Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Millenium Trilogy

Last January (2008) the first of three volumes in the Millennium Trilogy was published in an English translation of the original Swedish novel by the late journalist/author Stieg Larsson. It was called The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

I happened upon it in a bookshop in Adelaide, starting reading it and got totally absorbed in the world and the characters it created.

The second volume has just been published. It's called The Girl Who Played with Fire, and it's equally absorbing. Like the first one it's long (569 pages) but you really don't want it to end by the time you've finished it.

Like all popular fiction, of course, the main characters are pretty much larger than life. The goodies are heroic, kind, highly intelligent and competent, and the baddies cruel, violent, ugly, fat and, predictably, respected in establishment circles.

Larson also has a major problem with sex. It's gratuitous and it grates. The goodies are always jumping into bed with one another because they are good at it and enjoy it, and the baddies are always raping innocents, if not children.

Nevertheless, we can forgive Larsson for that, because he's given us such excellent and complex plots, all set in the cities and towns of Sweden, a magnificent country most of us know so little about.

You can't get much better holiday reading than these two novels. I can't wait for the third one this time next year.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Favorite book of 2008

It was a close tussle between Adiga's The White Tiger and Helen Garner's The Spare Room, but I have to give it to Garner.

In a mesmerising, seemingly quotidian but bile inducing personal narrative Garner creates perhaps the most appalling female figure in Australian literature - the grasping, insinuating, oxygen-sucking Nicola.

God, she's awful!

Buy it and read it over Xmas, and pray to god someone remotely like Nicola never comes into your life.

In non-fiction the prize definitely goes to A.A Gill's Table Talk. Gill is the restaurant critic and food writer for Britain's The Sunday Times and Tatler. The writing is fierce and wild, and blisteringly enlivening. It's just marvellous.

Browse through it in a good independent bookshop (the others won't have it) and read the piece on Starbucks. You'll then understand why that chain is going under. Then read the chapter on America and browsers around you will look at your body shaking and wonder.

I guarantee you'll buy the book and devour it!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Richard Flanagan's new novel: Wanting

Wanting is an exceptionally good novel. It's gripping, and stays with you long after you put it down.

Its mid-19th century setting enables Flanagan to explore its themes without the constraints of modern sensibility or political correctness, using the language and concepts of the day ('savages', 'extermination', 'civilised' etc) and with a great deal of sympathy for brutal, order-imposing colonisers as well as the native aborigines who suffered them and died.

This is history, but from the inside. So it's the power of imaginative fiction that brings early Tasmania alive and sucks you in.

A parallel narrative concerns Charles Dickens, but its linkage with the Tasmanian story is tenuous at best. But by itself it's fascinating too.

Buy it and read it.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nam Le's The Boat

I've just finished this wonderful book, The Boat, by young Vietnamese-Australian author Nam Le.

It's such a powerful, majestic work. A collection of seven short stories, seemingly disparate but deeply linked by Le's haunting vision of human and social fragility in the face of overwhelmingly dark, ancient and violent undercurrents.

Only one story is set in Australia, but this is a peculiarly Australian vision, and it throbs through our literature.

But this one and read it, then buy another copy for a friend.

Favorite crime writers' Xmas offerings

Some favorite crime writers I've read recently:

1. The latest P.D. James: The Private Patient.

This has to be one of the grand dame's weakest. You have to wonder whether, at age 88, she's past it.

It's a very English, fussy, far too homey sort of novel, full of irrelevant personal and domestic detail, how kitchens are laid out, etc, and with the weakest resolution you could imagine. The killer confesses, for god's sake! How poor is that! What, the police couldn't work it out?

The relationships among the characters are cold and impersonal, and frankly, irritating.

As for the too perfect Inspector Dalgliesh. Is he human? Who cares?

Don't buy and don't read it.

2. Ian Rankin's Doors Open.

This is, quite simply, a very weak and disappointing effort from Rankin. Was it an early attempt, done years ago, and now pulled out of the bottom drawer and dusted off? A young Rankin? If so his publisher has done him no favors.

Where is the tired cynicism, the world-weariness, the marvellous sense of Edinburgh we’ve come to expect from the wonderful Rebus novels?

Don't buy and don't read it.

3. Michael Connelly's The Brass Verdict.

Lincoln lawyer Mickey Haller is way too smart, lucky and successful. Virtually every plot twist happens because he's just so damn clever. Humanising him by giving him drug problems doesn’t cut it. Few people can relate to that. And now he doesn’t even drink for god's sake! Sorry!

Connelly throws Harry Bosch into the mix to kick the whole thing up a notch, but it's a pared down Bosch and it sort of grates. And the family connection between the two, revealed at the end, is quite unbelievable.

