mariam has completed what she calls her “integration project”, which has certainly had it challenging moments.
Cook with Mariam
She has re-invented herself once again. Now she is a budding entrepreneur with a cooking school Cook with Mariam and a passion for permaculture. She shares these interests with a group named RAW (Resilient Aspiring Women), which has been developing a community permaculture garden.
Her detailed accounts are well worth reading. “I don’t have to talk about myself anymore,” Mariam said at the launch event. “Read the book if you want to know about me.”
Her priorities in life are clear: family, friends and community; religion and culture. Like most Somalis, she is a practising Muslim. Two factors that have also helped in her journey have been her lifelong love of reading through her access to English books and her independent spirit.
At the launch, Margaret Gambold praised her friend:
“Great fortitude, bravery and determination mark Mariam’s journey – and over the intimate times we shared I grew to immensely admire her – one could say – tunnel vision to integration – despite any and many obstacles.
She is in every way one of the pioneers for all African refugee women. A leader, an encourager and most of all a caring and sharing individual who has opened the gateway for those who dare to follow.”
Mariam talked of Somalia’s culture of storytellers and the way it helps to humanize, empower and educate one another. “We can visit one another’s reality with compassion … and just understand the other person.”
It is impossible to believe that Mariam will stop talking about her remarkable story. To learn more, you can obtain a copy of A Resilient Life here.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Romy Ash's Floundering

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

Romy Ash's Floundering is a first novel. It's a relationship road story. Narrator Tom, and his older brother Jordy have been living with their grandmother. They are spirited away by their dysfunctional mother Loretta across the Nullabor to Western Australia.

The beach caravan park, where they camp up, is no place for things to go wrong in her last ditch attempt to get back into their lives. It's home to sundry misfits who present a frightening introduction to the darker sides of humanity.

Tom leaves childhood behind as the boys face some rude awakenings and loss of innocence. The arid, stark landscapes are a fitting backdrop to the harsh reality in which they find themselves.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Anna Funder's All That I Am

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

Anna Funder's All That I Am deserves it's place on the shortlist for the 2012 Miles Franklin award.

Her first novel, like her acclaimed non-fictional Stasiland, has a weighty theme with a bitter German flavour. At its heart is the life and death of radical activist Dora Fabian from the two narrators Ernst Toller and Ruth Becker/Wesemann. The first person chapter-about accounts chart their futile struggle in fighting the rise of Nazism between the world wars.
All that we are not stares back at all that we are.
Though many of the characters are based on real people, it is a work of the imagination rather than just an historical drama.

At its core the story is about love. The dominance of cousin Dora in Ruth’s life is balanced by Dora’s on-again off-again love affair with Toller. It’s politics as personal.
At the end of our lives it is our loves we remember most, because they are what shaped us. We have grown to be who we are around them, as around a stake.
I found the book hard to put down yet hard to write about. It compels us to confront many of the dark threads of the twentieth century: the horror of war and failure of the peace; the popularity of fascism and anti-Semitism; the complicity of many in the British ruling class and elsewhere; the brutal, calculated march by the Nazis to the final solution.

Also at its centre is the plight of German refugees from the Third Reich. Their attempts to warn the world of the impending tragedy were sometimes met with deportation. The disturbing question of why people choose to close their minds is one that resounds too loudly in our century.
It is not that people lack imagination. It is that they stop themselves using it. Because once you have imagined such suffering, how could you still do nothing.
This is not meant to be a review. There are numerous quality reviews online. The following interview with Anna Funder canvasses many aspects of the intersection between history and fiction, plus the writer’s art. Anna also talks about her friendship with the real life Ruth and her Australian connection.

We should pay tribute to people, like those in the novel, who stand up to the jackboot with ideas not weapons. Those who give all that they are.

As I was writing this learned that All That I Am has been awarded the Australian Book Industry Award for Book of the Year 2012.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Jaye Ford's Beyond Fear

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

Beyond Fear was Jaye Ford's first novel, published in 2011. It's promoted as a crime story but is essentially a psychological thriller.

The first part is tightly written and builds the suspense and tension very effectively. Jaye's style is minimalist with hardly an adjective or adverb crowding out the action. Her dialogue is also to the point and flows quite naturally.

