• Books and reading

    Living treasures: ‘Living Planet: The Web of Life’ by David Attenborough

    In my view naturalist, author and broadcaster David Attenborough is a living treasure. For decades he has brought the astonishing stories of our natural world to living rooms across the globe through his beautifully produced television documentaries. Now there is a narrative version in his trilogy of books Life. Living Planet: The Web of Life is the second in the series.

    I admit that I am usually more drawn to stories about people in my non-fiction reading. However, Attenborough’s fascinating insights into the ways in which organisms, insects, plants, animals, reptiles and birds adapt to the many different environments on our planet drew me in. There is plenty of drama, humour and mystery, told in the author’s infectiously enthusiastic style.

    The book answers intriguing questions such as:

    Why do elephant seals stop their battles with each other once a year, while they grow new hair?

    How do seagulls perch on icebergs without their featherless feet and legs freezing?

    How do giant worms with no mouths or gut, survive in jets of hot water, deep on the ocean floor?

    Why are holes in trees of the northern forests fought over like Sydney houses at an auction?

    Why are ants like dairy farmers?

    Why is a sparrow’s heart twice the size of a mouse’s?

    How can a female cichlid fish be likened to a pastry cook icing a cake?

    The text is supported by sections of stunning photographs in the style we have come to associate with Attenborough’s work.

    Attenborough’s deep concern for the future of our planet and its amazing biodiversity underlies the narrative and his final statement sums it up:

    As far as we can tell, our planet is the only place in all the black immensities of the universe where life exists. We are alone in space. And the continued existence of life now rests in our hands.

    Living Planet: The Web of Life p292

    Living Planet: The Web of Life is published by William Collins, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers, in October 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Non-Fiction Reading Challenge 2021: Done

    In this year’s Non-Fiction Reading Challenge I signed up to read at least 6 books across a range of categories. So far I have ticked off 13 books.

    These included memoir, biography, history, true crime, and indigenous cultures.

    Some were by Australian authors; some were published in 2021; some were older titles I had not read before.

    Most surprising read?
    One Last Dance: My Life in Mortuary Scrubs and G-Strings by Emma Jane Holmes: fascinating insight into two contrasting worlds – the funeral industry and exotic dancing.

    Most heartfelt read?
    Daughter of the River Country by Dianne O’Brien with Sue Williams – a troubling but ultimately hopeful story of a Yorta Yorta woman’s childhood and her journey of discovery of herself and her people.

    Most lyrical read?
    Ten Thousand Aftershocks by Michelle Tom – the story of family fractures woven together with the trauma of living through the Christchurch earthquake.

    Best history read?
    There are two: both exploring hidden aspects of Australian history
    People of the River – by Grace Karskens, and
    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka by Clare Wright

    Laugh-out-loud read?
    Flash Jim by Kel Richards – a startling story of colonial recidivism and a unique take on early Australian language.

    Thanks to Shelleyrae at Book’d Out for hosting the 2021 Non Fiction Reading Challenge this year.

  • Books and reading,  History

    Rebellious women: ‘The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka’ by Clare Wright

    One part of Australia that I especially love is the goldfields region of Victoria. Rich in history, with picturesque villages like Maldon and bustling towns like Ballarat, it has heritage and physical beauty aplenty. The legendary Eureka Stockade understandably has pride of place in the folklore of the region. So it was with interest that I began The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka, which won the 2014 Stella Prize and was short- and long-listed for a swag of others.

    Of course I expected it to be about the role that women played in the famous rebellion that occurred in December, 1854; to my pleasure it was about much more as well. The books paints a vivid picture of the phenomena that were the Victorian gold rushes of the mid nineteenth century, and what drew a diverse community from all over the world and all walks of life to try their luck in the chaos, hope and heartache of the goldfields.

    Unlike many other works examining this period, in this book, the women take centre stage – those who accompanied their menfolk, those who came independently, those who had children or bore babies in the mining camps, those who ran businesses, those who prospered and those who suffered.

    Also included is some of the story of the contact between gold seekers and the Wathaurung, the original inhabitants of the country around Ballarat, which was rapidly changed from ancestral homelands to pastoral land and then, almost overnight, to a frontier town.

