Category Archives: Non Fiction

Eggshell Skull

Memoir about working for and seeking justice in the Australian legal system

Content warning: sexual assault, trauma, mental illness, eating disorders, sexism

I’ve mentioned a couple of times a book club we kicked off at my work where we put together a list of books and everyone read as many as they could. There was a bit of a flurry of book lending, and this is another book I borrowed from a colleague. Unfortunately I hadn’t been able to see the author speak in Canberra last year, so I only had a general idea of what the book is about.

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“Eggshell Skull” by Bri Lee is a memoir about a law graduate who wins a prestigious job working as an associate for a Queensland Supreme Court judge. Initially, Bri is focused on trying to do a good job, to not be intimidated by the other associates and to forge a positive relationship with the judge. However, as she is exposed to more and more criminal matters through her work, especially sexual assault matters, Bri finds it harder and harder to ignore the trauma of being a survivor of sexual assault herself. Increasingly disheartened by the daily reality of how rarely perpetrators are convicted, and constantly reminded of what happened to her, Bri finds herself drinking and her bulimia worsening. Eventually she realises that unless she reports the crime that happened to her and tries her luck in a system hostile towards victims, she will never be able to move forward.

This is an excellent memoir that approaches an extremely fraught area of justice from two unique perspectives: an officer of the court, and a victim of crime. By comparing these two experiences, Lee is able to shine a keen light on the barriers to people seeking justice via the courts and how substantial those barriers were, even for someone so literate in the justice system. Lee explains how the justice system expects a perfect victim and that how, even today, it is so common for victims to be blamed for the crimes committed against them. She particularly examines the impact his has on women, who are already known to be much more likely to experience crimes such as sexual assault and domestic violence than men. Lee also explains how unnavigable the legal system can be, how traumatising it is to have to have your story told and scrutinised over and over, and the stress of having to face your assailant in court.

At the very beginning of this book when I realised it was a memoir of a judge’s associate, I initially had a bit of an internal eye-roll. Having also been a law student (though admittedly a far more mediocre one than Lee), I’ll be honest – I was expecting a bit of a stereotype. However, I very quickly realised that any preconceptions I had were vastly misguided. Lee is incredibly down-to-earth and self-deprecating and has a real flair for explaining complex legal concepts in plain English that, to be frank, the legal sector desperately needs and will sorely miss. She is a very relatable narrator and as a reader, it is very easy to empathise with her desire to succeed, her struggle to overcome barriers and her journey towards a fulfilling career.

As an increasingly popular genre, I frequently reflect on whether the author has reached a balance of enough or too much information in their memoir. I think that Lee has the balance just right. She is unflinchingly honest about the impact her trauma has on her mental, emotional and physical wellbeing and details her difficulties with her eating disorder and intimacy in painful detail. However, sometimes you can tell a lot by what an author doesn’t say, and I felt like there wasn’t a superfluous sentence in the entire book. This is a book that deals with plethora of sensitive and private issues, and Lee carefully omits unnecessary personal details about the perpetrator, the judge she works for and family members while still providing strong characterisation.

I legitimately don’t have any negative things to say about this book and it is hands down the best book I have read this year so far. It is well-known that the justice system as it is is ill-equipped to deal with sexual crimes. While nobody has quite found the solution, Lee’s book goes a long way towards identifying the specific problems that the very well-educated and privileged people who often find themselves administering justice may not necessarily be aware of.

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No Friend But the Mountains

Memoir of an asylum seeker in indefinite detention

I borrowed a copy of this book from a colleague. We had a bit of an office book club, and this was one our master list of books to discuss. This book garnered a significant amount of attention after publication for many reasons, but there were two that really stuck with me. First was that this book was written text message by text message over WhatsApp and then painstakingly translated. It is an enormous amount of work to write a book with the luxury of a laptop, but to type one out on a mobile phone is nothing short of remarkable. Second was that the author won two extremely prestigious awards in Australia, but due to being detained on Manus Island, was unable to accept the awards in person. Needless to say, this was a book I very much wanted to read.

