Book Reviews

The following are book reviews that are of interest to writers, students and perhaps others. There is a focus on reviewing academic related texts, however, social interest and other texts will be reviewed from time to time.

Books that have influenced my work or writing, or day to day activities will take priority in being reviewed, and those that are worthwhile will be promoted.

Apr 232014

Tess Lea’s Darwin is an approachable cultural critique and explanation of Darwin’s history and present. Entwined in the Darwin narrative is Lea’s own cultural heritage and with it, some of the ‘frontier’ history of the Northern Territory.

Maintaining the intellectual complexity of many of her previous works, Darwin is the most accessible of her publications to date, retaining the charm of depth and pointedness which are so apparent in her more academic works but freighting theory within narratives and old fashioned yarns. To me, it seemed the first third of the book was hardest to write, in the fashion it often is when something is clearly close to your heart. But the second half opens up into an easily readable and entertaining if challenging exposition of Darwin which will inform and be of interest to both who know Darwin and those to whom it remains an unknown place.

While it claims to be focussed on Darwin since the Second World War, Lea weaves the narrative of selected histories of Darwin to give context and justification and an explanatory power for current events and issues in Darwin. Sometimes challenging, sometimes apologetic, it is an honest appraisal of Darwin’s culture and its distinctiveness on the Australian continent.

Darwin demonstrates the indelible mark that immigration and racial conflict has had on Darwin, and the sometimes paradoxical relationships between racial groups that confound intruders or other Australians coming to live in Darwin. Yet, although this a major theme that Lea extracts from the many contributors she spoke to for the work, it is perhaps not followed through as much as it could be in certain parts.

Darwin is an incredibly metropolitan city, which is surprising to a lot of visitors and those who have not visited Darwin. With this comes the physical characteristics of multiple cultures. It also dominates the politics of space in Darwin, a fact of policing and racial confrontations which is alluded to but not fully expressed. A shame given this is a part of Lea’s own academic work.

What is expressed and emphasised is the “social amnesia” and “numbed indifference” which runs as a consistent line from foundation to the present day in Darwin and the Northern Territory. Such a social and cultural phenomenon is one anecdotal reason given for the flux and constant movement of the Darwin population. Priests, nurses, teachers, doctors and others working on the frontline of social problems in Darwin are frequently cited in the local rag, the NT News, as fleeing Darwin for various reasons such as burnout. But as Darwin residents are likely to already know, this is more of a code word for combat fatigue. Those who stay learn to deal with the myriad of social problems in a number of ways, which weaves a path through the history of Darwin, as it does in Lea’s book.

Military build up is a constant point of discussion in Darwin, and is a feature in the book. The perceived necessity of the military, the history of Darwin as a military town, and the current and future decisions in relation to the military provide the sign posts for an analysis of the wider numbed indifference and social amnesia that abounds in Darwin. The inevitable cases of sexual assault and aggression are presented as a narrative for the possible future of the city, as it has marked the recent past, given the way Darwin features one of the highest sexual assault rates against women in the country. Against this, the economic case for military expansion  and reliance of the Darwin economy on the military – provide the basis of the kind of bind that so many polarising policy issues in Darwin also encounter.

The bind that Darwin faces itself – between the military and the negative consequences and the inevitability and helplessness of Darwin is almost a metaphor for how Darwin and the Northern Territory views itself: somehow fiercely independent, different, unique and set aside from the rest of Australia – yet wholly dependent on the outside for its sustenance, continuance and direction in almost all areas.

The duality of Darwin, between opposing policy options, and opposing social groups is a feature of many of the stories explored in the book. In some of these stories there are examples of mutual understandings, and truces, particularly between kids. I am left wondering if this is somehow an epithet for potential future ways forward in Darwin’s social sphere.

There is much that is missed in this book, particularly in regard to the sporting organisation of Darwin, and with it, the Northern Territory. Australian Rules Football has shaped Darwin both physically and socially. However, in this work only the socio-political aspects of AFL are brushed upon. The fact that the Esplanade – as Lea notes, Darwin’s only public space in the CBD – was once reserved for and had Football played there, is I think quite an important historic and cultural point. The entire geography and cultural history of the city is shaped by Football.