    In this account we can clearly see the social, political, environmental, economic and emotional factors that contributed to the tinder-dry circumstances on the diggings, that needed only a spark to ignite the all-out conflict between the mining community and the colonial authorities.

    The addictive nature of gold mining, the disparity in results (creating both great wealth but also terrible poverty), the inequitable impositions of the government and police on the diggers, the brutality of life on the diggings, all built towards the sickening violence that occurred at dawn on that fateful day.

    And present and active through it all, were women. The author highlights a number who were to play key roles, but also emphasises the many other, nameless women who were there – ‘right beside {the men}, inside the Stockade, when the bullets started to fly.’

    It’s fascinating stuff, made poignant by an epilogue in which the eventual fates of the ‘main characters’ of the story are outlined – some who went on to live happy or successful lives, others dogged by tragedy or hardship.

    This book certainly made me think about the Eureka Stockade, one of Australia’s ‘foundation legends’, differently, and to see the connections between the experiences of women there and on the goldfields more generally, with later political and suffrage rights campaigns.

    {The} nuggets of evidence that women’s political citizenship was being advocated in Australia as early as 1856 are significant. They place the genesis of women’s rights activism in that gold rush community of adventurers, risk-takers, speculators and freedom fighters who struggled for the more famous civic liberties often said to be at the heart of Australia’s democratic tradition.

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka p453

    The Forgotten Rebels of Eureka was published by Text Publishing in 2013

  • Books and reading

    True crime finally solved: ‘Stalking Claremont’ by Bret Christian

    A genre that I enjoy (but for some reason tend to regard as a guilty pleasure) is true crime, particularly the police procedural type of non-fiction. I enjoy the ‘behind the scenes’ feeling when learning of the ins and outs of a major crime investigation. Stalking Claremont is just such a book. The author, Bret Christian, worked as a newspaper journalist and publisher in the areas of Perth in which the Claremont serial killer operated, so the events of 1996-1997, and the subsequent drawn out investigation, would have been of great interest to him.

    In 1996 eighteen year old Sarah Spiers disappeared outside a Claremont nightclub and was never seen again. Four months later, Jane Rimmer disappeared from the same area. Her body was later found in bushland. In 1997 a third young woman, Ciara Glennon, was murdered. A manhunt ensued and the district went from being Perth’s party-central to living in fear that the killer would strike again.

    Christian describes the ups and downs of what became Australia’s longest and most expensive investigation. Police failed to make an arrest, until forensic evidence pointed to Bradley Edwards and linked him with at least two of several other attacks that had occurred in the Claremont area. He was found guilty of two of the murders in September 2020 – more than two decades after Sarah’s disappearance.

    The book outlines the missteps that were made: valuable clues overlooked; a tunnel-vision focus on three men as ‘persons of interest’ in spite of no physical evidence linking any of them to the crimes, resulting in great distress and trauma to the men and their families; a failure to link earlier attacks on other young women with the later murders; and careless record keeping which resulted in earlier mistakes being copied over and thus distorting information for later investigative teams to work with.

    Once they discovered the ongoing errors, a startling notion hit the two men, What if these mistakes meant a vital piece of forensic evidence had been missed? One that cracked the case?
    That brought excitement, but also trepidation. Big police forces are no different from any other political beast, bureaucracies where reputations are jealously protected and promotions coveted.

    Stalking Claremont p224-225

    However, Christian does give credit where it’s due. His admiration for the work of specialist forensic and cold case review investigators is clear, as is his regard for Supreme Court Justice Stephen Hall, who presided over the judge-only trial, parts of which were held during Covid-imposed restrictions. The killer was found because of the incredibly detailed work of the forensic experts and long hours, days, months and years of grunt work by detectives assigned to the case. Edwards may well have thought, after a decade or so had passed, that he had ‘got away with’ his crimes, so I confess I had a thrill to think of how he must have felt when he was finally arrested.

    Several things stood out for me in this book. In two of the cases under investigation, people admitted hearing a woman’s blood-curdling and distressed screams in the middle of the night – and did nothing! I’m amazed and horrified that anyone could hear unexplained screams and not, at the very least, pick up the phone to report their concerns to police.

