Book reviews

Book Review: Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport by Anna Krien

In the drunken early hours after Collingwood’s 2011 AFL grand final win, celebrations took a dark turn for Melbourne student Sarah. She had ended up at a house party where she had consensual sex with one man she had recently met at a nightclub, and then “felt compelled” to have sex with Collingwood player Dayne Beams. Another player, John McCarthy, was amongst a group of others also in the room, where Sarah felt “trapped”. After she left the house, she was allegedly raped in the alley next to the townhouse by Justin Dyer, a former VFL player.

By the time the matter went to trial, Dyer (fictitious names are used for both the defendant and complainant in Night Games), already a marginal figure in the Melbourne football world, was further isolated from the players he orbited around. Most of the media scrum materialised when the two Magpies players made fleeting appearances at the directions hearing and then at the trial as witnesses and disappeared when they left.

Krien stays, however, and doggedly follows the story, initially feeling discomfort that the events in the townhouse were not pursued and formed only a peripheral part of the trial. She finds herself surprised by Justin’s “gentle demeanour” and passivity and sees him as an outsider abandoned by the football fraternity. She also worries that she is getting too close to the family of the defendant, that her objectivity is destroyed by the defendant’s grandmother hugs her. As it it becomes clear the story won’t conform to any recognisable narrative about rape, she admits to wishing she had chosen to write about an “easier” rape trial instead.

Also troubling is the absence of Sarah from the trial. Like many jurisdictions, Victoria enables complainants to avoid the trauma of facing the accused in court. This rule, known as the ‘rape shield’, is an important protection for women who lodge complaints but Krien fears her absence means she will project her own experiences onto the complainant.

With skill and borderline cruelty, the defence lawyer has the evidence of a neighbour who possibly heard Sarah’s protests discounted, instead focusing attention on how after the contested incident, Dyer kissed the complainant and sat close with her in a taxi to her house, playing on meaningless but well-entrenched notions of how a rapist would act.

While the trial forms the backbone of Night Games, the story branches off into related tangents like the accusations of gang rape by rugby league players at Coffs Harbour, the St. Kilda schoolgirl scandal and the discrimination and vilification female journalists have faced when venturing into the post-game locker room for their work.

As dark as much of the material is, Night Games is far more complex and probing than a wholesale dismissal of football culture. Krien finds a lot to like in the AFL and there are surprising observations at every turn: “One of the reasons…that so many people watch football is not just for the athleticism and the biffo, but also for the tenderness”. In many ways, the sport is making a concerted effort to turn away from elements once accepted as commonplace, with a stand being taken against unacceptable sledging and racism and education initiatives being put in place to avoid some of the ugly excesses of the recent past.

A darker underside persists however, with a “macho culture of humiliation” regularly raring its head, with ex-player Tony Wilson filling the author in on an alcohol-fuelled culture of pranks, youthful bravado, and forms of humour and acceptance rituals that often seem baffling to an outsider.

The narrative always circles back to the trial though and it speaks volumes of the book’s ability to uncover unexpected nuance that it remains gripping even we know though the result. As the verdict draws near, Krien continues to feel haunted by Dyer’s persistence in following Sarah, instinctively sensing that even in his version of events, there is something “off” and disrespectful about his behaviour that night.

This lingering unease is the enduring feeling from Night Games,which is being promoted as a literary hand-grenade, but often settles into a tone more often thoughtful than incendiary. There are few easy answers here, no redemptive sense of any lesson that has been learned.

Whatever the truth about that party and whatever actually happened in the bedroom crowded with footballers and later in a dark, urine-soaked alley, it seems clear that this incident forms just part of a disturbing broader culture, and that much of what took place probably falls in a large grey area between what is against the law and what should be acceptable behaviour.

Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man is an obvious antecedent, but this also brings to mind Michelle Schwarz’s undervalued One Split Second, which similarly used a high profile incident (in that case, the death of cricketer David Hookes) as a starting point to explore themes of masculinity, alcohol and violence and the role they play in Australian society.

Krien has a real feel for the tough, scrappy charm of Australian Rules Football, but seems on less certain territory in discussing other codes. Confusing Rugby League and Rugby Union and referring to the NRL as the A-league are simple mistakes that should have been edited out of an otherwise carefully written book.

Minor quibbles aside, the disquieting, fiercely intelligent Night Games instantly feels like an important work, and is certainly a difficult one to shake.

Book reviews

Book Review – Me and Rory Macbeath by Richard Beasley (2013)

Growing up in the suburbs in the 1970s, young Jake’s concerns are touchingly ordinary, extending little further than wondering how he’ll fit in at his new school and whether he’ll ever get to play cricket for Australia. His summer days are spent at the pool and footy field with dependable mate Robbie and spirited neighbour Lucy.

Their group dynamic is slightly thrown when a new boy arrives in Rose Street, a skinny Scottish kid called Rory. Despite Rory being rubbish at cricket and football, Jake and Robbie soon decide he is all right, swayed by his excellent slingshot and fishing skills and willingness to give bullies a taste of their own medicine.

