Index funds, vaccines and shifting balances

Appearing in In The Black magazine, April 2022

Trillions: How a Band of Wall Street Renegades Invented the Index Fund and Changed Finance Forever
By Robin Wigglesworth
Penguin, $33, 352 pages

As the global finance correspondent for the Financial Times, Wigglesworth has had a front-row seat to a development that has remade financial markets: the rise of index funds. The revolution has been slow but it has been inexorable, to the point that they now dominate the investment landscape. Wigglesworth walks through the early academic work which hypothesised that a basket of passive investments would usually outperform active traders, taking account of the fees charged to investors. Turning theory into practice was tricky but Wigglesworth has a good time with a sprawling cast of characters, with a man called Jack Bogle, who created the first working fund, in a starring role.

Wigglesworth is generally supportive of index funds, emphasising that investors have saved billions in fees. But he acknowledges the downsides, noting that the number of active traders has dramatically reduced. This pattern amplifies market movements, makes entry for newcomers more difficult, and reduces the transparency of decisions. Yes, index funds have brought more people into the wealth-creation process but they have also concentrated power in a few hands. The long-term consequences of lopsided markets are not clear, but Trillions has a remarkable story to tell and Wigglesworth tells it well.

A Shot to Save the World: The Remarkable Race and Ground-Breaking Science Behind the Covid-19 Vaccines
By Greg Zuckerman
Penguin, $35, 384 pages

The COVID-19 pandemic is the story of our time, and this book shows how the vaccines which have been critical in turning the tide were developed. Zuckerman, a science writer at the Wall Street Journal, points out that drug companies had long seen vaccines as a low priority but when the crisis hit they quickly pivoted to a new paradigm. There was a massive program of investment, research, and testing, with remarkable co-operation between governments, researchers and the private sector. It was done in record time, very different to the usual pace of drug development. In fact, there were several races moving in parallel although the research streams ultimately converged.

Zuckerman explains the underlying science and the technological advances required for large-scale production and distribution. He acknowledges that companies always had an eye on the bottom line but believes there was also an acceptance of the need to look beyond profitability. The virus has not yet been defeated, especially with new strains appearing, but Zuckerman predicts that it will become a seasonal disease rather than a global threat. The book adds up to a fascinating account of how the corporate sector, and the broader community, can rise to meet challenges.

Shifting the Balance: How Top Organizations Beat the Competition by Combining Intuition with Data
By Mark Schrutt
ECW Press, $50, 256 pages

Analytics, algorithms and Big Data have changed the fundamental nature of business and in this book Schrutt, a consultant specialising in disruption and digital transformation, examines their advantages and limitations. While they provide huge amounts of information they are usually focused on what has already happened, and the result is that they can be reactive. Emerging threats, changes and opportunities can be missed, and old biases can be inadvertently baked in.

Nevertheless, Schrutt makes clear that the old method of leaders making strategic decisions according to their ‘gut’ is unsuitable for the Digital Age. The answer is a hybrid system where company principals draw on all the available information but still retain the final decision on strategy, using their knowledge of the marketplace and their observations of what is coming down the road. Looking at the practices of companies that have developed combination models, Schrutt emphasises that leaders need to be able to understand the value of data. They also need to recruit data specialists who can provide information that is relevant to strategy. Data should not – and cannot – replace experience and wisdom, but leaders must be willing to utilise the new generation of tools at achieve the best outcomes.

Downloadable Resources

Podcast

The Built For Change podcast series from consulting giant Accenture provides some useful discussions, mainly around the theme of taking advantage of new technologies. A particularly interesting segment (Episode 10) deals with how brewing company Carlsberg utilised cloud tech and related algorithms to improve inventory control across its global operations, track consumer preferences and adjust the local product accordingly, and re-make its distribution infrastructure. The larger point is that data collection and storage is a means and not an end in itself, and the cloud offers the potential to dissect, manipulate and disseminate information across a widespread group.

Download from:
https://www.accenture.com/ca-en/insights/company/built-for-change-podcast

Workplace research

In this interesting TED Talk, Harvard academic Ashley Whillans examines how, especially in the COVID-19 era, work has increasingly crept into our private lives. This is a recipe for burnout, she says, but there are some ways to re-establish balance. Her research shows that time issues are best negotiated at the recruitment stage, to ensure that family commitments are acknowledged and accommodated. Another critical point is to ensure that private time is insulated from work communication, especially email and mobile phones. Co-workers should be informed when you are not available, so that ‘time away’ allows for genuine mental re-charging.

Watch at:
https://www.ted.com/talks/ashley_whillans_3_rules_for_better_work_life_balance

Equity scorecard

A study from the College of Business and Economics at the Australian National University has placed Australia equal last on a gender pay gap scorecard comparing six developed countries, with a gap of over 14 per cent. There are disclosure requirements at the industry level but the underlying assumption that reporting would help to close the gap has not been borne out. The report authors believe that the focus of reporting should shift to individual companies, that there should be clear minimum standards for pay equity, and that the government should be willing to impose sanctions on non-compliant firms.

Read at:
https://cbe.anu.edu.au/news/2021/australia-has-ranked-last-international-gender-pay-gap-study-here-are-3-ways-do-better

Hotline

The Australian Cyber Security Centre has released a package of improvements to help businesses with their security. This includes enhancements to the Australian Cyber Security Hotline (1300 CYBER1), so it now operates 24/7. The Hotline can be used to obtain advice and report attacks. Data from the ACSC shows that the threats facing Australian small and medium-sized businesses are growing, as they are seen as easy targets. Cyberattacks, especially ransomware raids and business email compromise, are becoming more sophisticated and destructive.

The ACSC has also released new online learning resources offering simple-to-follow advice for businesses and individuals, available at cyber.gov.au/learn

For further information, go to:
https://www.cyber.gov.au/acsc/view-all-content/news/acsc-call-247

Disruption discussion

Gerald Kane, Rich Nanda, and Anh Nguyen Phillips are experts on business and technology strategy as well as co-authors of the important book The Transformation Myth. In this interview on the site of MIT Press, they explore avenues for dealing with disruption, using the pandemic as an object lesson. The discussion is an hour long so there are opportunities to drill into cases and solutions. The key points are that new technology has to be designed with customers in mind, leaders have to prioritise organisation resilience, and attempting to  merely ‘weather the storm’ means missing critical opportunities for positive change.

