Financial journalist Damon Kitney has written a compelling biography of James Packer, a complex and troubled man haunted by his father’s legacy.
James Packer, one of Australia’s richest men, guards his privacy jealously. Surprisingly, after several requests from financial journalist Damon Kitney (The Australian Financial Review, The Australian), he decided to co-operate in the writing of this biography. What ensued was six months of interviews, conducted at various locations across the globe, plus plenty of additional email material from Packer himself. Kitney also interviewed a wide range of Packer’s friends, business associates and even ex-wives.
The result is a measured, almost sympathetic portrait of a deeply divided and troubled man. Kitney has some two decades experience covering business and he brings his knowledge and communication skills to the fore when outlining James Packer’s chequered business history. He chronicles the devastating failures (the One.Tel collapse; the failed US casino investments; the selling of cherished family assets to pay off debts) with clarity, avoiding complex jargon.
At the centre of the James Packer story, though, is his relationship with his father, Kerry. Kerry Packer’s toughness and brutality were legendary, qualities drummed into him by his own father, Sir Frank Packer. James was especially traumatised by the colossal failure of One.Tel, losing his father’s business some 300 million dollars. Packer senior humiliated his son over the matter. When James inherited the family business, he set himself a goal of trying to live up to his father’s business legacy. This meant achieving profits in the billions, a Herculean task. Such a high benchmark has meant a constant feeling of failure. It’s also led to poor decision making, trusting the wrong people, alcohol abuse and a dependence on prescription drugs. His life seems a misery, despite the lush homes, luxury boats and jet-set lifestyle.
One wonders: why not sell it all and simply live off the interest? But as the ghost of Kerry Packer looms, demanding that the family legacy be preserved, James continues to take on the enormous stress of big debts and big business gambles. He appears to be utterly trapped, unable to re-create his life in his own image. By his own admission, Packer has no real interest in the gaming industry. He simply sees it as a stable, dependable income stream. One friend in the book wisely suggests once James finds a business he’s really passionate about, then he’ll be successful. (To the author’s credit, he raises the question of the ethics of the casino industry with Packer.)
James Packer is often described by his friends and business associates as being an essentially soft, gentle, generous soul. His bad moods, volatility and rudeness are often put down to the pressure he constantly finds himself under, rather than an innate part of his personality. The business life he has chosen, or rather inherited, seems a bad fit.
It’s hard to feel sorry for a multi billionaire, yet Damon Kitney does a good job of trying to walk in someone else’s shoes. The reader does come some way to understanding the complex motivations Packer has due to his family legacy and fortune. It weighs like a ton of bricks on his shoulders. The simple fact that Packer has agreed to have his life laid bare like this shows how much he must be suffering an existential crisis. This is an exasperated and confused middle-aged man asking out loud what he should do.
The lesson we learn from The Price of Fortune is that wealth, what we all strive for, may be limited in the happiness it can provide. Business leaders, media talking heads and politicians fete James Packer as the apogee of success, a man to be emulated. Maybe they got their business model wrong.
The Price of Fortune: The Untold Story of Being James Packer, by Damon Kitney. Published by HarperCollins RRP: $45.
Review by Chris Saliba
A lively and engaging collection of literary essays.
Francine Prose is an American novelist and critic, better known in her home country than in Australia. What to Read and Why is a collection of previously published material, covering a broad range of literature, everything from Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to more contemporary writers such as Jennifer Egan (Manhattan Beach) and Deborah Levy (Swimming Home).
The marvelous thing about Prose, besides her energetic and enlivening writing style, is her sheer enthusiasm for books and reading. She often talks about her “messianic zeal” in spreading the word on some new writer she has discovered, telling friends to drop whatever they doing immediately. While most of this collection discusses authors and their works, several essays are devoted to the subject of writing and reading, the aesthetic joys and philosophical revelations derived from the printed page. The first piece, "Ten Things That Art Can Do", usefully lists the many different experiences art can give us, such as its ability to teach, produce beauty and shock. Another essay tries to distill what the function of the short story is, as opposed to that of the novel. What, exactly, is its essence? Quoting numerous experts on the subject, both the famous and the academic, Prose discovers there is no single defining feature. The possibilities are as far and wide as the human imagination itself.
Books on writers can often inspire the reader to cast her net wider afield and try something unknown. The pieces on writers Mavis Gallant, Roberto Bolano and Isaac Babel will have you hunting through bookshops and libraries in search of their work. For those who found Karl Ove Knausgaard’s cycle of autobiographical novels My Struggle too daunting to contemplate, Prose writes a tempting appreciation.
Witty, sharp and perceptive, Francine Prose acts as both fan and critic, constantly reminding throughout these compelling essays what a joy it is to read.
What to Read and Why, by Francine Prose. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780062397867 RRP: $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A computer scientist brings a humanistic approach to the problem of social media.
Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, musician and writer. He offers a unique perspective on issues to do with technology and society by way of his long history with the tech community. Both an insider and outsider, he has voiced concerns in books such as You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future about how the open internet culture of Facebook and Google has reduced human expression and potential, while taking our data and monetizing it for huge profits.
In the short and snappy Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Lanier explains how social media is degrading language, spreading misinformation, exploiting cheap labour, alienating people from reality, distorting how they see the world and also making us angry, lonely and irritable. Quite a list!
Social media is designed to be addictive. Lanier sees it as a form of hypnosis, but a dangerous one.
“Hypnosis might be therapeutic so long as you trust your hypnotist, but who would trust a hypnotist who is working for unknown third parties? Who? Apparently billions of people.”
Lanier coins an acronym to describe the algorithmic machines that track everything we do online in order to create customised feeds: “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent. BUMMER.” In humourous tones reminscent of science fiction writers Kurt Vonnegut and Stanislaw Lem, the reader is warned of how the BUMMER machine is undermining just about every aspect of our lives, from democracy and public discourse to how we see and think about ourselves. BUMMER technology is causing mass isolation. One of the most depressing points that the book raises is how hard it is to know other people now because we don’t know the customised feeds that individuals – billions of individuals – are exposed to. Once upon a time we were all roughly on the same page, but now no one is on the same page.
Ten Arguments is for the most part cheerful and optimistic, firm in its belief that we can keep the internet and smart phones, we simply need to get rid of the BUMMER machine. Beneath the jollity and jokes, Lanier is an erudite and philosophical writer with a gentle, poetic nature. He’s a rare, humanist voice on the subject of computer technology and its impact on us. The book’s final argument for deleting your social media accounts is one of self-knowledge and awareness. “Whatever a person might be,” writes Lanier, “if you want to be one, delete your accounts.”
If you want to gain insights into how invidious social media really is, read Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier. Published by Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9781847925398 RRP: $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A young girl braves dangerous counterrevolutionary forces in the Cuban countryside in order to teach literacy.
It's 1961 and thirteen-year-old Lora has joined a paramilitary group to spread literacy. Only two years previously, Fidel Castro had marched on Havana and ousted the corrupt, American backed dictator, Fulgencio Batista. Lora defies her father and commits to one year as a “brigadista”, an army member teaching literacy in the Cuban countryside. Even thought Batista has been defeated, there is still fighting and treachery going on. Young people have been tortured and executed. Even though Lora's role is to teach reading and writing, it's still a very dangerous undertaking.
American children's writer Katherine Paterson has crafted a seamless novel about a young girl's coming-of-age in a Cuba still torn by political strife. Based on interviews with Cuban friends and personal research, the novel has an effortless quality that makes it feel like it's based on personal experience. You'd never know the author is American and not Cuban. The portrait of Lora as a young girl who wants to do the right thing for her country, but is often scared by the very real possibility that she may be killed by the Batista forces, gives her an authentic feel.
My Brigadista Year doubles as a fascinating short history of the 1961 Cuban literacy program and inspiring story of an independent young girl, volunteering for a worthy cause and finding herself transformed by the experience.
My Brigadista Year, by Katherine Paterson. Published by Walker Books. ISBN: 9781406380811 RRP: $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
When a mysterious virus hits Melbourne a group of girls take to the road to sort things out.
One day twelve-year-old Clara Bloom goes to school to find that there are no boys present. The male teachers are absent too. What could be going on? It appears a mysterious illness has afflicted all the men and boys in the city of Melbourne. No one can figure out why. A state of emergency is announced, major roads are blocked and there are up-to-the-minute television reports. Clara’s dad has gone fishing in regional Gippsland, along with friend Pete and his son Jack.
Clara and her teenage friend Izzy worry that the fishing trio may try to return to Melbourne, which would put them at risk of contracting the mysterious virus. Izzy, who has just received her licence, offers to drive to Gippsland. After picking up Clara’s best friend Arabella, the three girls go on a daring road trip.
Girltopia is the first installment of a three part series of novels from local North Melbourne writer Hilary Rogers. With its dystopian flavour and well-timed plotting, Girltopia makes for addictive reading. It has mystery, humour and loads of adventure. The main character, Clara, is easy to relate to, a young girl trying to piece her world together just as it is falling apart. Even though her parents are separating and life is full of confusion, she discovers strengths she never knew she had.
Parents will be happy with the novel's girlpower messages of independence, resilience and positive self-image. Girltopia will appeal to readers 9+.
Girltopia, by Hilary Rogers. Published by Scholastic. ISBN: 9781742994581 RRP: $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
The terrible events of the Rwandan genocide form the basis of this devastating coming-of-age story.
