Australia, AWW2016, Book review, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Australia 2016, Setting, Sonya Voumard, Transit Lounge, true crime

‘The Media and the Massacre’ by Sonya Voumard

The media and the massacre by Sonya Voumard

Non-fiction – paperback; Transit Lounge; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Earlier this month (9 April) marked my 20th anniversary working in journalism, while earlier this week (29 April) marked the 20th anniversary of Tasmania’s Port Arthur massacre in which 35 people died. At the time it was the world’s worst civilian massacre by a lone gunman and it had huge repercussions on the Australian psyche, gun control and media reportage.

I remember the event clearly, because I had only started my first proper job as a reporter a few weeks earlier. While we didn’t actually cover the shootings in our pages (it was a rural newspaper in Victoria more focused on local events), we had the radio on in the newsroom listening to updates on the Monday. It was all rather strange and terrifying, because after Bryant killed all those people on the Sunday he held some others hostage in a local B&B for a day, before setting the property and himself on fire. (He was later found guilty and given 35 life sentences without possibility of parole.) Now, all these years later, any mention of the Port Arthur massacre immediately transports me back to that time with a kind of shuddering dread.

The relationship between journalists and their subjects

Sonya Voumard’s The Media and the Massacre, recently published in Australia by Transit Lounge, looks at that tragic event and explores the relationship between journalists and their subjects. It draws inspiration from one of my all-time favourite reads, Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, and it’s also clearly influenced by Helen Garner’s true crime reportage (specifically This House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial and Joe Cinque’s Consolation).

But its main focus is on the best-selling Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro, which tried to examine what made the killer carry out such a horrendous crime. In the process of writing their book, the two respected broadsheet journalists found themselves embroiled in an ethical — and legal — minefield when Carleen Bryant, Martin’s mother, withdrew her support for the project. She later sued them over the use of her personal manuscript and accused them of exploitation.

As any journalist will tell you, there are always two sides to every story, and Voumard, who is a respected journalist and academic herself, tries to flesh these out — with mixed results. For as much as I enjoyed this book, which is part memoir, part ethical investigation, I felt that it was designed with one aim in mind: to discredit Wainwright’s and Totaro’s work. Funnily enough, Wainwright and Totaro did not want to take part in Voumard’s project, directing her to the public record instead, a decision that proved challenging, as the author points out in Chapter 15:

Any suggestion that a writer should abandon a project because one or more of the key individuals declines to be interviewed would, I believe, be defeatist and contrary to the journalistic function of shining a light where some would prefer it not to be shone. […] When interview subjects decline to participate, you look and dig deeper elsewhere in the knowledge that no story begins with an exact destination mapped out. You discover the vast and rich landscape of the public record. If you are dogged and fortunate you may uncover hitherto unseen material that sheds light on some of the sorts of answers you need.

Despite this setback, Voumard slowly builds her case by examining written records — emails, newspaper articles, public appearances and passages from Wainwright and Totaro’s book. But that is only part of the story, for The Media and the Massacre looks at the wider issues of “the writer’s treachery” by looking at how journalists operate, what their roles are in the broader scale of things and how the media handles complaints.

Easy-to-read prose style

The best bit about the book, which originally began life as a doctoral thesis, is how easy it is to read. Voumard has an effortless prose style and despite tackling some big subjects she puts things into context using simple jargon-free language, as you would expect from any good journalist.

Like Garner and Malcolm, she inserts herself into the story, taking the reader on a journey as she uncovers evidence or interviews subjects for the book. I tend to like this style because by showing the working practices of a journalist the reader comes to understand how news stories and feature articles, or, in this case, a book are put together. And you can see how journalists often bring their own prejudices and subjectivity to their work even though they operate under the guise of “objectivity” and “truth-telling”. But at times I felt Voumard was adding extraneous detail that wasn’t always needed simply to emulate a narrative non-fiction “style”.

Yet there’s no doubt that The Media and the Massacre is an important book in the canon of literature that examines the pitfalls of journalistic work and the ethics surrounding the relationship between reporters and their subjects. It raises important issues about the ways in which journalists communicate with their subjects, especially when working on books or longer form journalism and collaborative projects, in order to prevent fallout (of both the ethical and legal variety) at a later date. And it also highlights the ways in which journalistic behaviour has ramifications for the people who are interviewed in the aftermath of tragic events whether these be victims, first responders or eyewitnesses. It shows, as Voumard so eloquently writes at the outset, how journalists constantly tread a difficult, sometimes morally ambiguous, line:

At our best, we do good work — bear witness, seek truth, give voice, explain. At our worst we exploit our subjects.

The Media and the Massacre is currently only available in Australia, where you can buy it direct from the publisher’s website.

This is my 24th book for #ReadingAustralia2016 and my 18th for #AWW2016. 

