The Economists' Hour by Binyamin Appelbaum

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

The Great Recession of 2007 – the one that Australians call the GFC – was a boon to economists. Book sales boomed as the very economists who had failed to predict the crash, tried to convince us that they knew why it occurred.   If only those same economists could have predicted the recession, the world might have been able to avoid it.

The first wave of post- recession literature is now being followed by a second wave that is deeper and broader in scope. The strong link between economics and politics was born in the mid-20th century and some of the economic policy adopted since then contributed to several recessions, including the most recent crash.

The Economists’ Hour is a series of themed history lessons that provide greater insights as to why major recessions could occur at any time. Binyamin Appelbaum delves into the arcane world of neo-liberal economics, which necessitates a detailed account of the role of economists and economic theory in shaping government policy in the USA – and by inference, the world – in the last 60 years.

Recent events, including the Great Recession, have even led to predictions of the demise of free markets and, perhaps, of capitalism itself.  The seeds for this were sown long before 2007, but the political consequences since then have been manifest – the rise of populist, authoritarian politicians, nationalism, xenophobia and the destabilising of world institutions and agreements.

The content demonstrates there has been a continuing tug-of-war between the major economic levers – including government regulation, budget balance, inflation, employment, money supply, private and corporate taxation.

The structure is a series of chapters on these levers. Most chapters begin in mid-20th century and finish in current times. This requires some necessary repetition, but the structure works to explore detail and nuances as well as rendering the content more digestible.

The book is divided into three parts. The first deals with markets, employment, inflation and taxation, with a detailed account of monetarism and the rise of one of America’s most polarising economists, Milton Friedman. The second part looks at the behaviour of large corporations, government regulation and valuing people and the environment. The third part broadens the geographic scope to examine currencies, and includes case studies about the economic fortunes of a few “foreign” countries, and the endless debates about the extent of government regulation.

The author has painstakingly researched and documented the evolution of these themes. It is plain that for a new economic theory to gain traction, the proponent has to achieve political legitimacy through a combination of persuasiveness, timing and luck. For any US President to take the world’s largest economy in a new direction, with little or no evidence that it will work, is a huge act of faith. Consequently, many theories are adopted not because they are proven to be better, but that they fit with a desired political ideology.

For example, President Reagan argued in the 1980s that tax cuts would produce increased government revenues. Despite being dismissed as “voodoo economics” [p110] by his rival, George Bush, the voters fell for it. Some profitable firms ended up paying no tax and others were actually subsidised by the government. The net result was a slowing of US economic growth and the economy has never again achieved the sustained growth rates of the earlier part of the 20th century. Even staunch Reagan supporter Dick Cheney reluctantly agreed, decades later, that the cuts had not worked. Perhaps he should have heard some alarm bells when tax cuts were first “proven” to him by a prominent economist who famously sketched a curve on a table napkin.     

When President Clinton subsequently raised taxes, swarms of economists were appalled and predicted a shrinking of federal revenues and the economy. In the event, the opposite happened: “the economy boomed and deficits vanished” [ p120].

Economists continued to argue when President George W Bush’s proposed tax cuts in 2002 caused a schism – 450 economists signed a statement that “opposed the plan, concluding it would expand the federal debt but not the American economy”. Meanwhile, another 250 responded with a statement supporting the plan. Bush wagered incorrectly by sticking with the cuts, but was re-elected anyway. “Tax cuts once again were a political triumph and an economic failure” [p127]. In contemporary USA and Australia, we have witnessed recent tax cuts justified on similar grounds.

Politicians typically trot out the results of econometric models where they support their policies, while suppressing any results that do the opposite. Milton Friedman eschewed the need to use complex models to predict the results of economic policies, preferring what was essentially ideologically-driven trial and error:

“This emphasis on results became a defining feature of modern economics, helping to justify the rise of increasingly abstract models that treated people as rational actors – not because anyone thought that people were rational, but because the pretence was said to produce better results.”  [p59]

This belief stemmed from an implacable faith in markets:

“The market would deliver stable economic growth; the role of government, he said, was to get out of the way…[later] telling audiences that the Fed [Federal Reserve] should be replaced by a computer”  [P63].

Indeed, the long serving Fed chairman, Alan Greenspan, was so keen to keep government out of the way that he was quoted as saying “I have never seen a constructive regulation yet” [p303]. According to Binyamin Appelbaum, this led him to great success and great failure: “His signature triumph fittingly involved doing nothing: he resisted pressure to raise interest rates in the 1990s, judging correctly that the economy would grow without inflation…….His great failure also involved doing nothing: he repeatedly declined to curb the excesses of the financial industry” [p303].

Australians have learned recently from the Banking Royal Commission just how far those excesses can go. The author demonstrates the folly of so-called self-regulation through several case studies. Of course, this very issue was a trigger for the Great Recession, when excessive, risky lending practices in the US resulted in a chain reaction when those loans could not be repaid.

International trade has received close attention in recent years, but the seeds of protectionism were nurtured by the strength of the American economy:

“..the United States and its former enemies burrowed into a co-dependent relationship  – Germans and Japanese producing; Americans consuming – entrenching economic patterns that persist up to the present” [p220]. China is just the most recent in a long line of trade partners who can produce goods more cheaply than America, and whose trade surpluses maintain the purchasing power of the greenback. 

