"One of my favourite Australian writers of his generation, David Free has the rare gift of writing critical prose with a creative dimension. Whether talking about high culture, popular culture or both at once, he is the master of the line of argument that makes you hungry for what happens next. Such a knack for turning the process of thought into a dramatic narrative is given to few, but he not only has it, he seems determined to develop it to the limit. His plain, natural but invariably melodic style combines appreciation and judgment in an addictive blend, the appreciation deep and wide-ranging, the judgment precise and sane. His powers of illustration leave most poets and novelists sounding short of skill, and how they leave most other critics sounding it would be impolite for me to mention. Enough to say that he is many furrows ahead in his field." — Clive James

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Flying low

Common sense suggests that a book about Flight MH370 produced so soon after the plane’s disappearance is unlikely to be any good. One fears, too, that anything less than a good book will be an exercise in bad taste. There are people for whom the mystery is also a tragedy, of a terribly ongoing kind. Their distress does not oblige writers to fall silent, of course, but it commands respect. If you’re going to write a book about this case, you’d better do a decent job.   

Into this daunting terrain saunters the Anglo-American writer Nigel Cawthorne. I admit I’d never heard of Cawthorne before I took delivery of this book, but how bad could he be? The back cover says nothing about him except that he is “prolific” – a slightly ominous way of describing a writer. On the web, the signs get more ominous still. It turns out that Cawthorne’s oeuvre, which is indeed uncommonly large, contains such titles as Amorous Antics of Old England and Sex Lives of the Famous Gays

Still, one was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt ... [read more] 

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Beyond the Pale

A few weeks ago I needed something to read on the beach. It would have made professional sense to take this new book about Ivan Milat, but somehow I couldn’t bring myself to let his spectre desecrate the sand. There are certain thoughts you don’t want to have while surrounded by sunlight, clean air, and happy young people. Milat is the man who, after murdering his victims, liked to reposition their bodies so as to put extra bullets into their skulls from different angles. Why would you want to read about that on a beach?

Why indeed would you want to read about it anywhere? No doubt there is an element of voyeurism in our taste for true-crime books. But the genre can be reassuringly moral, too. The foul transgressions of a man like Milat remind you that there is such a thing as common decency after all. We have been taught to mistrust our gut feelings about evil. Confronted with an atrocious misdeed, we know we’re meant to pause and consider the perpetrator’s abusive childhood or political grievances. But crimes like Milat’s go so far beyond the pale that nobody sane can fail to call them monstrous. These days we can’t agree about much, but we can agree about that. Even Milat himself seems to get this, in his way. To this day he feebly protests that he was framed ... [read more] 

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

The man who couldn't stop

Most of us know the feeling, or think we do. We know what it’s like to go back for one last look at the gas burner we know isn’t on. Some of us, after filling the car, have a thing about double-checking the petrol cap. And who among us hasn’t wondered, just for a second, how it would feel to shout something offensive on a crowded street?

David Adam, author of The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, does not reject the popular notion that we are all a bit OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, he explains, begins with the kind of unwanted irrational thought that nearly all of us seem to have. But for most of us, such thoughts are fleeting rather than crippling. For most of us, one superfluous check of the stove will be enough. We can then forget about it and enjoy the rest of the evening. Imagine, though, not being able to forget about it. Imagine not being able to enjoy anything through the suffocating burden of the uninvited thought. “Imagine,” as Adam puts it, “that you can never turn it off.” That is OCD ... [read more]

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The True Hooha

On March 12, 2013, James Clapper, Barack Obama’s Director of National Intelligence, appeared before the US Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence. Asked whether America’s National Security Agency collected “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans,” Clapper responded: “No sir. Not wittingly.” This answer was unsurprising. If Clapper had said “yes”, he would have been convicting his agency of activities that almost certainly violated the U.S. Constitution. 

A 29-year-old NSA contractor named Edward Snowden was watching Clapper’s testimony with an especially keen eye ... [read more]