Susan Orlean examines every aspect of the library in this entertaining and humane book.
On April 29, 1986, a terrible fire broke out at the Los Angeles Public Library. It caused great devastation. Some 400,000 books were destroyed; another 700,000 experienced smoke or water damage. It took the fire department seven hours to put out the flames. The rebuilding took years and cost millions of dollars.
Journalist and writer Susan Orlean stumbled across these facts only recently, amazed that the fire wasn’t better known. A reason could be that the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster occurred a few days before the library fire, eclipsing it in newsworthiness.
How did the fire start? To this day it remains a mystery. The prime suspect was an attractive young man, Harry Peak, a fantasist and compulsive liar who dreamed of being an actor. He was seen at the library on the day of the fire, and he even told friends he had lit it, but then chopped and changed his story so much it was impossible to know what to believe. He was imprisoned for three days, but then the charges were dropped as it was felt the case against him wouldn’t stand up in court.
The eccentric Harry Peak is just one character among many in this multi-faceted, kaleidoscope-like book that looks at the history, development and workings of the Los Angeles Library. Orlean also chronicles the broader story of the library, from its early American pioneers (there were many eccentrics and true originals in this class) to today, where the library incorporates the latest in technology and sometimes struggles to remain an institution that is open to all, including the city’s many homeless seeking warmth and comfort.
The Library Book is a deeply satisfying book, explaining in entertaining language every aspect of how a big, modern library works. It’s also a story with heart and soul, the library being a vital and humane place, somewhere to find refuge from a world of ceaseless troubles. It’s also a book that pays due homage to the work of the librarians, those precursors to the Google search engine, ever ready to answer questions.
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. Atlantic $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Biographer Elizabeth Kleinhenz tells the fascinating and complex story of Germaine Greer.
In 2013, Germaine Greer sold her archives – some 500 boxes - to the University of Melbourne. Academic and educator Elizabeth Kleinhenz has spent several years going through this rich resource on Greer’s life to produce a new biography. This is the second book on Greer's life – a notoriously unwilling subject – following Christine Wallace’s 1997 Untamed Shrew.
Kleinhenz produces a fairly straight forward biography here, something most readers will find easily accessible. The book doesn’t examine in critical detail Greer’s literary and intellectual output, which is fair enough (all the major works are discussed, however). That is really the task for another book.
What the biographer concentrates on is Greer the brilliant, complex and often contradictory woman. We get a portrait of someone who is generous, prodigiously intelligent and blessed with a sharp sense of humour, but also quick to anger, difficult and sometimes downright mean. Greer appears in these pages as a strangely isolated figure, yet surrounded by plenty of people. One almost feels sorry for her inability to forge strong, lasting relationships.
“Her behaviour can be as puzzling as it is annoying. Despite her singular intelligence, she can be as inconsistent and irrational as she is insulting. Her apparent lack of emotional empathy is strangely at odds with her literary sensibility. It is amazing to see how a bruising clumsiness in personal relations sits beside the almost pitch-perfect refinement of the best of her writing. A complete contradiction.”
Or as Salman Rushdie noted, after her refusal to sign a petition defending him during The Satanic Verses controversy, “...her determination to be out of step leads her into batty positions.”
I very much enjoyed this fascinating biography, reading it in a couple of days. It goes a long way to explaining some of the more unexplainable aspects of Germaine Greer’s personality, while also lauding her role as a public intellectual and feminist of considerable stature.
Germaine: The Life of Germaine Greer, by Elizabeth Kleinhenz. Vintage. RRP: $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
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
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
Gillian Triggs examines Australia's human rights record.
Gillian Triggs, former President of the Human Rights commission, uses her years of experience and learning to discuss at length a range of human rights issues that she cares deeply about, everything from the treatment of asylum seekers right through to the marriage equality vote.
The main concern of Speaking Up is how Australian parliaments are encroaching upon the liberties that we have inherited over the centuries as part of the common law. For example, the federal parliament has laws that allows asylum seekers to be detained indefinitely and yet the Magna Carta (drafted in 1215 to put a check on the executive power of kings) prohibits imprisonment without charge. Writes Triggs, “The common law has become an insubstantial spectre with little capacity to restrain parliamentary excesses.”
Speaking Up puts its case calmly and confidently. It provides a thorough and reasoned survey of Australia's human rights record, finding that further vigilance is required to meet the country's obligations.
Whether you agree with Triggs's analysis or not, this is a formidable book that can't be ignored. Important and timely, Speaking Up is mandatory reading for those interested in the law, democracy and human rights.
Speaking Up, by Gillian Triggs. Published by Melbourne University Press. ISBN: 9780522873511 RRP: $45
Review by Chris Saliba