The two protagonists Jodie and Matt are flawed by their respective violent histories. Much of the psychological exploration centres on their attempts to overcome their inner fears, hence the title.

The novel is too long for my tastes. Once the bad guys bring the inevitable shift from potential to real threat, there is one anti-climax after another without the anticipated resolution. The suspense is drawn out and there are just too many false finishes. But then this is not my preferred genre. The twists and turns clearly appeal to others as it has sold well and been translated into six languages.

It's a scenario that could make a successful movie with tight direction and editing.

Jaye made an short interview for her publisher Random House about writing the book:

There is an excerpt from Beyond Fear on her website.

Her latest offering is Scared Yet?, which has similar themes.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Gail Jones’ Sorry

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

It may seem a big ask but every Australian should read Gail Jones’ novel Sorry.

Set in Western Australia, it covers the depression and war years from 1930 to 1945. Anthropologist and Great War veteran Nicholas Keene takes his wife Stella to the Kimberley near Broome to study “the natives’. Their daughter Perdita is born there and increasingly relies on local aboriginal people for the care that her dysfunctional parents are unable to give her.

It’s a story about relationships: family, friends, and community. It is fundamentally about the lives of outsiders: the dispossessed, the isolates, those who live on the fringes of society, the unseen and the unheard.

If sorry is just a word as some politicians have argued, words are central to this narrative. Language is at its heart: written, spoken and signed. Books are central. Nicholas is a great book collector. Perdita and her aboriginal friend Mary are “hidden in the valley of pages”. Ironically, Mary reads about Captain Cook as Perdita follows Dickens’ ill-treated child David Copperfield.

The girls are not just linked through their love of literature. They become sisters within the aboriginal skin system, establishing relationships and obligations that continue to be important throughout the story.

Despite her difficulty understanding Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s classic holds a special place for Perdita. It has numerous parallels to Sorry: the isolation; the treatment of the indigenous people; the horror within and between individuals.

The bard and his “big questions” strut across this antipodean stage throughout. Stella retreats further and further into Shakespeare as her own mental state collapses: Hamlet, Lear, Othello and the MacBeths. Fittingly, Perdita’s name comes from The Winter’s Tale.

Mary has a literary theory that “when people read the same words they were imperceptibly knitted”. They share “ imperceptible continuities and inspiring revelations”. One of her favourite books is the Lives of the Saints, a Catholic tome intended to both inspire and frighten its young readers. Later it helps to knit the girls together when they are separated. However, Perdita is not won over by the nuns’ quest to save her “immortal soul”.

Despite all Stella’s soliloquies, Sorry is steeped in silence. Perdita’s other friend Billy is a “deaf mute”. She is condemned to her own form of invisibility by a severe stutter that starts dramatically when she is ten.

Perdita explores her own theories. She questions whether reading is “a channel, somehow, between author and reader, an indefinable intimacy, a secret pact?”

Gail Jones establishes much of her intimacy through the use of Perdita’s first-person passages that are far more revealing of her inner life than the more matter-of-fact third person narrative.

Gail’s use of language is unusual. Her vocabulary would be familiar to readers in the 1930s but she brings an original style that sometimes demands a lot of her audience:
“In the smaller community of three, taut with conjugal unhappiness and the burden of an unacceptable child…”

“Stella’s words still carried sensuous violence. She performed virtual murders as other women did gossip, and she had been seduced not by the comedies, but by the horrors of the tragedies; not by the love sonnets, melliferous and sweet, but by those that dealt with the morbid erosions of time. Unmaking obsessed her, and the making of nonentity.”

“Afraid of slumbery agitations…”
Dreams and memories are a vitally important part of these agitations. While Stella dreams of snow falling in the desert, Nicholas' nocturnal wandering takes him on a very unsatisfactory visit to an aboriginal campfire. In fact snow is the final image of Perdita’s recollections.

In her concluding A NOTE ON ‘SORRY’, Gail explains the significance of the word for indigenous people in Australia. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s historic apology to the stolen generations did not come for another year. The novel has many messages but these are channelled through the personal rather than the didactic. It is “a story told in a whisper”.