Gabriel, or Gaby, is ten-years-old. It’s 1992. His Rwandan mother fled her country in the 1960s due to political strife and took refuge in the neighbouring country of Burundi. She married Michel, a Frenchman, and the couple had two children. Rwanda is again descending into war. Genocide is being planned by the Hutus against the minority Tutsis, and this murderous politics is infecting Burundi. Fear is in the streets, people are being murdered and everyone has grown suspicious of each other.
Gaby and his small group of friends try to innoculate themselves against this poisonous environment, yet they are not successful. Innocence is irrevocabaly lost as they are all dragged into the terrible violence. His mother, or Maman, returns to Rwanda to try to locate missing Tutsi family members, but finds either their butchered remains or news of their murder. She turns inwards, unable to get over the horror of what she has seen.
French-Rwandan Gaël Faye’s debut novel, narrated in the first person by Gaby, is an unforgettable child’s account of war and its lasting psychological effects. The story is told in a light, simple language that develops in gravity as themes of war, mass murder and morality come to predominate. Faye’s descriptions of Burundi before the war, a child’s lost paradise, often have a restrained poetic quality about them.
The tragic events of the Rwandan genocide are made palpable, creating feelings of grief and terror.
Small Country, by Gaël Faye. Published by Hogarth. ISBN: 97817847415
Review by Chris Saliba $29.99
Anthropologist and anarchist David Graeber argues that automation has already created mass unemployment, but the economy has filled the gap with dummy jobs.
Have you ever worked a job that didn’t seem necessary at all? In fact, it was a complete mystery as to why the job was created in the first place? Or has your workplace laboured under an immense weight of pointless bureaucracy – box ticking and form filling? Have you ever found it affecting your mental health, driving you positively mad? Then David Graeber’s Bullshit Jobs is just for you.
The book had its genesis in an earlier article Graeber wrote, speculating that a high percentage of jobs in the modern economy were essentially dummy jobs made up of useless busywork. The article was published widely and garnered a wealth of interesting responses and testimonials from readers who had done jobs they deemed pointless. Generous portions of the book are made up of frustrated employees explaining their mind numbing jobs that involve, for the most part, pretending to be busy while actually having nothing to do. Ironically, these easygoing “dream” jobs end up being quite stressful and people quit for lower paid, more meaningful work.
To test the hypothesis that a large portion of jobs are fake, a British pollster ran a question from Graeber’s original article, asking respondents if they thought their jobs contributed anything worthwhile to society or had any use. A staggering 37 per cent said they felt their jobs were pointless.
A book about useless jobs sounds like a bit of a dummy spit, but Graeber expands this single theme into an overwhelmingly fascinating thesis. British economist John Maynard Keynes predicted in the 1930s that automation would kill off the need to work long hours, and that in the future people would only work 15-20 hours per week. Graeber maintains that this is exactly what has happened. Automation and productivity gains have produced so much wealth we simply don’t need to work long hours. Writes Graeber:
“Automation did, in fact, lead to mass unemployment. We have simply stopped the gap by adding dummy jobs that are effectively made up.”
Bullshit Jobs discusses many other interesting facets of work, such as the value we give particular kinds of work (why are the useful professions, such as childcare and nursing, underpaid?), the mental health aspects of performing useless tasks and our general attitude to work (we see it as punitive and yet something everyone must be made to endure).
This is a totally liberating book that will make you rethink how the economy works and how it could be re-configured to serve us better. Graeber has a fine, incisive mind; every page offers original ideas and a unique perspective.
I wish everyone would read this book.
Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, by David Graeber. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 9780241263884 RRP: $49.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Jane Harper addresses many contemporary Australian issues in this compelling page-turner. Fans won't be disappointed!
The setting is cattle country, rural Queensland. Three brothers – Nathan, Cameron and the youngest, Bub – all have their inner demons to deal with. Raised by a brutal father, the wounds still linger, even long after he has died. The heat in this part of the country is relentless and unforgiving. It’s also deadly. A few hours exposure without shade or water and you’re a dead man.
When middle brother, Cameron, is found dead by a mysterious old stockman’s grave, it confounds everyone. Cameron knew the land, knew what risks to take and what to avoid. Mysteriously, his car, fully stocked with food and water, is found nearby. What could be going on? Family and friends had noticed he was stressed about something in the days before he died. As Cameron’s past is excavated, dark secrets are revealed, secrets that may have had something to do with his unlikely death.
With Australia experiencing dire drought conditions, Jane Harper’s third novel has an unnerving timeliness about it. The Lost Man paints a picture of a hopelessly barren environment, arid and unproductive, sending those that work it near mad. Many contemporary issues are woven into the novel: mental health, suicide, high levels of farmer debt, isolation, excessive drinking, bad male role models, stress on families. The list goes on. The novel also examines the question of sexual consent in a manner that is sophisticated and nuanced.