Watch at:
https://mitpress.mit.edu/blog/author-talk-transformation-myth-gerald-c-kane-rich-nanda-anh-nguyen-phillips-and-jonathan-r

CEOs, blockchain, and focus

Appearing in In The Black magazine, March 2022

Decoding CEO-Speak
By Russell Craig and Joel Amernic
University of Toronto Press

There is little dispute that the CEO of a corporate sets the tone for the company but the actual mechanism is not always clear. Craig and Amernic focus on the language used, with a close reading of CEO statements and speeches, and a series of demonstrative case studies. Language can be used to lead a company in a positive way but when unbalanced it can also have a negative impact. The metaphor of business as an ongoing war which must be won at all costs can encourage actions which are ethically dubious, especially in the tech and media sectors. An emphasis on cost-cutting can lead to reductions in safety and environmental standards.

Craig and Amernic provide lists of words, phrases and themes to watch for. Some CEO language is about self-aggrandisement, although this usually slips into blame-shifting when things go bad. A CEO who offers personal vignettes is usually going to ask employees for ‘sacrifices’, and one who uses technical accounting terms is likely to be hiding underperformance or other problems.

This is useful information for financial analysts, shareholders and regulators. The book does not offer any solutions but it provides a means to determine what is really being said.

Blockchain and Banking: How Technological Innovations Are Shaping the Banking Industry
By Pierluigi Martino
Palgrave

Blockchain technology is being slowly adopted across the business landscape but so far, according to academic Martino, the banking sector has been wary of it. In one way, blockchain represents an existential threat, as it has the potential to directly link lenders and borrowers. Disintermediation has long been a worry for banks, and the breadth and security of blockchain could turn it into a painful reality. But blockchain also raises the possibility of drawing more customers into an increased level of financial activity and expanding the range of services on offer. This would require the banks to establish and take responsibility for customised blockchain systems, and to communicate their new role to existing and potential customers. So far, says Martino, this has happened in only a few cases.

A key obstacle is the cryptocurrency connection, something which raises interoperability and regulatory issues. Martino proposes several ways to incorporate blockchain into traditional banking operations but he admits that it requires a new business model as well as a different mindset. But, he points out, blockchain and other fintech innovations will eventually come anyway, so the question is really whether the banking sector will ride the wave or be swamped by it.

Focus: How to Plan Strategy and Improve Execution to Achieve Growth
By Vikas Mittal and Shrihari Sridhar
Palgrave

Many business plans look wonderful on paper. The problem is that they fail in their first encounter with the real world. Mittal and Sridhar are interested in finding out why, and in this useful book they examine the issue from several perspectives. They begin with a questionnaire for CEOs about their strategy planning process as a means of identifying strengths and weaknesses, and then examine a number of pathways to improve the development and implementation of plans.

Too often, they say, planning is focused inwardly rather then being driven by customers, with a disjunction between operations and profitability. This usually requires a reconsideration of the metrics needed. Many CEOs complain that much of the information provided to them is not relevant to planning. Therefore, the process has to reach down into the middle and lower levels of the company for important data. Significantly, greater involvement across the company can improve execution, which is a major benefit.

While there is place for aspirational goals in plans there also needs to be quantifiable objectives and firm timelines. Mittal and Sridhar demonstrate their points with relevant case studies, and the result is a package that provides assistance in a difficult, but essential, area.

Downloadable Resources

Report

The changes seen in workplaces and management over the COVID-19 era will have profound long-term consequences, but according to the Future of Work report from PwC Australia many companies have not yet come to grips with the issues. The report includes a Future of Work Maturity Radar, a tool that allows leaders to assess the readiness of their company and develop solutions. The report is structured across four dimensions: work type, workforce composition and capabilities, workplace and the experience of work. There is also a link to a series of podcast discussions on how to optimise the transition under way.

Download from:
https://www.pwc.com.au/important-problems/future-of-work-design-for-the-future/future-of-work-maturity-radar.html

Digital currencies

Noel Quinn is Group Chief Executive of banking giant HSBC, so it his job to think about the future of finance. In this essay he discusses an emerging form of digital funds known as Central Bank Digital Currencies. These are legal tender backed by a government authority, avoiding many of the issues associated with cryptocurrencies. Quinn sees great potential but he accepts that there are risks that must be mitigated. He believes that a collaboration between government agencies and private banks would be the best way to go. Important views from someone who can speak with authority about the subject.

Read at:
https://www.hsbc.com/insight/topics/new-forms-of-digital-money-could-spur-growth

Leaders

As a consultant specialising in leadership and communication, Gabrielle Dolan brings a great deal of experience to bear. In this podcast series she interviews a range of leaders, mainly but not exclusively from business. Most of the interviews are about forty minutes, giving Dolan the opportunity to explore issues in depth, and she usually focuses on how the interviewee met particular challenges. In a recent interview, for example, she spoke to Anne Sullivan, national and regional head of retailer Georg Jensen. The discussion looked at how to lead an organisation in times of pandemic stress and plan for eventual recovery.

Follow at:
https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/authentic-leadership-podcast/id1390442702

Wealth report             

An important study from consulting giant McKinsey, The Rise of the Global Balance Sheet, assesses the world economy since 2000. The good news is that net worth has tripled. The bad news is that it largely comes from asset revaluation, with real estate alone now accounting for about two-thirds of global net worth. That is, funds are not being effectively used to improve productivity, and debt is detracting from real growth. The report looks at areas where productivity gains are potentially available and posits that a new investment paradigm is emerging. A video summary by the author is also available.

Download from:
The rapid growth in global wealth | McKinsey

Meetings

Meetings can be useful but they can also be the root of wasted time, low productivity and executive exhaustion. In this short TED Talk, thought leader Cindy Solomon provides some helpful hints. Only invite people who are directly relevant to the task. Ensure that the invitation is framed with a purpose statement in active terms. Set a specific length and stick to it: 30-40 minutes is best. Be willing to decline invitations to a meeting if you cannot see a way to add value. Finally, consider whether a meeting is really necessary. Your time is valuable, so spend it wisely.

Watch at:
https://www.ted.com/talks/cindy_solomon_5_tips_for_dealing_with_meeting_overload

Fancy Dress

Appearing in the Australian, 12 February 2022

How to Read a Dress: A Guide to Changing Fashion from the 16th to the 21st Century

By Lydia Edwards

Bloomsbury, 280 pp, $50

If clothing is a language then fashion is the vocabulary. We sometimes think of fashion as a relatively recent phenomenon but this remarkable, sumptuous book demonstrates that it has been around for a long time, and there are threads of continuity across centuries. Edwards, a historian at Western Australia’s Edith Cowan University, is a good guide for a time-travel journey, and the book has the advantage of a large number of colour plates, illustrations and photographs. Edwards dissects each image, explaining how a particular pleat was formed or why a certain decorative feature was used.

