The latest in a sequence of lists of recently-read books, listed in reverse chronological order.
- Bill Browder : Freezing Order: A True Story of Russian Money Laundering, Murder,and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath. Simon and Schuster.
- Bill Browder : Red Notice: A True Story of Corruption, Murder and One Man’s Fight for Justice. Bantam Press. A gripping and very well-written autobiography of William Browder, son of mathematician Felix (he of Browder’s Fixed Point theorem fame) and grandson of Earl Browder, onetime President of the CPUSA.
- Duncan Mavin : The Pyramid of Lies: Lex Greensill and the Billion-Dollar Scandal. Macmillan. An account, mostly well-written, of the Greensill Capital affair. The company, started by Lex Greensill from a farming family of Bundaberg, Queensland, was based on the clever idea of reverse factoring of supply-chain invoices: lending against invoices from suppliers, not to the suppliers as in regular factoring, but to the receivers of the goods and services being supplied. The receivers are generally larger and more reputable, so the risk to the reverse factoring company should be less than for standard factoring.
The book ends very quickly, without the depth or detail of the earlier chapters, as if the author suddenly became tired of writing.
- Terry Eagleton : The Gatekeeper: A Memoir. St Martins Press, New York. As one would expect, this memoir is well-written and entertaining. The jokes and similes, though, are often strained, in the manner of Clive James, and pale after so many pages. Also like James, the many snide attacks on religion and people who believe or practice religion (primarily Roman Catholics and Mormons) are condescending and wearing. To deploy a construction he uses often, one wonders why, if Eagleton so hates religion, he would spend an academic sabbatical in Utah.
As with the writing of Christopher Hitchens, I find it hard to take instruction in anything political from someone who mis-spent his twenties in a rat-bag Marxist sect. Even at the time, as I pointed with regard to Hitchens, it was obvious to an intelligent person that these sects were politically inept, derailed on an historical side-track, and engaged in futile (or even actively malicious) activities. No sensible person countenanced membership of any of these organizations AT THE TIME. Why should we trust the judgments all these years later of people who were stupid enough or so lacking in political nous to join them?
Eagleton’s writing appears erudite, but in one area I happen to know something about, his ignorance shows. On pages 65-66, he writes about Wittgenstein’s philosophy, listing W’s various obsessions:
“You had to demarcate what philosophy could legitimately say, all those [page-break] not terribly important things, from those vital matters about which it had better remain silent, and to which Dostoevsky and detective thrillers, Tolstoy and bad American movies, St John and Mendelssohn might yield the odd clue.”
If Eagleton had mentioned Brahms here rather than Mendelssohn, the arrow would have been better aimed. Wittgenstein disparaged Mendelssohn’s music — as being too eager to please his audience, and not sufficiently revolutionary — in terms quite close to those of Wagner’s anonymous antisemitic rant. Like many people, Wittgenstein profoundly misunderstood the philosophy and aesthetic of Mendelssohn’s music, and, by accusing Mendelssohn of never writing any music that could not be understood, misconstrued his music, too. Where does Wittgenstein show any recognition or understanding of Mendelssohn’s innovative cyclic form? Just because his music is often pretty does not mean it is not also deep. And from a simple surface sound profundity may emerge, as Bach and Feldman as well as Mendelssohn show.
- Peter Coleman : The Last Intellectuals: Essays on Writers and Politics. Short essays on various writers from journalist, critic and NSW state politician, Peter Coleman.
- Robert Littell : Defection of A. J. Lewinter. Overlook Press (Reissue 2022). A workmanlike espionage thriller about a defection from the USA to the USSR of an expert on ceramic nose cones on ICBMs, and its aftermath. Does he have the actual trajectories of the three types of MIRV missile cone payloads (bombs, decoy bombs, and anti-radar devices intended to jam the enemy’s anti-missile systems)? Or does he only have false trajectories? If true, how may the USA convince the Soviets to believe that his trajectory information is false or inaccurate, so that they do not re-orient their anti-ballistic missile systems to these trajectories? By demonstrating that the USA are really upset at his defection. If false, how may the USA convince the Soviets to believe that his trajectory information is true, so that they do re-orient their anti-ballistic missile systems to these trajectories? How may the USSR falsely convince the USA that the Soviets plan to ignore his trajectory information? And so on.
The author attended Alfred College, known for its ceramic engineering program, so perhaps not surprising that one of the protagonists in this novel was a ceramicist at Alfred.
- Peter Coleman : The Liberal Conspiracy: The Congress for Cultural Freedom and the Struggle for the Mind of Postwar Europe. The Free Press. As we see the resurgence in our own times of great totalitarian evil, in the form of the fascism and atrocities of the current regime in the Russian Federation, I have much more sympathy for US Government sponsorship of the Congress of Cultural Freedom. Thank goodness someone was fighting communism among the willfully-blind intelligentsia during the Cold War!