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“No Friend But the Mountains” by Behrouz Boochani and translated by Omid Tofighian is a literary memoir about Boochani’s experiences as an asylum seeker in detention centre on Manus Island. The book begins by detailing harrowing attempts by Boochani and other asylum seekers to travel to Australia by boat, and the impact of failed attempts on the safety and morale of passengers. Eventually, after another dangerous attempt, Boochani’s boat is intercepted by Australian authorities and he is transported to Christmas Island before being transferred to Manus Island. Once there, it becomes clear that this is not likely to be a temporary stay. As time stretches on and the prisoners endure competition for access to food and facilities, tension from the guards and local Papuans and ultimately violence, Boochani begins to try to understand the logic behind the centre.

As we enter our 7th year of offshore detention policy, this is a critically important book. I’m going to break the fourth wall for a moment here and say that this is a very difficult review for me to write. Our media and political discourse has been dominated by polarised opinions about how best to manage the phenomenon of asylum seekers who attempt to travel to Australia by boat from Indonesia, and I have and continue to have a lot to say on the topic. However, I think that I need to set that aside for the purposes of this review and focus instead on Boochani’s book. The primary reason for this, aside from it being the subject of this review, is that I feel that largely the voices of people who are in offshore detention are excluded from discussion about the policies that directly impact them.

The translator, Tofighian, spends a long time before the book begins outlining some of the history of Iranian literature and the theories that Boochani has developed to try to understand the mechanism of offshore detention and the way the centre itself is run. This was invaluable later in the book to help understand Boochani’s unique style of prose intermingled with poetry and the broader implications of what is described as “Manus Prison Theory” and the “Kyriarchal system“. Boochani argues that the prison is deliberately run to cause conflict among the prisoners and between the prisoners and guards, and the availability of food, toilets, showers and any form of entertainment is deliberately limited to cause stress and hopelessness.

Boochani’s intellectualism oozes from the pages, and emphasises the self-awareness of people in offshore detention. Boochani wryly acknowledges that the difference between him being taken to Manus Island and him being assessed on mainland Australia was nothing more than a matter of days. Boochani styles himself as largely an observer of the prison dynamics, however he is ultimately never able to forget his status as a detainee and is never able to completely isolate himself from the pain his fellow detainees feel. In fact, this heightened and overwhelming sense of empathy between his efforts to rationalise what is happening is what really makes this book. The interludes of poetry, although I would hardly consider myself an authority on poetry, is where Boochani does what I feel that Australia has largely failed to do: highlight the humanity of the people on Manus Island.

I think that the main thing I struggle with about this book was a criticism I often level at memoir. In this case, it was Boochani’s decision not to explain in detail his personal circumstances that led him to flee Iran, and his decision not to explain the thought-process and mechanics of paying someone to take him to Australia by boat. I completely understand that there may be sensitivities around divulging this information, not just for Boochani’s safety but for people who may have assisted him. However, I did feel that given the strength of the rest of the book in building empathy and understanding, this was somewhat of a wasted opportunity. I won’t descend into a lecture about the legal status of refugees in the countries between Iran and Australia or the availability of rights and resettlement in Indonesia, but I felt that a by being a bit more frank about these issues Boochani’s book may have addressed some of the most frequent criticisms leveled at asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, this is a necessary book that brings a much-needed perspective to an issue that my country has been fighting over for years. Boochani has a strong, haunting voice and I think that this is a book that not only should be read by as many people as possible, but one that has and will continue to leave a mark on Australian literary history.

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Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life

Non-fiction about how to deal with the worst day of your life

Content warning: death, trauma

I first read this author after I started listening to her podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3“. There had been quite a lot of talk about her new non-fiction work coming out, and I was very lucky to get a copy courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life” by Leigh Sales is a non-fiction book about life-changing events. After experiencing a close-call herself, Sales decides to investigate the likelihood of experiencing a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or even cancer, how we survive them and how we cope with the grief to move on with our lives.