She starts at 1550, simply because there are few surviving examples before then. Her focus is on women’s fashion, specifically the single-piece dress, including various accessories and supporting pieces (anyone who wants to look at men’s clothes should try on Edwards’ 2020 book, How to Read a Suit, for size). During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries France was the fashion leader, although England offered stiff competition. Even when at war there was an exchange of ideas between the two countries, such as the collar-like ruff. Along the way, Spain and Italy made important contributions.

The royal courts were the fashion epicentres: not surprising, considering the incredible cost of some of these dresses. There were huge expanses of silk and lace, with whalebone underpinning the whole show. The wearers of these dresses must have looked like magnificent galleons in full sail but it is difficult to see how they might sit down, climb stairs, or go to the toilet. The price of beauty, perhaps.

A constant feature over several centuries was the desire for a wasp-thin waist. For women who could not fit into the torturous corsets there was the alternative of dresses with wide shoulders and exaggerated hips, to give the impression of an hourglass figure. Elizabeth I, the trendsetter of her era, was an exemplar of this, adding necklaces, matching make-up and a halo-like structure to frame the face. But she also liked to show a bit of cleavage, common at the time.

Another angle on the hourglass theme, in the nineteenth century, was puffed-out sleeves and shelf-like bustles. Skirts were made conical by hoops and layers of petticoats.

In Australia, fashion in the 1890s managed to avoid the most extreme forms seen in other countries, according to examples from the large dress collection of Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum. In fact, there were influences from men’s clothing, especially around the necklines, trimmings and cuffs. Practical, yes, although there is also a pleasing and particular aesthetic underlying Australian dress design.

By the time the twentieth century arrived there was more interest in flowing lines rather than complicated overlays, as more women entered the paid workforce. By the 1920s America had emerged as the driving force of fashion, with sleeveless daywear dresses being the hot item. Chanel’s ‘little black dress’ line was revolutionary at the time, and her later suit-like designs started to question whether the dress had any future at all. As it turns out, it did, but as one choice amongst many.

As the fashion focus shifted to youthful energy rather than society matrons in the decades after 1950, there was diminishing interest in clothes based on savage body restrictions and staggering expense. Hemlines went up, and trousers for women started to be taken seriously by designers. Even formal clothes, such as wedding gowns, became less complex. The business of making clothes also underwent massive change, with much less manufacture by hand and more design for ready-to-wear retail. By the 1980s non-Western designers like Issy Miyake were making their presence felt, and Madonna’s cone-shaped bustier (designed by John Paul Gaultier) broke down the barrier between underwear and outerwear.

By the twenty-first century, fashion had become a wealth of cut-and-paste choices, cross-cultural references, sexual expression, and innovative use of non-traditional materials. A 2004 dress by Western Australian designer Donna Franklin was actually made of fungus.

Edwards explains all this in the sort of detail that comes not only with entirely knowing the subject but also loving it. By the nature of the book, there is more breadth than depth but a comprehensive bibliography points to more research opportunities, and there is a useful glossary of terms.

What next for clothing and fashion? Edwards believes that the move towards gender-neutral clothing will continue, and also points to increased interest in manufacturing methods which are environment-friendly and sensitive to cultural origins. There appears to be a resurgence of the ‘prairie’ style of the 1960s and 1970s, although done with a dose of irony. Or maybe the future will not be about ‘fashion’ at all, if the term means a commonality of style for many people, but one-off artisan pieces and eccentric mash-ups. Nevertheless, the single-piece dress is sure to remain, in some form or another. It’s a classic.

Amazon, fraud and disruption

Appearing in In The Black magazine, February 2022

Amazon Unbound: Jeff Bezos and the Invention of a Global Empire
Brad Stone
Simon & Schuster

Amazon has become so embedded in the global economy and our collective psyche that it is hard to remember the world before it. Stone, a senior editor at Bloomberg News, examined the evolution of the company from an online book seller to a dominant player in retail in his 2013 book The Everything Store, and in Amazon Unbound he continues the story to trace how the company became a trillion-dollar behemoth. In fact, the company has made plenty of missteps, from attempts to introduce its own phone to its mixed-results forays into China and India.

But there have been successes such as the introduction of AI, the move into Hollywood through digital streaming, and a series of important acquisitions. Amazon ruthlessly adheres to its principles of technological innovation, operational frugality, continually looking for scalability, and relentless focus on customer service. It also analyses its mistakes, and founder Bezos accepts that some experiments will inevitably fail.

Amazon has become so wealthy and powerful that it seems able to shrug off any setbacks, even with a growing number of critics and enemies. But Stone wonders if this can continue, especially with Bezos stepping out of the CEO role to become executive chairman.

When Numbers Don’t Add Up: Accounting Fraud and Financial Technology
Faisal Sheikh
Business Expert Press

Sheikh brings a great deal of academic and practitioner experience to bear in this book, as he examines the problem of accounting fraud from operational, technological and psychological perspectives. The incidence of accounting fraud, either for direct personal gain or to misrepresent the financial situation of a company, is growing, and the development of Big Data and cyber currencies is making the problem worse. Oversight practices have not kept up and auditors are in danger of being overwhelmed by the flood of granular, non-financial information.

Analysing recent cases, the book provides a number of important frameworks to detect fraud. Sheikh looks at the type of personality commonly associated with accounting fraud, and at the interaction of pressure, motivation and rationalisation. He also provides a list of  ‘red flags’, such as dubious valuations, the proliferation of unexplained bank accounts, and personal connections in the ranks of senior executives and board members.

As a remedy Sheikh proposes the adoption of an “Ethical Triangle” he has developed, and he notes that the training of auditors has to be revised and broadened. An appendix provides a compendium of the literature, making the book a useful resource for students as well as practising financial professionals.

Accounting Disrupted: How Digitalization Is Changing Finance
Alnoor Bhimani
Wiley

Digitalisation is an upheaval in business practice, and the finance profession will need to redesign itself if it is going to survive. Bhimani, a professor of accounting with the London School of Economics, argues that accounting information must begin to describe what will take place rather than what has occurred. This means gathering insights from diverse sources, with a focus on emerging opportunities and risks. At the same time, new technologies such as blockchain and AI point to a move away from traditional reporting as real-time transparency increases and improves.