The powerhouse US economy had 75 years of trade surpluses from 1896, but by the 1970s it entered a sustained period characterised by trade deficits. This prompted President Nixon to devalue the currency and eventually, to abandon fixed exchange rates all together.  The US showed that it was prepared to break long standing world agreements in favour of its own interests. “It was a declaration of economic nationalism, and in the United States, the initial action bordered on Euphoria”. Interestingly, “the Communists [Soviet Union] were also delighted” [p229], apparently hoping that capitalism might be moribund. Europe and Asia saw it as a trade war.

The world since 2007 has many parallels with the Great Depression – not least being the political opportunities that arise when people are hurting: “The market economy remains one of humankinds most awesome inventions, a powerful machine for the creation of wealth. But the measure of a society is the quality of life at the bottom of the pyramid, not the top.  [This] is an important reason why the very survival of liberal democracy is now being tested by nationalist demagogues, as it was in the 1930s” [p332].

The book concludes with some sensible reflections and a few useful suggestions for policy makers, but by and large the book is descriptive. Indeed, by the time we reach the conclusions, the multi-faceted  analysis of economic policy in preceding chapters has repeatedly served up one compelling lesson – that economics is more an art than a science; and that an economist who pushes a singular agenda is just as likely to be wrong as right.

Binyamin Appelbaum is not an economist, having graduated with a BA in history. He was lead writer on business and economics for The New York Times. This volume is the product of his forensic examination of events, skilfully combining economics with history. The result is a credible and very readable analysis –unencumbered by political or economic ideology.

The Economists’ Hour, mercifully, is written as a narrative rather than as an economics text. There are no graphs, pie charts or J curves in sight. The detail is sometimes overwhelming, but the book provides a clear lineage from the last century to our current economic system. The title hints that perhaps the central role of economists may be transient – but the alternative of having ill-informed national leaders tampering with such a delicate system, surely risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Economists’ Hour

[2020]

by Binyamin Appelbaum

Picador; Pan Macmillan

ISBN: 9781509879144

448pp; $32.99 (paperback)

Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood by Robert Fabbri

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Reviewed by Ian Lipke

Heroes in literature, flawed though their personalities might be, usually follow a personal honour code. They are most often the main character of a literary work who, eschewing or disregarding injury or death, combat adversity through feats of human courage or the application of intellectual reasoning. These are sufficient to bring the villain to justice. In classical times the goal of the exercise in which the hero took the lead was often wealth or pride or fame. Such motives are more likely to be found in modern day villains, not heroes. But what of Ancient Rome?

What do we make, then, of Robert Fabbri’s Magnus, leader of the Crossroads Brotherhood? He commands a gang made up of some of the most twisted, morally corrupt, and evil human beings. He owes his existence and the success of his criminal activities to a Senator of Rome, one of the elite during much of the reigns of Tiberius, Caligula and Claudius. His oily influence is not as upfront as that revealed by Magnus, but is equally dirty. Of course the author is describing for his readers the Roman world in its final corruption.

Magnus represents the world of the inhabitants of Rome during these reigns. The book is described as part of the Vespasian series, the period known as the Flavian dynasty, rulers of the Empire from AD 69 to AD 96, and in particular, the reign of Vespasian from AD 69 – AD 79.  However, it has nothing to do with the Emperor Vespasian. The book predates this period. If I’ve sorted it out, the story series begins with the arrival in Rome of Vespasian, not as emperor but as a soon-to-be inhabitant.

No doubt the author has it all sorted out in his mind but a reader is likely to be soon lost trying to shed the misleading descriptor “part of the Vespasian series”. I found this insertion very frustrating. Historically, the period AD 25 – AD 51, identified as the chronology of action, was an age of murder, violence and mayhem. Even the least read knows of the depths of human depravity that describe the reigns of especially Caligula and Nero. The fictional Magnus is a major force among the underbelly of Rome, his power inviolate under the protection of Vespasian’s uncle, Senator Gaius Vespasius Pollo, the crooked senator alluded to above.

So, the stage is set. A chain of command has been established. Ostensibly, Magnus is the chief of a band of scoundrels, who in turn have not been crushed by the military authorities because Magnus has powerful, but always hidden, protection. The argument that the Brotherhood’s activities could in fact have happened in the historical Rome is not difficult to accept.

The classical conception of a leader, one who pursued wealth or pride or fame, are on display in Fabbri’s Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood. The never-ending pursuit of wealth and the constant insertion of one’s power over everybody else, are laid bare. Fabbri shows what happens to leaders when they succumb to evil or amorality. Senator Pollo and Magnus and his Brotherhood fit the scholarship on this period in history. In short, what Fabbri has given us is an accurately penned description of the city of Rome under the successive regimes.

That is not to say that the book makes interesting reading. The text consists of a number of short stories beginning in AD 25 and covering, in a series of tales, the period to AD 51. Cunning and spite characterise Magnus, and this picture is consistent across all five tales. For this reviewer consistency is a powerful positive force, but equates with repetition in this book. Each subsequent tale differs little from the first – different scenario, same response is not too harsh a comment. I should add that I have read most of Fabbri’s full length novels and, in the main, enjoyed them. Occasionally I was bored with small sections of the books, but was happy, overall, to read the Fabbri productions.