Sales has a methodical style of writing and systematically applies logic to the problem of unexpected disasters to determine how likely it is something like that could happen to you. Although Sales is very cautious about applying research and reason to everything in her book, she writes with warmth and sensitivity. Sales interviews many people about the extremely personal topic of grief and the things that helped them through, including a survivor of the Lindt Cafe Siege. I think my favourite part of the book was towards the end where Sales explores the types of worldviews and personality traits that make someone more resilient to coping with trauma and grief. I also really liked Sales’ exploration of the importance of having someone accompany you when you go to see the body of a loved one, to guide you through the process of understanding death.

Although there were lots of things about this book that I found really interesting, I think there was something about the approach of this book that I fundamentally disagreed with. I think it is to do with the beginning of the book, where Sales walks the reader through an ordinary day, and asks them to imagine a blindside, an unexpected tragic event that they never expected to happen to them. Sales interviews a woman who suffered the double-whammy of being a survivor of the Lindt Cafe Siege as well as being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I felt like a lot of the beginning of the book was spent trying to understand why people are ‘victims of misfortune’, especially multiple misfortunes. How it is that extraordinarily bad things can happen to good people?

I found it surprising that Sales, who is otherwise such a rationalist, had such an anthropocentric view of these ‘events’. That somehow there must be a connection between cancer and a natural disaster and a violent gun attack. Sales tries to apply a number of different academic approaches to understand the connection, and I really felt like that it was an act of futility trying to calculate the odds that someone would be involved in a hostage situation and would also be diagnosed with an incurable disease. I felt that at the beginning of the book, there was a lot of why, why, why? To me, however, it seemed clear that the common denominator of all of these things has nothing to do with the cause, and everything to do with the impact.

There are so many kinds of illnesses and natural disasters and accidents, why wouldn’t someone experience an event or a diagnosis or a loss that results in grief? Even the religious people that Sales interviewed had a great deal of pragmatism about this. They hadn’t been singled out by the universe, it was just something that happened. Why not them? When Sales starts to explore what it is that makes people more resilient to traumatic events, it definitely seems like the people who are asking questions like “what if” and “why me” find traumatic events far more difficult to deal with than those who accepted that grief is a part of the human condition. Anyway, I realise I’ve gone on about this for a while now, but I felt that maybe some of the solution could have influenced the beginning of the book a little better. Plus, I would have liked Sales to go into far more depth about black swan events, uncertainty and the idea that hindsight has 20-20 vision.

The truth is, although we can’t predict what kind of grief we will experience, it is almost a certainty that we will experience grief of some kind and I think that overall, this is an important and useful book that unpacks what it takes to make it through trauma and grief. While I found the beginning of the book felt like it was asking the wrong questions, by the end of the book I felt like it was providing the right answers.

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Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, Resilience and What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life – Amazon Australia

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Dear Santa

I received this book as part of a work Kris Kringle. As Christmas was drawing near, I thought it was just the time to read it (even if this review is a little belated). Proceeds from sales go towards cancer research and none of the authors were paid, so it was definitely a book bought for a good cause.

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“Dear Santa” edited by Samuel Johnson OAM and illustrated by Shaun Tan is a collection of letters by many well-known Australians addressed, of course, to Santa. With the likes of Leigh Sales, Helen Garner, Deborah Mailman, Missy Higgins and Shaun Micallef, each of the 68 contributors revisits the Santa of their childhoods through the eyes of an adult. Some letters are long, some are succinct, some are cynical, some are hopeful, some are downright desperate. Many seek the basics of sleep or the simplicity of sweets. Many call for bigger gifts like world peace, a treaty and relief from the drought.