Bhimani looks at examples where this has been successfully done, and is adept at drawing out the lessons. The key point is a change of thinking. Accountants must be able to put aside some old skills and take up new ones, and managers must reconsider their recruitment and retention strategies. Senior executives must develop some fresh ideas about how to utilise the company’s finance function, working out what questions they need to ask. Bhimani emphasises that this is not simply about adapting to a ‘new normal’ but about dealing with continuing disruption. For finance professionals, the critical task will be to see and explain what is coming down the road.

Future games

Agency
By William Gibson
Penguin, $23

Here’s a thing about Canadian-American author Gibson: you can finish one of his novels and still not know what it was actually about. This is not entirely the case with Agency, although it is certainly true that numerous parts are difficult to follow. That said, it is an entertaining and thought-provoking piece of work, an addition to the world Gibson has been building over a series of books, a not-too-distant future (or maybe a present where the future has arrived but is very unevenly distributed). It is a world held together by the tenuous linkages of cyberspace, where cultures have bled into one another and everyone is running some sort of hi-tech hustle. Some of these people move from one novel to another: the main character here, ‘app-whisperer’ Verity Jane, appeared in Gibson’s 2014 outing, The Peripherals. And there are a few other familiar names, like the scary, infinitely manipulative Ainsley Lowbeer.

But the character who is perhaps the most interesting is not human at all. Eunice is an autonomous Artificial Intelligence, who has taken on the avatar of an über-cool, slightly snarky black woman. Verity is hired to assess Eunice by the company that ‘owns’ her, Tulpagenics. When Eunice turns out to be rather more autonomous than anticipated, Tulpagenics tries to close her down and abduct Verity. It is never clear why the company and its various nasty oddballs are after Verity, who does not seem to know anything of possible value, but nevertheless a chase gets under way, with Verity linking up with a cast a strange characters, including a super-rich ex-boyfriend and a remarkably versatile barista.

This being a Gibson novel, there has to be a parallel story, and it involves a future-version London. It seems like a reasonably nice place but there is a looming threat of nuclear war on the horizon. How and why this works, and how the people there can communicate with Verity and her chums, is never made clear. Is it a future alternate timeline? An Augmented Reality vision of London? There are some explanations given but they lead to more confusion than clarity. Anyway, the idea is that the London people want to ensure that Eunice is saved to (somehow) provide a better future and see the Russians off.

One way or another, Eunice and Verity are re-united, and everyone lives happily ever after. Sort of: the assumption that a benevolent AI with a dark-ish sense of humour will be good at running everything seems a bit questionable, to say the least. Maybe this will be picked up in the next book (Gibson usually works in trilogy form).

There is a wealth of interesting ideas here, developing themes that Gibson has worked with for a long time. But you don’t want to think about the narrative too much: it would warp your head. Just go with it, and enjoy it.

2021: grit your teeth and read a good book

Appearing in Australian Spectator magazine, December 2021

Thanks to lockdowns, restrictions and jabs, 2021 was a year that might be described, to put it kindly, as challenging. We can only hope that one day we will look back on it and laugh. Or maybe we won’t.

In a time when we all needed some comic relief, the indefatigable Titus O’Reily came to our aid, with his romp Cheat: The Not-So-Subtle Art of Conning Your Way to Sporting Glory (published by Penguin, $35). He has written extensively about Australian sport, tongue firmly in cheek, but here he casts a wider net. He has a wonderful time recounting how virtually every sport has a legacy of dishonesty, from ball tampering to doping to fake injuries. Some cheating tricks are ingenious but many are just stupid. A personal favourite is the team in the Tour de France bicycle race that caught a train. Cheating is often for the money but it was rife even before sport became a big business. Some people just to want to win, it seems, by any means necessary. Perhaps they should go into politics.

Another book which reminds us to not take ourselves too seriously was Great Furphies of Australian History by Jim Haynes (Allen & Unwin, $30). It is an enjoyable meander through the country’s myths and legends, with Haynes wading through some very dusty files to set the record straight – well, straight-ish, anyway. It seems that Banjo Paterson did not write Waltzing Matilda (he wrote an early version that is a far cry from the one we know today). Captain Cook was actually a lieutenant. And, no, Australians are not the great drinkers that we think we are, coming in at a lowly number 17 on the international ranking. Haynes has a good time with all this, exploring how myths evolve and why many of them have carved a place in the national imagination.

With health at the top of everyone’s mind, Fake Medicine: Exposing the Wellness Crazes, Cons and Quacks Costing Us Our Health by Brad McKay (Hachette, $33) was a well-timed release. McKay, a GP who is also known as the host of a popular television series, sees the ‘wellness industry’ as essentially a mammoth fraud, driven by self-styled gurus who have mastered the art of Internet selling. The trick is to convince people that they can find happiness through a pricey product labelled ‘organic’ or ‘holistic’. McKay also looks at the rise of fad diets, the proliferation of pseudo-drugs, and some of the more dubious treatment methods. Most are only a waste of money but a few are actually dangerous. He manages to make all this entertaining as well as informative, noting that a good dose of scepticism might be the best remedy.

A book with few laughs is Red Zone: China’s Challenge and Australia’s Future by Peter Hartcher (Black Inc, $33), a well-regarded journalist and currently a fellow of the Lowy Institute. Over the past decade Xin Jinping and his circle have waged a campaign to intimidate successive Australian governments into accepting China’s right to tell everyone else what to do. Hartcher examines the various methods used, including the Dastyari bribery scandal, attempts to mobilise the Chinese-Australian community to work for them, and trade bans. The Chinese leaders can be surprisingly cack-handed, at one point issuing a list of demands that made China look like not just a bully but a hypocritical and incompetent one. They have been astonished when Australia has pushed back, even joining the anti-China ‘Quad’ of countries. Beijing, says Hartcher, is creating the very environment it feared: everyone against it. Nevertheless, China is playing a long game, and whether Australia has the will to go the distance is an open question.

The chattering classes have long been puzzled by Scott Morrison. They were stunned when he sat down in the big chair, stung by his electoral victory in 2019, and confused by his (fairly) successful handling of the pandemic. They are now seeking to understand him, and the result is no fewer than three biographies of ScoMo.