The biggest presence in Jake’s young life though is Harry, his chain-smoking, hard-drinking single mother, a hard-bitten criminal barrister who admits she doesn’t hang out with anyone respectable. She is by far the story’s most vivid and interesting character, with a wry sense of humour and a soft spot for underdogs and battlers.

Full review at: The Sydney Morning Herald

Book reviews Music

Book review – ‘Waging Heavy Peace: A Hippie Dream’ by Neil Young (2013)

It wasn’t meant to be this way. Rock’n’roll was supposed to be a young person’s game. Live fast, die young, leave a pretty corpse, and all that. But with some of the best recent records being produced by elder statesmen such as Leonard Cohen, Bruce Springsteen, David Bowie and the author of this remarkable tome, it’s clear that old theory is in need of revising. It may be better to burn out than fade away, but better still to just keep the fire raging

Originally appeared in: The Sun-Herald (click for full review)

Book reviews

Capsule review of ‘The Best Australian Racing Stories’ by Jim Haynes [ed] (2010)

The sport of kings, and a refuge for dreamers and desperadoes – few passions grip this nation like horse racing. This collection includes iconic poems from the likes of C.J Dennis and Banjo Patterson, loosely-spun yarns on champions like Sunline, Phar Lap and Peter Pan and pen portraits of the great trainers. Not everything here is carefully written, but the best stuff sits comfortably with the best sports writing this country has produced. Particularly masterful is Les Carlyon’s homage to the Melbourne cup, which skilfully blends beautifully lyrical descriptions of the action with bluntly humorous reportage on the assemblage of drunken human beings dotted around the track.

Originally appeared in: The Sun-Herald

Book reviews

Book review – ‘The True Story of Butterfish’ by Nick Earls (2009)

If ‘Butterfish’ was a record, it would be Pulp’s ‘This is Hardcore’ : low-key, sad, lovely, funny and kind of dark. It’s classic Earls, starring faded rock star Curtis, who’s back in Brisbane, pottering around in semi-obscurity, producing an album in his granny flat. But then schoolgirl Annaliese shows up at his door and he becomes involved in her life, also becoming friendly with her down-to-earth mother, Kate and misfit brother Mark. Cue memorable riffs on love lost and (maybe) found, the hypnotic power of pop music, growing old, and why nobody throws TVs out of hotel windows any more. 

Book reviews

Book review – ‘Curtin’s Gift’ by John Edwards (2006)

To many, John Curtin was Australia’s greatest prime minister: a hero who was cheered as he walked through the streets of Melbourne and later farewelled by thousands. In many ways, he makes an odd choice of national champion, lacking as he did the grandeur of Whitlam, the wit of Menzies, the fabled common touch of Hawke. But what Curtin lacked in personal style he made up for in achievements, the kind of inarguable, towering accomplishments upon which history books were once based.

He brought Australian troops home in defiance of Churchill and Roosevelt, re-aligned Australian allegiances from the motherland to the new frontier of the United States and saved Australia from Japanese invasion. He was the reluctant hero, the saintly, self-sacrificing figure who safely guided the nation through its darkest, most sleepless night, all the while battling his own personal demons of alcoholism and depression.

Or so the story goes. Curtin’s Gift argues that Curtin was indeed the greatest Australian leader, but that the accomplishments normally attributed to him have been confused or exaggerated and obscure his real legacy. The popular claim that he rescued the nation from Japanese invasion is seen here as an overblown and misleading one, as is the image of Curtin as some kind of Pacific warlord—he mainly deferred to the capable American general Macarthur. Nor was Curtin as opposed to Britain as legend would have it. It is often forgotten that he appointed the Duke of Gloucester to the position of Governor-General, contrary to Labor policy that an Australian should be appointed to the role.

Author John Edwards also argues that Curtin’s intervention in bringing the 6th and 7th divisions home was not as crucial as popular belief would have it. It was a commonsense move and a popular one, he asserts, rather than an inspired and idiosyncratic one. The political machinations leading up to the move are chronicled here, though this section is not as clear or as convincing as other parts of Edwards’s argument.

The notion of Curtin as reluctant leader is more convincingly overturned here. While Curtin was apparently prepared to walk away from politics if he lost his Fremantle seat, he was by no means timid about the prospects of becoming leader and pursued the post with vigour. A lifelong convert to the Labor cause, he was a voracious reader and thought widely and critically about economic issues. As such, he came to the national leadership as the ‘best prepared and trained leader of his generation’.

In addition to throwing light on some of the misconceptions about Curtin’s prime ministership, the book is valuable in that it traces Curtin’s development as an economic thinker. Born in 1885, Curtin experienced Depression-era poverty first-hand and it was formative in his thinking. Later, he became involved with the Victorian Socialist Party, where he absorbed the teachings of Tom Mann. Also crucial were his observations of the wide-ranging powers held by the government during World War I. Appointed editor of the Westralian aged just 25, he possessed what Edwards calls an ‘easy familiarity with concepts and numbers’.

