BOOK REVIEW: Reframe: How to Solve the World’s Trickiest Problems (Eric Knight, Black Inc.)

Eric Knight writes that instead of focussing on the details of a problem with a metaphorical magnifying glass, readers should step back and reframe the issue in order to see the bigger picture and all the complicated, contributing factors that are often overlooked. Knight’s blend of sociology, politics and economics forms the basis for this Freakonomics-style book. By reframing the issue, Knight attempts to untangle such thorny subjects as climate change scepticism, terrorism, the Global Financial Crisis and American immigration. Battling terrorism, argues Knight, is about much more than killing terrorists; it requires a strategy of counterinsurgency tactics to shift local alliances away from terrorists. Knight has worked as a lawyer and studied climate change at Oxford. His political ideology could be described as centrist, but he writes without bias in this well-researched book. Reframe seeks to educate readers by offering a broader understanding of the world and its seemingly irrational people. While Knight is an Australian writer, his book focuses on global rather than specifically Australian problems, but these can be used as a template for local issues. Reframe is written in a positive, fresh voice that is accessible to a wide audience, including those new to politics.

Andrew Wrathall is publishing assistant for Bookseller+Publisher. This review first appeared in the Summer issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

INTERVIEW: Eric Knight on ‘Reframe’ (Black Inc.)

Eric Knight is a former Rhodes scholar, who has worked as an economics consultant to the OECD, the UN and the World Bank, and has written for various Australian newspapers. Andrew Wrathall spoke to him about his first book Reframe: How to Solve the World’s Trickiest Problems (Black Inc.). (See the book review here.)

You write that we get distracted by what is visually compelling, but how do we change our focus to look at the bigger picture?
Near the start of the book, I describe a simple puzzle which was developed in the 1940s by the psychologist, Karl Duncker. I won’t go into the details here, but the puzzle intrigued me because I failed miserably at it. I later learnt that five-year-olds were the best at solving it. My mistake—and the one I examine throughout the book—was to view the elements of the puzzle in a stereotypical way and miss the hidden connections between things. Five-year-olds, by contrast, approached the problem with fresh eyes.

Reframe is an attempt to apply Duncker’s insight about human psychology to politics. The way we look at political problems directly affects our ability to solve them. I show a different side to our stickiest problems–from the frontline of the war on terror to Mexicans crossing the border into Tea Party America. The book is an attempt to reframe each of these problems. But even if you disagree with my final conclusions, I try to offer a new way of thinking about how to change the world. Our best answers arise by trial and error, not by the neat application of abstract ideas.

Did your frustration with the way people think drive your need to understand them?
No, I actually came to write Reframe for a very different reason. I’m an optimist about human nature. There have been many books written recently which essentially argue that people are irrational. I make the opposite case: people are rational with a good heart and head.

History, however, is obviously filled with many instances of human misjudgement and error. I explore several of them in the book. My first chapter, for example, is called ‘Why people are smart but act so dumb’. My claim is that these are momentary blips rather than structural flaws. Correction is possible.

We all want to distil complexity in the world around us. When we fail, it is usually because an issue has been misrepresented rather than because of mindful malice. Our greatest challenge is to frame political problems in the right way. An alternative, and inferior, approach is to assume there is a dark side to human nature which can be curbed by benevolent dictum.

Do you believe our world leaders often neglect historical fact?
I think our world leaders are guilty of something more subtle. Politicians simplify messages because they think it makes them easier for us to understand. However, I actually think simplifying problems can make them harder to solve.

World leaders might be better served by heightening their respect for our natural intelligence. They could trust us with more complexity not less. We are not in a political stalemate because our world leaders neglect historical facts, as such. We’re in a stalemate because leaders presume we won’t understand complex facts.

Reframe tackles global problems. Have you thought about writing a book that looks at local issues in Australian politics?
I have thought about it and that might be my next book! But I wrote this book after spending three years living in England. What fascinated me whilst there was that the British fought over political issues for remarkably similar reasons to why we did. The same applied in the United States and continental Europe. The players were different and the factual contexts were obviously unique. But the reasons—the common, almost universal, nature of political misunderstanding—were similar.

That contradicts something commonly said about Australian politics. Australian politics is parochial, people say. They don’t sweat the small stuff in the grander political pastures of North America and Europe. I disagree. It’s the common thread you can weave between the immigration debates in the United States and the climate conundrums of Great Britain which really intrigues me.

I’ll let my readers apply the lessons to Australia. But I think you can get a deeper understanding of your own country by observing a parallel political world abroad.