This is a lovely little book that would make a brilliant Christmas coffee table book. Although ostensibly about Santa, it takes thoughts from a broad selection of Australians on the state of the country, where we’ve come from and where we are heading. Definitely aimed at an older audience, there are plenty of witticisms and astute observations peppered throughout.

This book probably lends itself more to flicking through or picking up and reading at random than it does reading from cover to cover. I sat down one evening with a gin and tonic and dark chocolate and did exactly that, and after a while the letters start to blur together a little (it wasn’t the gin, I swear).

Nevertheless, a lovely seasonal book for an excellent cause. Keep an eye out for next Christmas.

Dear Santa

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River Queens: Saucy boat, stout mates, spotted dog, America

Memoir about a gay American couple, their restored river boat and their dog

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author.

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“River Queens: Saucy boat, stout mates, spotted dog, America” by Alexander Watson is a memoir about a couple, Alexander and Dale, who decide to restore a luxurious wooden motor yacht. Together with their dalmatian Doris Faye, the pair embark on a physical and emotional journey first getting the boat seaworthy, and second taking it out on the Arkansas, Tennessee and Ohio Rivers. Along the way they meet the unique characters who make a living operating marinas and locks and maintaining boats.

This is a lovely book. Watson captures the domestic dynamic between Alexander and Dale in a beautiful way: creative and tempestuous Alexander draws on his experience from antiques and quiet and reliable Dale is the ship’s captain. Doris Faye is the beloved mascot who wins over every stranger. Watson has an engaging writing style and brings everyone they meet on the river to life. As someone from Australia, which is (at least among Anglo-Australians) a bit of a monoculture, I loved reading about people’s different accents and eccentricities, and the culture of camaraderie along the river. I’ve travelled on river boats a couple of times: a house boat on the Canal du Midi in France, a narrow boat on the Trent & Mersey Canal in the UK and the Clyde River in the USA. It was really nice adding to the little I know with people who have made an idyllic holiday a lifestyle.

A issue I often have with memoir is that I get so engrossed in the story and the people in it, and I find myself wanting to know much more about the “characters” and their lives. As a gay couple travelling the southern states of America, Alexander and Dale occasionally are not met with acceptance, including from their own families. I found myself wanting to know more about their families and their earlier lives, however I have to remind myself that these are real people and perhaps not all their personal details need to be exposed to sate my curiosity. One issue that was very easily solved was that I really wanted a map so I could follow the trio along their journey. It turns out, Watson has just such a map on his website.

This book is a great modern take on a classic American journey and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Only

Memoir about growing up as an only child in post-war Europe

The first I heard of this book was when I went to go see the author speak at the National Library of Australia. As someone from a large family, I have always been a bit curious about the dynamics of a family with only one child, and so I bought a myself a copy and got it signed by the author.

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“Only” by Caroline Baum is a memoir about growing up as an only child with two European parents in England. With Caroline’s successful businessman father an Austrian refugee from the war and her beautiful mother an orphan from tragic circumstances, her elegant yet traumatised parents raise her in an affluent home full of tension and high expectations. As a young adult, the controlled and isolated environment of her childhood becomes stifling and Caroline begins to forge her own life. However, as her relationship with her parents turns increasingly fractious as they age, Caroline finally severs ties with her parents. Resuming contact years later after a tentative olive branch, Caroline soon finds that her relationship with her parents is forever changed.

This is a beautifully written book that weaves together the many themes experienced by  this small but complex family. Baum explores the deep and lasting impact of her parents’ trauma on her family’s unique dynamic, and throughout the book struggles to reconcile with her father’s controlling behaviour against his extreme vulnerability as an older man. Baum is very cognizant of her family’s privilege and her recollections of her extraordinary upbringing are tempered with an awareness that the dinners, schools, clothes and travel were not opportunities available to many people. I also really enjoyed Baum’s recollections of her early days as a journalist, which honestly would have made a great memoir in its own right.