How Good is Scott Morrison? by Peter van Onselen and Wayne Errington (Hachette, $35) was a disappointing effort – disappointing because the authors had previously provided a worthy biography of John Howard. They focus on only a few incidents of his time as PM, and the result is a very shallow picture. They miss one of the most interesting questions of Morrison: how did he make the transition from the ‘stop the boats’ tough guy to the ‘daggy dad’ persona that now defines him? In Morrison’s background there is good evidence of both but the feeling here is that van Onselen and Errington could not be bothered to dig it out.

Annika Smethurst, a senior journalist, is more willing to do the research, and The Accidental Prime Minister (Hachette, $40) delves comprehensively into Morrison’s upbringing, early career, and rise through the ministerial ranks. Morrison agreed to be interviewed for the book, and there are also comments from friends, colleagues, and enemies. When the Liberals got themselves into a leadership mess in 2018 he was the last man standing, and he grabbed the prize when it came into reach. Indeed, Smethurst seems to acknowledge that his ascension was ‘accidental’ only in the sense of being in the right place at the right time (mostly because he had organised it that way). He connects with Middle Australia because that is exactly where he is from, and he has never forgotten it. He generally has conservative beliefs but understands that pragmatism and flexibility are required, especially in times of crisis. The book is a solid account although it is often marred by snarky side comments and conclusions that seem to not reflect her research, such as the prediction that Morrison’s leadership might “unravel”.

In The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison (Black Inc, $33) Sean Kelly is determined to paint a dark picture. He argues that Morrison has no real beliefs and that his entire political approach is mere marketing. He notes occasions where Morrison has shifted positions but the depiction of him as an empty suit is difficult to accept, especially given his strong Pentecostal faith. It all reads as if Kelly came up with a catchy idea and selected evidence to fit. If Morrison was dogmatic and unswerving then Kelly would probably attack him for being an ideological extremist and religious zealot. He was an adviser to Rudd and Gillard before turning to a particular brand of left-wing commentary so The Game is mainly what one would expect.

In the field of fiction, the winner of the Miles Franklin Literary Award for the year was Amanda Lohrey for her seventh novel, The Labyrinth (Text Publishing, $30). The story is narrated by a city woman who moves to a small town on the New South Wales coast to be closer to her jailed son. But she is impelled by a dream to build a labyrinth, a process which Lohrey uses as an extended metaphor for a personal journey. At first the novel appears to be painfully sad but as it unfolds it becomes a story about hope and resilience. Not all who wander are lost, is the message, and not all who are lost are wanderers.

Another award-winning book is At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop (Pushkin Press, $25), which took the 2021 International Booker Prize. Told from the perspective of a Senegalese man who is pushed into the French army to fight in the trenches in World War One, it is a nightmare of escalating madness and terror, although leavened with flashes of kindness, memory and insight into the human condition. At Night All Blood Is Black is short, little more than a novella, which goes to show that how you say what you say is more important than the extent to which you prattle.

An excess of prattling seems to lie at the heart of many of the problems currently being seen in US culture. Indeed, our American cousins seem to have talked themselves into an awful quagmire of acrimony and discord. In Wrath: America Enraged (Encounter, $50), social anthropologist and academic Peter Wood tries to discern the reasons. The rise of social media, anonymous and instantaneous, made self-restraint and fair-mindedness look untenably outdated. Cable television producers realised that there was money in fostering rhetorical extremism. From this perspective, the election of Donald Trump was an outcome rather than a cause, but his combative approach sharpened the conflict. Wood hopes that the exhausting fires of rage will burn themselves out and the sensible centre will re-assert itself but he does not sound optimistic.

If Wood is looking at a big picture, the authors of Cynical Theories: How Activist Scholarship Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity – and Why This Harms Everybody (Swift Press, $23) drill down into the emergence of Critical Race Theory (also now known as Social Justice Theory). Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay explain that the core premise is that all people are defined solely by group characteristics of race, gender, and sexuality, with white males oppressing everyone else. For a time it was limited to elite universities and academic journals but it began to grow in influence around 2010. Eventually, Social Justice Theory became a meta-narrative. It now bears the hallmarks of a religion: the True Faith of the Woke. They know what they know and will not be moved. Dissent is heresy. Pluckrose and Lindsay believe that reasonable people must fight this, with solid arguments, reliable data, and personal courage. Someone has to bell the cat, they say.

Polarisation reached a remarkable extreme in the case of Hunter Biden, scion of Joe. In Laptop from Hell: Hunter Biden, Big Tech, and the Dirty Secrets the President Tried to Hide (Simon & Schuster, $45) Miranda Devine, an Australian journalist who works mainly in the US, makes her systematic way through the contents of his laptop computer, which he put in for repair but was too stoned to collect. It found its way into the public sphere in 2020, with a trove of information about Hunter’s dodgy financial deals (including apparent connections to his famous father), massive consumption of drugs and booze (mainly crack and vodka), and his many dalliances with prostitutes (sometimes complete with videos). Amazingly, the legacy media ignored it all, accepting the Democrat line that it was all a Russian disinformation plot. That sounded silly then; now it is all but unbelievable. You almost have to laugh – and if you don’t you will probably end up crying.

Despite strong competition this reviewer’s choice for the Trees Are Dying For This award, for the year’s most unnecessary book, goes to Chris Bowen, ALP frontbencher, for his book On Charlatans (Hachette, $17). The publisher of the ‘On … ’ series deserves credit for giving public figures an avenue to put forward original ideas and to survey the political environment but Bowen simply accuses anyone he doesn’t like of cheating, fraud and demagoguery, and recycles a lot of old ALP policies. Ho hum. He seems to have formed his views around 1983 and they have not moved much since then. He still sees Labor as the party of battlers and the Liberals as the party of toffs. It’s all very undergraduate. And Bowen is the smart, fair-minded thinker of his party, is he? It makes one wonder what the others must be like.

So, Chris, you have won a very cheap certificate. Suggestions for next year’s TADFT award are now open. Always welcome.

Oz images

Appearing in the Australian, December 2021

Symbols of Australia: Imagining a Nation
Edited by Melissa Harper and Richard White
NewSouth Publishing, Non-fiction
416 pp, $39

We are a people poised between the desert and the beach. Australia is known, defined and understood by its symbols, although as several of the essays brought together in this book make clear, many of those symbols are the subject of debate and controversy. There are others that reveal our wry, ironic side – and there are a few that are just plain weird. Harper and White, academics who specialise in this sort of thing, have cast a wide net, and Symbols of Australia is as entertaining as it is informative.