With this, the other important cultural point is the football season itself. Once played exclusively in the ‘Dry’ season in indigenous communities, football has gradually been moved to the ‘Wet’ season. Indigenous communities once only played Football in the Dry season – and some still do. As Lea does note, the change of Aussie Rules Football to the Wet season could be seen as another case of organised sport (by whitefellas) asserting power over unorganised sport (by blackfellas), and inserting a colonial sport in cricket (amongst others), in its place.

It could equally be argued that Football is one of the few sports that could be played in the Wet season, and thus, it allows other sport and recreation activities – so much loved by Territorians – to be enjoyed to their maximum extent.

Despite the various interpretations that the history of football in Darwin might elicit, it does give rise to one of the most elegant descriptions of Australian Rules Football in the Northern Territory, or anywhere as a matter of fact:

The season starts in the build-up, before the monsoon breaks, when the air is so saturated with moisture, the body’s own secretions give no relief at all. Under the football guernsey, the body glows. Tiny beads of sweat form miniature bubble-wraps on the forehead, above the lip, below the eyelashes, on the sternum, between legs and toes. […] But everyone sweats, the heat remaining the great equaliser. The game rewards agility, sprightliness, accuracy, the ability to catch a ball on the tip of a finger. It’s the guy who scrambles up the back of another, arms outstretched, snatching the ball out of air; the player who spins the ball end over end, high and long, the crowd’s breath held… it’s there.

Of course, football is just one of the many confounding elements of Darwin; one of the many paradoxes that could be interpreted multiple ways. There are decisions and actions in the social-political sphere that appear to have good intentions, but lead to unintended consequences, or look retrospectively like harsh and inappropriate decisions and actions.

Darwin largely sets aside the role of social pressures and sports as a planning instrument in shaping Darwin – rather the physical elements of tidal marshes, mosquitoes, drainage and political/ bureaucratic decisions such as military acquisition of land – are given the predominant weighting. And with this, the social distinctions are analysed through the placement of and contents of suburbs adjacent to these areas.

The physical distinctions are apparent to the keen observer in Darwin. And this exposition is one of the strengths of the book. The history of the division in social advantage and disadvantage is made apparent for the reader. What may appear to be a perfectly legitimate place for development in southern Australia, becomes a cesspool of festering disease and sickness. The battle lines are drawn, the community splits like tectonic plates that can’t be seen by the untrained observer, and Darwin is a place where nothing is as it seems – or should seem. But such is Darwin, and such is Darwin.

It is a book people should read, not just to find out about Darwin, but to think on the policy issues that are being worked out in this still-frontier town, on Australia’s behalf. Darwin, and Darwin, is good to think with.


Mar 312014

Susan Bernstein’s Housing Problems: Writing and architecture in Goethe, Walpole, Freud and Heidegger is an attempt at extending literary theory to the realm of architecture, and in particular, housing.

It is a project that largely under-delivers on its promise, in an overly wordy and unnecessarily complicated argument that covers up and confuses the structure of the work. However, there are some worthwhile arguments and links between written works and the physical surroundings of the thinker’s analysed. These are not likely to be of interest to anyone who isn’t specifically looking at the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of built housing form.

Housing is a particular area of interest for me, so this book was recommended in the context of providing a theoretical framework for conceptualising the analysis of housing problems.

I don’t really see the arguments presented in the book as a way of analysing housing problems. Rather, to me, it seems much more useful in analysing the structure of housing design in areas over time.

For instance, one argument put forward by Bernstein using Derrida is that housing forms a kind of “social archiving” and self-policing or self-censorship. The social archiving for mine is linked to, but not explicitly stated in the text with Heidegger’s position on the true expression of the self, and relation of the self to the external environment, presented in the architecture of housing.

It might seem overly academic (and it is), however it has direct relationship to the way housing construction and design evolves over time. Once upon a time, houses in Mandurah were almost solely the domain of designs maximising their summertime use as beach house getaways. Now, houses in Mandurah are built to cater for the needs of owner occupiers.