Author, Berkley Books, Book review, Matt Birkbeck, Non-fiction, Setting, true crime, USA

‘A Deadly Secret: The Bizarre and Chilling Story of Robert Durst’ by Matt Birkbeck

A-deadly-secret

Non-fiction – paperback; Berkley Books; 320 pages; 2015.

Earlier this year I watched the HBO documentary series The Jinx, which told the amazing true life story of Robert Durst, the son of a New York real estate magnate, whose wife, Kathie, vanished in mysterious circumstances in 1982. It’s long been thought that Durst was responsible for her disappearance (her body has never been found), a theory that gained momentum when 20 years later he stood accused of the murder of Morris Black, whose dismembered body was found floating in Galveston Bay, Texas. (He is also suspected of having killed his best friend, Susan Berman in Los Angeles, just days before the case into Kathie’s disappearance was re-opened in 2000. The motive? Berman had given him an alibi for the night Kathie went missing.)

In the six-part TV series, Durst, who had previously (and understandably) gone to ground and had shunned co-operation with the police or journalists, agreed to be interviewed by the program maker Andrew Jarecki.*  These interviews, which run over the course of six 45-minute programmes,  provide both fascinating and disturbing viewing. It’s clear that Durst is an odd (and creepy) character, a recluse who seems to finally want some attention, who speaks in a slow, almost mesmerising, drawl, but denies any wrong doing.

The finale of The Jinx was such an astonishing one — of the oh-my-god-I-didn’t-see-that-coming variety — that I wanted to find out more about the man, hence the decision to read this book, which was originally published in 2002 but has since been updated following the revelations broadcast in The Jinx.

Painstaking research

Admittedly, this isn’t the kind of book you read for its literary merit. There’s a slightly tabloid feel to the writing and a lot of the detail — what people are doing and what they are wearing, for instance — could never have been verified by the writer, he’s simply made it up to give the factual reporting of events a novelistic feel. Perhaps from my own journalistic training (and from reading several novels which explore the theme of fact and fiction blurring into one — think Laurent Binet’s HHhH and Domenico Starnone’s First Execution),  I’m hyper-aware of that kind of “stretching of the truth”, but as much as it grated, I learned to put those irritations aside and just focus on the facts at the heart of the book.

It’s very well researched. Matt Birkbeck was the first journalist to access Durst’s NYPD files and he’s spent a lot of time interviewing family, friends, acquaintances, police and  lawyers (among others) to compile a fascinating narrative that is as much about the politics of police work as it is about the man believed to have committed these crimes.

In the main, A Deadly Secret is not dissimilar to The Jinx, but it does provide a lot of extra background about Durst that I wasn’t aware of having watched the TV series.

The first is that Durst and Kathie’s marriage deteriorated fairly quickly and was marked by domestic violence. Durst, it seems, had trouble controlling his anger and there were times when he demonstrated this in public, at one time dragging Kathie out of a party — in front of stunned family members — by her hair. Only weeks before Kathie went missing, she had asked for a $250,000 divorce settlement, but Durst had refused even though the pair were basically living separate lives — she was in her final year at medical school and he was reportedly having an affair with Prudence Farrow, the sister of actor Mia Farrow.

The second, is that Kathie had a cocaine problem and kept some dubious company because of it.

Police investigations

The book tells the Durst story by focusing on the police investigations beginning with the initial investigation, by Mike Struk, a detective in the NYPD, and the second, by Joe Becerra, an investigator with the New York State Police, when the case was reopened in 2000. It suggests that the original investigation failed to chase up certain leads or carry out basic investigative procedures — for instance, not searching the Durst’s lakeside home when Kathie disappeared — because of the power brought to bear by the Durst family.

The book also posits the idea that the murder of Morris Black — to which Durst pleaded guilty by reason of self-defence and accident — was perhaps not the first time Durst had dismembered a body. Apparently it was so skilfully cut up (the head was never found) it seems to suggest that he had done it before. Indeed, Birkbeck claims that he may well have killed two more people in Northern California — a college student, who went missing in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1997, and a 16-year-old girl from Eureka, who disappeared that same year  — at a time when Durst was known to have had eight different addresses in the state between 1994 and 2002.

Of course, any evidence that Durst may, in fact, be a serial killer is largely circumstantial, but even so, he’s lead such a weird and strange life, and has such an odd and creepy demeanour, you can’t help think that it would be entirely possible.

I realise I’ve written 800 words about this book and I haven’t even touched on some of the more bizarre elements of Durst’s case — the fact he pretended to be a deaf-mute woman when he lived in Galveston, for instance, or the idea that he may well have got away with Black’s murder had he not been caught shoplifting a sandwich in Pennsylvania. Yet that’s what makes A Deadly Secret such a terrific read — if you  made up a character like Durst and put him in a novel, people would say he was too ludicrous to be believable. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction…

* In 2010 Jarecki directed a Hollywood film, All Good Things, based on the Durst story, which starred Ryan Gosling as Durst and Kirsten Dunst as Kathie. I watched this a few weeks ago, and it’s excellent — unsurprisingly it’s very similar to The Jinx.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Czechoslovakia, Fiction, historical fiction, holocaust, Laurent Binet, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, war

‘HHhH’ by Laurent Binet

HHHH

Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 336 pages; 2013. Translated from the French by Sam Taylor.