One of the most recognisable symbols is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, accepted as definitively Australian even by those who do not live in Sydney. As bridges around the world go it is not particularly large but its beautiful location gives it a special quality and an international profile. The graceful shape has proven to be highly adaptable, and now it is hard to imagine New Year’s Eve without a cascade of fireworks from the ‘coathanger’.

Another structure with a symbolic punch is the Sydney Opera House. The rippled skyline has become a design motif for both the spectacular and the tacky, and it is always high on a tourist’s must-see list. When it was first built it seemed to be an epic waste of money, focused as it was on highbrow culture in a country that usually likes its entertainment to be on the populist side. There is a persistent complaint that the mainstream interior does not match the extraordinary exterior but it has grown into its role, and into the landscape.

The profile of Uluru is another iconic shape, and the Rock is often seen as the symbolic heart of the country. In an environment of heat and dust it has a beauty all its own, and it is difficult to remain unaffected by its majestic presence. But a key issue remains: is it an indigenous symbol or something for all Australians to hold dear? It can, of course, be both. In fact, symbols that have long been a part of indigenous culture, such as the Rainbow Serpent, seem to be making their way into broader Australian culture, which might turn out to be an important step on the road to true reconciliation.

Any Australian who has travelled overseas knows that the kangaroo, at least in romanticised form, is tied to the national image. It is often imagined as a friendly, cuddly creature – mainly by people who have never been near a wild one – and the sheer strangeness of it is a continuing source of global fascination. Many farmers see it as a pest, or sometimes as a resource to be harvested. But even those who have a good reason to dislike the ‘roo accept its symbolic weight.

Something that is a cultural icon but has seldom been accepted outside the national shores is Vegemite. Defined by one of the catchiest jingles ever written (“we’re happy little Vegemites, as bright as bright can be”) it has a place in most kitchen cupboards. It was originally marketed as a health food although its high salt content eventually required a change of message. Nevertheless, Vegemite has straddled the gap between product and symbol, and Australians will probably still be spreading it in a hundred years.

If Vegemite is uniquely Aussie, there are doubts about the origins of another food with a symbolic role, pavlova. The New Zealanders claim to have come up with the idea of a meringue-style pie/cake dish but there is evidence that it developed in several places at roughly the same time. Whatever the back story, Australians have claimed it as a culinary treasure, ignoring that it was named after a ballerina from Russia. And there is a crucial question: what fruit is best on top? The debate continues.

If Australia has a cultural dress code, it is probably topped off by the Akubra hat – even though most people will never actually wear one. Somehow, it does not work very well in big-city environments but it undeniably connects to the wide open spaces. On the political side, it seems that only National Party candidates can make it work; Liberal and Labor leaders always look inauthentic when wearing one.

Another symbol that has led to trouble for politicians is the ‘democracy sausage’ that is a part of Australian elections, as there are unwritten but crucial rules about how it is eaten (from the end!). There is actually an organisation called Democracy Sausage, which provides the locations of fundraisers on Election Day. The organisation’s coat of arms is a kangaroo and an emu, at a barbie.

Our national symbols will surely continue to evolve, and Australians will continue to add to them, argue about them, and make jokes about them. Which is, in the end, exactly as it should be.

Seemed like a good idea at the time

Hitler’s American Gamble: Pearl Harbour and Germany’s March to Global War
By Brendan Sims and Charlie Laderman
Basic Books, 510 pages

It is a puzzling landmark in the history of World War Two: why did Hitler declare war on the US, thereby drawing America directly into the conflict in Europe, soon after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour? This comprehensively researched book, by two academics specialising in military history, tackles the question. They delve deeply into the thinking of all the major participants, drawing on memoirs, government documents, correspondence, and media reports.

The book cannot be classed as revisionist history, as not much about the crucial decision has been written. Most historians have put it down to Hitler going off on another unhinged jaunt and left it at that. But to Sims and Laderman this is not a sufficient answer. Crazy is not the same thing as stupid.

A crucial point here is the role played by the US Lend-Lease program, which supplied desperately needed food, fuel and war material to Britain and Russia in the years before Pearl Harbour. Churchill had (privately) declared his strategy to win the war by “dragging the Americans in” but it was proving much more difficult to do than say. However supportive Roosevelt might have personally been to Churchill he was keenly aware of the strong isolationist streak in the public and Congress. Indeed, he was stretching the limits of his authority with the Lend-Lease program, maintaining support only by emphasising that the US was extracting benefits from Britain. Even when German submarines began to sink US supply ships there was not much change in sentiment.

The isolationist view underwent an overnight metamorphosis with the attack on Pearl Harbour. Many Americans wanted to focus on Japan, ignoring Europe. Some Lend-Lease supplies were diverted to the US military, and there was a real danger that British resistance and Russian battlefield efforts would flounder. But Roosevelt was generally able to hold the line, partly by arguing that the Nazis were pulling Japan’s strings. He would have known that this was not true, as the US had broken the codes to German diplomatic communications, but Roosevelt was never one to worry about the details.

In fact, Hitler and his circle were surprised when Pearl Harbour happened. But they were not displeased, especially when the Japanese rode over British forces in Asia. The thinking was that if the British had to direct more forces to Asia, and the US had to wind back support for its allies, then this was good for the Reich.

Logical enough, but it does not explain why Hitler took the extra step of declaring war on the US (he had told Japan that he would but the promise could easily have been pushed aside). Sims and Laderman examine his statements and thinking, coming back to his view that Roosevelt was controlled by a far-reaching conspiracy of Jews and financiers. Ludicrous, of course, but it shows that his thinking was all of a piece. Given this, he believed that eventually the US would declare war on Germany, so it would be to his advantage to take the initiative.

Sims and Laderman note that Hitler had no real plan to fight the Americans, and knew that over the long term the US could simply out-produce everyone else. There was a hope that the Japanese could consolidate their gains in Asia and the Pacific and eventually force a peace with ‘spheres of influence’, and that Germany could do the same in Europe. But there was no significant co-operation between the Reich and Japan, beyond agreements signed mainly for propaganda purposes.

There were many balls in the air. What if Russia attacked Japan (or Japan attacked Russia), dividing Russia’s forces and draining strength from the battle with Germany? What if Vichy France finally declared itself on the Nazi side? What if the Japanese took Hawaii, limiting the US to the mainland? All these things were possibilities at the time. But when the Japanese were defeated at the Battle of Midway, it was clear that not only were the Americans going to win in the Pacific but they had the industrial capacity to support all the other anti-Axis forces as well.

