GFC must-read: Book review of Roger Lowenstein’s The End of Wall Street

Roger Lowenstein is one of the most consistently insightful yet energetic chroniclers of the financial world; I loved When Genius Failed (2002) and Origins of the Crash(2004) and he has also written about Warren Buffet. That he generally tackles financial disasters and is a savage critic of basic tenets of the modern financial priesthood must be recognized, so don’t go looking for glamorisation, but with that known perspective in mind, his books are distinguished by skilful narration, excellent first-hand interviews, a literate style, and meticulous referencing.

The End of Wall Street proves no exception to these accolades, indeed I’d class it as one of his best books. Covering the Global Financial Crisis from inception to gory crash, it has come out later than the other GFC narratives I have read (the author himself somewhat caustically congratulates his forerunners), but the delay has allowed Lowenstein to ascend higher on his helicopter to scan the landscape. All the many assessed culprits, from loosened regulation, slack regulators, greedy mortgage originators, bankers inventing and flogging derivatives, risk-taking by banks, to uncomprehending rating agencies . . . Lowenstein weaves them all together into a crackerjack tale that would be rejected as fanciful in a novel. Add Lowenstein’s mastery of the terrain and his garnering of many fine interviews, and this is as good as you’ll get in surveying the barely comprehended wreckage. You may well disagree with his analysis of root causes but you’ll gain immensely in knowledge.

The End of Wall Street is one of the two GFC books you should read right now and urgently. 4 stars.

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Pratchett at his best & worst: Book review of Terry Pratchett’s Unseen Academicals

My sons lapped up Terry Pratchett’s comedic, bursting-with-ideas, oddball fantasy novels the moment they were published, so over the years I have read a fair few of his forty-five books. Unseen Academicals is the first Pratchett I’ve read in years, and at first my impatience almost bested me. Every page is packed with witty authorial asides, sometimes even with footnotes, all laced with smartarse ideas and wordplay in the Douglas Adams style; each instance is a mini tour de force, but quickly I came to a terrible conclusion, namely that I didn’t want more pointless erudite brilliance. Indeed I came perilously close to slamming the book shut, never to be reopened. But Pratchett is not the demigod of his subgenre that he is for nothing. The two central characters he introduces early in this picaresque tale of wizards preparing for a soccer match, namely Nutt, the lowly but strangely capable candle dribbler, and Glenda, the humble yet smart cook, quickly reveal themselves to be fully formed and fascinating. Despite all the guff, this is a cleverly crafted drama cum love story, and after my initial hiccup I read it with pleasure. Pratchett’s pacing, after a slow start, is impeccable and his cutesy ending works wonderfully.

No doubt Pratchett is an acquired or perhaps hereditary taste but Unseen Academicals is a fine read. 3 stars.

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Langorous yet sumptuous: Film review of South Solitary

The star of South Solitary, an Australian film by director Shirley Barrett that zapped across our cinema screens for scant weeks, is its setting, a lighthouse on a bleak, remote island. Cinematographer Anna Howard captures the austere scenery and interior of the evocative lighthouse with great aplomb; it helped that I’d recently seen one of the two locations, Cape Otway on the southwest coast of Victoria. The storyline is simple, if not slow: Meredith, a young, hesitant woman (played with wonderful subtlety by Miranda Otto) with some kind of secret past, arrives by boat, accompanying her uncle, the new lighthouse keeper (a fine performance by Barry Otto). Meredith becomes entangled in the lives of the other two lighthouse workers, a slick Casanova and his family, and a World War I wreck (the real star of the film, played with aching empathy by Marton Csokas). Since not much really happens, I won’t reveal more, but suffice to say there is tragedy, isolation, danger and a whiff of love. Barrett’s direction is languorous but my usual impatience was conquered by the mix of setting and gentle character development.

South Solitary is, in its own minor way, a sumptuous treat. 3 stars.

