2010 retrospective 3: my top reads of the year

I have been slack in the book reviewing department, having posted on just some of what I have read. But then I read around 5 or 6 books every week!

You can follow the best of tag to see what has really taken my fancy.  I did pick a winner earlier this year with Eva Hornung’s Dog Boy. A March choice, Justin Sheedy’s delightful Goodbye Crackernight, delivered me a new Facebook friend – the author.

I really should add two recent reads.

smiley-happy005smiley-happy005[6]smiley-happy005[8]smiley-happy005[10]smiley-happy005[12]Sadakat Kadri, The Trial: A History, from Socrates to O.J. Simpson (2005).

For as long as accuser and accused have faced each other in public, criminal trials have been establishing more than who did what to whom, and in The Trial: A History, from Socrates to O.J. Simpson, Sadakat Kadri explores just what humanity has spent the last four thousand years trying to prove. Published by HarperCollins in the United Kingdomand Random House in the United States, The Trial situates today’s judicial circuses and moral panics squarely within the history of fear, superstition and idealism that brought them into being.

The Trial was shortlisted by the U.K. Crime Writers Association for its Gold Dagger Award for Non-Fiction in 2005, and Sadakat Kadri’s book was one of three included in the almanac of exemplary legal writing published by the Green Bag law journal in January 2006. Translation rights have recently been sold to publishers in China, Taiwan, and Brazil.

smiley-happy005[16]smiley-happy005[18]smiley-happy005[20]smiley-happy005[22]smiley-happy005[24] Alexander McCall Smith, The Double Comfort Safari Club (2009) is, as always with McCall Smith, a delight.

Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi are called to a safari lodge in Botswana’s Okavango Delta to carry out a delicate mission on behalf of a former guest.

The Okavango makes Precious appreciate once again the beauty of her homeland: it is a paradise of teeming wildlife, majestic grasslands and sparkling water. However, it is also home to rival safari operators, fearsome crocodiles and disgruntled hippopotamuses. What’s more, Mma Makutsi still does not have a date for her wedding to Phuti Radiphuti and is feeling rather tetchy herself. But Precious knows that with a little patience, just as the wide river will gently make its way round any obstacle, so will everything work out for the best in the end . . .

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Asylum seeker debate and the need for Olympian calm

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Unfortunately the default response to boat people stories seems to be as shown on the left, and worse. I have been, and remain, of the opinion that hooking onto the tragedy playing out over the past week is quite deplorable, and that’s whether pro or con arguments on asylum seekers are being advanced. Let’s just wait for the enquiries to make their findings, while mourning the loss of life as any civilised person must.

But already we can see the debate taking its customary trajectory, and it isn’t going to get any better or any more rational. It seems that ever since Pauline Hanson stuck her oar in in 1996 having a sensible discussion about “boat people” has become totally unfashionable.

That’s why I am so delighted to have found (in Wollongong Library) a historian of Australia’s population and immigration policies from 1900 to the present who maintains an Olympian even-handedness while firmly grounding his story in facts, actual policies, and the experiences of individuals. Any historian who can dismiss the Keith Windschuttle thesis on White Australia as a “minor historical dispute” gets my vote. And yet this historian has attracted little notice, albeit winning the Community Relations Commission $15,000 Prize at the Premier’s Literary Award in Sydney in 2009.

9781921410574The work – Destination Australia : migration to Australia since 1901 by Professor Eric Richards of Flinders University in South Australia, was described by the Awards judges as a thoroughly researched overview of Australia’s migration history.

They said the book: offers a fascinating, detailed account of the many waves of nationalities whose arrival into Australia was central to a grand plan of immigration that has led us to our multicultural present.

Congratulating the winner of the 2009 prize, the Chair of the CRC, Stepan Kerkyasharian, said tonight: Professor Richards, by simply writing this all down, has made a huge contribution to the immigration debate in this country, which far too often goes on only in the air, without recourse to the historical facts.

We do need to know how we all came here and I compliment Professor Richards on his attempt to draw our attention to the source of migration and the turbulence that often creates our migrants and refugees.

For instance, he says that Australia gives little attention to the heroic and often tragic qualities of the emigrant experience and tends to represent the immigrant story as a matter of assimilation.

Instead, he argues, we should look at the sum of the extraordinary lives which began in forgotten places among people whose extraordinary migrant stories long preceded their landfall in Australia.

These immigrants, he says, were part of that remote drama connecting Australia with grand and tragic events of the distant world.