Laurent Binet’s HHhH is a unique take on the historical novel: it not only blends fact with fiction, the narrative includes the author’s own thoughts on researching and writing the story. What results is an intriguing hybrid, one that constantly reminds us that we can’t always trust the portrayal of history to be accurate or “truthful”, because there will always be elements that are confusing, ambiguous or simply unknowable.

A deadly plot from World War Two

The book focuses on a particular real-life event: the attempted assassination of Nazi SS officer Reinhard Heydrich in Prague on 27 May 1942 by two British-trained parachutists, one Czech and one Slovak, in a plot dubbed Operation Anthropoid.

As well as exploring the parachutists’ exploits once they are behind enemy lines and all the events leading up to, and after, the planned assassination, it also  looks at Heydrich’s stellar rise up the Nazi ranks to become acting Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, where he violently suppressed Czech culture and helped plan the “Final Solution”.

In literary terms, Heydrich is a wonderful character — “It’s as if a Dr Frankenstein novelist had mixed up the greatest monsters of literature to create a new and terrifying creature” — whose horrifying exploits earned him various names, including “The Butcher of Prague”, “The Hangman of Europe” and “The Blond Beast”. In fact, he was regarded as the most dangerous man in the Reich and was seen as a natural successor to Hitler.

He was widely believed to be the brains behind his boss, Heinrich Himmler — and this is the inspiration behind the title HHhH, an acronym of “Himmlers Hirn heist Heydrich”, which is German for “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich”.

How does a novelist stick to the facts?

But as Binet tells Heydrich’s story, he struggles to stick strictly to the facts: he wants to make things up, to add “colour” to situations, to fill in gaps, to create dialogue, to explain character’s motivations and desires:

I’m fighting a losing battle. I can’t tell the story the way it should be told. This whole hotchpotch of characters, events, dates, and the infinite branching of cause and effect — and these people, these real people who actually existed. I’m barely able to mention a tiny fragment of their lives, their actions, their thoughts. I keep banging my head against the wall of history. And I look up and see, growing all over it — ever higher and denser, like a creeping ivy — the unmappable pattern of causality.

He often shows his hand — for instance, when he says a German tank enters the city at 9am he adds that he doesn’t know if that’s true given that the “most advanced troops seem largely to have driven motorbikes with sidecars”.

In another example he describes Goring as being “squeezed into a blue uniform”:

I don’t know why. I just imagine it being blue. It’s true that in photos Goring often sports a pale blue uniform but I don’t know what he was wearing on that particular day. He might just as easily have been wearing white, for example.

A Marmite book?

The danger with this kind of narrative structure in which the author butts in and interrupts the story to show his thinking is that you either love it or hate it.

If you’ve never really thought about the factual accuracy of historical fiction then you will probably find Binet’s approach fascinating and illuminating.

Me? I found it wearing. I’m a journalist. I know how these things work. I know that it is not always possible to verify every single conceivable, often minor and unimportant, facts — for instance, the colour of people’s clothes worn on a certain date and the exact words spoken behind closed doors — and I believe that a certain journalistic licence is acceptable if it helps get to the “truth” of a story.

But this criticism is not to diminish Binet’s achievement. HHhH is a highly original and astonishing “faction” novel, fast-paced, easy to read and full of thrilling drama. It’s incredibly evocative of time and place — the descriptions of Prague are especially rich and vivid — and meticulous in its detail (I particularly liked all the books and movies that Binet references throughout, many of which I’d read or watched in the past).  All in all, I loved its exploration of loyalty, betrayal, heroism and revenge.

HHhh won the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, a highly regarded French literary prize for a first novel, and was shortlisted for various other literary prizes around the world, including the 2012 National Book Critics Circle Award.

Author, Book review, John Vaillant, nature, Non-fiction, Publisher, Russia, Sceptre, Setting, travel, true crime

‘The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival’ by John Vaillant

Tiger

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Sceptre; 353 pages; 2010.

John Vaillant’s The Tiger is a gripping account of the hunt to find a man-eating tiger in Russia’s Far East — a place known as Primorye, which was once considered part of Outer Manchuria, on the border with China.

The book takes one particular incident — the death of Vladimir Markov, a poacher killed by the tiger in 1997 — and spins it out into a fascinating account of the Siberian tiger (also known as the Amur tiger), its biology and behaviour, and the conservation efforts that have been made to protect the species, which is endangered, in Russia.