It devastates me to have to say that Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood was a mistake from its very conception. It gives the impression that Fabbri had made a decision that his audience would be prepared to accept left-overs, clobbered together from previously unusable portions of his novels. Nearly 400 words, that form a primer in violence and evil, were unable to retain my interest.

I cannot recommend this book.

 Magnus and the Crossroads Brotherhood

(2019)

By Robert Fabbri

Corvus/Allen & Unwin

ISBN: 978-1-83895-043-9

$39.99; 384pp (Hardback)

Remembering Bob edited by Sue Pieters-Hawke

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Reviewed by E. B. Heath

‘Hawke was a vivid fellow; and entertaining by his very nature’.

Tom Keneally

Remembering Bob, edited by his eldest daughter, Sue Pieters-Hawke, is a compilation of one hundred and thirty-eight eulogies of praise for Australia’s 23rd Prime Minister.  Reading it was akin to attending a long memorial service, while wondering, to paraphrase another Bob (Dylan), where have all the good leaders gone, (very) long time passing.  I have to admit to shedding a tear more than once.  But there is more to it than sweeping nostalgia; there are some laughs, personal and political insights, and an increasing understanding that Robert James Lee Hawke was an extremely accomplished and compassionate human. 

An elegantly penned Foreword by Tom Keneally gives a brief overview of the paradoxes of Bob’s personality, and his belief that Australians should be ‘more than mere integers in an economy’; for Bob, entering the global economy did not mean that market forces should govern according to their own logic.

The Introduction by Sue Pieters-Hawke details the genesis of Remembering Bob.  Originally Sue and Bob had planned a conversational and reflective book.  With publishers on board and Sue armed with microphone, they were ready to start.  It was then that Bob suffered a mini stroke; with Bob unable to continue, it was decided to compile a collection of memories by friends and colleagues.  It’s easy to think that plan B had just become an exercise in raising revenue (cynical me), but, on reading it, it became clear that, intended or not, this collected commentary acts as a lesson in leadership from which many could benefit! 

Sue gets the memories going by giving a brief account of growing up as Bob’s and Hazel’s eldest daughter.  When she asked Bob about regrets, his response was unequivocal – his failure to stand strong and achieve a treaty with Indigenous Australians was the source of bitter disappointment.  This was well known by his colleagues and is something that is mentioned several times as people give an account of him.  Another recurring point is Bob’s daily cryptic crossword habit, often completed at speed, and much mentioned is Bob’s humour and love of people.

To be loved by friends and family is not unusual and there are many contributions from this cohort giving readers a personal perspective on Bob Hawke, as do the photographs featured from page 165.  But, perhaps more telling are the comments from colleagues and employees.  All tend to agree that Bob Hawke was a fair and encouraging boss.   Adrienne Jackson, senior private secretary said: ‘Bob ran his office the way he ran his Cabinet – implicit trust and empowerment of his staff.  Demanding, but not unreasonable … humorous, witty … great user of the full vocabulary, both the vernacular and erudite versions.’    Rod Sims, deputy secretary in the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, and economic adviser:  ‘Bob was an amazing individual.  Extremely smart, outstandingly wise, and stunningly well organized.’  

Compassion is another descriptor frequently used.  Brendon Murley recounts feeling proud to be an Australian after Bob’s response to the Tiananmen Square massacre was to allow Chinese students to stay in Australia.  Told by a public servant that he couldn’t, Bob replied ‘Well I’ve just done it.’

Bob’s reputation as a great model for a Left-wing politician and trade unionist was appreciated beyond Australia.   Tony Blair remembers his father, a university lecturer, saying that Bob had an ‘instinct for the people with a high-grade intellect and common sense.’   Later Blair met Bob saying he received great insights and inspiration from him.   

Bob’s ‘instinct for the people’ was backed up by a prodigious memory.  Anne Summers gives a breath-taking example from the 1983 election campaign.  Walking through a large crowd in Brisbane, a middle-aged migrant from Europe shook Bob’s hand effusively.  Bob felt they had before, within seconds he said ‘George, I met you in Melbourne’.  The man was flabbergasted, saying that was true but it was more than twenty years ago!  Anne Summers, of course, also gives praise to Bob for his reforms promoting women’s issues generally and in the work force.   The Liberal opposition to this at the time was hysterical – families would be destroyed, women would become sex maniacs or would be robbed of their femininity!   Well, forward thinking not their strong suit, perhaps.

Remembering Bob reminds readers of Bob’s many political achievements, particularly those that promoted equality – a fair go!  And that is exactly what he wanted to do.  A concluding quote from David Bartlett, former premier of Tasmania:

 ‘… he filled me with courage, aspiration, energy and confidence. He explained to me that it is the catalytic decisions that change the place for the better for decades to come, and this is what leadership and politics are all about.’

Highly Recommended! 

Remembering Bob

Edited by Sue Pieters-Hawke

Allen & Unwin

Hard Cover

ISBN: 9781760527396

$29.99

Pp.384

Respect: Consent, Boundaries and Being in Charge of YOU by Rachel Brian

Reviewed by Antonella Townsend

It is a shame that a book such as Respect: Consent, Boundaries and Being in Charge of YOU needs to be written.   But it is clear that it does!  Teaching children that they can take charge of their bodies, and, if need be, over-rule adult behaviour, is a heavy subject.  But Rachel Brian has excelled in doing this with a light touch.  Adopting an amusing approach, using cartoons and crazy typefaces, Rachel has managed to entertain while teaching self-empowerment and the importance of respecting another person’s boundaries.      

