BOOKS: Mindwandering, Moonshot and a long-awaited novel

AVIVA LOWY delves into Steve Tolz’s long-awaited new novel, Diane Armstrong’s latest and a non-fiction selection that canvases many aspects of success.

Here Goes Nothing – Steve Toltz (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin)

Angus Mooney, the narrator of Here Goes Nothing, is dead. And to make matters worse, his wife, Gracie, is unwittingly living with his murderer in their family home. That’s the set-up for Australian Steve Toltz’s hilarious satire – eagerly awaited by his fans since his last book seven years ago – which pokes fun at both the living and our concept of what comes after we shuffle off this mortal coil.

Mooney is an anti-hero who has grown up in a series of foster homes and dabbles in petty crime. The one good thing in his life has been Gracie, a wedding celebrant who is in high demand for her novel shtick: telling the couple that marriage is a disaster and it will all end in tears.

The embarrassing surprise for the newly-dead Mooney, an atheist, is that there is an afterlife. But unlike most versions of it touted by believers, it’s pretty much like life back on earth. There’s a housing crisis with the huge influx of “refugees” from the unprecedented pandemic, arguments about which dead should be shunted to the margins of the community, insurgencies and threats of violent suppression. Mooney’s own ‘living conditions’ go from intolerable to untenable.

Death is the unhappy everafter. Enemies are not vanquished and our petty selfishness just continues on in another realm. Toltz takes the nebulous religious ideal of heaven to its logical conclusion. Why would we flawed individuals expect our (non)existence to change things?

Read as philosophy, humorous social commentary, or rollicking good story, you’ll enjoy the ride. 

The Broken House: Growing up under Hitler – Horst Krüger (The Bodley Head/Penguin Random House)

In 1965, German journalist Horst Krüger attended an Auschwitz trial, intending merely to observe. He came in the middle of the proceedings and didn’t know who the defendants were. During a break he asks a colleague and discovers that the 22 of them, scattered through the courtroom, “are indistinguishable from the rest of us”.

The experience triggered Krüger’s memories and a re-evaluation of his own experiences as a young man growing up in Hitler’s Germany. The result is this beautifully written – if one can use that word about such a time – personal story of his childhood, interwoven with his time as a soldier, and his reflections on his country’s failure to take responsibility for the horrors to which it gave sustenance.

His writing is ruthless and unflinching. His dull, petit-bourgeois parents living in suburban Eichkamp, stand in for the broader complicit German public which enabled the Nazi rise. He claims that the real Nazis were few in number, had no skills, were human wrecks, and would have, “gone to the wall after three or four months – had not all those good, decent Germans in Eichkamp put all their energy, their hard work, their faith and their fate into blindly supporting them”.

First published in 1966, this slim and very readable book has made a well-deserved reappearance. 

Mindwandering: how it can improve your mood and boost creativity – Moshe Bar (Bloomsbury)

Anyone not hiding under a rock for the past decade has probably had the wonders of mindfulness extolled to them. Even if you’re not into the wellness scene, it’s hard to avoid being told to eat mindfully, walk mindfully, commute mindfully – the list goes on and on. 

And there does actually seem to be a lot of research backing up the benefits of developing our focus, attention, and ability to notice when we’re being swept away by our thoughts. Mindfulness seems to hold promise for everything from mental health and concentration to pain and insomnia.

So initially, then, the thesis of Israeli neuroscientist Moshe Bar’s book is a jarring one. How could mindwandering – the very opposite of mindfulness – be the new silver bullet?

But right from the start, Bar deftly explains how the two systems – focussing the mind, and letting it wander – work hand-in-hand to support mental health and productivity. These complementary processes emerge as the brain’s yin and yang.

Mindwandering is an accessible look at the science, and finally, a good news story for the hopeless daydreamers amongst us!

Davos Man: How the billionaires devoured the world – Peter S Goodman (Custom House/HarperCollins)     

As global economics correspondent with the New York Times, Peter Goodman is perfectly credentialled to write this searing account of how the wealthiest elite have manipulated governments and financial authorities to suit themselves, and impoverish the rest of the world.

Davos Man, the pseudo-anthropological term mimicking Neanderthal or Cro-Magnon Man, was coined nearly 20 years ago to describe those made rich by globalisation, whose interests and wealth flows across borders, whose lobbyists, publicists and accountants straddle jurisdictions, and who have loyalty to no nation. They also regularly attend the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

This group of ultra-wealthy, which wields incredible political influence, pushes the idea that, “when the rules are organised around greater prosperity for those who already enjoy most of it, everyone’s a winner”.

Goodman completely discredits this notion. He explores the self-serving actions of a handful of the global billionaires: Jeff Bezos, the second (and formerly the) wealthiest man on earth; Stephen Schwarzman, head of private equity giant Blackstone; Larry Fink, the world’s largest asset manager; Jamie Dimon, CEO of America’s largest bank JP Morgan; and tech entrepreneur Marc Benioff.

We are also given an insight into the lives of those individuals, much further down the food chain, whose working and living conditions have been eroded, not enhanced by this elite.      

While the picture he paints is pretty bleak, Goodman cautions that we shouldn’t throw up our hands and accept the crisis of inequality and continuous degrading of the common good wrought by Davos Man.

As he claims, we’ve had to stare down robber barons in the past and use “democracy to fashion an effective response to the injustice of one select group monopolising the gains of capitalism”.    

Moonshot: Inside Pfizer’s nine-month race to make the impossible possible – Albert Bourla (Harper Collins)

Normally the name of the CEO of a pharmaceutical company would be unknown to the broader public, but early in the pandemic when it became clear that Australia had failed to secure sufficient Pfizer vaccine, the disgruntled populace wanted to know why Scott Morrison didn’t just get on the blower and ask Bourla for more. Albert Bourla, Pfizer CEO, was personally taking calls from heads of state around the globe who hoped to boost their orders.

Although the world now knows that Pfizer was successful in the vaccine race, Bourla manages to maintain a sense of the thrill as he documents the story’s unfolding. This is not just about scientific discovery, but also the gambles, the management and business decisions, the logistics, the rethinking of processes to shorten time frames and increase production, and of course, the politics.

While Pfizer was going full tilt at the creation of an mRNA vaccine, it also faced the need to maintain production of existing medications for hospital patients whose numbers had increased with Covid (it is the largest supplier of injectables), and the need to keep its own staff safe and working remotely, where possible. 

The book devotes a whole chapter to the role played by Israel, the first country to achieve almost full vaccination of its population, in providing data to refine the general vaccine regime. 

Dancing with the Enemy – Diane Armstrong (HQ Fiction/HarperCollins)

Set on the island of Jersey in the English Channel during WW2, the latest novel by Australian author Diane Armstrong focuses on the little-known fact that the island was abandoned by England in 1940 and left open to German occupation for the entire war.

Dancing with the Enemy brings to life the experiences of those living there at the time – including the handful of Jews who suffered under the same Nazi practices as those on mainland Europe – through the interwoven tales of three characters.

Xanthe, is a present-day doctor who is burnt out by the pressures of work and the trauma of a colleague’s suicide. She has come to Jersey to recuperate and decide what to do with her life. She becomes drawn into the island’s wartime history, especially when she discovers the journal of local doctor Hugh Jackson, which has remained hidden for nearly 80 years, in which he documents life under occupation. The third character is Tom Gaskell, a young man when the Germans arrive, who is outraged by the collusion of Jersey residents with their captors, especially his mother.

Though a work of fiction, Armstrong has done her research and both male protagonists are closely modelled on two memoirs of this historical episode.