    Also of note is the role that local businesses, local and state governments can play in improving safety and security for residents and patrons. For example, if improvements in public transport, taxi services, CCTV cameras and street lighting had been made earlier, some of the young women may still be alive. Such prosaic measures don’t hold the same allure as forensics or crime scene investigators – but surely it’s better to prevent terrible crimes being committed in the first place?

    Stalking Claremont is an engrossing examination of a high profile and complex campaign to catch and convict a serial killer. Readers who enjoy true crime and police stories will find it is a detailed examination of a case that absorbed so much police time, resources, public attention and of course, caused enormous grief and trauma for all involved.

    Stalking Claremont is published by HarperCollins Australia in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

  • Books and reading

    Looking at our world a little differently: ‘Factfulness’ by Dr Hans Rosling with Ola Rosling & Anna Rosling Ronnland

    This book is subtitled ‘Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are better Than You Think’. I must admit, it was a welcome breath of fresh air after a year in which it’s been hard to feel anything except pessimism about global and national issues – climate change, searing bushfires, floods, warfare, reports of poverty, child abuse, and the rise of populist, authoritarian regimes. Add a global pandemic into the mix and it’s little wonder that most people, if asked whether the world is getting safer, healthier, fairer, would answer a resounding ‘No!’

    Rosling, who sadly died of cancer in 2017, was a respected physician, epidemiologist, teacher and author. Rosling realised that even highly educated people and experts in particular fields, could not correctly answer a number of simple fact based questions about global levels of poverty and income, child mortality, education, life expectancy and so on. Indeed, on some measures, he found that the more educated a person was, the more likely they were to give an incorrect answer. He also noticed that the incorrect answers given tended to be on the more pessimistic or gloomy end of the scale.

    Rosling was troubled by this, because these misconceptions are also held by people in charge of policy setting and decision making across national and international bodies. He decided that what was needed was to better communicate the available data to people at all levels and in all walks of life. His general approach is that the world is making progress, and that policy decisions should be grounded in data; not ideology, outdated information, or misconceptions.

    Together with his son and daughter-in-law, he wrote Factfulness, which addresses these worldwide misconceptions and ignorance about human progress. The book presents data, available from reputable sources such as the World Health Organisation, the United Nations and the World Bank, but it does more than that.

    Rosling explores some of the reasons why people so often think the world is getting worse. He explains these as ten basic instincts that stop us from thinking clearly about a subject: among them are the fear instinct, the negativity instinct and the blame instinct. For each one of these natural and common instincts, he offers insights and ways in which we can train ourselves to think more ‘factfully’.

    If all this sounds a bit dry or tedious, let me assure you it’s anything but. The data is presented in a compelling and even entertaining way, in part due to his liberal use of personal anecdotes from his own experiences and career. The ‘bubble graphs’ employed throughout help turn a series of hard-to-grasp numbers into colourful and simple visuals that explain everything from the link between income levels and family size, and the surprising distributions of wealth within and between the richest and the poorest countries on Earth.

    Each chapter has a short, intriguing preface, such as:

    How more survivors means fewer people, how traffic accidents are like cavities, and why my grandson is like the population of the world. Factfulness p75

    Be less stressed by the imaginary problems of an over dramatic world, and more alert to the real problems and how to solve them.

    Factfulness p241

    Rosling argues that there are five global risks we should worry about: a global pandemic; financial collapse; world war; climate change; extreme poverty. Given our recent experiences of Covid-19, the global financial crisis, the two devastating world wars of the twentieth century, the changes occurring now due to climate change, and the persistence of extreme poverty despite all the gains made in the past fifty years or so, it’s hard to argue with Rosling’s summation here.

    Rosling describes himself not as an ‘optimist’ or a ‘pessimist’, but as a ‘possibilist’. He believes that the world can be both bad and getting better. He advocates an approach of curiosity about new information, that ideas should be tested, and that we should all listen to opposing ideas or arguments.

    To find out more about the work and ideas of Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Ronnland, visit the website of Gapminder, a not- for- profit educational foundation that continues and progresses their work in addressing global misconceptions.

    Dollar Street is a tool on the Gapminder site which allows you to explore how people at different income levels across the world live, by using photos and videos, illustrating how basic human needs (such as shelter, food, sanitation, transport) are provided for. We can see that everyday life for people on similar income levels looks surprisingly similar across different places and cultures. The viewer can ‘meet’ a family, learn about their home, their work, children, hopes and dreams; giving a more realistic picture of human experience across the globe and showing that income affects daily life as much as do culture and nationality. I imagine that Dollar Street would be a very useful addition to teachers’ resources in schools and colleges.