Older people have told me it was Czechoslovakia in 1968 that led them to leave the Party; or it was Hungary in 1956, or Khrushchev’s secret speech earlier in 1956. But what about the worker protests in the DDR in 1953? They were reported at the time by Joseph Wechsberg in The New Yorker, so ignorance of them could be no excuse. Or the Slansky trial in Czechoslavakia in 1952? Or the show trials in Moscow in 1938? Or the Ukrainian genocide of The Great Famine of 1932-33? How could one be a Party member or supporter after learning of any of these?
- William F. Buckley : Spytime: The Undoing of James Jesus Angleton. Harcourt. I had not known Buckley was a writer of espionage fiction until encountering this well-written book. The story is loosely based on the life of James J. Angleton, who is a central character in the first half. For some reason, Mother disappears for most of the second half, which is centred on Beirut at the time that Kim Philby lived there. Philby appears, as do others in the Middle East of those days (although not Miles Copeland II). The imagined events are all very plausible, even if fictional. The writing is compelling, and the story could stand without Angleton’s hands manipulating the machinery.
- Seán Hewitt : All Down Darkness Wide: A Memoir. Jonathan Cape. A poet’s superbly fine prose about a life whose Merseyside places include many which are familiar. The writing is deeply evocative and emotionally gripping, and the account revealing of the author and the other main characters. This memoir I found profoundly moving.
- Peter Coleman : Memoirs of a Slow Learner. HarperCollins. An engrossing account of the author’s life in Australia’s post-war literary bohemia, betwixt (but not part of either) the communist left and the puritannical Christian right. He was great friends with and shared a house with one Robert James Lee Hawke when they were both PhD students at ANU, but there is little about the silver bodgie here.
- Bob Hepple : Young Man with the Red Tie: A Memoir of Mandela and the Failed Revolution, 1960–63. Jacana Media. The South African life before exile of Nelson Mandela’s counsel and co-accused in the Rivonia Trial. Hepple was the son of the last leader of the South African Labour Party, Alex Hepple, and later a prominent British lawyer and legal academic.
- Hilda Bernstein : The World That Was Ours. Persophone Books. A memoir of a life lived honourably and bravely, complementary to that of her husband, Rusty Bernstein.
- Philip Augar and Keely Winstone : Agent Twister: The True Story Behind the Scandal that Gripped the Nation. Simon and Schuster. An account of the life and career of John Stonehouse, MP, British Labour Minister, mendacious businessman, womaniser, and paid agent of the Czechoslovakian foreign intelligence service.
- Anthony Kenny : A Life in Oxford. John Murray. This is a very interesting account by a philosopher about his life in Oxford, where he spent most of his career. The narrative is interesting, although often poorly written or edited. For example, Kenny talks about and names people without telling us who they are, as in paragraph three of Chapter 11, where he mentions someone called Zdena. From later references, this is most likely Zdena Tomin, but Kenny fails to tell us that.
He also occasionally misconstrues tense. When text concerning events at a specific period of time (eg, in November 1979, on pages 131-132), is immediately followed (on page 132) by, “In December of 1980, I had paid my first visit to Norway since Arthur Prior’s death . . .), the author has forgotten where he left the reader. The word “had” may be appropriate for the time when the text was written, but is not appropriate for an action in December 1980 when the reader is at November 1979. Perhaps a deleted paragraph once stood between these two pieces of text. For a philosopher who believes (erroneously) that all human thinking is through and by language to mis-understand tense in his native language must be quite embarrassing.
- Anthony Kenny : Brief Encounters: Notes from a Philosopher’s Diary. SPCK Publishing.
- Ryan Dohoney : Morton Feldman: Friendship and Mourning in the New York Avant-Garde. Bloomsbury Academic. The single most important insight of 20th Century Mathematics arose from Felix Klein’s Erlangen Programme of 1872, that a mathematical object could be understood by studying the transformations of or operations on that object that leave it unchanged. Category theory is the formalization of this insight. A similar notion has occurred in recent years in biography: one can study the life of a person by looking at their interactions with their friends and associates. Dohoney has done this for Morton Feldman.
- Rosamond Siemon  The Mayne Inheritance. University of Queensland Press. (This is the new edition of 2003, an update from the first edition published in 1997.) Fascinating account of a robbery and gruesome murder in 1848 that provided the seed capital for the wealth of the Mayne family in colonial Brisbane and then Queensland. The next generation of the family tried to made amends by providing the funds to purchase the land upon which the main campus of the University of Queensland and its veterinary farm sit.