What was the last book you read and loved?
I really enjoyed Michael Lewis’ new book Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour (Allen Lane). He is a fantastic writer and has a wonderful way of making economics come to life through its quirkiest characters and their real life stories. I also liked Niall Ferguson’s Civilization: The West and the Rest (Allen Lane). He has built a reputation for arguing the counterintuitive side of history. You don’t have to agree with Ferguson to appreciate his ability to distil very complex ideas into simple prose.

Most mentioned this week

For a second week Peter Carey’s  The Chemistry of Tears (Hamish Hamilton) has received the most mentions in Media Extra. Author Alain de Botton, who tours Australia in late February, argues that religion still has some very important things to teach the secular world in Religion for Atheists (Hamish Hamilton). In Vanished Kingdoms (Allen Lane), historian Norman Davies asks how many people know that Glasgow was founded by the Welsh in a period when neither England nor Scotland existed? Also on the most mentioned chart were Jojo Moyes’ Me before You (Michael Joseph) and Peter Carey’s Parrot and Olivier in America (Penguin)–Media Extra.

Bestsellers this week

A man is serving a life sentence for a murder he did not commit. Private investigator Paige Holden witnesses the execution of the man’s fiancé, the woman having handed the investigator evidence that proves his innocence. In No One Left to Tell (Karen Rose, Hachette), first on the highest new entries chart, PI Holden embarks on a mission to avenge the murdered woman and to set the innocent man free. Private Games (James Patterson, Century) is top of the bestsellers chart and in second place on the fastest movers chart, while Cabin Fever: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Jeff Kinney, Puffin), down a spot from last week, is in second place on the bestsellers chart. Believing the Lie (Elizabeth George, Hachette) is third on the bestsellers chart and, for the second week in a row, first on the fastest movers chart–Weekly Book Newsletter.

BOOK REVIEW: Mateship with Birds (Carrie Tiffany, Macmillan)

Published five years ago, Carrie Tiffany’s Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was a remarkably assured debut novel, recognised as such by the Miles Franklin and Orange Prize judges. She has brought the same clear-eyed intelligence about human relations and seamless narrative style to her second novel, Mateship with Birds. We are in familiar territory, in rural Victoria, this time post WWII rather than WWI. Harry is a divorced dairy farmer, living alone. His next-door neighbour, Betty, is a single mother of two who works at the town’s nursing home. We follow the vicissitudes of Harry and Betty’s daily and seasonal lives through their interactions, and those of Betty’s children, as well as through a window into the inner lives of both. The ‘mateship’ of the title, captured through the birdwatching episodes which feature throughout, is also a deceptive device, as Harry watches (and lusts after) Betty. At the same time, he earnestly attempts to give her son the s-x education he is so aware he himself lacked. This is a splendidly poised and wryly funny novel: human nature and relationships are as beautifully observed as the rich, circadian rhythms (I’ve not read better prose about the intimate intricacy of dairy farming) of country life. It is clever, original and richly rewarding.

David Gaunt is co-owner of Gleebooks in Sydney. This review first appeared in the Summer 2011/12 issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

Bestselling ebooks Christmas 2011

If you’re looking for information on ebook sales in Australia, stats can be pretty hard to come by. While Nielsen BookScan charts the bestselling books in Australia each week, they are yet to break out ebook sales, and individual retailers are reluctant to share sales data. However, these ebook charts from bookshops Pages & Pages, Avid Reader and Readings, released during the Christmas period, show a diverse range of bestsellers, including many that have appeared in bestseller charts for print books over the past few months. These charts give a sense of the type of customer that enjoys buying from each particular bookshop.

Collins Booksellers recently began using Kobo for ebooks, which is also used by the Borders and Angus & Robertson websites. The Kobo chart shows the ebooks that Australian readers purchased during Christmas.

The charts by Apple and Google represent some of the ebook sales after Christmas in Australia, but are continually updated (on a daily or weekly basis). They give an indication of what books are currently popular.

Pages & Pages Booksellers, Sydney (Christmas)
Ebook provider: ReadCloud

  1. Caleb’s Crossing (Geraldine Brooks, Fourth Estate)
  2. Go the F**k to Sleep (Adam Mansbach, illus by Ricardo Cortés, Text)
  3. Harry Curry: Counsel of Choice (Stuart Littlemore, HarperCollins)
  4. A Captain of the Gate (John Birmingham, HarperCollins)
  5. Bereft (Chris Womersley, Scribe)
  6. Hiroshima Nagasaki (Paul Ham, HarperCollins)
  7. Micro (Michael Crichton, HarperCollins)
  8. Susanna An Erotic Adventure: Triptych 1 (Krissy Kneen, Text)
  9. The Apothecary (Maile Meloy, Text)
  10. The Marriage Plot (Jeffrey Eugenides, Fourth Estate)
Avid Reader Bookshop, Brisbane (Christmas)
Ebook provider: Booki.sh