In a recent trip to Lancelin, I could see the beginnings of this evolution begin to happen as well, albeit in the early stages. The same can be seen in Darwin housing. Post cyclone Tracy homes have a completely different texture and function to those being built presently for cashed up southern investors, and those looking for a place to crash in between partying and working well paid shifts.

The social history and interactions with the environment contained in the architecture of housing do create ethical dilemmas, policy problems and social angst when housing evolves. This level of housing problems, which is an extension of the arguments presented by Bernstein in Housing Problems, is not articulated. And it is a shame. Because with the link between the thinkers, and their relationship with built form, and the creation of housing problems as places evolve, the project would have overcome the stumbling blocks that stop this book from becoming a worthwhile read.

Mar 252014

I came to Steve Keen’s Debunking Economics after dabbling in reading what I would call “alternative economics”. I’m not someone involved in economics as a profession, but pointing out flaws in economic theory has become a personal hobby of mine. I have read much of Joseph Stiglitz and Nicolas Nassim Taleb’s work, and although I adore reading Taleb’s work, I have not found something I could completely relate to. That is until I found Debunking Economics.

Ever since I studied first year economics, I have been a strident critic of the way economics is taught. I guess this is perhaps the product of teaching myself Marxian theory during year 12 maths, and having studied philosophy at university. I remember telling a lecturer, who had commented that I should continue with economics (after a good paper on environmental externalities), that an idiot could spot the logical flaws in what was being presented. It is perhaps somewhat ironic that I now find myself grappling with what could be deemed an “alternative economics” field, in environmental economics or some such.

I was a little reluctant to read Steve Keen’s work, given his partiality to public nudity and attention grabbing statements. But I shouldn’t have been. I found Debunking Economics almost completely sums up the way I feel about how economics is taught at university level. How it has been elevated to a science, and how it holds sway over the other social sciences of which it is most certainly a part, has me scratching my head.

Keen does an excellent job of explaining how the rise of economics in academia has come about. The exploration of the history of economics is enlightening, as well as frightening. Keen’s natural ability to outline historical progression in economics allows him to critique the brain washing tactics initiated by economics departments in a similar fashion to what faith based institutions invoke on their subjects. By providing evidence and tested and defended hypotheses, he contrasts his own positions against those which hold sway in the academic world and amongst central banks.

But mostly, this book is an attack on the prevailing paradigm of neo-classical economics and its sway in the political arena.

Keen invokes a common sense approach to economic critique which will appeal to the layperson. Terms such as “efficient markets” are attacked, as they mean something completely different to those in finance and economics to the layperson. Which Keen quite rightly emphasises is problematic, because economists actually play on this gap in knowledge to manipulate those on the outside to follow what is actually a falsity.

For mine, Keen’s book is a must read for anyone interested in economics, or economic policy. It is a truly enlightening read on the likely future of economics as a worthwhile intellectual endeavour. Anyone that has a natural inclination to be sceptical of economists, or even those that don’t, would be well advised to read this book. I think it’s also a must read for those studying or have studied economics.

I don’t think I can do Debunking Economics justice in such a short space of time. It is actually quite a dense read for something that is actually very accessible. It definitely does add to the appeal of his positions. From time to time I will have to look at individual arguments in Debunking Economics to further the arguments being made in my exploration of market-based instruments.

Mar 192014

Ben Elton’s Gasping is a satirical and poignant play looking at the world of business and free-market economics. It is brilliantly crafted and constructed, analysing what happens when the provision of an environmental service is taken to its extreme.

A fictional company, ‘Lockheart  Corporation’ has invented a product which sucks the oxygen out of buildings, ‘Suck and Blow’, and provides privatised air to the inhabitants of these buildings. The benefits of such for private consumers of air are not made explicit, aside from the marketing of “deserving your own air”.

Inevitably, problems occur. The atmosphere is sucked of its oxygen, and sudden winds result in the suffocation of people as the thin oxygen is removed from the area. In the end, local authorities have to provide oxygen for the local environment, which is conveniently provided by Lockheart.