Part crime scene investigation, part natural history, part travelogue, it reads like a thriller with all the authority of a respected journal, and has earned Vaillant, a Vancouver-based journalist, a bevy of awards, including British Columbia’s National Award for Canadian Non-Fiction for 2010, and Globe and Mail Best Book for Science 2010.

Tiger-croppedAn Amur tiger, in captivity. Image via wikipedia reproduced under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

What makes the book so extraordinarily readable is that Vaillant turns a conservation issue into a human interest story in which good men and bad men do battle over a beautiful but enigmatic animal. He charts in painstaking detail the way in which Markov’s death was investigated by the authorities and reveals how it sparked terror in surrounding communities.

And while he shies away from demonising Markov — the man, after all, met a particularly cruel fate — he does turn Yuri Trush, the lead tracker and head of (Russian governmental anti-poaching body) Operation Tiger, into a bit of a hero for whom it is difficult not to admire.

A love letter to the tiger

But mostly Vaillant writes a kind of love letter to the tiger, peppering his adrenalin-fuelled narrative with so many tiger facts it is difficult to keep track of them all. For instance, did you know that “the tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin”? Or that a tiger’s claw is “needle-sharp at the end, and bladed along a portion of its inside length […] about as close to a surgical tool as one can find in nature”?

There are other, more surreal, aspects, including the belief that tigers are vengeful creatures and will hunt down those who do them wrong — and that includes poachers who mess with their territory or steal their kills. I thought this sounded a bit far-fetched, until Vaillant reveals evidence to suggest that the tiger who killed Markov went out of his way to track him down.

Amongst other issues, The Tiger shows how perestroika and the reopening of the border between Russia and China resulted in a surge in tiger poaching during the early 1990s.

A dangerous game

It also shows how the authorities which protect the tiger are caught up in a dangerous game — not just with the wild tigers but with the poachers who will resort to almost anything to catch their prey. Because Primorye is so remote it is true frontier country, a kind of wild west, where enforcing law and order is difficult if not impossible. And yet, Russia, the first country in the world to recognise the tiger as a protected species (it did this in 1947), has achieved some amazing results in tiger conservation.

The Amur tiger population has rebounded to a sustainable level over the past sixty years, a recovery unmatched by any other subspecies of tiger. Even with the upsurge in poaching over the past fifteen years, the Amur tiger has, for now, been able to hold its own.

I won’t lie and say this book kept me on the edge of my seat throughout: it does wane a little in places as Vaillant gets bogged down in facts and figures. The narrative works best when he concentrates on the cat-and-mouse game between the three characters that are central to the story — the tiger, the poacher and the law enforcer — although that is occasionally repetitive in places.

A frightening read

But for something a little different, it’s a terrific — and often frightening — read. And while it’s a sad and sobering thought that there are less than 400 Siberian tigers left in the wild, it’s pleasing to know that “a portion of the proceeds from the book are being donated to several organizations working on the front lines of the tiger pro­tection effort in Primorye”. Such organizations will need all the help they can get…

Finally, if you read this book in Kindle format there are a lot of rogue hyphens littering the text. These tend to appear in the middle of lines, rather than at the end, which is quite distracting. And fiddling around with the text size makes absolutely no difference.

Atlantic Books, Author, Book review, China, Jan Wong, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Chinese Whispers: A Journey into Betrayal’ by Jan Wong

ChineseWhispers

Non-fiction – paperback; Atlantic Books; 320 pages; 2010.

Journalist Jan Wong is a third-generation Canadian of Chinese heritage. In 1972, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, she became one of only two Westerners admitted to Beijing University, where she studied Mandarin. She was 19, impressionable and a proud Maoist, so when a fellow student, Yin Luoyi, told her she wanted help fleeing China for the United States — a Maoist “crime” — Jan did not hesitate to tell the authorities.

In one thoughtless, misguided moment, I destroyed someone’s life. […] At the time I did not give it much thought. I certainly did not understand the enormity of what I’d done. I recorded the incident in my diary, and forgot about it.

Thirty-three years later Jan decides to return to Beijing — dragging her husband and two teenage sons with her — to look for Yin Luoyi. She knows she may never find her — “How will I find a stranger in a country of 1.3 billion?” — but feels compelled to try, if only to keep her conscience at bay. But with no plan of action and just a 28-day stay, it truly seems an impossible mission.

Chinese Whispers details Jan’s quest to find the woman she wronged. But the engaging narrative also doubles as a travelogue as Jan describes a city — and a nation — in the grips of a radical transformation. It’s two years before the 2008 Beijing Olympics and buildings are being knocked down and replaced, seemingly overnight. There are new roads, new cars. The trappings of enormous wealth, rubbing up against poverty, are everywhere. This is not the city that Jan left behind all those years ago — tracking down old friends, foes and comrades is going to be more difficult than ever before.