    Hans Rosling gave many lectures and talks across the world, including this TED Talk in 2006.

    Factfulness was published in 2018 by Sceptre.

  • Books and reading

    Riveting memoir: ‘Honey Blood’ by Kirsty Everett

    As a twice-over cancer survivor, I should not have been bothered by the descriptions of chemo administered in a cancer ward, but I wasn’t prepared for being plunged into Honey Blood’s opening scenes of horrifying travails endured by young cancer patients.

    Kirsty’s story is both awful and inspirational: diagnosed with leukaemia at the age of nine, her hopes of pursuing a competitive gymnastics career are instantly dashed. She describes the treatments she underwent in enough detail to immerse the reader in the world of the sick child; but we also read about the other, more normal aspects of growing up in suburban Sydney: sibling squabbles, school, homework, parents.

    She makes very clear how important it is for the cancer patient to receive professional care that is both skilful and compassionate – and how this can vary from practitioner to practitioner – often with terrible results, which Kirsty nonetheless managed to confront with patience and dignity beyond her young years.

    It’s gobsmacking to read of the incredible insensitivity of some people with whom she came into contact, including a teacher at her school, a doctor, and some classmates. I became enraged at the outright cruelty of a mother of a child who displayed appalling behaviour towards a young, ill, vulnerable girl.

    Kristy’s story shows that the environments in which patients are treated – including the interpersonal and emotional as well as the medical – really do matter.

    Later, when she receives her second diagnosis, she’s in her mid- teens, facing all the everyday teenage concerns, joys and insecurities. As if they weren’t enough she also has to deal with traumas of heavy-duty cancer treatment and the worry that, after it all, she may not survive.

    She turned her experiences to fund raising efforts for children’s cancer research. I can only admire that determination for her troubles to make a difference in the lives of other youngsters.

    Her story is inspirational, occasionally funny, and imbued with hard-won wisdom. Her approach is beautifully summed up here:

    Ask me ‘What’s the worst thing about cancer?’, and my answer is ‘People.’ Ask me, ‘What’s the best thing about cancer?’ and my answer is ‘People.’ We have the capacity to make life better and we also have the capacity to make life worse. We have all the power – it’s up to us how we choose to use it.

    Honey Blood, p164

    Honey Blood will be published by HarperCollins Australia in February 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a copy to review.

    #2021ReadNonFic
    #AWW2021
    #AussieAuthor21

  • Books and reading,  History

    Thought-provoking: ‘Land’ by Simon Winchester

    The new book by prolific non fiction author Simon Winchester takes a sweeping look at the topic of land in a broad sense. Subtitled How the hunger for ownership shaped the modern world, the book’s opening introduces the author’s personal take on his ownership of a piece of land in northeastern USA, and in the process introduces the sorry history of the dispossession of the First Nations people in that corner of America.

    Coming back to fundamentals, the author then tells the story of how the Earth was first measured; a tale of mathematics and precise instruments put to the task in the nineteenth century.

    Then came the astonishing proposal to create a common map of the world – ‘a common map for a common humanity’ – put forward by Professor Albrecht Penck, an Austrian geographer. It was not surprising to learn that this project, embarked upon with such lofty idealism, was a fraught endeavour that eventually foundered on the rocks of divisions, rancour, rivalry and ineptitude after nearly a century of effort.

    Winchester examines what makes borders; how human-created borders have resulted in absurdities and bloodshed; how in more recent times and with huge effort, the Dutch created land to live on and farm from the North Sea; the link between land and national identity and ways of doing things.

    He returns to America to recount the brutal disgrace of settler land grabs and broken treaties in the westward movement of the nineteenth century; then explains the legacies of enclosure laws and clearances in England and Scotland; the effects of colonialism in various parts of the world including Australia, New Zealand, the African continent, India and Pakistan and the Middle East.

    The book is full of startling snippets of information like this:

    A quarter of the world’s population lives on land in which, though individual citizens may not know it, they exist in a notionally feudal relationship with the British Crown.

