revolutionary road

April 10, 2010

Revolutionary Road is the name of the street where Frank and April Wheeler live in Richard Yates’ novel of the same name.  Of course they do, because Frank and April have a horror of convention –  they maintain an ironic detachment from their suburban home as proof of their authenticity and intellectual superiority.

The problem is, neither has ever had the courage to be truly authentic.  Now they’re stuck in a marriage that’s lost its purpose, in a dead-end job and an affair he doesn’t want (Frank) and in household drudgery and motherhood (April).  Their ironic facade is not fooling anyone, even themselves.

Trying to break out of this spiral towards deathly conformity, April suggests they move to Paris. Frank can write his novel an April will go out to work to support them. They’ll be European, urbane, sophisticated, their real selves and thousands of miles from the dreaded stultifying suburbs.

This plan energises them for a while but Frank begins to realize that he is never going to write the novel because he’s not talented nor brave enough. He is secretly relieved when April announces she’s pregnant. April is adamant that the pregnancy should be terminated, and frank thinks he’s talked her around, until she takes matters into her own hands. It ends tragically.

This was a fantastic book. It’s a well observed and perceptive portrait of a relationship that’s run out of steam, satirical and sympathetic. It is identifiably of its time and place, in the way John Updike’s short stories of the same period are, but the book’s not in the slightest bit dated. There are no superfluous words or characters, which takes real talent from a writer.

The best novels for me these days are ones full of uncomfortable truths and insight, disappointment and bitter realisations. Revolutionary Road has all this without being depressing, morbid, sordid or maudlin. I could read it again and again.

Revolutionary Road
Richard Yates
Vintage Classics (1961)


short and sweet

April 2, 2010

Books I’ve read lately but won’t be reviewing in full (no time or no point)

  • Madam Bovary – Gustave Flaubert – enjoyed tremendously, amazing how true to life it remains
  • North and South – Elizabeth Gaskell – patchy and a bit overblown
  • Boys and Girls Forever – Alison Lurie – about kids literature, too US-centric to be fully enjoyable
  • Sucked In – Shane Maloney (re-read) – Murray Whelan is my favourite detective and I hope there’s a sequel to Sucked In describing his adventures in Canberra and the Senate
  • Jungfrau – Dymphna Cusack – a bit dated, oh what a tizzle people used to get themselves into about young women having sex and abortions. Come In Spinner and Heatwave in Berlin much better examples of her work


April 2, 2010

Michael Specter‘s Denialism promises much via subtitle (How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet and threatens our lives), cover blurb and hype. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of ‘how’ in the book and certainly no ‘why’.

Specter uses six examples where public debate around science and scientific evidence has become polarised and irrational with (he says) negative consequences.

Vioxx was an anti-inflammatory drug that was withdrawn from the market following concerns about side effected.  Specter uses this example to show how poorly the general public understand risk, and how our evaluation of statistical risk often doesn’t include the risk of not doing something.

Specter then goes through the MMR vaccine case and the anti-vaccination movement that grew out of it. He is especially critical of celebrity campaigners such as Jenny McCarthy and those who give them platforms (like Oprah Winfrey), who appear to make no attempt to understand the body of scientific research around vaccines but instead rely on personal experiences and anecdotes.  He notes how quickly this kind of campaigning can lead to populist politicisation and polarisation of the debate, to the detriment of understanding and trust in evidence.

His third example is GM and organic food.  I found this chapter poorly argued. Specter undermines his case for rational and informed debate by being completely uncritical of the GM food industries’ arguments in favour of their products.  He quotes the Golden Rice example as one of the benefits of GM food, however as Raj Patel points out in Stuffed or Starved, people in south east asia are not deficient in Vitamin A because there is something wrong with rice. They are deficient in vitamin A because they can’t afford to eat anything but rice.

Specter also ignores any engagement with the ethical arguments around organic food and GM food, in favour of treating the debate as one of mere nutritionism.  Given his emphasis on the importance of understanding risk in the Vioxx example and his pleas for rational decision making, it was really disappointing that he incorrectly defined  the precautionary principle as ‘hold[ing] that any risk, no matter how remote, must be given more weight than any possible benefit, no matter how great’ (here is the actual definition) and used this spurious definition to support his argument.