In many ways this book reads like a detective story, as Jan slowly uncovers clues, stumbles over red herrings and runs into dead ends. But it is also a wonderfully evocative account of China’s recent history, from the Cultural Revolution to the present day, detailing the changing face of its political, social and economic systems. Indeed, it’s probably one of the best portraits of a nation trying to deal — or not deal — with its past that you’re ever likely to find.

Her narrative style is engaging and effusive and she has a lovely self-deprecating sense of humour. (I love that she calls her husband Norman “Fat Paycheck” in a nod to the Chinese name of Yulu that he was given when he lived in Beijing for some 20 years — apparently Yu means riches and lu means an official’s salary in ancient China, hence Jan’s tongue-in-cheek translation.)

Perhaps the only problem with the book is that it is now slightly dated — it was first published in Canada in 2007 as Beijing Confidential — but given China’s rapid pace of development, particularly in the past five years, that should come as no surprise.

Chinese Whispers is one of those books for which you need to clear your schedule — once you pick it up, the story is so gripping it’s a wrench to put it down. I made the mistake of starting it in a lunch-hour and then it was a race to get home after work to continue where I’d left off. Don’t say you haven’t been warned…

Author, Book review, Joe Bennett, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, travel, UAE

‘Hello Dubai: Skiing, Sand and Shopping in the World’s Weirdest City’ by Joe Bennett

Hello-Dubai

Non-fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 272 pages; 2011.

The first time I went to Dubai, on a day trip from neighbouring Abu Dhabi where I was staying in 2009, I couldn’t get over the scale of the place. It was like one giant construction site, with all manner of skyscrapers and shopping malls and apartment blocks being built. And when you went to any of the hotels or shops, there was a real feel of big money and glitz and glamour to the place.

But Dubai, one of the seven emirates of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), has a dark underside — or should that be underclass? — of mainly emigrant workers, largely from India and the Phillipines, which the glossy tourist brochures, and the ruling Arab elite, would rather you didn’t know about.

Joe Bennett, who is a professional travel writer, comes to grips with both sides of Dubai in this intriguing, and very witty, book based on his time living in the city. His highly readable account explains how Dubai went from being a quiet Arabian port into a hub of global trade and finance in just a matter of decades.

Bennett suggests that Dubai is essentially a British creation. That’s because Dubai is a sheikdom, ruled by the “royal” Al Maktoum family, who were never elected into power, they simply “assumed” it with the backing of the British, who, for all kinds of economic reasons, did not wish the UAE to be a democracy.

Dubai’s wealth initially lay in oil, but by concentrating on tourism, trade, real estate and financial services, the Al Maktoums have turned it into a Western-style economy. This has meant relaxing many of their rules to attract foreigners and foreign businesses to their shores.

For example, up until 2006, the only way a foreigner could live in Dubai was on a limited three-year visa system tied to employment. They could not buy property, because it was all owned by the ruling sheikh and Emiratis. That’s now changed, and expats can purchase their own homes — although judging by the examples Bennett quotes here, it’s not exactly straightforward, nor cheap — but they cannot obtain citizenship. This means they can be told to leave the country at any time, which is quite a convenient system for those in charge.

But Bennett doesn’t just look at what makes Dubai tick, he goes out into the other emirates (except the UAE capital, Abu Dhabi) to compare them, and much of what he finds is in stark contrast to the wealth and opportunism that Dubai affords.

He meets a variety of people, from expat South Africans living in mansion-like villas equipped with swimming pools and driving expensive four-wheel drives, to hard-working Filipino maids, who are treated like second-class citizens by their employers. He hangs out with foreign businessmen, the nouvea rich, who are making big bucks and plays cricket with Indian, Pakistani and Sri Lankan labourers on their day off.

And while he has a perceptive eye and notices the unobtrusive underclass and the lewd, often culturally insensitive, behaviour of the richer expats, Bennett’s book is far from heavy or judgmental. It features some delicious comic moments, such as when he accidentally finds himself caught in no man’s land between the UAE and Oman, or when he falls over in the shower, tears the curtain from the wall and knocks himself out on the toilet seat.

This is a terrific book, which pretty much does what it says on the tin. If you’re thinking of visiting Dubai, or even if you’re not, this is a fun, but intelligent, read about a city that is truly unique.

Author, Book review, Michael Lewis, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Setting, true crime, USA

‘The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine’ by Michael Lewis

The-Big-Short

Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 288 pages; 2011.

Back in February I bought The Big Short for Mr Reading Matters, because I knew he had loved Michael Lewis’s Liar’s Poker many moons ago. Then, a few days later, I saw a review of the book on Material Witness, and decided I might like to read the book myself.

First things first. I am not a numbers person. I am not a finance person. I do not understand the inner-workings, or even the outer-workings, of Wall Street. But back in October 2005, Mr Reading Matters and I had a personal tour of the New York Stock Exchange, and I remember coming out of the building feeling slightly dizzy: I couldn’t get my head around the fact that we’d just been given an inside glimpse of the beating heart of capitalism.