Many issues are covered and the terms are defined clearly for young readers.   Of course, number one is Consent: 

Consent – It’s like being the ruler of your own country. Population:  YOU.

This is followed by Boundaries:

 Your boundaries are like a line between what you’re comfortable with…

And what you are not comfortable with …

Cartoon characters illustrate issues within each concept using speech bubbles to express funny examples.

Other issues: Trusting your Gut, and Giving and Getting Consent are explained, making clear that if consent is not clearly expressed as a resounding YES, then it isn’t consent!    (At this point some readers might be thinking that Rachel should be working on an adult version)

A particularly useful segment is ‘Warning signs’

But some people build that trust to break it.  (A speech bubble explains) That’s called grooming.

Many illustrated examples are given, finishing off with:

When an adult acts inappropriately with a kid, it’s ALWAYS the adult’s fault.

There is really not anything to criticize about this brilliant little book. It is a much-needed work for our current social climate, useful for a wide range of ages.  In reading, or having it read to them, children will be in no doubt that their body belongs to them and they can set their own rules.  And, those rules can be changed according to how they feel at the time.  From setting boundaries to thinking about the appropriateness of their own behaviour, and how to be an awesome bystander, this book teaches confidence while banishing confusion.  

Clever, amusing, and, above all, empowering!  Highly Recommended.

Respect: Consent, Boundaries and Being in Charge of YOU

By Rachel Brian

HACHETTE

Hardback

ISBN:  9781526362216 

 $16.99

Pp. 64

QualityLand by Marc-Uwe Kling

Reviewed by Rod McLary

QualityLand was a best seller when it was first published in Germany in 2016.  It has now been translated from the German to English and is to be published around the world. 

The story is set sometime in the near future in a world which is largely run by robots and artificial intelligence.  After a financial crisis of considerable magnitude, it was decided that the country [unnamed] needed a new name, a new culture and a new image.  Marketing decided on ‘QualityLand’ signifying a ‘new’ country where everything is the best.

Everything is run by algorithms which are considered to be infallible.  Shopping orders arrive even before you are aware you need something; and, if you are in a relationship which isn’t going well, never mind – you will be informed by QualityPartner as soon as a better match is found for you.

People are allocated to a ‘Level’ in the community ranging from 1 to 90 and movement up or down the levels can occur at any time.  For example, if you break up with your boy/girlfriend, you may move down a couple of levels; if you succeed in obtaining an important job, you may move up a few levels.  Your level determines what services are available to you.  If you drop into single figures, you are branded as a ‘Useless’.

It is in this world that our hero emerges – Peter Jobless [in QualityLand, your surname comes from the occupation your same-sex parent had when you were conceived] is a metal-press operator.  His job is to crush robots and electronic devices which aren’t doing what they are meant to do.  Business is not good and his girlfriend has just moved onto a ‘better match’.  Consequently, Peter has dropped a couple of levels and now is categorised as ‘useless’.

One day, the smart door of his apartment announces [you read that correctly] that ‘a OneKiss drone’ has arrived with a parcel for him.  The parcel contains an item which is usually used for intimate purposes between consenting adults.  As Peter is not in a relationship and does not wish to use the item on himself, he attempts to return it for a refund.  Thus commences a story which seeks to highlight the de-personalisation of the individual and subjection of the people to algorithms which are considered to be infallible and unchallengeable.

However, it does not quite hit the mark.  What ensues is really a series of one-off set pieces which are mildly humorous but lack any real continuity or connectedness.  The concept of a future centred on technology could have provided an opportunity for biting satire on the increasing reliance people have on technology and the intrusion of that technology into our daily lives.  But perhaps the author had no wish to do that but to write instead a comedic book of mild interest.

There is one section which rises to the challenge in which Peter assembles the most disparate crew since Dorothy and her friends went down the Yellow Brick Road to see the Wizard of Oz.  Peter and his crew [an android Romeo, a QualityPad, a robot with homicidal interests and his new human girlfriend] – with the assistance of a driverless car that has no sense of direction – travel to confront Henryk Engineer the CEO of TheShop to return the item of contention.  Peter is not successful but there are some genuinely funny episodes along the way.

Running alongside the story of Peter and his attempts to rid himself of the unwanted item is a presidential race between Conrad Cook – a human – and John of Us – an android.  Again, this story comprises a series of incidents which are mildly amusing but do not really say much about the inherent comedy of an election race between a human and an android.  The identity of the winner is best left to discovery by the reader.

QualityLand is by no means an uninteresting book.  It has some moments when humour triumphs but these are outnumbered by those where it is simply mildly amusing and without much point.

Marc-Uwe Kling is a German author, songwriter and stand-up comedian.  QualityLand was on the German best-selling lists for months and sold in excess of 500,000 copies internationally. 

QualityLand

[2020]

Marc-Uwe Kling

Translated by Jamie Lee Searle

Orion Books

ISBN 978 1 4091 9114 8

339pp; $32.99

Lost Roses by Martha Hall Kelly

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Reviewed by Wendy Lipke

This is the second historical fiction novel by Martha Hall Kelly inspired by the life of World War heroines. Her earlier book, Lilac Girls, published in April 2016, became an international bestseller. It introduced readers to the real-life heroine Caroline Ferriday, from the famous Woolsey family of New York City who were staunch abolitionists and philanthropists.