Africa is pillaged for its natural resource, oxygen, and that is where the greatest hardships occur, as locals begin to run out of their own oxygen. This is contrasted with the African famines that regularly occur, whilst the excess of the west and the wastage of food goes on. It provides a striking comparison with today’s world, in particular the protection of natural and environmental services, and how the burden for this falls on the most disadvantaged in the world, whilst at the same time facing the most pressing, immediate concerns that place the most amount of pressure on the natural environment.

Gasping is just as relevant today as when it was written nearly 25 years ago. With the ongoing policy debate surrounding climate change and global warming, Gasping gives an example of what might happen into the future, if the ownership of carbon sequestration, carbon sinks and other public goods become privatised and monetised.

Unfortunately, property rights over environmental services are a double edged sword. On the one hand, the “the tragedy of the commons” is a problem which results in the pollution and over-fishing of our oceans, for example. On the other, exclusive and unfettered use and rights to the environment can lead to over-exploitation and other serious negative environmental impacts, penalising the societies that rely on them.

More specifically it has relevance to the controversy generated by the former CEO and current Chairman of Nestle Peter Brabeck-Letmathe when he said that “access to water is not a public right” or a human right. It’s a classic case of life imitating art. The problem being, that at some level there is a distinct logic to it. It’s not a basic human right to water the garden with fresh drinking water, but taken to its extreme, it becomes absurd. And policy that interacts with free-markets, finance, the environment and the business world invariably ends up being somewhere in the middle.

I am thrilled that Gasping is being updated and performed later this year. I think it is extremely timely, especially for Australia with current political debates. One theme that I hope is reinvestigated is the reduction in demand of oxygen (in the original Gasping), and the business decisions that result from this. I would like to see the producers of carbon credits and offsets satirised and analysed in a similar way.

Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. In its new iteration Gasp will be taking a crack at mining and excess in the contemporary Australian life. Never the less, I am looking forward to seeing Gasp when it is performed by the Black Swan State Theatre Company later this year. In the meantime, if you are interested in a light hearted humorous read, poking fun at business, I highly recommend Gasping.

Mar 072014

How to write a lot brands itself as a “practical guide to productive academic writing”, and for the most part this is true. It could also be an exposition in keeping it simple stupid for the academic writing arena. It really is one and the same.

I read this book on the recommendation of some academic writers during #AcWriMo. Paul J. Silvia, an academic psychology specialist in writing, presents the common complaints put forward by academics as to why they don’t write, and why they don’t publish.

For mine, it is just a positive affirmation of what I already do when I’m writing productively, and what others I’ve worked with have espoused previously.  For others, and in particular for students, the book dispels many of the myths surrounding productive writers.

The message is simple – create a routine and prioritise activities that are writing, or will help you write. As the age old saying goes in academia, if you haven’t got five minutes a day to write, no one can help you. By promoting a routine of writing and writing related tasks, it becomes habitual. I notice myself that when I am writing a lot, I am competitive with myself to exceed yesterday’s output, and become agitated when my writing routine is disrupted. I look for any possible opportunity to be writing. But this is a good situation to be in. I wonder how many people do get annoyed when they aren’t writing, or if they’ve just become resigned to not writing and then put up a smokescreen of excuses that Silvia outlines in this book.

Silvia does not just outline the problems inherent in academic writing and for producing academic scholarship. He also outlines strategies and solutions for developing a culture of writing. These I think are very under rated tips. Getting together a writing group – every week or every second week – will reinforce the requirements for writing. I think this is missed by most students and academic staff. Being able to introduce some measure of accountability from a group, rather than relying on deadlines, is a great way to ensure writing becomes habitual and gets done.

Had I been told that I could get through my undergraduate degree rather easily with just writing 50 or 100 words per day during semester, I perhaps would have been much more productive and successful. But this is what the book really amounts to – explaining how to break down writing tasks to manageable sizes that then don’t become overwhelming in totality.