As a crime thriller, the story keeps you breathlessly turning the pages. You have to hand it to Jane Harper: she really puts together a virtuoso performance. Nothing is out of place in this pitch perfect novel, with its plot that ticks like clockwork and serious themes of fractured families, brutal fathers and an even more brutal land.
The Lost Man, by Jane Harper. Published by Macmillan. ISBN: 9781743549100 RRP: $32.99.
Review by Chris Saliba
Anthony Quinn entertains and informs in equal measure with Our Friends in Berlin, a sophisticated and intelligent thriller set in London during the early 1940s.
London, 1941. Amy Strallen, a single woman in her late twenties, is running a marriage bureau with her friend Johanna Quartermaine. The bureau has been running for about two years and to the surprise of both women has been a roaring success. They had presumed that no one would want to get married during the war, but the opposite is the case. Life is short and precarious; Londoners living under bombardment are eager to find someone before fate intervenes.
Into Amy’s office one day walks Jack Hoste. He claims to be looking for a wife, but he’s a little odd. A little dull, too. Mysteriously Hoste starts bumping into Amy when she’s out of the office and the two strike up a friendship of sorts. It turns out Hoste works for the tax office and is trying to contact a certain Marita Pardoe, who is a friend of Amy’s. The tax office, apparently, owes Marita Pardoe’s husband a large sum of money. But the more Amy gets to know Jack Hoste, the more she finds out that her new friend is not all he seems. Is he a spy? And if so, which side is he working for, the British of the Nazis?
Our Friends in Berlin is a perfectly plotted espionage novel set in London during the bombing raids of the early forties. The story runs at a neat clip, with nicely paced twists and turns along the way without at all feeling contrived.
The novel’s great achievement is its authentic 1940s flavour. It captures the mood and atmosphere of London during the blackouts – the smouldering ruins, the bombing casualties, the privations and the great fortitude of the people. Quinn’s language is uncanny in its fidelity to the period: it has the feel of Orwell’s early fiction, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying, or a Dorothy Sayers thriller. The clever plot is nicely balanced against a cast of fully fleshed, three dimensional characters. Quinn writes women particularly well. The central figure of the novel, Amy Strallen, is drawn with great sympathy. The reader really walks in her shoes for the whole story, feeling her pains and disappointments, her rare moments of happiness and reprieve from war’s misery.
An espionage thriller set during the Second World War doesn’t seem to promise much beyond cheap thrills and cliches. Our Friends in Berlin is a very pleasant surprise, rich in psychological depth and aesthetic pleasures.
I thoroughly enjoyed this entertaining yet informative novel about London during the war years.
Our Friends in Berlin, by Anthony Quinn. Published by Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9781787330986 RRP: $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Leigh Sales has written a deeply humane book about loss and suffering.
How do people cope when a sudden disaster hits? It’s like any ordinary day, nothing could go wrong, but out of nowhere a freak accident happens and you’re plunged into the most extraordinary circumstances. Tragedy strikes, a loved one is killed and your world is turned upside down. ABC journalist and 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales has often pondered the question of how people cope when random events tap them on the shoulder. In 2014, Sales herself came close to death when she was hospitalised with complications from her second pregnancy. Such a major life changing experience prompted her to face one of her major fears: the fact that we are not in control of life and cannot protect ourselves from random events.
Any Ordinary Day is Sales’s quest to find out how we cope when tragedy suddenly claims the lives of those we love. It is also the author’s attempt to confront her personal fears about life’s terrifying uncertainty. The book mainly focuses on interviewing famous survivors of Australian disasters, events we have all watched horrified on our television sets. People like Stuart Diver, Thredbo landslide survivor; Walter Mikac, who lost his family at the Port Arthur massacre; and Louisa Hope, who was held hostage by Man Horin Monis at the Lindt Cafe siege. There is also plenty of interesting interview material with first responders, priests, police and other professionals who provide help and assistance to the bereaved.
What the interviews mostly reveal is that, despite thinking we could never cope with extreme and unexpected tragedy, cope we do. Not only that, but with suffering often comes growth. Those who have been through so much learn the value of kindness and try to enjoy every day for its own sake. Long term planning can be futile, as we will all have to face the death of a loved one at some stage.
Leigh Sales has written a wise, gentle, insightful and humane book. It’s a book of great honesty, as Sales confesses to journalistic mistakes she’s made in the past and reveals her own biases during the interview process. This mixture of thoughtfulness, vulnerability and a striving to be earnest, makes for an unexpectedly transformative read. Any Ordinary Day takes for its subject grief and suffering, yet its major revelation is that people are kind, we are more resilient than we think and that the sun continues to shine despite so much darkness. Leigh Sales confronts the hardest challenges that we all face in life, yet leaves the reader feeling light and at peace.
Any Ordinary Day, by Leigh Sales. Published by Hamish Hamilton. ISBN: 9780143789963 RRP: $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books