In this second novel, Lost Roses, released in April 2019, we again encounter the Woolsey family and learn how Caroline’s mother, Eliza, devoted much time to the displaced White Russian women during wartime. She helped organise the American Central Committee for Russian Relief which found work and homes for these women in their new country and raised money through the sale of goods made by Russian refugees in Paris. This novel is a prequel to the Lilac Girls novel.

Through extensive research of the Woolsey women; from autobiographies and books about former Russian aristocrats, and sources depicting life in Russia and France at this time, Kelly has produced authentic characters and situations to which her readers can easily relate. The journey for the reader is presented through the voices of three equally indomitable women from St. Petersburg to Paris under the shadow of World War One.

Each chapter in the novel is allocated to one of these women who give their own experiences of events at that time. Though all have separate lives and circumstances, they are all cleverly linked to provide a cohesive storyline. There are four parts to this story and the prologue and epilogue are provided by yet another female voice who played a pivotal role in the storyline but who tragically disappeared from it at an early stage. Though she is very young, her forethought was to be of great help to others as the story unfolds.

Sofya’s narration tells of her close relationship to the family of Tsar Nicholas II and also to one of the Woolsey women with whom she shares many visits. These two women are in constant written contact despite the physical distance between them.

Eliza, one of the Woolsey women, experienced the early days of the Russian Revolution in Europe, returning to America just as Germany declared war on France. She becomes very concerned for her friend when letters from Russia dry up.

Varinka, a young peasant girl whose father has died, lives with her mamka under the guardianship of her father’s apprentice. Taras has just been released from prison for Bolshevik affiliations. He will become a focal figure in the persecution of White Russians, even in Paris.

Entwined with these storylines is the welfare of a little boy.

Each of the narrators has her own personal battles to encounter as well as being part of a wider historical narrative. They all experience loss and dream of a better future. They all hope for a second chance of a happier life in their quest for love and freedom.

I thoroughly enjoyed this author’s writing style with the added richness of information about places, myths and proverbs – ‘one of her favourite cure-alls, … (was to) quote one of her Japanese proverbs, like: Better to be a crystal and be broken than to be a tile upon the housetop. I smiled at that and walked on, broken crystal that I was’ (336). Her compassionate detailed description of a funeral in chapter 45 was also an insight into Russian culture at that time.

I enjoyed the extra story around an enamelled bracelet with two dragon heads, ‘whose gaping mouths met where the bracelet opened. The beasts stared each other down, their eyes set with red jewels’ (307). The reader is told that it is of Viking design and that ‘in Norse mythology, a giant serpent encircles the world, growing larger each day until it is big enough to devour itself. They believed that moment would trigger the end of the world’ (307). This item was to play an important role in the story.

It was also interesting to read that the Parisians had removed the great stained-glass windows from Notre-Dame and replaced them with pale yellow panes during the war.

I recommend the novel, Lost Roses, by American author, Martha Hall Kelly, and look forward to reading her next novel.  I believe it is to be a second prequel to Lilac Girls, taking place during The Civil War and will tell the story of more of Caroline Woolsey’s ancestors, the incredibly philanthropic women and staunch abolitionists who tended to wounded soldiers on the Gettysburg battlefield.

Lost Roses

(2019)

By Martha Hall Kelly

Penguin

ISBN:9 781760 892616

$29.99; 448pp

More by Matt Preston

Matt Preston: More

Reviewed by Antonella Townsend

At its simplest, the act of cooking is an act of love;

an act of indulging those you love with something delicious.

The above is a quote from the introduction of Matt Preston’s latest cookbook – More, which is all about vegetables, nuts and grains.  He promotes vegetarianism without the finger wagging ‘end of days, if we don’t change our ways’ sermon.  And, to prove it, he has included a ‘Meat Appendix’.  It is, he says, a book about happiness with the motto of ‘NO SACRIFICE’.   So with those two enticing words, my objectivity flies out of the window.  But best to let the recipes do the talking.

Firstly, the presentation is of the highest quality, clearly set out with beautiful photographs in a 21.2 cm x 27 cm paperback.

Usefully, Matt starts with a one-page list ‘My Vegetarian Pantry’, although this is not listed in the Contents.  Given that I have not seen Puy lentils in the supermarket, and I have no idea about Farro, Freekeh, and Za’ataran, explanations of what and where to buy would be a good inclusion on this page for the average home cook.

A page entitled D.F.V., a new acronym standing for Dirty, Filthy, Vegetarian, immediately follows!   This turns out to be a list of ‘decadent, naughty and overall just so damned good’ recipe titles with page numbers where they can be found.  Clearly, this is going to be the starting point to sampling Matt’s wares; hard to resist recipes such as: ‘Decadent brie, leek and almond honey pie’. 