The importance of developing some level of self accountability is also expressed in How to Write a Lot. I think Silvia has stolen my idea of being able to chart success in writing tasks, and output. He gives his results in an SPSS format, which I think is great if you haven’t already attempted to do something similar. At one stage I kept a database of my word output, and noticed that my most productive days for writing were Wednesday and Thursday. This is perhaps one thing that is lacking in this book – the importance of analysing when in the week and during the day you are most productive in writing.

At some point down the track, I’d also like to analyse what type of exercise is the most beneficial for my writing output. I certainly notice that walking and cycling are the most beneficial for my writing output, and that cricket and golf are perhaps the worst – but I have no evidence to support this claim. It may just be the associated alcohol intake that is the problem.

How to Write a Lot addresses my biggest weakness – how to turn writing a lot into writing productively. I write a lot. But I don’t always have much to show for it. Writing sometimes becomes a procrastination tool instead of doing other more important writing. There are simple, focussed tips given in How to Write a Lot to make sure what you are writing is structured, and presented in a way that can later be used for publication. Prioritising productive writing rather than pure output is something I hadn’t given a lot of thought to.

At the same time Silvia explains the importance in depersonalising your own writing. Emotional investment is something students find quite difficult to grapple with. I certainly found this rather difficult whilst writing my thesis, but it is an important trait to be able to develop in order to write more, and write more productively. Hanging off every word becomes pointless when an editor, examiner, lecturer, tutor or boss is going to tear it apart and make you rewrite and review it in any case. Accepting this before you begin writing is probably the biggest lesson that I took out of this book. And this lesson is one that is important for anyone at any stage of their writing.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is looking to increase their writing output, or looking for ideas to tune up something that is not quite right. If you have a colleague or a student that is stuck on one of the many stumbling blocks of writing, I’d suggest leaving this book on their desk.

Feb 172014

I assume what the most successful people do before breakfast is not read this book. Actually, that is a bit unfair. It is a book (or several chapters really) with a commonsense approach (and a little bit of research thrown in), that explains and illustrates the importance of putting in place a routine to achieving goals early in the morning.

I first came across this book through one of my favourite productivity blogs, and thought it could be useful for those of us who are writing, or working in fields where writing is essential.

As the book demonstrates, many of the world’s most accomplished writers, business people and community leaders have a rigid morning routine that follows them wherever they go. The short book explains how people make time work for them, to achieve personal goals – those fundamental goals that are most important to us.

The interesting thing is that I would call these goals “project oriented”. Despite the success of the people in the chapter used as case studies, they are able to achieve significant personal goals. Such as: writing books, getting fitter or spending quality time with family. It could be argued that it is not so much the morning routine that is important, but the project itself.

The book also shows that parents and time poor people can still achieve outcomes irrespective of their personal circumstances. By arguing the case that the first period of time in the day is the only time you may have to yourself, Vanderkam demonstrates that this should be the time for your most important goals.

There is also a good reason for this, backed up by research. Apparently, those who have a task which they set out to achieve in the mornings are more likely to stick to it – it is likely to become a part of their routine. This is opposed to have an afternoon routine, which may be more likely to be interfered with by work or other family pressures.

Although the book is entitled ‘What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast’ it is actually made up of three short books. The Aforementioned book, ‘What the Most Successful People Do on the Weekend’ and ‘What the most Successful People Do at Work’.

The gem of the book is actually the third short book – what the most successful people do at work. In my opinion, it is a must read for those working in a bureaucracy, in the public service or in administration.

A lot of work that I have seen being done by people in such positions is in my opinion, not actually real work. It is work creation, which leads to micromanagement and poor productivity and output. And this section of the book points this out.

It resonated very strongly with me at certain points. Many of the activities that are pointed out as beneficial for productivity become actively excluded when poor management is involved. They’re actually actively discouraged and become problematic, and tie people to their unproductive work habits.

If you refuse to open your emails before 10, you can be hauled over the coals. But this is exactly the sort of advice that is given in this book. It is exactly why in my opinion it is a must read for managers and other administrators who actually supervise staff, to make sure that their style and instruction is not actually inhibiting workplace productivity and building frustration amongst staff.

If anything, I will continue to refer to this section of the book in my own work, and in professional settings.