During Scullin’s ill-fated leadership, Curtin distanced himself from the prevailing wisdom in the party on how to end the Depression, rejecting the conventional analysis, which was to cut wages, and supported the Keynesian notion that reducing spending would not end the Depression. When he became leader, he spoke of the urgent need for ‘the reshaping, in fact, the revolutionising of the Australian way of life quickly, efficiently and without question’. His government assumed control of income tax from the states, made key changes to social security, introduced modern central banking and strengthened Australian involvement in the global economy, participating in talks that eventually led to the nation’s involvement in the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. It was these developments, Edwards contends, that constitute both Curtin’s greatest achievement and the foundations upon which Australian prosperity would once again flourish.

Edwards, formerly one of Paul Keating’s economic advisers, holds a PhD in economics and is now chief economist at HSBC. As such, he brings considerable economic proficiency to the work, and some will no doubt find this aspect of the text dry and somewhat difficult. However, as a look at how economic policy is inextricably linked to social change, the book is invaluable. And as a study in how Curtin’s hard work in establishing the framework for Australia’s recovery was more significant than his more celebrated and dramatic moments, it’s an incisive look at how politicians are perceived and remembered.

Edwards’s work is by no means the definitive or exhaustive Curtin biography (David Day’s tome still holds that title), but rather a convincing re-examination of some of the key strands of his life. We may revere Curtin, Edwards argues, but we have got him all wrong. For someone who got it right so crucially and so often, perhaps the least we can do is understand him and his precious gift. 

Originally appeared in: Eureka Street

Book reviews

Book review – ‘Tree of Smoke’ by Denis Johnson (2005)

In a word : extraordinary. It begins with news of the JFK assassination reaching troops in a Vietnamese jungle, and the horror of innocence lost which that moment so powerfully represents remains omnipresent throughout. Characters include young soldier Bill Houston (first seen shooting a monkey in one of the book’s most powerful scenes), his brother James, a Canadian nurse named Kathy, a young CIA operative called Skip and his shadowy uncle ‘The Colonel’.

To list their storylines would take a review much longer than this and even a comprehensive plot summary would tell you nothing of the book’s towering ambition, its compelling vision of the “loveliest country on earth” and how inexplicable it remains to the combatants even as they wreak havoc across it, its perfect tiny moments (“He didn’t like coffee. He just drank it”) and the glimpses of redemption it finds in the darkest depths of human suffering.

The only writers Johnson can be fairly compared to are all giants: Walt Whitman, Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene. Tree of Smoke is a very long book about a wretched war that has been the subject of countless novels and films. Yet it never feels like a chore, never seems familiar ground. In fact, you never want it to end.


Originally appeared in: Good Reading

Book reviews

Review of ‘Eating Animals’ by Jonathan Safran Foer, 2nd January 2010

In the second half of the twentieth century, factory farms expanded exponentially, all but eradicating the family-run food producers that had previously been the norm. The game changer was the discovery that there was no need for animals to be keep healthy for them to be profitable. Thus began a kind of ‘race to the bottom’ in a vast industry where almost unimaginable cruelty and even sadism has became commonplace, the price we pay to keep up with the voracious consumer demand for cheap meat.

Raising animals for food is an immensely wasteful enterprise – smaller and sick animals are ruthlessly killed, tens of thousands of birds die in transit and huge numbers of other fish and marine species (known as ‘bycatch’) die as a side effect of commercial fishing, an industry which operates with a ruthlessness that renders it a kind of underwater equivalent of factory farming.

Few areas of life are as fundamental as eating, yet the origins of what we eat are seldom explored in any depth. Even accounts of the food industry which take a stand against animal cruelty tend to shy away from descriptions of the slaughter, but here Foer recounts the deaths of animals he observes in stomach-turning detail and finds that even in family farms which treat their animals humanely it is often impossible to avoid the fact that animals die in painful and terrifying circumstances.

Our knowledge of the pain animals suffer has deepened, yet suffering on an immense scale has escalated to the point where there are now some fifty billion poultry living in miserable, illness-inducing conditions. The sheer size and resource-intensiveness of eating animals have led leading scientists to voice support for vegetarianism on purely environmental grounds, an unsurprising conclusion when one considers agriculture is the leading contributor to climate change.

Known primarily for his novels Everything Is Illuminated and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, which showed a divisive penchant for linguistic trickery and modernist devices, Eating Animals also has its experimental moments. Five pages contain nothing but the repeated words ‘speechlessness/influence’, while at other times, the narrative is taken up by those the author interviewed and it is not always clear who is speaking. The latter is a particularly disorientating device, but it feels like chicanery alongside the cogent arguments advanced elsewhere.

I would have liked more discussion of the idea of incremental change, for instance some variation on the idea which Paul Macartney floated recently of meat eaters abstaining from meat one day a week, an idea which lacks the ideological absolutism of vegetarianism, but would have a major positive impact if widely adopted.

Foer has a unfortunate tendency to break off from an argument at the wrong moment, a shame because he generally displays a willingness to explore the ambiguities of eating meat and resists providing easy answers. Yet his conclusions are clear; that eating meat as we currently do is unsustainable, both ethically and environmentally. This is a flawed work, though one of some urgency.

Originally appeared in: The Sun-Herald (Sydney)