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dead europe

February 23, 2010

It’s been over a month since I finished Christos Tsiolkas’ Dead Europe and I’m still unsure what to think of it.  I’d say it’s really really good, but I can’t explain why. I’d say it is really visceral and revolting, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. I’d tell you it has vampires in it, but I’d hate you to think it’s Twilight.

Dead Europe has two stories running at once. One is narrated by Isaac, a Greek-Australian photographer travelling in Europe. The other seems like a parable or a fairy tale, but is actually the back-story of Issac’s mother. Both of them are filled with horror, the difference being that Isaac’s horror creeps up on him despite his rational new-world outlook, whereas in the back story the horror is tied to superstition and ignorance.

The two stories together cover a lot of ground – World War Two, the end of communism in Eastern Europe, the immigrant experience, the Holocaust, the Greek coups and Junta. Where the book is really successful is that it doesn’t use just one of these, it ties them all together into a kind of pan-European story without losing significance of each, and centering these events on the lives of ordinary people.

As Isaac comes to realise that he is possessed, and doomed, the two stories begin to mesh together, and instead of the pretty picture postcard Europe that an Australian tourist might photograph, the dark festering depths of all of Europe’s history and unresolved hatreds come bubbling up to the surface and can’t be ignored.

This is one of the most interesting things about this book – it directly challenges clichés that most readers and writers actively participate in. Immigrants do not make good in the new country, prodigal sons are not lauded on their return to the old country, Paris and Prague are not pretty and romantic, but grim and cruel.

While I can’t say why, I would strongly recommend this book as a compelling and thought-provoking read, and will leave it to people more coherent than me to say why.

Dead Europe
Christos Tsiolkas
Random House, 2005


american wife

February 18, 2010

This book has all the ingredients for a saga: a heroine damaged by early tragedy, a dashing hero with a fatal flaw, violence, politics, families, money, abortion, secrets, a lesbian grandmother and obvious parallel to recent events. It could so easily have gone wrong. Curtis Sittenfeld gets it exactly right.

Alice Blackwell, the heroine, is married to a President of the United States, whose presidency, in 2007, is not going very well.  What is keeping Alice awake at night is the fear that she’s done, or will do something that will put his presidency in jeopardy.  The book consists of Alice looking back over her life, searching and analysing what she has done, looking for that unnoticed event that, if revealed, could bring everything crashing down.

Alice is very ordinary – she has no strong opinions about anything, and apart from a short period of tragedy and unhappiness at the end of her highschool years, her life has been unremarkable. However these events have also shaped and informed how she’s lived and are in part responsible for where she is now: First Lady of the US.  While she’s not particularly perceptive, the book manages to use her voice  for a remarkable analysis of class, power, human nature, and politics in America since the 60s.

I found this book really absorbing – it’s well-paced, never boring, clever and full of insight. It combines excellent story telling with a thought-provoking parable on compromise and belief, in a way that’s incredibly subtle.

Highly recommended.

American Wife
Curtis Sittenfeld
Black Swan (2008)


hexaflexagons, probability, paradoxes and the tower of hanoi

February 13, 2010

I’ve been reading this book over and over for about a month because the mathematical part of my brain isn’t much used any more.  Martin Gardner, the author, wrote a column on mathematical games for Scientific American for 25 years, which provided much of the material for his Mathematical Library, of which this is the first book.

Hexaflexagons has 16 short chapters with a different mathematical puzzle or paradox in each. Some are easier to grasp than others. Some are familiar from high school, some new.  This was an enjoyable book, though hard work – I recommend reading with a pencil in hand because at some stage you’ll want to work things out for yourself. Nerdish fun.


arlington park

February 13, 2010

Rachel Cusk is known for articulating ambivalence to motherhood.

Arlington Park is no exception.

It’s so bleak that it could be used as contraception.

Other than that it’s a collection of irritating and middle-class people who have dinner parties.

Not recommended unless you’re having doubts about your decision not to breed.

Arlington Park
Rachel Cusk
Faber & Faber (2006)