BOOK REVIEW: A Short History of Stupid (Helen Razer & Bernard Keane, A&U)

A Short History of StupidA Short History of Stupid is concerned with the rise of Stupidity in a world ruled by ‘fade-resistant individualism’, extreme paternalism, political condescension, conspicuous compassion and ‘the injurious yoga class of the mind’. Your pilots through the increasing idiocy of public debate are Helen Razer and Bernard Keane, prolific columnists and bloggers who are determined to remedy (or at least rail against) the current ubiquity of Stupid. They begin by examining the different ideas and cultural theories that have founded the Western world as we know it. From Descartes to Burckhardt, Marx to Heather Locklear, they discuss whether it was powerful art or powerful market forces that led to the creation of the ‘self’ and its expensively dressed first cousin, the individual. They spotlight the strong correlation between political conservatism and climate denialism, and sail briskly through the popular obsession with ‘personal stories’, which promotes the idea of a person as a narrative. Some chapters, such as the one about holistic yoga and ‘safe spaces’, are less well-referenced than others, but it’s nearly impossible for Razer or Keane to write badly so the writing maintains a consistently entertaining surface. A Short History of Stupid is an excellent, caustic guide to knowing thy Stupid self and liberating thyself from Stupidity by thinking critically.

Hilary Simmons is the assistant editor at Books+Publishing and a freelance journalist.  This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 4, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

Bibliodiversity: A Manifesto for Independent Publishing (Susan Hawthorne, Spinifex Press)

BibliodiversityIn 2002 I attended the launch of Susan Hawthorne’s Wild Politics: Feminism, Globalisation and Bio/diversity and later used it as an economics text. In that book Hawthorne put the case for new ways of thinking and acting to protect and encourage biodiversity in the face of homogenising corporate globalisation.

In her new work, a ‘manifesto’ for independent publishing, Hawthorne considers the publishing industry within its international social context and finds a similar state of affairs and set of requirements for change: the publishing industry is dominated by ‘global megacorp’ publishers who are determined to maximise profit at the expense of small and localised producers, who must fight back by advancing … not biodiversity in this case but bibliodiversity.

Bibliodiversity, an ideal scenario comparable to Habermas’ ‘public sphere’, is ‘a complex self-sustaining system of story-telling, writing, publishing and other kinds of production of orature and literature. The writers and producers are comparable to the inhabitants of an ecosystem. Bibliodiversity contributes to a thriving life of culture and a healthy eco-social system.’

Hawthorne traces the term to a group of Chilean publishers in the 1990s, although this has been disputed by some of their Spanish colleagues. In any case, bibliodiversity has been advocated by the International Alliance of Independent Publishers since the organisation was founded in 2002.

I think Hawthorne is right to suggest that today’s dominant business practices work against genuine diversity in publishing, and that we should aspire to have the makeup of society properly reflected within our industry. That democratic impulse was part of what gave rise to Australia’s Small Press Underground Network (now Small Press Network) when it was founded in 2006.

Unfortunately, Hawthorne does not have a lot to say about how, precisely, the handful of corporations now dominating publishing around the world make survival and growth difficult for small, independent, locally focused publishers, or about the role of other players—notably governments—within the industry. She seems unsure about the place of digital technology within this process (seen both as a threat and as positively reflecting ‘organic patterns and processes’). And we are left to take the assertion of a diversity of voices being swamped by increasingly dominant corporate players—as with many other assertions in the book—on faith.

Bibliodiversity is a valuable call to action, but such action will require further thinking about the world and research into the dynamics of publishing within it. This book will appeal to members or students of the publishing industry who are interested in the global dynamics within it.

Nathan Hollier is director of Monash University Publishing and a past president of the Small Press Network. This review first appeared on the Books+Publishing website in August 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Something Quite Peculiar (Steve Kilbey, Hardie Grant)

something quite peculiarThis memoir from one of Australia’s most gifted songwriters is a lively, anecdotal account of 40-plus years of musicianship. As the frontman of The Church—one of this country’s great rock ‘n’ roll acts—Steve Kilbey gained notoriety for being outspoken, even arrogant: he once declared himself Australia’s best songwriter—to the aggravation of ‘all of Australia’s other best songwriters’, he quips here. All that youthful hubris has mellowed into a narrative voice that’s lightly reflective yet still entertainingly candid. Kilbey recounts (in varying degrees of detail) his teenage beginnings in bands, The Church’s formation and chequered rise to prominence, the obligatory internal conflicts and frustrations with record-label executives, his romances, impressions of contemporaries, and the effects—both salutary and ruinous—of illicit substances on his life, culminating in a heroin habit that would take 11 years to shake. His place assured in the rock firmament, Kilbey is gratifyingly self-deprecating and open about past indiscretions; there’s no self-aggrandising, just plain-speaking, all delivered with Kilbey’s garrulous ‘ol’ cockney geezer’-style charm. Fans of Kilbey’s collaborations with Martin Kennedy may be disappointed to find this partnership is absent from the text.