Coincidentally, I read Gail’s account of the 1942 Japanese bombing of Broome on 3 March, the 70th anniversary of the attack. Sixteen flying boats were sunk with dozens killed, including many Dutch civilians. The remains of the planes can be visited during very low tides, as we did a few times when living in Broome in 2007.

In another coincidence, the last chapter begins with the words of the title of the last novel I reviewed What Remains. There is a note of hope to finish - "something venerable and illustrious beneath such waste" beyond the horror. The final word is “peace”.

By the way Sorry is also a bit of a murder mystery. Enjoy!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Denise Leith's What Remains

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012

Denise Leith’s novel What Remains is first and foremost a love story. Its final chapters are a moving account of the realisation of a friendship that smoulders throughout the novel.

It is also a war story, set in many of the worst conflicts of the last twenty years. It begins and ends with Iraq: Bush Senior’s Gulf War and W’s shock and awe invasion and occupation. It takes us to the darkest corners of human behaviour in Bosnia, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Rwanda especially.

We are not spared the horror. The church in Nyarubuye will haunt the reader as it does journalist and narrator, Kate Price. Denise’s exploration of the nature of evil is very confronting. How can anyone machete or rape a child?

At the same time she examines the forces that attract correspondents and photojournalists to cover the barbarism we call war. For photographer Peter McDermott, “This is who I am. This is where it begins and ends for me.” Terms like Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome can never do justice to the prices they pay for this deadliest of careers. Her earlier Bearing Witness: The Lives of Correspondents and Photojournalists is a non-fiction analysis of this phenomenon.

I am reminded of Australian combat cameraman Neil Davis who received worldwide acclaim for his work in Vietnam and Cambodia during the Indochina war. It was a fatal addiction - he was killed in Bangkok in 1985 filming an attempted coup.

It is Denise’s first novel. Her lean, economical style is reminiscent of that other witness to war – Ernest Hemingway. You won’t find many adjectives or adverbs or transitional words. Although it sometimes lacks the polish of a practiced professional storyteller, its rawness creates much of its power. She concentrates on small details of people and places to create the big pictures of a world gone crazy. Photographs and pictorial memories are key elements. In addition, the first-person narrative is well suited to its emotional purposes – self examination and self discovery.

The novel is old-fashioned in several ways. It’s easy to read and often hard to put down. Denise creates intimacy through the subtle use of the senses rather than bedroom gymnastics. She doesn’t do hot sex scenes.

On the other hand, it is very modern. It begins and ends with email.

The climax is not unexpected. It is foreshadowed throughout the book. What remains? A day after reading, it is the people who wake each day in places the places and situations that most of us could not even imagine.

PS Yesterday we had the opportunity to hear and meet Denise Leith at a Beaumaris Books’ evening event at one of the local cafés Malt. Her thought-provoking talk helped to inform this review.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Amanda Lohrey's The Philosopher's Doll

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012:

[Warning: As they say in cinema reviews, this post may contain spoilers.]

It may have been a mistake to follow Marion Halligan’s Valley of Grace with another novel that has a philosopher who doesn't want to have children, and a tense encounter with confit de canard.

In fact the first part of Amanda Lohrey's The Philosopher's Doll is entitled 'Duck'. Despite the weak pun, it is the most satisfying section of a book that has a split personality. It has strong echoes of some of Philip Roth's better writing.

Melbourne academic Lindsay Eynon is not ready to commit to parenthood. Not even his besotted student Sonia can distract him from his speculations about the meaning of reality and existence. Through his teaching we encounter Descartes' and La Mettrie's attempts to unravel the same puzzles. Rumours of René's mechanical doll resurrect the Enlightenment disputes between science and religion. Are we humans just machines that bleed? The theories of his compatriot and follower, La Mettrie, sow questions about the animal soul.

Appropriately named, the next section 'Dog' explores communication breakdown, as husband and wife secretly pursue their separate agenda. Lindsay takes a bizarre detour down the Great Ocean Road to doggy breeding land. His disturbing experiences there should have been an omen. Yet like a Thomas Hardy character who has seemingly lost both commonsense and freewill, he can't help himself.

At the same time Lohrey constructs a pregnancy testing manual, as Kirsten turns to medical science as a substitute for sharing or ethical decision-making. Perhaps her work at what used to called a home for juvenile delinquents clouds her judgment a tad.

