True History Of The Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

s-l300I don’t know a huge amount about Australian history.  I do know about Ned Kelly and his suit of armour.  I’d reckon most people do – although I did see an amazon review where someone puzzled about the cold opening featuring a robot in 19th century Australia.  Parts of this book were eye opening – the poverty, the anti-catholic discrimination, the corruption, the petty criminals and pettier judges.  Mostly in the first half of the book; the better half of the book.  Carey is a good writer, and the offers a brilliantly grim and detailed look at Kelly’s childhood (if you can call it that).  Unfortunately, as the book approaches the climax Carey switches from Kelly’s view to newspaper excerpts, and the drama starts to have more gaps in it (understandably, as Kelly doesn’t have to sit and write).  It relegates what could be a very good book into merely quite good.  Carey’s writing is good throughout but it is strange (and disappointing) how the momentum actually drops as the story ramps up the stakes.

As a postscript – there is apparently a film of this coming out soon.  That could be actually be quite good.  Russell Crowe as the veteran bushranger Harry Power is potentially very good (I would actually pick the point that the book started declining as the point where Harry Power stopped being in it).

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker

This is a book with a reputation.  Bill Gates said it was one of the most important books he’d ever read, and it has been praised by academics and writers from all sorts of backgrounds.  It has also received its fair share of criticism.  Reading it, it is obvious why – Pinker has written an ambitious book, not just setting out to show that humanity has become a more peaceful and tolerant species over its history, but also trying to explain why this has happened.

In this era of Brexit, Trump and ISIS, I was looking for something to cheer myself up.  Something to bring back some sense of optimism.  Some sense of progress.  Pinker’s 800 odd pages of statistics and anecdotes on war, murder, rape and bigotry somehow fit the bill.  It is indeed grim reading, but there’s plenty of interesting and positive bits here – the huge decline in rape and murder even in the last few decades for instance.

Sometimes though Pinker may be too ambitious.  His analysis of pre-historic violent deaths seems to draw particular ire.  The power law trends and Poisson statistics on warfare are interesting – and while I’m aware that one new piece of data won’t invalidate things, I would be interested to see these include the fighting in the middle east since 2011.  At times Pinker is a little too optimistic, a little too sweeping, and possibly indulges in cherry picking or dismissing inconvenient data.

The actual conclusions and psychology side of things didn’t appeal to me that much, but the statistics were fascinating.  Whether or not you find yourself entirely convinced by Pinker’s arguments, it’s definitely worth reading to find some sense of perspective on our often chaotic world.  Those 824 pages of graphs will just fly by.