Siemon’s writing has the same flaws as her book about Arnold Wienholt, reviewed below. One frustration for the reader that a competent editor could easily have rectified is her introduction of new people to the story before she describes who they are. Clearly the chapters were written out of of sequence, and no one seems to have read it through carefully in chapter order. So attention has not been paid to when the reader learns something, and what they know as they read the book in page order. If a new person is introduced into the narrative at chapter m, that person should be described there and then, not in a later chapter m+k.
- The Secret Barrister : Nothing But The Truth: Stories of Crime, Guilt and the Loss of Innocence. Picador. An insider’s account of the quirks and failings of England’s criminal justice system. Most of the failings appear due to lack of money and resources, and disorganized and badly-organized administrative practices in the organizations concerned: the courts, the police, the prison system, the probation service, et al.
- Rosamond Siemon : The Eccentric Mr Wienholt. University of Queensland Press. An account of a pioneer and former MHR for the electorate of Moreton, Queensland (1919-1922) and member for the electorate of Fassifern in the Queensland Legislative Assembly (1909-1913 and 1930-1935), Arnold Wienholt (1877-1940). He was killed under mysterious circumstances in Ethiopia in September 1940.
The writing is obtuse in a fusty academic way, with serpentine sentences and nouns rarely unqualified with adjectival phrases and winding clauses. Moreover, the author omits much relevant information: For example, why did the long-standing Welsh merchant ancestors of Arnold Wienholt have a German surname? What were the names of his three sisters, and whom did they marry? Why mention his first cousin and fellow African explorer Arnold Wienholt Hodson without telling us who his cousin’s parents were and how they were related? What was the “three-party dilemma” of Queensland politics and which were the three parties? What happened to Wienholt’s wife and daughter after his death? Who inherited his estate? Why did his daughter end up in the USA? How successful was she as an artist? What happened to his cousin Arnold Hodson? Und so weiter.
I am surprised no UQP editor asked such questions, of if they did, why the questions were not answered. This could have been such a better book than it is.
- Cathy McGowan : Cathy Goes to Canberra: Doing Politics Differently. Monash University Publishing. A well-written account of the political career of the author, independent MHR for the north-east Victorian federal electorate of Indi from 2013-2019, and inspirer of the Teal Independents movement which proved so successful in the Australian federal election of 2022. Before politics, she was a co-founder and President of Australian Women in Agriculture.
McGowan talks of two of her major achievements for her electorate being an increased number of Telstra mobile base stations (telecoms towers) and improvements to the rail service to the electorate. However, it is disappointing that in neither case does she give any indication in this book of what exactly was achieved – eg, How many new base stations? Where exactly? With what levels of improvement of coverage or of QoS? Compared to what was given to other electorates? What improvements of train services exactly? With what increased number of trains? Or of carriages? With what increased frequency? With what commercial or social consequences. This detail may seem nerdish, but her account lacks depth and traction without them. Did the rubber hit the road? She says so, but she provides neither chapter nor verse to demonstrate that it did.
- Lionel (“Rusty”) Bernstein : Memory Against Forgetting: Memoir of a Time in South African Politics 1938 – 1964. Penguin. Reprint of second edition, 2018. A moving memoir of a leading anti-apartheid activist.
Memo to self: If I am ever detained in prison with nothing to read or write, and no one to speak with, as Bernstein was, try to imagine my way through every piece of music I have played or heard (as Francis James did in his Chinese prison), recite every poem I have learnt, and improve my musical co-ordination skills by practicing the beating of time in odd combinations of time signatures (2 vs 3, 3 vs 4, 7 vs 12, 2 vs 3 vs 5, etc). What are our 10 fingers for, but to beat 10 different simultaneous beats?
- Robert Baer : The Fourth Man: The Hunt for the KGB’s CIA Mole and Why the US Overlooked Putin. Monoray. A fascinating account of the possibility of a further Soviet/Russian agent inside CIA (after Aldrich Ames and those earlier), and of the secret search for this person. As usual, Baer writes compellingly, although I find his excited tendency to break sentences into phrases distracting. Verbs! A must for sentences!
- Stephen Clingman : Bram Fischer – Afrikaner Revolutionary. Jacana Media. An account of the fascinating life of Bram Fischer, scion of Afrikanerdom (grandson of the only Prime Minister of the Orange River Colony, son of a Judge-President of the Orange Free State, married to a niece of Jan Smuts), Nelson’s Mandela’s lawyer, and fellow member of the SACP.
Nice to read of three people I have been privileged to have known: Anthony Eastwood, Pat Davidson and Hugh Lewin.
- Donald Sinden : Laughter in the Second Act. Futura. More of the same, although fewer anecdotes than in the first volume.
- Donald Sinden : A Touch of the Memoirs. Hodder and Stoughton. An amusing collection of theatrical anecdotes.