If Australia is the sum total of its people and their stories, then, if we are to know our own country, we do need to hear the stories of our  people. Professor Richards book has set out to teach us those stories…

There are some little surprises: for example John Curtin in the late 1920s screaming about preference being given to “Dagoes, not heroes” by the S M Bruce government, and Bob Hawke, later famously allowing all the Chinese students in Australia to stay after Tiananmen in 1989, complained about “queue jumpers” in 1978. (A few years later Blanche D’Alpuget, now Hawke’s wife, wrote Turtle Beach, a novel highly sympathetic to Vietnamese boat people and rather offensive to Malaysian authorities, especially when filmed in 1992.)

MPW-54907Turtle Beach is set in Malaysia, with the boat people arriving in the aftermath of the Vietnam War being greeted with hostility by local residents. When two hundred of them are drowned, the fish feed off their corpses and the livelihood of the fishermen is ruined, as people refuse to buy their produce. Ironies such as these abound in the novel. The heroine is again a reasonably attractive (not startlingly beautiful but with a seductively Monroe kind of voice) reporter in her late thirties, but unlike her predecessor, Judith Wilkes is a tough-minded careerist, determinedly carrying on with her work as she copes with a young family and a dying marriage to an ambitious political flunky back in Australia. Yet she has some of the same qualities as Alex: a tendency toward passivity, a weakness for sensual men, and a sense of idealism that renders her vulnerable to manipulation. Like Alex, she falls in love with one of the locals, Kanan, but is finally repelled by the fatalism of his Indian philosophy. Again the title of the novel embodies a metaphor to do with human helplessness in the face of larger historical movements. It comes from the turtles that battle against all odds to lay their eggs and bury them, only to have them dug up and sold or eaten by the local residents.

It seems to that we really only began accepting refugees on moral grounds rather than as virtual indentured labour (to serve for two years wherever the government saw fit) with the arrival of the Vietnamese boat people in the 1970s. We have always otherwise been very controlling about who settles here, it appears, taking a line in most of the 20th century which only abandoned a hypothetical 98% British population aim as the British source dried up leading to our gradually expanding the pool for immigration to northern then southern Europe, then to the Balkans and Lebanon and now to the world at large. Many an immigration scheme in the years between 1900 and the present has either gone belly up or has produced paradoxical results. Encouraged by visionaries like Rider Haggard, author of King Solomon’s Mines, and various others there was an agrarian vision which floundered as marginal land just wouldn’t support the farms settlers were allotted and as migrants gravitated to the coastal cities whatever governments meant to happen — a process that went on right through the 20th century.

In short, I really commend this book. I suspect it has failed to grab headlines because it is so judicious, as controversy ever makes a better story. Perhaps it is also that the author was not born in Australia – an advantage in this case, I feel—and because he is in Adelaide rather than Sydney or Melbourne.

Rating: ss10

On our national propensity to panic see Tanvir Ahmed, a psychiatrist,  in today’s Sydney Morning Herald.

We live at a time where the factors that make people vulnerable to conspiracy theories are arguably at their peak. The notion of anomie could be measured by the massive uptake in psychological services and the growing proportion of people living alone. The decline in trust could be measured by our decades-long fall in joining civic groups, as outlined by the professor turned federal Labor MP Andrew Leigh in his book Disconnected. And modern work has shifted, perhaps permanently, to a more casual, liquid relationship between employer and employee, a trend exacerbated by the financial crisis.

This bodes poorly for the prospect of reason trumping emotion and fear in public debate. For all the pundits that decried the vacuity of debate surrounding our recent federal election, perhaps the politicians and their advisers were just acting sensibly. As the former premier Bob Carr told me recently, it is an enormous political risk these days for a political leader or party to really stand for something…

In our information age this problem is getting worse, for the internet can allow us to find "evidence" for almost any belief, promoting a Balkanisation of our society. This is already apparent in the fragmentation of media consumption.

There is no doubt WikiLeaks and Assange are worth celebrating. Their computing brilliance has resulted in some of the era’s best journalism expose´s. But the idea that there is some new transparency that is shifting the relationship between governments and the citizenry is far fetched. What is more likely is that a more fractured, tense engagement between opposing sides is now the new norm, promoted by rigid views on all sides reinforced by their equally blinkered media supporters. The psychological basis for this is a greater preponderance for conspiracy theory and its mental ally, cognitive dissonance. The information age is merely making the voice of reason more stifled and more relative.