Just as the story approaches what should be its climax, there is an abrupt change of voice. Sonia emerges from nowhere to give us not one but two coda (should that be codas or code?). The abrupt jump from third to first person narrative challenges our understanding of earlier realities, especially Lindsay's point of view. This literary device is both intriguing and annoying.

This final third of the novel recounts Sonia's attempts to reconcile her obsessive youth. In 'Dildo' the reader does not get the hoped-for climax. At the very least, we learn that old dogs can be taught new tricks and younger ones old. The writing and style fall off, though this may be caused by the change of voice.

Nevertheless, we don't actually find out about the dog's fate until the actual coda, 'Torque'. Amanda's metaphors take a final twist as precision flying is used as another literary stunt. Sonia seems incapable of taking cardiologist and pilot David Goodman's advice: "...if you rely on your instincts you'll crash". La Mettrie's fatal dish of pheasant morphs into the latest pregnancy as "Headlong we began our descent." It's a soft but unsatisfactory landing.

If only the dog could speak. Latro ergo sum.

Whether you remember this novel fondly or not, will probably depend on your reactions to its concluding sections. Unfortunately you can't choose your own adventure and discover an alternative resolution. Don't be deterred - give it a go. Amanda's writing is very readable, original and thought provoking.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Australian Women Writers: Marion Halligan’s Valley of Grace

This review is part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012:

Marion Halligan’s Valley of Grace (Allen & Unwin 2009) is a tender and warm treatment of many of life’s challenging aspects: love, relationships, procreation, care of children, religious belief, personal and cultural legacy. To name just some of her major themes.

The novel is set in France, a marked contrast to some earlier works such as The Point that take place in Australia. Its history, culture and architecture occupy much of the story. The presence of a celebrity academic philosopher in the story is emblematic of this context. 

The French fixation with Louis XIV, the Revolution and the German occupation is never far away. The present is still haunted by the ghosts of partisans and collaborators alike.

Interaction with the built environment is also a key element, whether it be homes, renovations or public buildings. So are books and art. It wouldn’t be France without an Art exhibition even if the paintings of flowers fails to inspire. The bookshop, Le Vieux Latin, has a more authentic flavour.

Yet it is the personal that most absorbs Marion. She explores the nature of relationships: love, partnership, monogamy, brief encounters, infidelity. These include single gender partners, both gay and lesbian. The influence of parents is also an essential part of the lives of many of her characters.

Begetting and care of children is a central theme. Whether planned, accidental or unwanted, procreation is pervasive. Whether it is love child or wild child, the flotsam and jetsam of human desire wash up at regular intervals. We encounter sexual exploitation, shocking amorality and complex moral dilemmas. Marion is not afraid to explore the dark side. The treatment of children damaged by disease or by those who should protect them is a disturbing aspect of the narrative.

Religion is never far from the surface. The title comes from the Val de Grace, a Paris church built by Anne of Austria to commemorate the birth of her son Louis XIV after twenty-three years of marriage. The mummified hearts of the royals were apparently used in paint mixture for Art works during the revolution. It’s a metaphor that doesn’t quite gel. A trip to Lourdes for a son and ailing mother brings a strange encounter but no revelations.

Given Halligan’s interest in cuisine, it is surprising that food does not bring more joy in this French setting. The culinary fare is disappointing: unappetising lunch at an upmarket restaurant; a housewarming offering of sushi; steak and chips chosen over “excellent tripe sausages” at a corner bistro. It seems that fois gras and confit of duck cause indigestion for the expectant mother. The best eating happens on a honeymoon in Turkey. (A portion of Louis’ heart is also supposed to have been eaten but this bizarre gastronomic incident is not mentioned).

Two other aspects of the novel were annoying. Firstly, it has too many characters that are often just loosely connected. Secondly, just too much happens. In some ways Valley of Grace is more a series of vignettes than a coherent novel. Less in greater depth would have been more satisfying. But don't be put off. Her intimate but fluid style makes for a good read.

For all the human failings she presents, Marion Halligan leaves us with hope, hope for “happy beginnings… when a child is born.” Hope to build on.