Fast forward three years, and that beating heart seemed to be in cardiac arrest.

And it wasn’t just in New York; the financial crisis swept through other places around the globe, including London, Iceland, Ireland, Greece and Portugal.

Michael Lewis’s book is not about the crisis per se. It’s not an academic analysis of what happened. Instead, he takes three people working within the financial system in the USA at the time, and tells their stories, namely of how they “predicted” the events that unfolded and set out to make money from it by betting against the market falling when everyone else seemed completely oblivious to the risks up ahead.

Along the way, these people — hedge-fund manager Steve Eisman, Deutsche Bank trader Greg Lippmann and former neurologist turned capitalist Dr Michael Burry — tried to warn Wall Street of what looked like the imminent collapse of the market, but no one listened: they were too busy making money.

It’s a compelling read, because Lewis turns what could have been a rather dull story about economics into an edge-of-the-seat drama about humans: their greed, their arrogance, their immorality and their intelligence (or lack thereof). And he paints particularly interesting portraits of the naysayers — Eisman, Lippmann and Burry — who were all clearly “outsiders” and non-conformists and had particular anti-social “quirks” that ultimately worked to their advantage.

Lewis writes in an engaging straightforward style, using plain English and simple analogies to cut through the jargon, so that even the most non-financially minded of us can understand concepts like “sub-prime mortgages” and “credit default swaps”.

I read the book in the space of a weekend, getting more and more angry at the collusion between the hedge-fund managers, the ratings agencies, the big banks and the bankers to rip-off ordinary people, in particular, poor immigrant workers who were given access to huge mortgages they could never possibly pay off.  Meanwhile, those “working the system” walked away with millions. The Big Short is a book about fraud — and subterfuge — of the highest order.

As an aside, I watched the Oscar-winning documentary Inside Job a few days after finishing Lewis’s book. It’s another take on the crisis, but compliments The Big Short very nicely. I couldn’t recommend it highly enough for anyone wanting to understand the corruption at the heart of the financial services industry in the USA.


The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine was shortlisted for the 2010 Financial Times and Goldman Sachs Business Book of the Year Award.

Author, Book review, India, Kindle Singles, New York, Non-fiction, Oliver Broudy, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘The Saint’ by Oliver Broudy

The-Saint

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Kindle Singles; 85 pages; 2011. Review copy courtesy of the author.

One of the added benefits of electronic books is the ability to publish work that would normally fall through the cracks. For instance, what magazine would take the risk — or have the required space — to publish a 30,000 word article?

When Amazon launched Kindle Singles earlier this year for one-off pieces of non-fiction, Wired heralded it as the saviour of long-form journalism.

According to Amazon: “Each Kindle Single presents a compelling idea — well researched, well argued, and well illustrated — expressed at its natural length.” This length is between 5,000 and 30,000 words, so shorter than a novel, but longer than a typical magazine article.

The Saint, published in mid-March, is an example of a Kindle Single. It was written by Oliver Broudy, the former managing editor of the Paris Review, who now concentrates on freelance journalism.

The piece is structured around the idea that everyone gets stuck in a rut, and even if you live in the most exciting city in the world it can sometimes feel like life is passing you by. So what would you do if you were given the chance to leave your comfort zone and do something really crazy? New Yorked-based Broudy calls the moment you make these decisions “the lunge”.

The lunge may remind you of its cousin, the leap of faith, but the leap is a far nobler tactic, inspired by high ideals, whereas the lunge is driven more by desperation, recklessness and self-disgust.

The catalyst for Broudy’s “lunge” comes when he is covering a story for an online magazine about a controversial auction of Mahatma Gandhi memorabilia. There are five personal items on offer: Gandhi’s pocket watch, his sandals, an eating bowl, a plate and a pair of glasses.

The man offering the items for sale is James Otis, a 45-year-old collector who deals largely in memorabilia associated with Charles Schulz, Maurice Sendak and Dr Suess. By all accounts Otis is an intriguing character — with eccentric overtones.

His Gandhi auction caused an outcry, particularly with Indians — the government, the media, the public — who were outraged by a rich American trying to profit off the man they revered as the leader of the independence movement against British rule. Otis received death threats and thousands of angry emails, and had to call a press conference to explain that the money would go to “Gandhian causes”.

When Broudy attends the auction and sees Otis’s vulnerability and hears him read a statement fighting back tears, he realises that Otis has noble aims.

And then to my surprise he went on to announce that he was commencing a twenty-three-day fast (the longest Gandhi had ever attempted) to reflect on his actions. This was beyond unusual. As far as I could tell, all parties in the affair had sunk to their respective lows. The press: sensationalism; the auction-house: greed; and the Indian politicians: a self-serving indignation grotesquely at odds with the teachings of the one whose legacy they claimed to defend. Only James had tried to adhere to Gandhian principles throughout.