The recipes start with ‘Salads’.  Not meager side dishes that give a brief nod to healthy eating usually ignored.  These salad recipes are main events.  My pick is the ‘Avocado and friends’, with chilli butter roast corn.  The ‘San choi bao for Buddha’ – really, who comes up with these titles?  Not sure Buddha would approve, there are some expensive ingredients in this dish – snow peas, fresh lychees, chestnuts and macadamias are among the sixteen odd ingredients.  Matt gives some history on each dish and San choi bao’s makes interesting reading (p.17).  Dressings make a salad and there are some really original ones here, such as ‘Pomegranate and orange’ served with the ‘Ancient grain salad version 22.0’ and ‘Creamy green goddess dressing’ really enlivens an otherwise mundane green salad.  Some recipes feature tofu and haloumi, not my favourite ingredients but ‘Grilled plums with milky haloumi and rocket’ did look enticing.  This section also includes nine lunch box salads, portable and healthy.

Matt introduces the section ‘Blessed Bowls’ with ‘I have a sneaking suspicion that the whole bowl thing might be over …’, however, he includes it on the behest of the publisher who is a fan.  Personally, I agree with Matt, and ho hummed through nine recipes, before arriving at four new takes on hummus: ‘Smokey sweet potato’, ‘Roast onion’, ‘Green hummus’ and ‘Chickpea hummus with pickled red cabbage’ – very exciting, so easy, so tasty!

If I’m honest, I was also a bit ho hum about the chapter ‘Barbeque’.  There are some interesting recipes – ‘Grilled snow pea sandwiches with ricotta butter & lemon’ – keen bbq-ers will love this section.

The ‘Pasta, noodles & rice’ section has a great recipes, with really interesting histories.   ‘Leek carbonara with strozzapreti (aka priest strangler pasta)’, this dish is made rich with six egg yolks.  And:

FOOD NERD FACT: STROZZAPRETTI, MEANING PRIEST STRANGLER, WAS GIVEN ITS NAME BY ITALIAN PEASANTS AS A BITING COMMENT ON THE GREED OF SOME OF THE ITALIAN CLERGY.”

There are twenty-three recipes in this section and I intend to try most of them, and can report delicious success with ‘Pumpkin and sage cannelloni’ and ‘Mushroom stroganoff with parley-flecked noodles’.  The latter suggests using different types of mushrooms such as chestnut, button, Swiss brown and Portobello, which would be wonderful, however, I only used fresh field mushroom, due to availability and cost, with excellent result.

‘Bakes’ – ‘The oven is the Harry Potter of kitchen equipment making magic happen…’  Matt’s magic includes ideas like:  ‘Dadaist sausage rolls for Barry Humphries’ inspired by an hour-long radio conversation with Barry Humphries.  The pre-recipe history of this dish makes fun reading; of course, it does not contain any meat, rather cottage cheese and walnuts.  I can testify to the glory of ‘The creamiest coddled egg’.  Oh my, words fail me, so good!   This section also features ‘Puff pastry hand pies’, which includes: ‘Creamy artichoke & fennel hand pie’, ‘Caprese hand pies and ‘Samosa’, all made with store bought puff pastry.  They all look very appealing and will be on my ‘To Do’ list.  There are some twenty-two odd recipes, plus four new gourmet pizzas in this section.  Five of the recipes from the D.F.V. list are detailed here.  

‘Tray bakes’ and ‘Braised & fried’ make up the remaining chapters, followed by the ‘Meat appendix’.   Some of the best kept for last appear in ‘Braised & fried’.  I did not have much luck with ‘Parsnip & date falafels for the Damascus road trip’; although tasty they were a bit too gooey in the middle and took me a tad (much) longer to prepare than the advertised twenty minutes.  The end of this section gets exotic with some lovely curries – Thai and Indian, plus ‘Easy African peanut & sweet potato stew’.

The meat appendix instructs how to best cook each type of meat, and includes a few recipes.  

In More, Matt Preston has created recipes that guarantee vegetables will shine.  In fact they are positively radiant! 

More

By Matt Preston

[2019]

Pan Macmillan Australia

Paperback – ISBN: 9781760781828

$39.99; Pp.288

Springtime: A Ghost Story by Michelle de Kretser

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Reviewed by E.B. Heath

The title implies life and death, so unsurprisingly, Springtime: A Ghost Story, does not have the usual elements of the ghost narrative.  No creepy houses, or deathly apparitions menacing from the shadows.  Michelle de Kretser’s novella places the reader in the dazzling light of Sydney in the spring, teeming with energy, life could not be more apparent.  Yet, in this luminous setting de Kretser weaves a subtle mystery that unsettles her main protagonist, Frances.

Frances’ life revolves around Charlie, who has left his wife and young son, Luke, in Melbourne to join Frances as she takes up a research fellowship in Sydney studying objects in eighteenth century French paintings.  It is easy to assume that this strand of the narrative will be the main focus but its centrality fades into the middle distance as readers accompany Frances on her walks with Rod.  Rod, a ‘hefty, muscled bruiser from the RSPCA’, suffers from deep-seated fear if confronted by other dogs, particularly toy poodles.  Walking with Rod, whose nervous tension commands her constant attention, Frances senses, as much as sees, a woman and a bull terrier dog: ‘space was foreshortened, time stilled’.  Frances’ internal reactions to the apparition of woman and dog might leave readers wondering if she is being unhinged by the esoteric aspects of her professional life and dealing with Luke’s visits, plus a few threatening anonymous phone calls.