- Halik Kochanski : Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939-1945. Penguin. A fascinating account of many different aspects of the resistances movements across Europe. Nazi colonizers established a great variety of regimes in the countries they occupied, from seemingly-tolerant quasi-self government in Denmark through to obliteration of all public administration, civil society, education and culture in Poland. It helped if you looked Aryan. As a result of this diversity of over-rule, resistance activities also varied greatly in scope, reach and intensity.
The reading needed, in multiple languages, to write such a book as this is immensely impressive.
- Richard Crossman (Editor) and Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender and Richard Wright (Contributors) : The God that Failed: Six Studies in Communism. Hamish Hamilton. I first read this book in 1981, borrowed from the library of the house I was staying at, in Maasdorp Avenue, Alexandra Park, Harare (then Salisbury), Zimbabwe.
- John Pomfret : From Warsaw with Love: Polish Spies, the CIA, and the Forging of an Unlikely Alliance. Henry Holt & Co. An interesting account of espionage competition and collaboration between the USA and Poland, from the 1970s onwards. As the Iron Curtain fell, Poland became a very close supporter and collaborator in espionage and special forces operations with the USA.
- James Killen : Inside Australian Politics. Methuen Haynes. A fine account of his political career by Jim Killen (“Killen The Magnificent”), one of Federal Parliament’s wittiest speakers and few gentlemen. At times, as in his account of his support for the white-minority regimes of Southern Africa through the 1960s, the text seems to be glossing over his true opinions. No orotund words about different levels of black and white social development or joining the fight against communist terrorism can justify support for those regimes without appearing to be racist, and – more importantly – without actually being racist. Killen rightly points out that, after UDI, the British Commonwealth focused on Rhodesia while ignoring evil elsewhere, for example, by Milton Obote’s government in Uganda. While this argument is forceful, it is a form of whataboutism, and does not (as Killen seems to think) provide a justification for his support of Ian Smith’s regime in Rhodesia.
Robert Mugabe was a master of the use of violence to obtain his political ends from his return to Southern Rhodesia from Ghana in May 1960, but the use of violence was occasioned by the obstinate refusal of the white settler regime to countenance any progress towards majority rule. Mugabe ruined Zimbabwe, but, three decades earlier, the white settlers first ruined Mugabe. One could argue that this view is coloured by hindsight, except for the fact that some people saw this clearly at the time – including Killen’s fellow Liberal Party MHR, Malcolm Fraser.
Killen was Minister of Defence under Fraser and describes him thus: “He unquestionably was the worst chairman I ever sat under. . . . He had not the slightest idea of listening to an argument and then drawing the various points of view together. Not infrequently he would adjourn an issue on which he could not get his way to ‘enable us to get further advice’.” (page 256)
- Matthew Hammett Knott : A Class of Their Own: Adventures in Tutoring the Super-Rich. Trapeze. An amusing account of life as a tutor to children of the very rich.
- Patrick Mullins : Tiberius with a Telephone: The Life and Stories of William McMahon. Scribe. McMahon was certainly very odd, perhaps the oddest person to be an Australian PM. His childhood was tragic, with the early death of his mother, then his older brother, and then his father, and his repeated shuffling from the house of one relative to another. He was mostly raised by a maternal aunt and her husband, who later became a Lord Mayor of Sydney. Inheriting wealth from his father in his youth, McMahon became a balletomane, race-horse owner, high-stakes gambler, and libertine, and also a devout and theologically-informed convert to Anglicanism. It has to be said that not many Australians of his era were balletomanes, and even fewer politicians were. The title of this fine biography is a reference to a famous description of him by his opponent Gough Whitlam, describing McMahon’s running of his government remotely.
The form of the biography is interesting, with standard biographical chapters interspersed with an account of various attempts by ghost writers to edit or re-write McMahon’s own unpublished memoirs late in his life. It is apparent from this account that, at least in his last years, McMahon suffered from the onset of forms of dementia.
- Jess Hill : The Reckoning. Quarterly Essay #84. A powerful account of the #MeToo movement and its impacts in Australia.
- Victor Sheymov : Tower of Secrets II: Tiebreaker. Cyber Books Publishing. This is the sequel to Sheymov’s first book, covering his years in the USA. After an MBA and a career in finance, he returned to consulting for the NSA, and later founded a tech start-up, Invicta Networks. The company implemented his ideas for dynamic parameter configurations in firewall servers. As before, written in the third person, and very thrilling. CIA is not shown in a good light.
- Victor Sheymov : Tower of Secrets: A Real Life Spy Thriller. Cyber Books Publishing. This is a well-written account, written in the third person, of Sheymov’s career as an expert in cryptographic systems in the KGB and his gradual disillusion with communism, leading eventually to his defection to the West in May 1980.