What follows is an extraordinary adventure in which Broudy accompanies Otis on a trip to India and Tibet. You get the very real sense that Broudy truly admires Otis — indeed, he regards him as saintly, hence the title of the piece — but before long the cracks begin to appear in their lopsided relationship.

Is Otis really as noble as he appears? Or is he merely a naive man with money to burn? And how does Broudy reconcile his need to escape the narcissistic bubble of New York life with a life on the road alongside a narcissist?

Like most good first-person journalism, The Saint takes you on an absorbing journey into a world few of us would ever visit. Broudy has an effortless writing style and his eye for detail makes the characters, the places and the events come alive.

It’s worth a read if you’re fascinated by the sometimes extreme measures people will take to find personal fulfillment. And if you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to do something totally crazy, just to escape the rat race for a bit, then you’ll also find plenty to admire here…

Australia, Author, Book review, Fairfax Books, Non-fiction, Paola Totaro, Publisher, Robert Wainwright, Setting, true crime

‘Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer’ by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro

Born-or-Bred

Non-fiction – paperback; Fairfax Books; 336 pages; 2010.

What makes one person go on a killing spree? Are they genetically pre-conditioned to commit such an atrocious act? Or is it the way they have been brought up? Is it nature — or nurture?

In Born or Bred?, the story of the world’s worst massacre by a lone gunman, the authors tackle these difficult, although somewhat clichéd questions, and try to come up with a theory as to why Martin Bryant carried out the atrocity for which he was responsible: the slaughter of 35 innocent people at the Port Arthur tourist site in Tasmania on April 28, 1996.

Of course no one will ever truly know why 29 year-old Bryant did what he did. I’m sure Bryant, who will spend the rest of his life behind bars, does not have a full explanation for what he did either. But this book, written by two highly experienced journalists, attempts to look behind the crime and to examine Bryant’s life in the search for clues. In their introduction they write:

This book is an attempt to delve beyond what we think we know about the crime, to place events in context and to provide an answer not only to why this horror might have unfolded but what possibilities we now have, thanks to neuroscience and greater understanding of the human psyche, that might give us a chance to prevent a recurrence — or at least lessen the chances of it happening again.

This might sound like a pretty straightforward approach to adopt, but Wainwright and Totaro had an uphill battle to get this book written, not least because the Tasmanian Government has had a “media blackout” in place about the incident. In 2001, it went a step further by placing an exclusive embargo on Bryant, preventing any information about the man being disseminated via the media.

The authors figured they could get around this by writing the book from Bryant’s mother’s point of view, but she eventually fell out with them, and they had to start from scratch.

There will be many people who will see Born or Bred? as a ruse to make money out of a horrendous crime. But the story is very sensitively handled (remember, it was written more than 10 years after the event), to the point where the actual killings are recounted at the rear of the book in a specially marked off section “to give readers the choice of avoiding graphic violence”. ( I initially thought this was somewhat odd, but with hindsight I can see that it has been done like this for a reason, even if that reason might have been to convince the publisher that this wasn’t a book shamelessly exploiting the crime for the sake of it.)

As a piece of narrative non-fiction, the book is well written, fast-paced and rich in detail. It provides a gripping account of one man’s life and unearths the stories of his ancestors to show how his story cannot be taken in isolation. It particularly focuses on Bryant’s oddness as a child and the ways in which his parents attempted to address his mental and social problems in different ways — his mother was remote, his father hands-on. Neither approach seems to have worked.

Interestingly, a prison doctor later diagnosed Bryant with a form of autism known as Asperger’s syndrome, but the authors are quick to point out that while it might explain his abnormal behaviour as a child it “does not explain his actions as an adult: people with Asperger’s are not potential mass killers”. But Professor Paul Mullen, a British-born, Melbourne-based psychiatrist, who assessed Bryant’s state of mind to see if he was fit to stand trial, disputes this diagnosis. He claims that Bryant was “profoundly socially disabled” not autistic.

So, if his mental problems alone are not enough to cause him to go on a killing spree, what else contributed to this callous act of violence?

The authors are able to demonstrate how a series of events, in combination with Bryant’s mental and social problems, lead to that fateful day. Their case is a convincing one. And while I won’t recount it in detail — you need to read the book if you want to know more — it’s clear that the suicide of Bryant’s father and Bryant’s access to money played a strong role.

The $64 question in my mind was exactly that: how on earth did Bryant afford the $10,000-plus he spent on guns and ammunition referred to in early chapters of the book? Little did I know he had inherited a fortune (literally) from a kooky heiress he had befriended. Helen Harvey was related to the founder of the Tattersall’s lottery in Australia and when she died in a car accident (in which Bryant was also involved) her riches passed to him. Without that money it is impossible to see how Bryant would have amassed such an arsenal — there were firearms and ammunition hidden in various places throughout his house, including shot-guns, semi-automatic weapons, a telescopic sight, an ammunition belt and dozens of cartridges in boxes and bags.