The prose glides effortlessly in scenes that present snapshots of Frances’ fragmented life.  Writing her dissertation.  Life with Charlie.  Coping with Luke’s visits.  Dinner parties with friends.  Walking Rod and her internal dialogue to sub-tropical Sydney.  The appearance of the mysterious woman and dog, which Frances experiences as an otherworldly sensation, but also via more mundane thoughts, such as her unfashionable dress sense.  At times, I had to re-read a few sentences to confirm what exactly is going on, and yet, feeling oddly there, in Sydney, in Frances’ head. 

The main focus of this novella felt unclear until a dinner party scene over half way through.  A variety of noisy chattering participants all talk stopped at once, it was conjectured that an angel or a ghost had passed.  This led to opinions about ghosts. Joseph theorized that ghosts stories became a thing of the past when electricity became commonplace, illuminating dark corners so leaving the imagination no room to speculate.  George disagreed; he felt the modern short story was the cause of its demise.  Changing its form, becoming open ended, less formulaic, which apparently did not suit ghost fiction.

In Springtime: A Ghost Story, de Kretser has, perhaps, set out to by-pass all the usual tropes of the ethereal narrative and presents readers with a modern day ghost story – open-ended and brightly lit.  The result is an elegant and entertaining piece of writing by an internationally acclaimed author.

Michelle de Kretser has a long list of awards, The Rose Grower, and The Hamilton Case won the Commonwealth Prize and the U.K. Encore Prize. The Lost Dog won the 2008 NSW Premier’s Book of the Year Award and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction, and the 2008 ALS Gold Medal. Her fourth novel, Questions of Travel, won the 2013 Miles Franklin Literary Award and her latest, The Life to Come, won the 2018 Miles Franklin Literary Award and 2019 Christina Stead Prize for Fiction. 

Springtime: A Ghost Story

By Michelle de Kretser

Allen & Unwin

Paperback – ISBN: 9781760876708

$14.99; Pp. 92

Agent Running in the Field by John Le Carré

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Reviewed by Patricia Simms-Reeve

After so many years writing thrillers set in the Cold War era, in his 25th novel, Agent Running in the Field, the master has not lost his touch. From the beginning, this book is tense and gripping. His command of the language of spies, the protocols of MI6, is formidable and he instantly presents the reader with characters whose lives are unpredictable, complex and their ordinariness carrying lurking dangers.

Anatoly, Nat, is comfortably enjoying life. An experienced agent for MI6 and in his forties, he now has time to relax. He is an excellent badminton player, and this leads to his meeting Ed, another significant character, who is disenchanted with the current British society.  Nat is married to Prue, a human rights lawyer, engaged in a case against Big Pharma.  Steph, their daughter, is passionately devoted to her ideals. Nat mentions in a humourous aside that “she loves me, but from a height”.

It is a tribute to Le Carré’s ability as a brilliant writer that he is able to imbue an air of suspense into the banal description of Ed, newly arrived on the scene, preparing for a game of badminton in the locker room. Every detail is noted, from the repeated locking and unlocking of his locker to where he puts his key and its attached ribbon.

The plot of Agent Running in the Field gathers intensity after Nat’s visit to “Woodpecker” in the Czech Republic. The book becomes unputdownable.

Arcady, code-named Woodpecker, a former double agent who worked with Nat, has a bitter and cynical view of current world politics, but it’s none the less daunting as many would consider it clear-sighted.

Upon Nat’s return to London, events make the scene even more gripping. The previous action establishing Sergei as a fresh agent in the field, the disaffection and retirement of a young admired colleague and the query hanging over the badminton-playing Ed, complicate life in the Service for him.

The most significant feature of this novel is the barely controlled angry criticism of the standard of British “democracy“ in 2019. Characters may voice these thoughts but they are obviously a vehicle for Le Carre’s own. The cabinet consists of “minority Tory 10th raters” obsessed by the “lunacy of Brexit”.

The hero, Nat, believes the country is in “free fall” with PM Johnson having been elevated from being “a pig-ignorant Foreign Secretary”.  His despising of Trump is clear as is his exposing Putin and the resurgence and steady rise of Russian power around the globe.

While Brexit distracts the British, the new Cold War with Russia emerges as being very different from that which ended in ’89. The new Russia is now nastier than it ever was and more brazen.

Not completely despairing, however, Le Carré presents the idealism of the young as possibly a means of salvation. In the characters of Ed, Nat’s daughter Steph, and his colleague Florence, there is a passionate rejection of the new ideology of the West based on money.

No punches are pulled in calling government pro-Brexiteers a “bunch of elitist carpetbaggers posing as men of the people”.   Harsh in his criticism of Trump, he refers to him as the “worst ever President” and “Putin’s shithouse cleaner”.

As the book is in the first person, the reader sweats in sympathy with Nat. His progress is riveting reading. John Le Carré’s own experience in the Intelligence service lends a fascinating air of credibility and interest to the action.

This may not be in the ranks of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” but it offers a marvellous read.  Even though not his best, it does urge to be reread.

Just the resolution strikes a disappointing note.  It has more the touch of Hollywood than the hand of a first-rate spy thriller writer such as Le Carré, which is evidenced through the remainder of the book.

The final pages are too hurried and carry more than a hint of the action movie.  Writing this at 88, he is to be forgiven this flaw in an otherwise marvellous example of the genre.