If Tony Abbott believes he can be more polite and civilised next year in political debate, I wish him luck. History may not be on his side.

Update

Go and read Russell Darnley: #Xenophobia and #Asylum Seekers in #Australia: Reality Denied by Fear.

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Update

Davo has been inspired by this post to add one of his own.

Book catch-up — 2

Fiction list

smiley-happy005 smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy0051. Alexander McCall Smith, The Lost Art of Gratitude (2009) — UK

smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy0052. Jasper Fforde, Something Rotten (2004) — UK

smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy0053. Joseph Wambaugh, Hollywood Crows (2008) — USA

smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy0054. Robert Boswell, The Heyday of the Insensitive Bastards (2009) – short stories — USA

smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005 5. Stuart Macbride, Blind Eye (2009) — UK

smiley-happy005smiley-happy0056. Tobias Hill, Underground (1999) – UK

smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy0057. Ian Rankin, The Complaints (2009) — UK

smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005 8. David Rotenberg, The Shanghai Murders (1998) – Canada

smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005 9. Elmore Leonard, The Hot Kid (2005) – USA

smiley-sad006 10. Charles Todd, A Duty of the Dead (2009) — USA

Book catch-up 1

Non-fiction

Most of my recent borrowings from Surry Hills and Wollongong Libraries have been fiction, but I thought I would begin this catch-up series with the non-fiction.

smiley-happy005 smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy0051. Jim Hagen and Andrew Wells (eds), A History of Wollongong, UOW Press 1997.

While there had been much published about local history over the years, this book is the first full-scale scholarly treatment of the subject ranging from the long Aboriginal past to close to the present day. The Illawarra is a region that has witnessed much change, a fact the then Governor-General Michael Jeffrey alluded to in a speech on 11 November 2005:

Ladies and gentlemen. I understand that from the first small nucleus of European settlement along the shores of Lake Illawarra and the Macquarie Rivulet in the 1820s, land grants brought people south towards Kiama, north towards Bulli and inland to Kangaroo Valley. According to the history of Wollongong commissioned by the City Council, the names of those early grantees reads like a “Who’s Who” of colonial society – including D’Arcy Wentworth, Mary Reiby and Gregory Blaxland.

By 1828, most employment in the Wollongong region was timber getting and land clearing for farming – it’s a story repeated by pioneers throughout Australia.

Yet few centres could recognise the impact and magnitude of the coal industry that developed here, and with it the magnificent harbour which began shipping coal in 1849. No surprise then that in the six decades from 1840, Wollongong’s population rose to more than 17,000, an increase exceeding 2000 per cent in that period.

It’s often said that Australia has become the great nation it is – a cooperative, friendly one – because Australians have not lost their ability to face adversity square on, they are adaptable, they are innovative (prepared to “have a go”), and they believe in a “fair go”, that is justice.

However, few communities have been without their share of significant hardships.

Wollongong itself has endured its share of challenges and learned to deal with them.  From 1928 onwards the steelworks had dominated Wollongong’s economic life, and by its nature also connected the region with the outside world. Like most Australians, I recall the era when your local economy was virtually reliant on BHP, in the days when it employed in excess of 22,000 people.

In 2005 however the workforce number in that industry is somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000…

Ladies and gentlemen. What attracts people to Wollongong and the Illawarra region? Surely it’s not just the beautiful landscape and ocean – as magnificent as these are?

I believe there are other factors, and I include here, the community’s desire and ability to look after itself – to remain close knit yes – but also to look beyond its boundaries.

The Hagan Wells history of Wollongong opens its chapter entitled “The Garden of Illawarra” with this honest assessment: “From the beginnings of European settlement, Illawarra’s natural environment has attracted both developers and spoilers, and there has been tension between those who appreciated the intrinsic value of this environmental garden and those who saw in it only resources to be exploited. In time the exploiters created significant environmental damage; in turn, that damage provoked an environmental consciousness.

The point here is that there will be disagreements and frank exchanges of view from time to time in our communities, but none that cannot be worked through sensibly.

It seems to me that communities such as Wollongong have the capacity to manage the challenges – which this region has done, for well over 150 years.

Your contributions underpin the theme I have been repeating across Australia, urging Australians to aspire to become what I call a “Nation of Excellence – the Global Example”.

A nation whose people – both individually and collectively – strive to be the very best at everything to which they turn their minds and hands. A nation that boasts the strongest families, the best institutions, the best economy, the best professions, the best environment; an admired national ethos…

I have found the book, the work of fourteen authors over a period of more than two years, extremely informative.