The prime message from this book is not that Martin Bryant was “evil” and hell bent on killing as many people as he could on one day, it is that it might have been prevented had he received appropriate psychiatric care from a young age. (It might also have been prevented if someone stopped to chat to him enroute to Port Arthur that day: he made three stops at petrol stations, for seemingly pointless reasons, as if he was willing someone to end his journey.) He gave out all the signals that he was abnormal as a child and yet his parents, his educators and his doctors failed to deal with the issue properly, perhaps because information about mental health was lacking or the resources were not there to assist. The issue, of course, is not black and white. His life experiences and current circumstances contributed.

The final word goes to the pyschiatrist who assessed Bryant’s state of mind in the aftermath of the killings:

“Once you break it down you begin to see a terrible tragedy. What you get with Bryant is someone who did something evil. But, as a person, I’m afraid he’s rather dim, rather silly, rather resentful and feels he was mistreated and despairs on life. You combine that with a fascination for guns and you’ve got a tragedy. Take the [father’s] suicide out, and it wouldn’t have happened. Without the money, it wouldn’t have happened. Take the guns out, and it wouldn’t have happened. Provide a little more effective care, and it probably wouldn’t have happened.”

Author, Book review, Books in translation, China, Ma Jian, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, travel

‘Red Dust’ by Ma Jian

Red-dust

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CCV Digital; 336 pages; 2010. Translated from the Chinese by Flora Drew.

I’m not a huge fan of travelogues, but I decided to read Red Dust based on the strength of Ma Jian’s superb novel Beijing Coma and Max Cairnduff’s excellent review.

I read it on my Kindle while in China last month, and found much of Jian’s descriptions, particularly of places I had been such as the ancient city of Xi’an and the Ghost City of Fengdu, very authentic.

The book chronicles Jian’s travels throughout China during the 1980s, a time in which travel for the average Chinese citizen was banned without the necessary paperwork.

He claims to go travelling because: “I want to see my country, every river, every mountain. I want to see different people, different lives. […] I just want to know it, see it with my own eyes.” But that is the sanitised version.

Before he hit the road, Jian was an official photographer for the propaganda department of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions. He spent most of his free time as an artist. His house, a “crumbling old shack”, in Beijing was used by fellow creatives — writers, painters, poets and dissidents — as a secret meeting point.

He was labelled as a “questionable youth” by his bosses, who believed his “spare time activities” indicated he had been poisoned by “bourgeois Spiritual Pollution”. He escaped the clutches of Party Officials waging their Campaign Against Spiritual Pollution by forging his own travel documents and heading for the desert. (Just as well, because within a matter of years more than a million people were arrested and nearly 200,000 executed as part of the Campaign.)

It was 1983 and he was 30 years old. He had hoped to find spiritual enlightenment along the way, but as most travellers are wont to discover, Jian ended up learning a great deal about his country — good, bad and ugly — and the people who lived in it.

He was on the move for three years before he decided to return to Beijing.

Initially he revels in the freedom that travel provided:

Men are like swallows, when autumn arrives they long to fly away. Life moves with the same rhythm as the sky and the earth. It changes as sun changes into moon and day into night. If they told me to return to Beijing now, I would charge straight into those ramparts.  I would rather crack my skull and die than go back to moulder in that dank city.

But later, after some close encounters and a constant struggle to earn enough cash to get by, he realises that freedom is not the be all and end all. “Walking through the wilds freed me from worries and fears, but this is not real freedom,” he wrote. “You need money to be free.”

While I found Red Dust an easy read and enjoyed discovering more about China through Jian’s eyes, I did have some problems with the book.

The first — which can be dismissed as my own fault, rather than the author’s — was Jian’s narrative voice. I simply did not like it, because it often came across as arrogant and sexist (not dissimilar, in fact, to his fictional Dai Wei in Beijing Coma).

The second is simply the repetition of Jian arriving in a new place (usually broke and worried that the authorities will discover his papers are illegal), befriending someone, finding out about the local culture and then leaving. Once or twice is interesting, but when the bulk of the narrative is just relating a succession of these encounters, as different as each may be, it does become wearing. (Max Cairnduff’s review also finds this a major failing.)

Of course, that’s not enough to dismiss the book completely. There’s a lot in Red Dust which provides food for thought, particularly as it is set just as China’s economy was beginning to open up thanks to Deng Xiaoping‘s reforms. Jian thought that this would help his people, until he meets many rural folk who tell him otherwise. One chap says:

“A free economy won’t make bicycles or sewing machines grow from the earth. […] All the young men have left to find work in the cities. They come back at Spring Festival with new watches and big bags of clothes.”

I’d love to know how opinions and attitudes have changed in the 25 years since Jian went on his travels, but sadly Jian will never be able to retrace his steps to find out. He’s no longer welcome in his homeland and has been resident in London since 1999. His books are banned in China.