  1. Whispering Death (Garry Disher, Text)
  2. Autumn Laing (Alex Miller, A&U)
  3. The Best Australian Stories 2011 (ed by Cate Kennedy, Black Inc.)
  4. The Family Law (Benjamin Law, Black Inc.)
  5. I Love You but I’m Not in Love with You: Seven Steps to Saving Your Relationship (Andrew G Marshall, Bloomsbury)
  6. Eating and Drinking Melbourne (ed by Dale Campisi et al, Hardie Grant)
  7. The 2012 Foodies’ Guide to Brisbane (Karen Reyment, Hardie Grant)
  8. Silence (Rodney Hall, Pier 9)
  9. With My Body (Nikki Gemmell, Fourth Estate)
  10. The Many Worlds of R H Mathews (Martin Thomas, A&U)
Readings Books, Melbourne (Christmas)
Ebook provider: Booki.sh

  1. Quarterly Essay 41 The Happy Life (David Malouf, Black Inc.)
  2. You’ll Be Sorry When I’m Dead (Marieke Hardy, A&U)
  3. Quarterly Essay 43 (Robert Manne, Black Inc.)
  4. Readings and Writings: Forty Years in Books  (ed by Jason Cotter & Michael Williams, Readings Books)
  5. Melbourne (Sophie Cunningham, NewSouth)
  6. Quarterly Essay 40 Trivial Pursuit (George Megalogenis, Black Inc.)
  7. Bereft (Chris Womersley, Scribe)
  8. Sarah Thornhill (Kate Grenville, Text)
  9. Sideshow: Dumbing down Democracy (Lindsay Tanner, Scribe)
  10. The Bogan Delusion (David Nichols, Affirm Press)
Kobo (Christmas)

  1. Second Son: Jack Reacher Short Story (Lee Child, Transworld Digital)
  2. The Help (Kathryn Stockett, Penguin)
  3. The Unremarkable Heart (Karin Slaughter, Cornerstone Digital)
  4. Saving Rachel (John Locke, Smashwords)
  5. Angle of Investigation: Three Harry Bosch Stories (Michael Connelly, A&U)
  6. Zero Day (David Baldacci, Macmillan)
  7. The Drop: Harry Bosch Mystery 15 (Michael Connelly, A&U)
  8. Bloody Valentine (James Patterson, Cornerstone Digital)
  9. Letter from Chicago (Cathy Kelly, HarperCollins)
  10. The Ugly Sister (Jane Fallon, Penguin)
Apple iTunes (mid-January)

  1. A Game of Thrones (George R R Martin, HarperVoyager)
  2. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson, Quercus)
  3. I Heart New York (Lindsey Kelk, HarperCollins)
  4. Cosmo’s Sexiest Stories Ever (Jane Green, Jennifer Weiner, Meg Cabot, Cosmopolitan)
  5. The Help (Kathryn Stockett, Penguin)
  6. Lothaire (Kresley Cole, S&S)
  7. Steve Jobs (Walter Isaacson, Little Brown)
  8. Someone Else’s Daughter (Linsey Lanier, self-published)
  9. The Smurfs Movie Storybook (Zuuka staff, Zuuka)
  10. Open Andre (Andre Agassi, HarperCollins)
Google ebooks (mid-January)

  1. Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen, A&U)
  2. A Game of Thrones (George R R Martin, HarperVoyager)
  3. The Happiest Refugee (Anh Do, A&U)
  4. Suicide Run: Three Harry Bosch Stories (Michael Connelly, Orion)
  5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows, A&U)
  6. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (Stieg Larsson, Quercus)
  7. The Fifth Witness (Michael Connelly, A&U)
  8. The Lightkeeper’s Wife (Karen Viggers, A&U)
  9. Ice Station (Matthew Reilly, Macmillan)
  10. The Dukan Diet (Pierre Dukan, Hodder)

BOOK REVIEW: The Reluctant Hallelujah (Gabrielle Williams, Penguin)

Seventeen-year-old Dodie Farnshaw just wanted to finish high school, sit her Year 12 exams and get on with the rest of her life. Delivering a very important dead guy to Sydney just two weeks before her final exams was not in the plan. Neither was her parents going missing, becoming a fugitive and falling in love. And she certainly wasn’t anticipating a road trip that would change her life. Funny, vibrant and at times incredibly moving, The Reluctant Hallelujah is a beautiful novel about finding faith in the strangest of places. With a quirky cast of characters, this novel captures a wide range of relationships and skilfully explores that time in a teenager’s life when everything is changing. Sharp, clever and surprisingly amusing for a book about a dead man, Gabrielle William’s latest YA adventure is a bittersweet story filled with characters you’ll never want to leave behind, and a road trip you’ll wish was your own. This book will appeal to a 15-plus age group, and is a must-read for fans of William’s widely acclaimed first YA novel, Beatle Meets Destiny.