    Land p195

    That quote alone should fire up the passions of supporters of the idea of Australia becoming a republic!

    Almost every part of the world is included in the embrace of this book: from the Ukraine (Stalin’s disastrous and murderous ‘collectivisation’ of farms in the 1930’s), to the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII; the contradictions and confusions of the Treaty of Waitangi, struck with New Zealand’s Maoris; and the destruction caused by industrialisation and exploitation of the Earth’s resources across the globe.

    Winchester argues that the once firmly held belief that ‘land is the only thing that lasts’ is no longer true, due to rising sea levels and encroachment on low lying regions and islands. He offers examples of changing attitudes and methods of managing and conserving land, including from my own part of the world, Australia: widespread catastrophic bushfires in the summer of 2019-20 have led to a re-think of fire management and a growing respect for traditional ‘cool burning’ methods practised here for thousands of years by First Nations people.

    Land is an engrossing and thought provoking read. Readers who enjoy learning about history, geography, maps, as well as the contradictions of human behaviour, will enjoy the mix of anecdote and analysis with which Winchester packs a lot of information into a very readable package.

    Land is published by William Collins, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, in January 2021.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.

  • Books and reading

    Welcome 2021: New reading challenges

    As noted in an earlier post, 2020 was (apart from everything else that was so very wrong about it) a bumper reading year for me. I embark on the new year in a spirit of optimism that I’ll be able to keep up my reading to similar levels, and to that end I am once again signing up for several reading challenges.

    First, the 2021 Non Fiction Reader Challenge. I’ll opt for the Non Fiction Nibbler category, in which I’ll aim to read 6 non fiction books from any of the Challenge’s 12 categories.

    The Australian Women’s Writers Challenge is one I have participated in for several years now, and as the majority of books I read do tend to be by Australian women, I’m confident of meeting the target of the Franklin challenge, which is to read 10 books (and review at least 6 of them)

    The Aussie Author Challenge overlaps with the AWW Challenge, except books can be by male and female authors. In 2021 my goal is to reach the Kangaroo level, where I’ll have read 12 books (4 by male, 4 by female, 4 by authors new to me, and across at least 3 different genres).

    I’m adding a new challenge for 2021: the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, which I’m pretty sure will be a shoo-in as I adore historical fiction. I’ll read at least two books set in the 20th Century and five set in Victorian times for this one.

    A personal challenge of mine, begun a few years ago, is to read as many books by First Nations authors as I can. It’s a delight to see so many wonderful works being published nowadays so this one is indeed a pleasure.

    Whatever else 2021 might bring, I do hope it’s a year of entering new worlds, different times and places, adventure, mystery, love and warfare, faith and hope – all through the pages of some great books.

    Happy New Year everyone.

    Image by Magda Ehlers at pexels

    #2021ReadNonFic
    #AWW2021
    #AussieAuthor21
    #histficchallenge

  • Books and reading

    Pocket sized book with a timely message: ‘Anti Racist Ally: An introduction to action & activism’ by Sophie Williams

    This is literally a pocket sized book. Don’t let its diminutive size fool you, though. At a time when painful truths about racism in the past and the present are being confronted world-wide, Anti Racist Ally gives some sound advice for anyone who wants to be able to do more than watch #BlackLivesMatter protests on TV news or bemoan the shocking rates of Black deaths in custody.

    Sophie Williams also explains some current terminology in the discussion of race relations and racism: intersectionality, institutional and structural racism, the race pay gap, emotional labour, racial gaslighting and others.

    And it deals with some common myths: racism is over, it’s not the right time to act, we shouldn’t talk about racism with children, I can’t be racist because my best friend / girlfriend / boss is Black, to name a few.

    Each idea is discussed in short, pithy segments, ideal for absorbing quickly so that we can apply them in our own lives.

    If the human world is to stamp out the cancer of racism, it is up to all of us to speak up, to have difficult conversations when required, to recognise racism in all its forms (both overt and subtle), to support individuals and organisations who fight racism. In other words, to be an ally. It’s not necessary to be an ‘activist’, just to act when we see or hear racism around us.

    Anti Racist Ally is a little book big on information, suggestions and inspiration for everyone to help build a better world.

    Anti Racist Ally is published by Harper Collins Publishers in October 2020.
    My thanks to the publishers for a review copy.