Give us straight Bosch Michael, and for god's sake give Haller a drink or even a drinking problem. Forget the drugs. It doesn't work. Drugs aren't for heroes, they're for losers.

Don't buy it and don't read it.

GST on imports: yet another bad move by the industry

While we're on the subject of protectionism, the renewed calls by booksellers for the GST to be applied to imports, particularly from Amazon, are misplaced.

I wrote a letter to the editor of the Australian Bookseller and Publisher a few years ago pleading for the trade to not pursue this as a campaign, but to no avail. The CEO of the ABA at the time, Barbara Cullen, replied with heaps of facts and figures and a re-statement of the official ABA position that it would be relatively easy for the government to do this and it's manifestly unfair, etc, etc. However it essentially missed the point. The point being that a 10% GST imposition is a drop in the bucket and would have absolutely minimal effect on the volume of imports.

Firstly, the dollar has plummeted 30% since mid-year, thus making imports a hell of a lot more expensive than a 10% GST imposition could possibly do. This volatility is a built-in disincentive but it doesn't seem to be having all that much effect on book buyers.

Secondly, Amazon buyers have to pay the freight, and this is very often more expensive than the book itself. But again, this doesn't deter the many buyers.

Thirdly, it's hardly a good look for Australian booksellers to be campaigning for the government to clobber book buyers - their customers - with yet another tax.

Calls for 'a level playing field' in import/export matters are always calls for protection. Australian booksellers have decided advantages compared to Amazon, so they should recognise that and start to more aggressively capitalise on it.

Unfortunately that takes industry collaboration, systems development and significant financial investment. The hard stuff.

Calls to slap a tax on imports is easy.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Groupthink in the Australian book trade - the parallel importation debate (cont.)

The notion of Groupthink was articulated and popularised by psychologist Irving Janis in the 70's. He investigated why close knit groups often adopt a common perspective and viewpoint at odds with more rational and grounded positions held in the wider community. The group feels under siege, so the adopted viewpoints are invariably defensive and very emotionally held.

We're seeing a perfect instance of this at present in the Australian book trade on the issue of parallel importation. And it's not a pretty sight.

I thought I'd seen it all in years past, whenever this issue popped up as it frequently did (see my blog entry in October for a history of this tiresome debate). But what's happening now is truly extraordinary. The emotions are so strong, virtually hysterical, and the widely held common view more passionately articulated than ever before. The problem is, however, it is still as profoundly wrong-headed as it ever was, perhaps even more so.

See Henry Rosenbloom's blog entry of November 30 for a perfect example of what I mean. Here is an extremely well written exercise in classic groupthink. Henry lashes out like La Stupenda on steroids at every conceivable enemy real or imagined. There is blood everywhere. Not once however does he address the real issue (I get to that below).

Today's Weekly Blue Newsletter reports on the recommendations from the Leading Edge group of independent booksellers who've held meetings on this issue over recent weeks. They support the current 30/90 day protections but have triumphantly come up with a 'compromise' - 'let's reduce the 90 days to 30 days'! As if this hasn't been thought of before! Another exercise in intellectual confusion from within the bunker.

Here is the essential truth that the book trade proponents for continued protection need to get their heads around:

The 30/90 day provisions do not establish and have never established Australia as a rights territory. Australia is a natural rights territory because of its population size, distance, literacy and affluence. The provisions provide additional protection for a rights holder, but they do not establish the possibility of buying rights in the first place. Therefore their abolition will not destroy Australia as a rights territory. Their abolition will simply remove that additional level of protection which only serves to protect over-pricing and under-servicing. Publishers who price and service competitively have absolutely nothing to fear.

God, how often must this be said! To me it's so self-evident.

There is really no need for this paranoia in the trade, this awful, miserable 'we'll all be ruined' defensiveness. No wonder economists throw their hands up!

Another point: with the fluctuation in the dollar over recent years one thing has become abundantly clear: overpricing of imports was rampant when the dollar was strong, and now that it's weak again, pricing is reasonable.

The Productivity Commission will certainly take this on board. They'll conclude that the provisions aren't warranted when the dollar is strong, as they prohibit price competition, and aren't necessary when the dollar is weak, because competition from potential bookseller importing could not provide any consumer advantage. So on balance it's better not to have them.

What then would happen? Well, groupthink has postulated positive ruin all round. Australian publishing will collapse, independents won't survive, culture will be at serious risk, etc, etc, ad nauseum.

How absolutely ridiculous and juvenile is this! I'm ashamed of the industry I love for sinking so far to the bottom intellectually on this simple issue. It's really not rocket science.

But at the end of the day the groupthinkers need really have no fear. The Rudd government will not reform the current system. They will ignore the predictable recommendations from the Productivity Commission, and we will, or at least future generations will, have to stomach this appalling debate for decades to come.

Get me a very strong drink!