Meg Whelan works at the Hill of Content bookshop in Melbourne. This review first appeared in the Summer issue of Bookseller+Publisher magazine.

Most mentioned this week

Peter Carey’s latest novel The Chemistry of Tears (Hamish Hamilton) received the most mentions in Media Extra this week. In the story, Catherine is the leading lady. When her lover dies suddenly, all Catherine has left is her work at London’s Swinburne Museum. When she finds the diary of a mysterious clockmaker, she becomes obsessed with uncovering the truth about his life. Also listed on the most mentioned chart this week were Breakdown by Sara Paretsky (Hodder & Stoughton), A Common Loss by Kirsten Tranter (HarperCollins), The Fortunes of Richard Mahony (Henry Handel Richardson, various imprints) and The Glass Canoe (David Ireland, various imprints)–Media Extra.

Bestsellers this week

The nephew of Bernard Fairclough, a wealthy and influential business magnate, has died and Inspector Thomas Lynley is sent in undercover to investigate. The official cause of death is ruled as an accidental drowning but when Lynley and his friends start digging, it becomes clear that the Fairclough clan is awash in secrets, lies, and possible motives for murder. Believing the Lie (Elizabeth George, Hachette), the latest in the Lynley detective series, is top of the fastest movers chart followed by James Patterson’s crime novel set during the 2012 Olympics, Private Games (Century). Jeff Kinney‘s Cabin Fever: Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Puffin) is again at the top of the bestsellers chart, followed by Private Games . Lisa Niemi Swayze’s book Worth Fighting for (Simon & Schuster), describing her husband Patrick’s battle with pancreatic cancer, is top of the highest new entries chart–Weekly Book Newsletter.

Craig Cliff on ‘the trans-Tasman literary gulf’ and how to bridge it

In Melbourne, author Eleanor Catton and I appeared in a session called ‘New New Zealand Fiction’. If the session’s blurb in the program is anything to go by, the festival organisers envisioned us talking about our own work and its relationship to broader national themes. I don’t think they expected us to be grilled by the chair, expatriate Kiwi Sue Green, about why most New Zealand books ‘just aren’t any good’ (I did my best to disabuse her of this notion) and why Australians don’t read New Zealand writers and vice versa.

I left that session feeling as if I’d never got out of first gear. This isn’t to say there should not be discussions on either side of the Tasman about the lack of dialogue between our literatures, but that writers (however meagre their credentials) are best placed to come up with answers to broad questions when alone at their computers rather than on the fly and in front of an audience.

So what do I think about the trans-Tasman literary gulf now, secreted in my home office with several weeks to write this?

More can certainly be done to get us reading our neighbours. The internet is a woefully under-utilised tool in this regard. An Australasian version of the writing community Zoetrope.com would be a start (perhaps Peter Jackson could play the role of Francis Ford Coppola?). And  what about a trans-Tasman epublishing house that specialises in picking up all the zany manuscripts from MA and MFA students that over-cautious, overhead-burdened mainstream publishers shrink from taking on?

I also think the time has come to reconsider an overtly trans-Tasman literary journal, either in print or online, one with some real intellectual chops. Or perhaps expand the Best Australian series (Essays, Stories, Poems) to Best Australasian–though it may be easier to do a Dave Eggers and start a Best Australasians Non Required Reading.

Literature festivals can certainly play a bigger part, too. In Sydney this year, the only New Zealanders I noticed on the program were Bernard Beckett, the Goodbye Sarajevo sisters and me (and I was only there because if the Commonwealth Writers Prize). More New Zealand writers taking part in Australian festivals (preferably not cordoned off in a ‘New Zealand only’ section), and more Aussies coming here would be great. It’s great to see Kim Scott and Kate Grenville are coming to the Wellington Writers and Readers Week in March, but it’d be nice if you didn’t need to win a Miles Franklin to get an invitation. A few years of free events featuring new mid-list Australian authors (hopefully with some financial help from their Council for the Arts) should kick-start more trans-Tasman conversation and collaboration.

This article is excerpted from ‘The Festival Lowdown’ in the December/January issue of The New Zealand Author. Craig Cliff is the author of A Melting Man (Random House) and winner of the 2011 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book. He will be a guest of the Perth Writers Festival in February. For more from Cliff, visit his website or blog.