Book Review: The View from the Cheap Seats

Neil Gaiman is one of those authors that can make any other writer can blanch when comparing their own work with his. From novels and comic books, to even writing screenplay adaptations, he is a highly accomplished author and it would be no surprise if even more of his work was adapted into TV and film in the coming year – I’m already counting the days until American Gods premieres.

I’m breaking into a sweat even thinking about writing a review of of anything Gaiman has written – let alone a book collecting amongst other things his own reviews of other people’s work.

The View from the Cheap Seats is a typical Gaiman creation in that there’s a lot more to it than is evident on a quick peruse. This is one of those collections that you won’t necessarily want to read from from to back in one sitting, and nor do you need to given the varied content broken up into discreet sections. There are reviews of movies, discussions on relationships with other authors and artists, thoughts on science fiction and comics. For mine, the first section is one of the best: thoughts on the importance of libraries, bookshops and Halloween to name three topics. That said, Gaiman’s ability to engage works equally as well in the non-fiction realm and I haven’t been tempted to skip chapters on topics of little interest.

If you’re after a book of essays that are written with skill and passion, then definitely give The View From The Cheap Seats a go. If you’re looking for wild fantasy you won’t find it, but in its place you’ll fine something equally as satisfying.

 

Review: The Ellis Laws

ellis-lawsThere’s no shortage of stereotypes surrounding older people. A key one revolves around the idea that those over say, fifty, get very set in their ways and that this worsens with the passing of the remaining decades. Add to that the related claim that most old blokes turn into crusty old grumps who see little good about the future, and you have a pretty potent image of what Bob Ellis and The Ellis Laws might be about.

The trouble is, and perhaps this is because I’m the wrong side of forty myself, The Ellis Laws is probably one of the most cogent, incisive looks at modern society that I’ve read. Whether it’s the role of CEOs or the lack of sleep most of us suffer from there’s some very well argued positions that are very difficult to refute – at least from my male, over-40 viewpoint anyway. Ellis relishes the role of observer and it stands him in good stead throughout – there’s less overstatement than I expected and also an avoidance of glorifying the past too overtly. I wouldn’t go as far as to say that Ellis puts forward an upbeat view, but he at least provides some building blocks on which he believes some positive changes could happen.

As the cover blurb puts so well, this is a small book that puts forward the “laws of life we always knew, but have not before now seen put in words”. Yes it’s meant to be irreverent, but that is only one aspect. There are some concepts discussed that force some pretty deep introspection, and that for me was the biggest reward this work generated.

You can buy the book for yourself here for the princely sum of $9.99. It’s ten dollars extremely well spent, and one of the few books this year that I’ll be handing on to others recommending they have a read also.

For transparency: I’m a big fan of Bob Ellis’ published works and I have previously written a review of his stage adaptation of Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister (which I’ve also reviewed). After that review Mr Ellis kindly organised a lunch with myself and Bob Carr as a thank you. It was one of the most illuminating lunches of my sheltered life, but I don’t feel indebted to either Bob in any way and hope it hasn’t influenced this review in any way.

Review: Diary of a Foreign Minister by Bob Carr

bob-carrEveryone has their mental picture of Bob Carr. For me he was the animated Premier with the great speaking voice (a strength Mr Carr acknowledges repeatedly throughout the book). For others he was the guy who looked like Ginger Meggs’ dad. For anyone, he should be at least acknowledged as one of the most significant ALP figures of the past forty years. And it’s from that perspective that Diary of a Foreign Minister is written.

This doesn’t mean it’s an egotistical perspective – although some in the mainstream media have painted it that way. It’s more that Mr Carr has a highly developed self-awareness of his place within the ALP and the then Government – and that he sees that place as involving a full and frank account of his time as Foreign Minister. That account covers a huge range of issues, which for sake of simplicity I’ll split it into three main areas: foreign affairs, domestic politics and personal observations.