Agent Running in the Field 

[2019]

John Le Carré

Penguin/Viking.    

ISBN.   978-0-241-40121-7

281 pages.    $32.99 paperback.  

Vigée Le Brun by Katharine Baetjer, Joseph Baillio and Paul Lang

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

I had not heard of this artist until I attended an art history class at the University of the Third Age in Brisbane a couple of years ago. While weeks of studying the old masters had sharpened my analytic skills and broadened my knowledge of those things that make an artist worthy of remembering, Vigée Le Brun’s artwork hit me with particular force. In the field of portrait painting, she has been described as the greatest female artist of all time.

Labels are no more than an indication of one’s place in a particular pecking order. In my view, an artist’s staying power or the ability to be remembered centuries after his or her time has passed, is revelatory of worth. We pay enormous sums for a work by Rubens, Turner, Velazquez, Goya or Rembrandt for many reasons, one of which must be the faithfulness with which they represented human beings or humanity itself. Vigée Le Brun fits very comfortably in any coterie of ‘the greats’.  What makes her remarkable as an artist is her presence there at all in an age when women were denied the right of exhibition. Yet here is Vigée Le Brun, denying the societal sanctions, painting people at the highest levels, and charging enormous sums to do so. Furthermore, over two hundred years later, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York is paying her the ultimate compliment by arranging a showing of her work in the USA and Canada, and distributing the substance of the catalogue of her works through Yale University Press.

Thereby lies a challenge! This artist is loved world-wide because of the high quality of her art but also because of her gutsiness in staying ahead of the marauding revolutionaries in her own country who would have preferred that she lose her life on the guillotine. Thus the current display and the catalogue produced must reflect the quality of the artist herself. A lesser publication would be unacceptable.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art has risen to the challenge. The front cover is one of the best known of Vigée Le Brun’s work. It is a self-portrait painted in 1790 and is supported by a glimpse of a partly-finished portrait of Marie Antoinette. The portrait of the artist shows her at her most beautiful, blooming with health and vigour, her flesh tones indescribably lovely. The cynic in me is tempted to argue that the Metropolitan Museum compilers of the publication choreographed this presentation to deliver maximum impact on the senses of the reader. However, when the portraits throughout the book are viewed, it becomes very difficult to distinguish any whose quality is not at the same level as the one featured on the cover.

High quality paper graces the book and forms a perfect surface on which to display the portraits of the nobility of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries who, because of Vigée Le Brun’s enforced absence from France, are drawn from Italy, Austria, the Russian Empire, Germany, England, and Switzerland. Her subjects are mostly those with deep pockets since the artist, for whatever reason, charged outlandishly excessive prices.

The first thirty pages of the text is at the very heartbeat of the book. After the mandatory introductory material that holds the printing and editorial details and a table of contents, the first chapter takes us through the childhood of the artist and follows her through to adulthood. Details of her family and the influence of her father on her painting style, especially his encouragement to work in pastels, her preferred medium, and the willingness shown by her mother to expose the young artist to the fruits of some of the finest French painters in France, all combine to affirm the young woman’s career choice. Her marriage to a rich art dealer ensured a continuation of a life of privilege, a life capped by an invitation to paint the young Queen Marie Antoinette.

This first chapter is written by Joseph Baillio and is called ‘The Artistic and Social Odyssey of Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun’. I could not imagine a more appropriate name. The writer’s stated aim “is to project the image of a supremely gifted Frenchwoman fully engaged in her time” (3). The fact that Vigée Le Brun has never been honoured in France with a monographic exhibition astonishes Baillio and, in turn, leaves me appalled.

The second chapter, written by Katharine Baetjer, is called ‘The Women of the French Royal Academy’. Confusion exists as a result of a line in the first paragraph that suggests the chapter might be about the formation of the Royal Academy and its method of functioning rather than its women members. However, any confusion disappears as the chapter progresses. The discussion that follows makes the very important point that other women artists had been accepted into the Royal Academy before Vigée L Brun managed to circumvent the requirement that no potential member have any association with an art dealer. Chapter Three by Paul Lang uncovers details of the artist’s journeys through Europe during her twelve years of voluntary exile.

Beginning with page 57, the book provides an exhaustive catalogue of the artist’s individual works (complete with commentary). This is a massive section covering one hundred and eighty six pages and forms an extremely informative introduction to the work of this wonderful artist. The book concludes with a map of the artist’s travels, a chronology of her life, and the usual notes to accompany the essays, a bibliography and an index.

While Vigée Le Brun’s paintings reveal a woman of exceptional artistic skill, paintings that feed our belief in the wonder of creativeness, her story contains some less savoury features that cannot be ignored. A life that never knew want while people starved, her restriction through pricing of her art to those of high social rank, and the appearance she gives of a life ruled by financial gain, might well be frowned upon today. That she appears never to have devoted any of her income to charitable works can probably be explained by the society within which she circulated who were rarely charity providers.

All that aside, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in association with Yale University Press, has provided a fitting testimony to one of the most creative artists of all time.

A very highly recommended publication.

Vigée Le Brun

(2016)

Katharine Baetjer, Joseph Baillio and Paul Lang

Metropolitan Museum of Art New York

Yale University Press

ISBN: 978-1-58839-581-8

$87.99; 256pp

Hardback

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