51dFXJg-pzL._SL500_AA300_ smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy005smiley-happy0052. Zachary Karabell, The People of the Book: The Forgotten History of Islam and the West, John Murray 2007.

In their preface to A History of Wollongong Hagen and Wells make some sensible observations about the science and art of history, which is not the simple recounting of what sources, appropriately weighed for authenticity and context, tell us. Rather, historians make their accounts cohere by framing questions. If your question is “Why is Islam so violent?” that’s what you will tend to find, while if your question depends on the presupposition that Islam is a religion of peace, that is what you will tend to find. Now my account there is a gross oversimplification but nonetheless serves to explain the excellence of Karabell’s excellent history. In The Atlantic Monthly recently Karabell enunciated his approach in the context of the NY “mosque” controversy:

Over the past two months, the planned construction of a Muslim cultural center in the vicinity of the World Trade Center site has become the fulcrum of an acrimonious debate about religion, freedom of expression, and the place of Islam in the United States. You would have had to be living off-the-grid somewhere not to have noticed the hundreds of opinion pieces, thousands of blogs, and considerable airtime on television and radio. As characterized by Newt Gingrich, the planned center is no less than the latest chapter in a war of civilizations: “America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization.”

By now, defenders of the plan have made clear that the proposed “Cordoba House” (also known as Park51) isn’t a mosque per se; it is a cultural center that would include a prayer room. It is modeled after the YMCA or various Jewish Community Centers throughout the United States, complete with a theater, recreational facilities, and day care. It is the brainchild of Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf and his wife Daisy Khan, who have been active in numerous interfaith initiatives for many years, both of whom live and work in New York City. Rauf – who during much of the controversy was  touring the Persian Gulf sponsored by the U.S. government to promote cooperation – said of his initiative “I can assure that whatever we do will increase harmony and peace and well being, both within our city, our community, our nation and the world.”

Yet in spite of these soothing words and Rauf’s own history of moderation, many remain hostile and are unlikely to be swayed. You would think from the tenor of the opposition that Park51 was being sponsored by al-Qaeda and is slated to include a weapons lab along with a radical madrassa. Describing it as a “beach head,” as many opponents have, casts the center as the vanguard of a new wave of Muslim armies that used to assail the Western (aka Christian) world at regular intervals over the course of a thousand years from the death of Muhammad in 622 through the last failed Turkish siege of Vienna in 1683. Perhaps most striking about the vehement opposition to the center is the degree to which history is used as proof of ill-intent. It’s often – and correctly – said about American culture that historical memory is scant, but in the case of Islam, it is surprisingly robust.

But it is also distressingly selective. Yes, there is a thousand year history of Muslim conquests of Christian lands. There is also a more recent history of conflict between Arab countries and the state of Israel, and the acts of terror perpetuated by those who claim the mantle of Islam to justify their deeds. The attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 seared American consciousness and are the immediate source of the emotional outrage that has greeted the planned center so close to the site of those brutal attacks. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have only augmented the intensity of these feelings.

Defenders of the project have called on American traditions of live-and-let-live, religious freedom, and diversity. They have also warned that the backlash against Park51 risks becoming a propaganda victory for al-Qaeda et al and used as proof that Americans really do hate Muslims. But in truth, the intense opposition draws from a deeper well than American history or 9/11. It taps into a Western meme familiar in Europe and woven through American culture, a visceral memory of war and conflict reified by cultural echoes of crusades and scimitars that we all seem to share.

But the history of relations between Muslims, Christians and Jews over the centuries is more than a litany of violence, discrimination and atrocities. To remember that history isn’t to invalidate the very real episodes of violence and hatred but a history composed only of those is like reading every other page of a book. It so distorts and loses context that it becomes a false reading of the past, even if the particulars are quite true…

Read the rest of that, and better yet, read the book.

Knowing some context and history helps make sense of climate science

I have been reading Robert Kunzig & Wallace Broeker, Fixing Climate: The Story of Climate Science and how to Stop Global Warming (2009). The “how to” part commends a technological fix I am not so sure about, but the major part of the book is excellent and very readable. Its great virtue is that by focussing on the career of one pioneer in the field (Broeker) and his work the whole topic is humanised, and further those cavils about the motives of climate scientists are revealed as the distractions they are.

Doc Snow from Atlanta gives a good idea of what to expect.