I think the one thing that I felt was missing was a bit more information about Baum’s life in Australia. I think that with any memoir, it’s hard to know what to include and what to exclude. This is a book about being an only child, but I would have liked to have read more about what it is like to be an only child living in another country away from your parents.

A fascinating insight into an elite and insular post-war family, I enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading more of Baum’s work.

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Dark Emu

Captivating non-fiction on Aboriginal agriculture, aquaculture and architecture 

One thing that is no secret is that I have been making an effort to read more books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors over the past two years. I’ve read several novels such as “Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms“, “Pemulwuy: The Rainbow Warrior” and “Terra Nullius“. I’ve also read some non-fiction, most notably “Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia“. Each of these books has had a significant impact on the way that I view this country, and has helped to shed a little more understanding to counteract the misguided or absent knowledge I learned about our first nations people when I was young and failed to take enough steps to correct as an adult. A few people recommended that I read this book, especially after having read “Guns, Germs and Steel“, and I finally bought myself a copy.

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The artwork is a magnet my friend bought for me while working in the Northern Territory. The artist is Susan Wanji Wanji, and her art is available via the Munupi Arts and Crafts Association and Alperstein Designs

“Dark Emu” by Bruce Pascoe is a non-fiction book that compiles records from early white settlers to the continent of Australia to extrapolate a more accurate history of Aboriginal people and their relationship with the land. The book is broken up into several chapters that cover topics including Aboriginal agriculture, aquaculture, population and housing, storage and preservation and fire. Pascoe patiently examines each of his sources going through quotes that refer to Aboriginal grain crops, cuisine, wood and stone housing, penned animals and dams.

You can read my review which is going to be quite long and heated, or you can listen to the far more eloquent speech given by the author himself at the National Library of Australia.

Anyway, to be perfectly frank, any history books currently on the curriculum teaching Aboriginal history should be thrown in the proverbial bin and replaced with “Dark Emu”. Up until this point, for the past 230 years this country has been complacent about the biggest example of collective gaslighting of all time: that Aboriginal people did not manage their land and that Aboriginal people allowed themselves to colonised. Slowly, the fiction has evolved over time. terra nullius morphed into the hunter-gatherer story. The hunter-gatherer story changed to the fire-stick farming story. However, until more recently, Aboriginal people have largely been excluded from telling their own stories and their own histories. Until more recently, people didn’t know about the frontier wars, the truth of the Stolen Generations, or the validity of Aboriginal science.

It must be acknowledged that perpetuating this story of “primitive” Aboriginal people is in the best interests of white Australia. The belief that the people who were already here were not really people, or not as sophisticated as the settlers who arrive, has helped to justify white acquisition of land. As an adult, I have heard stories from people while drinking around campfires of Aboriginal artifacts and burial sites being discovered on farmers’ land and removed and destroyed. When I first heard stories like this, I thought it was through callousness and disrespect that someone would do something like that. However, on reflection and after reading this book, I think that ever since colonisation people have actively destroyed evidence of Aboriginal occupation of land because of the threat of native title.

This book is exceptionally well-researched and Pascoe weaves through a carefully considered commentary and some of his own personal experiences alongside excerpts from diaries and letters of early settlers. The book is meticulously divided into easily accessible sections and I actually found this much, much more readable than the important but relentlessly repetitive “Guns, Germs and Steel”. This is a book that is critically relevant to this country’s past and this country’s future. People ask me from time to time, given the area that I work in but certainly not because of any special personal experience, what I think should be done to create a better future for Aboriginal people in this country. I truly believe that we cannot have a better future until we fully acknowledge the past.

I was desperately sorry that I missed Pascoe’s recent talk at the National Library of Australia, but as I said you can watch it online. I cannot recommend this book more, it is an excellent and necessary edition to Australia’s literary scene and I look forward to seeing the works that emerge from future Aboriginal authors through this newly opened door.

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