Gerard Elson is a writer and bookseller who works at Readings St Kilda. This review first appeared in theBooks+Publishing website in August 2013. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Clariel (Garth Nix, A&U)

clarielThe long-awaited prequel to Garth Nix’s ‘Old Kingdom’ series (Sabriel, Lirael and Abhorsen) is going to make a lot of readers very, very happy. After her mother is promoted to the prestigious position of High Goldsmith, Clariel is forced to move from her forest home to the bustling capital Belisaere. Her mother’s new status means that Clariel is expected to behave herself, but she has no plans to marry well and live quietly—more than anything, she wants to join the Forest Borderers. But politics are treacherous in Belisaere, and when Clariel finds herself in the middle of a plot that brings her world crashing down, she must put her plans aside and draw on her own inner strength to survive. With the rich world Nix created in Sabriel, it’s hardly a surprise that he has returned to the Old Kingdom in Clariel. This is a gripping read that is perfect for lovers of dark fantasy aged 12 and up. It can also be read as a stand-alone novel, so if you need proof of why Nix is one of Australia’s most beloved fantasy authors, Clariel is a good place to start.

Holly Harper is an author and children’s bookseller at Readings Carlton. This review first appeared in the Junior Term 3 supplement of Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: Killing Adonis (J M Donellan, Pantera Press)

killingadonisfront-coverFreya’s lifelong dream of working in a Timorese hospital is put on hold when she is shaken by personal tragedy. Instead, she opts for life experience and adventure, and takes a job with the excessively cashed-up Vincetti family, who would give the Sopranos a run for their (substantial) money. Freya is given the task of caring for the favoured Vincetti son, who lies in a coma in the family’s labyrinthine mansion, and soon finds herself embroiled in a weird, chaotic and mysterious family saga. Farcical plotlines, secrets, surreal moments and eccentric characters populate the pages of this satirical black comedy, but as with most good satire explorations run far deeper than the words on the page. J M Donellan (A Beginner’s Guide to Dying in India, Interactive Publications) beautifully illustrates the oft-obscene power of corporations and the excesses and perversions of the very wealthy. His characters, while often outlandish, are believable despite the novel’s sometimes-absurd storylines, and the dialogue is excellent. This is a writer with a deft handle on his craft. Killing Adonis is an immensely pleasurable read and will have some appeal to fans of Wes Anderson’s films and readers looking to be entertained by something a little off-the-wall.

Deborah Crabtree is a Melbourne-based writer and bookseller. This review first appeared in Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: A Bone of Fact (David Walsh, Pan Macmillan)

a bone a factDavid Walsh is founder, owner and patron of Hobart’s MONA (Museum of Old and New Art). He is also a gambler, hedonist and self-described autodidact. A Bone of Fact is lavishly illustrated with images from Walsh’s life, with photographs and reproductions of his favourite artworks, many drawn from the collection at MONA. Like the man himself, Walsh’s memoir is bombastic and scurrilous. In short (three or four page) sections, Walsh tells of a life of obscene wealth, borderline legality and a deep and abiding love of art. The pages are peppered with allusions to art, literature and classical culture, along with prevaricating annotations, which alternately support and discredit the veracity of his musings. It reads like a deeply ironic Richard Branson memoir of success with David Foster Wallace-esque discursions. There is something of the Machiavellian trickster in Walsh’s surrender to pure pleasure and contentment to be ruled by physical and metaphysical desires, rather than legal or logical strictures. Thanks to its author’s pre-existing notoriety, A Bone of Fact will be of interest to both lovers and casual observers of the art world. Pre-existing opinions of Walsh as a reckless, eccentric genius are likely to be confirmed.

Veronica Sullivan is a bookseller and deputy online editor of Kill Your Darling. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Rosie Effect (Graeme Simsion, Text)

Rosie EffectThe Rosie Project’s Don Tillman is back—and so is his odd behaviour. Married for nearly 12 months, Don and Rosie have relocated to New York, where, as you would expect, nothing is going smoothly. An unplanned pregnancy, a divorce, an unexpected house guest and a potentially criminal incident in a playground send Don into a panic. And while Don’s unconventional coping mechanisms seem completely logical to him, they will have the reader yelling: ‘No Don, that’s not the way to do things!’ Though Rosie is accustomed to Don’s behaviour, his impending fatherhood finds her questioning her past and future. There are some heart-wrenching moments in this book when you truly wonder whether Don’s world is about to come tumbling down around him. Graeme Simsion has perfected the art of making the reader feel viscerally uncomfortable with some of Don’s antics, and yet you can’t help but love Don despite them all. Poignant and charming, The Rosie Effect will be just as popular as the Project.

Louise Fay is the special orders manager at Dymocks Adelaide. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: This House of Grief (Helen Garner, Text)

house of griefOn the evening of Father’s Day 2005, Robert Farquharson was driving his three children home to their mother—from whom he was separated—when his car left the road, travelled through a fence and paddock and into an unusually deep dam. Farquarson escaped the car but the three boys, Jai, Tyler and Bailey, drowned.