Foreign Affairs

Even a more casual observer of politics tends to know Bob Carr had always had an ambition to be Foreign Minister, which he’d put aside when called to lead the ALP in Opposition in 1988. When he was parachuted into Mark Arbib’s casual Senate vacancy, the realisation of that ambition was understandably savoured by Carr. That said, his initial learning curve and fear of a misstep are documented clearly – again someone aware of their stature but not assuming that it’s enough to get through those first few months.

The starkest image to come out of this book is the relentless pace the role of Foreign Minister involves. It’s difficult to gauge if Carr was travelling at the level expected as Minister or whether he had stepped the pace up a notch given his awareness of how brief his role was likely to be given the ALP’s electoral fortunes. Either way, it’s revelatory as to how a person tries to perform optimally within some of the timetables discussed in the book. If he’s stayed honest as a diarist, it appears Carr does perform and covers the gamut of issues presented to the “Foreign Ministers Club” that he enjoyed being a member of so thoroughly. Whether it’s China – US relations, the emergence of Myanmar from an era of secrecy and sanctions, the relationship with Indonesia, or making progress in the Middle East, there’s detailed insights into current thinking internationally and a nuanced approach to each issue as it arises. There’s plenty of sources cited directly, which provides some further meat to the narrative.

For Carr, the variety of policy challenges to tackle is savoured, and he’s also surprised at what turns out to be one of his biggest foreign policy passions in the job – and it’s not any of the ones mentioned in this review. One of many interesting themes throughout is that of relationships and their importance. As you’d expect, the rapport built with Ministers from other countries, ambassadors, NGOs and key interest groups are critical to dealing with new challenges. Carr repeatedly illustrates how regular contact with his contemporaries on the foreign policy playing field delivered results. One specific point worth mentioning here: Carr’s mentions of the ‘Melbourne-based Israel lobby’ that received so much attention on the book’s release, are marginal and primarily used as a contrast on wider opinions about settlements and Palestinian status in the Middle East.

Domestic Politics

The book covers the last fourteen months of Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership and the dozen or so weeks of Kevin Rudd’s return. As you’d expect from a diary with a focus predominantly on the world stage, Carr paints a picture of himself as senior ALP statesmen floating above the majority of the leadership tensions and day-to-day grind of party machinations. There are regular interactions with Sam Dastyari from the party machine, and less frequent meetings with key Rudd agitators, but it’s all portrayed as a frustrating process taking away from precious time in achieving goals in the job itself.

What’s more interesting is Carr’s relationship with both Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd. Nearly all the interactions mentioned are in context of foreign policy, and in the case of both Prime Ministers it appears Carr perceived a decent working relationship albeit with a number of respective frustrations. He’s measured in his criticisms of both individuals but they’re still forcefully put and you’d be a little naïve to think that there weren’t deeper concerns that haven’t made the book. There’s a handful of mentions of how better judgement calls may have been made by Carr if he’d been sitting in the PM’s chair. Given the history of the ALP over the past five years or so, it’s a claim that’d be hard to refute.

Carr’s relationship with the ALP is painted very much in context of the stump speaker still engaged with branches, with much more reluctant interactions with the ALP machine. There’s some understandable self-interest in that portrayal in a book designed for general consumption, as every politician lives or dies by the public’s judgement on their accessibility. I have some doubts that the ratio of local campaigning versus internal party discussions would be the same if it were a diary written for a select few. That said, it’s still one of the most forthright discussions on the internal workings of the ALP I’ve seen from a political diarist, particularly given the focus of the book is on the Foreign Minister role.

Personal Observations

Any diary or political memoir needs to illustrate the personality of the subject as much as the outcomes of their endeavours, and in this regard the book deserves acclaim. Sure, a non-smoking happily married man with an obsession about keeping healthy eliminates a lot of the awkward disclosures that other politicians might agonise over when debating what makes the cut or not. Even so, we get a well fleshed out view of Mr Carr’s passions for food, culture and friends.