Sims and Laderman acknowledge that it could all been very different. What if the Japanese had attacked only the British forces in Asia, so that America remained (largely) neutral? What if the isolationist forces in the US had successfully curtailed the Lend-Lease program? What if the Russian push had faltered, resulting in a prolonged stalemate? What if … what if … this game can be played in many different ways, but the point is that it only came to one ending.

In hindsight, it looks inevitable, and the authors marshal so much research material that their conclusions are hard to deny. The key question of why Hitler declared war on the US has a straightforward answer: because that was where his chain of logic, perverted as it was, led him. Strategically, there was a narrow window of opportunity to build a new system of blocs, dividing the world into quasi-empires. But the moment passed, and the rest is history.

Rounding up the business year

Appearing in In The Black magazine, December 2021

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload

By Cal Newport

Penguin, $33, 320 pages, ISBN 9780241341414

Newport is a professor of computer science who has written extensively about communications technology. In this book he takes a deep dive into the way that email has taken over so much of our life and time, creating a “hyperactive hive-mind workflow”. He readily acknowledges that email was, when it first appeared in the 1990s, more productive than paper memos but now the sheer volume of information circulated by email systems has become a problem. Work has become a web of unscheduled communication threads even if much of the information is, when considered, irrelevant to our actual duties. Email requires a constant shifting of cognitive mindset, leading to exhaustion and muddled thinking.

There are software packages that can help to control the flow but the real answer is company policies to combat overload. Does that message really need to be copied to everyone, or sent at all? Can there be a schedule for particular types of information? Is there a better method of collaboration than strings of fragmentary emails? In other words, think before you send. Some of Newport’s proposals might be easier to say than do, but nevertheless he provides a new way of looking at an important issue.

Power Play: Elon Musk, Tesla, and the Bet of the Century

By Tim Higgins

Penguin, $35, 400 pages, ISBN 9780753554388

The idea seemed obvious: why not use lithium-ion batteries, already powering a host of digital devices, in cars? Simple answer: because large lithium-ion batteries can dangerously overheat. Higgins explains how a stream of engineers wrestled with this problem for years but it was only when Musk came up with a reliable cooling system that electric cars became viable. He became a major investor of Tesla in 2004 and jumped into the CEO role in 2008. As a hard-driving leader with decent tech skills he dragged the company into the spotlight, and electric cars eventually hit the road.

It could not have happened without him but Musk is a hard person to like. Known for a mercurial temper, on-the-spot firings, and astonishing self-aggrandisement, he comes across as an entrepreneurial genius with a streak of conman – or maybe it is the other way around. He managed to position the electric car as a civilisational breakthrough even as he was ruthlessly collecting subsidies.

It is not easy to separate the stories of the electric car, Tesla, and Musk, but Higgins manages to keep the narrative streams organised. Fascinating stuff, and it cannot be denied that Musk has made a dent in the universe.

Huddle: How Women Unlock Their Collective Power

By Brooke Baldwin

Harper Collins, $53, 304 pages, ISBN 9780063017443

Baldwin, a journalist and anchor with CNN, is interested in the way that women organise into groups to overcome adversity and discrimination. Such “huddles”, she says, can provide crucial support and advice, and a means to advance causes of special interest to women.

Baldwin speaks with women who have established or joined a group. One particularly interesting “huddle” is made up of lawyers who have found their way up blocked by discrimination, and are working to overcome it. Another is a group of nurses who say that mutual support has been critical in helping them deal with the pressures generated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Baldwin believes that successful women have an obligation to help others climb the ladder. She looks at an organisation set up by actress Reese Witherspoon to assist women in the notoriously sexist Hollywood environment and speaks with the founders of the #MeToo organisation. Baldwin started out with the premise that “huddles” were a recent phenomenon but she eventually realises that there is a long, if quiet, history.

All of the cases that Baldwin explores are American but nevertheless there are universal lessons in this book about the value of networking and the power of collective action.

Shorter: How Working Less Will Revolutionise the Way Your Company Gets Things Done

By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

Penguin, $35, 320 pages, ISBN 9780241406786

The way to increased productivity and profits is not working ever-longer hours, says workplace consultant Pang. Just the opposite: innovation comes from clear thinking and creativity. Shorter looks at many companies that have moved to four-day weeks (without reducing remuneration), with good results for the bottom line. Done properly, reducing the work week improves recruitment and retention, and employees – especially those who are parents – report improved focus, less stress and better mental health. People are less likely to experience burnout, and client satisfaction improves.

Pang’s research suggests that most companies that have moved to a shorter week are medium-sized enterprises in the knowledge sector, led by founders who are recovering workaholics. However, there is nothing to stop large corporates making a comparable transition. New-gen communications technology has a key role to play in using time efficiently. Meetings, which consume huge amounts of time, is another area to consider: putting a simple timer on the table can prevent distractions.

Pang emphasises that no single model fits all situations. But now is a good time for leaders to consider whether a shorter week is suitable for their company. Working better by working less might initially seem counter-intuitive but the idea deserves thought.

Talent, Strategy, Risk: How Investors and Boards Are Redefining TSR

By Bill McNabb, Ram Charan and Dennis Carey

Harvard Business Review Press, $49, 224 pages, ISBN 9781633698321

Between them, the authors of this book bring a wealth of experience about investment trends and corporate management to the table. They argue that the short-term metric of Total Shareholder Return is no longer relevant, as the dominant investment players are now institutional funds that look for long-term gains. McNabb, Charan and Carey propose a different kind of TSR called talent, strategy and risk, because decisions and actions around these factors  determine whether and how a company creates lasting value.

A key part of this transition is the expansion of the role of the Investor Relations Officer. Instead of a predominantly PR function, the new IRO has to have the financial acumen to explain and contribute to corporate strategy. This would include the implementation of plans as well as risk assessment and mitigation in areas such as cybersecurity and geopolitical changes. The IRO also has to be able to think like an activist shareholder, and shape company responses to emerging issues accordingly.

At the board level, the strategy of a company has to be clearly communicated to institutional investors, including the impact of recruitment decisions. None of this will be easy, say the authors, but all of it is essential.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know

By Adam Grant

Penguin,  $35, 320 pages, ISBN 9780753553893

One of the hardest things to change is your own mind. But the world is a turbulent, unpredictable place, says Grant, an academic specialist in organisational psychology, so knowing when to rethink your thinking is valuable skill. He provides a framework for determining when circumstances have changed enough to require a new approach, with examples of failure and success at thinking again. Conviction and grit are important but so is flexibility and dynamism.