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Brilliant & captivating: DVD review of Sam Mendes’s Away We Go

Oh to live in New York and see movies like Away We Go, directed by young Sam Mendesand powered by a Dave Eggers/Vendela Vida script, as they are released, in the glory of a cinema! Away We Go came out in 2009 but never made it into Australian multiplexes; only now, a year later, was I able to view it on DVD. And it’s a winner, a quirky, finely paced, life-affirming example of the best of American filmmaking. Anchored by a simple plotline – a 30s-something couple touring different American cities to pick where they might settle – it is at once a gentle satire about American families, a fascinating sociological travelogue, a paean to love, and an exploration of existential meaning. Yet it’s not weighty by any means – brilliant acting by John Krasinski (as the geeky but tough, naive but wise husband) and Maya Rudolph (the emotional, strong wife) centre us first and foremost in the lives of the characters, and some of the scenes are delightfully humorous. Out of last month’s crop of 2009-2010 films watched on DVD, Away We Go stands out as superlative.

As entertaining and profound as the best literary novels. 4 stars.

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Soviet Union revisited: Book review of Maria Tumarkin’s Otherland

My 2008 ‘return to roots’ trip to Estonia and Siberia haunts me still, so I was naturally drawn to Maria Tumarkin’s Otherland. Tumarkin is an adventurous, cerebral researcher/writer who couples an exuberant style with a personal frankness that seems to me very brave. I loved her first book Traumascapes, bold and opinionated, and found Courage to be frustrating (I disagreed with her sentiments) but worthwhile. Otherland is more personal, the journey with her teenage daughter back to Russia (Moscow and a lovingly rendered St Petersburg) and homeland Ukraine. Although scathing about conditions in post-Soviet-Union Russia, and its maddening bureaucracy (a couple of lengthy vignettes capture the situation wonderfully), she constantly resists being cornered by clichés. A vigorous stylist with a lovely sense of flow, Tumarkin muses about mother/daughter relationships, the guilt of the prodigal daughter, the dislocation between the Soviet Union she left, the Melbourne she calls home and the Russia of today. Some of the storyline, if I can call it that, is ordinary simply because this was not a trip of huge external drama, but the congruence between her trip and mine ensured that Otherland gripped me throughout.

A road trip book coupled with a nuanced, heartfelt examination of home and family. 3 stars.

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Non-trite thriller: Book review of Michael Gruber’s The Good Son

The thriller genre used to feed off the Cold War. More recently, the ‘bad guys’ have tended to come from terrorists, Islamists, etc., and in most cases I’ve found such books to be excruciatingly shallow. The Good Son, seventh novel from thriller writer Michael Gruber, provides a welcome whiff of intelligence in the genre, for it offers as nuanced a drama set in terrorist-dominated remote Pakistan as John le Carre did of the Cold War in his Smiley series. Cerebral adventurer and academic Sonia Laghari, estranged from a high-class Pakistani husband, is taken hostage in remote Pakistan with a group of other academics. Her son Theo, a brutally efficient American spy warrior, attempts a rescue. All this sounds like one of those crap modern American thrillers, but by making his two central characters very much semi locals (Sonia practises Islam as well as Catholicism and Theo had a period as a Pakistani soldier), and by enmeshing the hostage/rescue story in a US espionage imbroglio, Gruber deepens the book into something illuminating. The author is not a stylist like le Carre but his writing is spirited and his plotting is terrific. I found the ending both surprising and a little bit rubbery, but none of this detracted from reading enjoyment.

The Good Son is a classy thriller built on a rare foundation of intelligence. 3 stars.

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Pity about the script: DVD review of The Invention of Lying

Ricky Gervais is a hero to me, his brand of savage, ironic humour a lifeline to someone who rarely finds funny what others do. So I watched The Invention of Lying (Gervais co-wrote, co-directed and starred) as soon as it came to Australia on DVD (its cinema season was an eyeblink). Alas, this is a travesty of a comedy. The basic premise – a world where no one can lie, except a retrenched, loveless loser (Gervais) who suddenly conceives of being untruthful – is a winner, but the script is execrable, without sense (the ending is especially lame) or tension. Gervais acquits himself well despite few lines or scenes of merit, but the rest of the actors struggle with the poor material. I chuckled at some of the nifty consequences of a world without fabrication, and Gervais manages some funny moments, and in truth I rather enjoyed the gentle sweep of the film, but none of that was enough.