The mentions of exercise routines and the seeking of ‘edible’ food are constant companions throughout, but not to the extent of being irritating. There’s certainly some scathing criticisms of the Australian Parliament House (its food, design, social amenity and location) and no shortage of biting comments on a range of accommodation, bureaucrats and functions. It’s done in a way that mostly avoids coming across as prepossessed and provides some humour as well.

The most interesting section of personal observations not surprisingly falls around friends and contemporaries. The relationship with the Kissingers in referred to repeatedly and appears a mutual source of enjoyment. There’s high regard for Indonesia’s Marty Natalegawa and the US’ Hilary Clinton and John Kerry. With the focus of the book being so broad, there’s not a lot of insight into Carr’s close friends, although this could also have been a direct side effect of the constant travel. Even so, the level of personal observation of the role, life and politics is of a standard to keep the book fresh throughout.

I want to throw in two key quotes that I particularly enjoyed. The first occurs in the last days of the second Rudd Government, where Carr is representing the Prime Minister at the G20 in St Petersburg.  On looking around at those assembled, Carr has judged the contributions overall as pedestrian, and he makes some observations on getting to this level of influence:

The Australian Foreign Minister in his navy-blue tailored suit and his Hermès tie – he grew up in a fibro house on a sandhill where bare feet wore out old lino and fried eggs on fried bread would pass as Sunday-night dinner. The Minister for Foreign Affairs of the Commonwealth of Australia is like all his ilk: making it up as he goes along, improvising and thinking out loud and hoping it all hangs together.

The second quote is aimed at those seeking a career in politics. Carr has a pretty succinct message on how to do it well:

That’s all. Look them in the eye. Fling the words out in an energised voice. Make connection. Personalise. I know this community, I know this crowd; it’s confidence that lends resonance. Fling the ideas out like an athlete throwing a discus; don’t mumble apologetically.In the end, psychology shapes the message – do you like your audience, like your story, like yourself in the role? Sometimes the medium is the message.

Summary

Diary of a Foreign Minister is a readable, entertaining and substantive look at a fascinating period in Australian and international politics. Bob Carr as a diarist manages to tease out somewhat complex foreign policy issues in a way that makes them both digestible and interesting. Like any diary it provides as many questions as answers, but Mr Carr’s level of disclosure is enough to be able to finish the book satisfied that any omissions haven’t fundamentally undermined the intent of the book.

If you struggle with well developed egos, you may find the book a challenge, but a challenge worth taking all the same. Anyone looking for some useful insights on the foreign policy challenges facing Australia over the coming decades could do a lot worse than reading this book. I found it an absorbing read from an experienced diarist with little to gain from airbrushing key events, and that in the end is the sign of a good diary.

1953 Sci-Fi At Its Best: The Rotifers

The RotifersWe all have stories from our childhood that scared the hell out of us – or at least entranced us with the power of the situation they described. Once such story for me was The Rotifers, which I read in the late 1970s or 1980s in a paperback sci-fi short story collection.

It enough of an impact for me to recall it recently, and after some serious googling (I couldn’t recall the story’s title), I found it on Project Gutenberg. Aside from the fact it was a joy to read again, I was interested to learn that it was more than 25 years old when I read it as a kid. Given some of the domestic descriptions I should have realised, but there you go. Written by Robert Abernathy, the story’s power is in its simplicity and the story premise that still has a lot of power today: that the microscopic can harm us if it wants to.

Anyway – have a read of a 1953 short story that’s likely to give you at least a small case of the creeps.

The Hearts of Men by Chris Barker

I heard an interview with Chris Barker today on the radio, promoting his latest book, The Hearts of Men. I’ve had the fortune of meeting Chris during a previous job role.

chrisbarker.jpg

This is likely to be one hell of a worthwhile read, particularly if you’re a guy and want some reinforcement that you’re not alone in some of the struggles you may go through in your ‘interior life’.

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