It takes humility to accept that one’s outlook needs revision. But Grant emphasises the importance of maintaining an open, flexible mind. He notes the importance of systematically seeking out different opinions and testing hypotheses. A “challenge network” of people of diverse views can be a great asset, offering advice on which ideas need rethinking in the face of new evidence. This is an ongoing process but there is also value in a regular “life checkup” to avoid an escalation of commitment to an unproductive path.

Grant suggests questions to ask of yourself and of others. Unlearning and relearning require effort and time, he says, but the benefits are substantial. In the end, what got you to here might not get you to where you need to go.

Digital Finance: Security Tokens and Unlocking the Real Potential of Blockchain

By Baxter Hines

Wiley, $50, 208 pages, ISBN 9781119756309

Blockchain technology has enormous potential but so far it has not really broken through to the general public. Hines, a manager of portfolios consisting of traditional assets, securitised properties, and digital assets, believes that this will change with the broad adoption of security tokens. Such tokens, he argues, will address the security concerns of blockchain and the complexity of blockchain systems, the main constraints to date.

Put simply, a security token is a digital device that authenticates a person’s identity electronically by storing personal information. The owner plugs the security token, such as a usb, into a system to grant access to a network service. In the blockchain context, a security token can be loaded with value from nearly any source, allowing for safe, instantaneous transactions. The blockchain connectivity and security measures are embedded in the token itself.

Companies like IBM, Fidelity Investments, and AXA are already deploying blockchain and tokenised options, and many others are gearing up for the change. But there will need to be an education program to explain the system to retail investors. There is still some way to go but blockchain-linked security tokens are likely to eventually become a key part of the financial landscape.

Nothing is Too Big to Fail: How the Last Financial Crisis Informs Today

By Kerry Killinger and Linda Killinger

Simon & Schuster, $22, 568 pages, ISBN9780795353031

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic the financial system was developing dangerous cracks, according to the authors of Nothing Is Too Big To Fail. As senior bankers with experience on the regulatory side, they study the financial meltdown of 2008 for lessons. While regulators have done much to strengthen the banking system there has been an alarming growth in the ‘shadow’ finance system of pension funds, disintermediated loan providers, and even technology corporates. The outcome has been an alarming increase in debt, built around speculative bubbles in the stock market and the real estate sector. Killinger and Killinger see comparable troubles in China, abetted by a lack of transparency in government decisions.

There is also the constant problem of Washington’s spiralling spending on social programs and tax cuts. In an appendix to the book the authors discuss the stimulus packages connected to the pandemic, which might have been necessary but made the US economy even more leveraged and fragile.

Dealing with these problems will involve hard decisions, with an emphasis on paying down debt at all levels and extending regulatory oversight further into the non-bank finance sector. It will be a tough haul but it would be better than the alternatives.

Sustainability Accounting and Accountability (3rd edition)

By Matias Laine, Helen Tregidga and Jeffrey Unerman

Taylor & Francis, $105, 300 pages, ISBN 9781032023106

This book is designed as a textbook for advanced students but would be of interest to any finance professional who wants to know more about sustainability reporting. Nearly all large corporates now have some form of sustainability reporting, according to the authors, but there is a great variety of purpose, substance, format and utility. Lane, Tregidga and Unerman review the various frameworks available, especially the Global Reporting Initiative and the Task Force for Climate-Related Financial Disclosure. These are useful but each company has to tailor its reporting to the specific circumstances and the demands of its stakeholders. The authors support moves towards standards and guidelines but they argue that regulation in this area requires a light touch.

There are chapters dealing with specific issues such as accounting for climate change and weather events, biodiversity, water management, human rights and inequality. Reporting about these issues should not only deal with recent activities but future challenges and strategies for meeting them.

Lane, Tregidga and Unerman believe that there is still much work to do in this area but they see progress being made. In any case, sustainability reporting will continue to be a growing field. After all, what gets measured gets managed.

On a winter’s night a traveller

Appearing in The Sunlight Press, November 2021

Winter in Sokcho
By Elisa Shua Dusapin (translated from French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins)
Open Letter, 160 pages, $14.95

For bi-racial people there can be a sense of dislocation, of being in a culture but not completely of it. The feeling looms large in the novel Winter in Sokcho. Both Dusapin and the un-named narrator are French-Korean, looking for roots they might never really find. If there is an aura of alienation there is also a sense of heightened observation, the awareness that comes from being the outsider looking in.

The setting is the town of Sokcho, on the eastern coast of South Korea, not far from the border with North Korea. In the summertime Sokcho is a bustling seaside resort; in winter it is desolate and half-frozen, a town waiting for time to pass. Likewise, the narrator, who works as the manager-cook at a faded, rundown guesthouse, is waiting. But for what? She does not know. Her social life consists of a desultory relationship with a boyfriend who wants to move to Seoul and tetchy contact with her mother, who runs a fish stall. When the boyfriend departs she does not even say goodbye.

Her equilibrium – or perhaps stagnation – is upset by the arrival of Kerrand, a French artist (he draws severely aesthetic comic books) who is looking for inspiration. He asks her to show him around, which she does, in a half-hearted way. There is not much to see, and little to talk about. Even a trip to the border with North Korea reveals only a bare landscape, with a shroud of fog. But her interest in him grows. Perhaps she sees in him the French father she never knew, perhaps he represents a means for her to move out of her ever-deepening rut.

Or maybe he is a way for her to simply make a decision. In this way she represents the fundamental questions facing South Korea: whether to be a country that looks forward or one that looks back, whether it is Western or Asian, whether it will be a peacemaker or a warrior. This ambiguity is summed up in a scene where the narrator’s mother makes her buy a traditional hanbok dress for Seollal, the Korean New Year. The narrator agrees to wear it but comments that it makes her look obese.

What she wants is to be truly seen, for herself and not as a social oddity. And in the end, her wish is granted, in a conclusion that is quietly satisfying, as well as a bit surprising.

All this is told in poetic, crystalline prose, and it is no wonder that the novel won two prestigious prizes, the Prix Robert Walser and the Prix Régine Desforges. Translating it from the original French must have been a trial but Higgins has captured the sense of detail and division that defines both the setting and the central character.

We have all known a Sokcho, we have all felt that complex sense of wanting to leave and needing to stay. Dusapin has captured that here, in a novel that is both intimate and beautiful.