Great idea, pity about the script. 1½ stars.

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Rock music in panorama: Book review of Bill Flanagan’s Evening’s Empire

As a sucker for novels set in the milieu of rock music, I was blown away by Bill Flanagan’s Evening’s Empire, partly because it is completely different to all the others I’ve read. Rather than embedding the reader in a character who is a singer or guitarist in a band, the hero of Evening’s Empire, Jack Flynn, is a band manager. Fortuitously thrust as a callow young lawyer into the epochal period of 60s British rock music, he becomes manager of the Ravons, Flanagan’s fictional band that comes across as a blend of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. Early superstars, the Ravons fracture and its four members progressively move to America, as does manager Jack, allowing the author to track the evolution of rock music through the decades. Which he does with a marvellous combination of insight, name dropping and narrative flair. There are no gymnastic stylistics here, but Flanagan manages to imbue his uncertain hero’s retrospective story with a satisfying, idiosyncratic voice. As a fan of rock music, I can tell you his retelling of the epochs of rock is spot on. And at a more fundamental level, Evening’s Empire is a reflection on creativity, fame and its many discontents, and happiness. The novel is long but deservedly, for it’s no less than a reflection on the history of rock music from its inception in the late 60s (you can forget earlier periods in my opinion).

A grand ‘rock family’ drama that will embrace you with its sweep. 3½ stars.

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Visually lush but undisciplined: DVD review of The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus

I didn’t borrow Terry Gilliam’s The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus because of its now universal tagline, ‘Heath Ledger’s last film,’ but because of some intriguing reviews read in retrospect. And I was in the mood for something visually arresting. Imaginarium proved to be wonderful eye candy, a lovely fable plot, and some fine ensemble acting. I was especially taken with Tom Waits as the over-the-top inscrutable devil. The storyline is a little silly in retrospect – Doctor Parnassus is a travelling entertainer, letting customers enter his mind and choose there between a good option and an evil option – but it works well enough in the moment, and the key subplot, a coming-of-age story of Parnassus’s daughter, is well sustained. There is plenty of dry or quirky humour as well. Substituting a trio of stars – Law, Depp and Farrell – for Ledger in the latter parts of the film also works well. If my comments above suggest lukewarm praise, that’s because Gilliam’s rein over the film is sloppy, so that some of the splendid scenes are let down by indulgent or cursory transitions. Since the film is very much a product of Gilliam’s creativity, such ‘un-Hollywood’ looseness can add to the charm but it also, in my opinion, leaches out the vitality of his vision.

Weird, visually brilliant, well acted, but slightly sapped of pizazz. 2½ stars.

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Great sci-fi concept: DVD review of Surrogates

My current hunger for sci-fi, in all its forms, led me to last year’s Surrogates. Casting Bruce Willis as lead automatically indicates a film that is less sci-fi and more mindless thriller, but, to his credit, in Surrogates he plays a restrained role. The plotline is pure Philip K. Dick (the second time I’ve written that recently, showing how pervasive Dick’s sci-fi legacy remains): in a futuristic world in which many humans lie indoors and live through androids they control mentally, a bed-ridden human is killed when his ‘surrogate’ is, leading to a hunt (by Willis and his rather insipid co-star Radha Mitchell) for a new super-weapon. I found the overall concept wonderfully seductive and was able to brush aside some clunky script elements because of director Jonathan Mostow’s frenetic pace and fine staging of the android-based scenes. A serious thematic thread of man versus machine is rather clumsily addressed, to the extent of a so-so ending, but here again I excused it all for the sheer delight of a wonderful idea expressed in film.

Acceptable filmic entertainment buoyed by a bedazzling sci-fi bedrock. 2½ stars.

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