Dr. “Wally” Broecker is no fan of large bureaucracies, which is why, though he is a “grand old man” of contemporary climate science, he has never participated in the International Panel on Climate Change.  Yet he can scarcely be called unconcerned about the issue of climate disruption:  it was Broecker who created the image of the climate “beast,” which humanity is now collectively prodding with the “sharp stick” of greenhouse gases.  This concern also explains how it was that Broecker became both subject and co-author (with science writer Robert Kunzig) of  Fixing Climate:  What Past Climate Changes Reveal About The Current Threat—And How To Counter It (2008, Hill and Wang.)

Fixing Climate weaves together scientific biography and science reporting in an engaging, if sometimes slightly elliptical manner.  Opening with a biographical sketch of Broecker—who, we learn, was born to an Evangelical suburban Chicago family, and initially drifted into his scientific vocation via a summer job in a radiocarbon dating lab—the book explains the currently-accepted Milankovitch theory of Ice Age glaciation; proceeds to an account of the Dr. David Keeling’s measurements atmospheric CO2; continues with a summary of research work on glacial ice cores, sediments, and fossil pollen from around the world showing startlingly abrupt prehistoric climate changes; and moves on to the possible consequences of continued warming, closing with an account of the prospects of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

See also Calling All Mad Scientists.

…If anyone should be taken seriously on the topic of climate change, it is Wallace Broecker, who has spent more than 50 years studying the climate of the past 200,000 years, and who was one of the first to warn, more than three decades ago, of the dangers of global warming. Born in 1931 ("the same year as Twinkies," the book points out), he arrived in 1952 at what is now Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Palisades, New York. He has spent his entire career there, publishing more than 400 papers and winning numerous prizes, including the National Medal of Science. Over the years, Broecker has developed ways to calculate the rate of gas exchange between the atmosphere and the ocean — in particular, oceanic uptake of carbon dioxide — and devised what is known as Broecker’s Conveyor Belt, a global scheme of ocean circulation that is thought to drive climate patterns the world over.

As background to their proposal, Broecker and Kunzig devote about a third of their book to explaining the complex history of climate change science; a laudable effort, though at times my eyelids did begin to droop. To their credit, they enliven the text with asides on the notable figures who first figured out the science at hand (among them the Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius, whose "ravishing young wife, Sophia" deserted him in 1894 after a year of marriage in the midst of his calculations on planet-warming carbon dioxide)…

A thorough if  less entertaining account of how the science has developed and what it is may be found on Spencer Weart’s The Discovery of Global Warming. 

This is mounted on the Website of the Center for History of Physics of the American Institute of PhysicsDiscovery of Global Warming site created by Spencer Weart with support from the American Institute of Physics, the National Science Foundation and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

The statements on this site represent the views of the author and are not positions endorsed by the American Institute of Physics. Two of the Institute’s Member Societies have taken positions on climate change; see the American Physical Society’s statement and the American Geophysical Union’s statement.

In marked contrast to all of the above we have the Global Warming Blindfolders. Regina’s Prairie Dog Magazine (Canada) has just posted an excellent article on that: Why They Deny: What’s going on in climate skeptics’ deluded heads?

declaration Oh, you climate deniers have been on a tear lately. You’re all puffed up with self-importance. Bloated by a few victories.

Bravo, gentlemen!

Thanks to your efforts, support for climate science is sliding and the hopes that there’ll be any global action in time to slow the planet’s heating are all but lost. Good thing I’m heavily invested in hip waders.

Nice work! But I have to ask: why’d you do it?

Why do all you climate deniers risk your reputations defending positions utterly at odds with science and reason?

Much has been made of your ties to the oil and coal lobbies, but can you really be doing it just for the money?

George Marshall, the founder of the Climate Outreach and Information Network, the UK’s leading climate communications charity, doesn’t think so.

“To say these people are paid for by the oil industry is rather ignoring the point there’s a lot of environmental organizations that take money from oil companies,” says Marshall.

“The fact that people take money from oil companies does not in itself make them corrupt. There’s lots of reasons why you might want to work with corporations.”

He suspects your motivations are less venal and may be related to a kind of deranged careerism. Marshall notes that the most prominent of your kind are almost all men — men whose careers weren’t terribly noteworthy until you threw in with the adoring denialist hordes.

Alternately, some of you are men who are nearing (or at) retirement and looking for a way to stay in the game…

Particularly make sure you download that declaration from the source article.

Supplement

Expert credibility in climate change PDF from the US National Academy of Sciences.