Helen Garner saw the search and recovery operation on the television news and This House of Grief documents the court cases that followed, in which Farquharson was tried for his sons’ deaths.

Garner has followed a murder trial before. Joe Cinque’s Consolation (Picador) followed the trial of a Canberra woman charged with killing her boyfriend Joe Cinque. As in the former book, Garner’s portraits of the witnesses, lawyers and judges in This House of Grief evidence her skills of observation and communication. Garner does not miss telling details, and she has quiet, always original ways of relaying them. These abilities, combined with her trademark honesty, make any of her works a must-read. Like Joe Cinque’s Consolation and the award-winning novel The Spare Room, This House of Grief is a book that could only have been written by someone who has dedicated their life to human observation.

But there are problems here, too. In writing Joe Cinque’s Consolation Garner developed a close relationship with Cinque’s mother. It meant that beside the descriptions of the courtroom and the way its protocols misshape human emotion and narrative, she could document the Cinques’ heartbreak as it played out at their kitchen table. More importantly, it enabled her to resurrect Cinque for her readers. He was present in a way victims rarely are.

In This House of Grief, despite Garner’s efforts, there is no counterpart to Maria Cinque. She meets Jai, Tyler and Bailey’s maternal grandparents several times outside the courthouse, but their discussion is polite and public. No-one in the family wants to talk to her in depth. So we are left with Garner’s observation of the trial, retrial and appeal: her bewilderment at the barrage of dry facts, devastation at the raw grief of the boys’ mother Cindy Gambino, and her documentation of the awkward tug-of-war between instinct and intellect that all jury trials involve.

Strangely, despite Garner’s obvious skills in rendering her subjects for the reader, I also found I could not quite grasp Farquharson himself. Garner builds her own narrative for Farquharson’s actions—one that is backed by evidence discussed in court but ruled inadmissible. It is plausible, but sometimes descriptions of Farquharson’s words or behaviour would be followed by a reaction from Garner that she somehow failed to also provoke in me. I found myself inferring his impression on the courtroom and jury from these reactions, rather than the descriptions of him that preceded them.

These are minor criticisms, however, and stem perhaps from my unease at reading about such tragedy without the moral cover that participation from the victims’ family might provide. Maybe Garner had to reason with the same unease. It is both fitting and telling that she ends the book with a moving defence of her own grief at the boys’ deaths. Her grief is also the reader’s.

Matthia Dempsey is news editor of Books+Publishing. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: The Break (Deb Fitzpatrick, Fremantle Press)

TheBreakThe Break is the first adult novel from West Australian author Deb Fitzpatrick, whose young-adult titles include 90 Packets of Instant Noodles and Have you Seen Ally Queen? It centres around two families—Rosie and Cray, the young sea-change couple from Fremantle, and Liza and Ferg, the Blue Gum farmers. The families’ lives intermingle in the picturesque setting of Margaret River: first, through their opposition to an encroaching development, and then due to another, more tragic circumstance, based on a real-life event. The story is set in the 1990s, a refreshing touch as technology does not take a front seat, and Fitzpatrick’s love and knowledge of her home state is evident. Her prose is fluid and evocative and the use of excerpts from Robert Drewe’s The Drowner works well. The chapters are short and their choppiness is much like the sea, which is almost another character in the novel. The Break will resonate with fans of Tim Winton, as Fitzpatrick writes about the natural environment with similar texture and intensity. 

Katie Haydon is a former assistant editor of Books+Publishing and a freelance reviewer. This review first appeared in the Books+Publishing magazine Issue 3, 2014. View more pre-publication reviews here.

BOOK REVIEW: How to Save the Universe in Ten Easy Steps (Allison Rushby, A&U)

how to save the universeIf Arthur Dent from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was a 10-year-old boy with an annoying twin sister, then this might be his story. Connor discovers his grouchy twin sister is actually an alien the day before his 10th birthday party. She has been protecting him for the past 10 years because it’s his role to save the universe. But now, intergalactic bounty hunters have discovered his location and are coming to kill him. Naturally, Connor thinks this is all a big joke and he’s being filmed for reality TV, but when events start getting extremely weird, the alien truth becomes hard to ignore. Despite having no discernible talents, apart from knowing the exact time down to the millisecond, Connor must somehow save the world even though he has absolutely no idea how. Throw in a talking dog, some giant slugs and numerous other aliens, and you’ve got a somewhat complicated but quite hilarious intergalactic adventure. Boys and girls aged eight to 10 who like a bit of fantasy with their humour will enjoy this fun romp through space. Despite much strangeness and absurdity, it has a sweet and satisfying charm that will appeal to young fans of Neil Gaiman and Eoin Colfer.

Angela Crocombe is a children’s book specialist at Readings St Kilda. This review first appeared in the Junior Term 3, 2014 supplement of Books+Publishing magazine. View more pre-publication reviews here.