Category Archives: Non Fiction

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.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

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

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

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.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

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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.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

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Foot Notes

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

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“Foot Notes” by Benjamin Allmon is a memoir about a last ditch attempt to make it as a musician. Ben records an album, renames himself Smokey and sets on a 1,000km trek from Queensland to Sydney. Smokey sets out full of confidence that he’ll be able to sell albums, walk the whole way and sleep rough without any dramas. However, it quickly becomes clear that his expectations about weather, terrain, performing and even his audience were not even close to reality.

This was a really interesting read about a pretty extraordinary journey. Allmon’s experience walks a line between pilgrimage and homelessness. The only assets he has are his guitar and CDs to sell. He has no tent, no cash and no support aside from friendly strangers he meets along the way. I’ve driven up and down the Princes Highway between Sydney and the Gold Coast more times than I can count, along that hellish road between those north coast towns. A lot of the places Allmon walked through were places that I had visited. Beautiful coastal scenery and towns that are plagued with unemployment. On foot, Allmon observes far more than I ever have out the window of my white sedan on cruise control. More importantly, he observes his own responses to the people that he meets. Elitism is a hard trait to maintain when you’re sleeping under a plastic garbage bag on the beach. I think one of the most important parts about this book is Allmon finding himself through finding his audience.

When reviewing a memoir, it’s always tricky to critique the book without critiquing the author’s experiences. I think that Allmon wrote an incredibly honest story, and for the most part it was pared down to the most interesting and dramatic parts. I think where I really enjoyed Smokey’s interactions with the locals (flora and fauna included), I was a bit lost during some of the passages where Smokey is overcoming physical and emotional hardship. I think the pragmatist in me was very frustrated by scenes such as the crossing of “the Sahara”. I felt like many obstacles could have been avoided with a bit of preparation, and so I think I wasn’t quite as willing to come to the party about how meaningful overcoming them was.

Ultimately though, this book was a pleasant surprise. I would recommend it to anyone who feels like the pursuit of their dreams is getting a bit stale, or anyone who wants to get a good look at life on the north coast through a fresh pair of eyes.

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Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia

Today is the International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples, and it’s a good day to review a book like this. I bought my copy of this book at the Sydney Writers’ Festival, right after I saw a panel of four of the contributors speaking about the book at an event. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to do a write up of this event (or Gay for Page and the one on toxic masculinity) so I’ll just give a bit of overview before I jump into the review, and if you want to hear more you can listen to my podcast episode on the festival.

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The panel was hosted by editor Dr Anita Heiss and also included contributors Marlee Silva, Liza-Mare Syron and Natalie Cromb. Liza-Mare said that she had been waiting for the right fit for her story, whereas Marlee and Natalie were both tagged in the call out. Marlee talked about how one day someone painted colour into here life by pointing out that her dad’s skin colour was different to her. Liza-Mare said that everyone has something to say about your identity when you’re Aboriginal. Natalie said that she was taught that she would have to fight for her place in the world, and would have to work harder than everyone else. The panelists discussed how they feel like as Aboriginal people, they always have to be on their best behaviour and there is a lot of pressure to succeed. Marlee drew on her experiences mentoring Aboriginal kids across the country and said that if you have high expectations for Aboriginal people, they exceed them. They shared so many amazing and very personal stories, many of which are in the book, but I’ll just share some insights from the contributors:

Liza-Mare: Only my community identifies me.

Marlee: We are a culture that has continued for 60,000 years, do you not think we’re sophisticated enough that it’s more than the way we look?

Natalie: Go and read a book, it’s not my job to educate you.

Anita shared that her hope for this book is that it reaches a school audience and that it starts a whole new dialogue with the next generation.

Instead of taking questions, Anita shared a poem from contributor Alice Eather. Alice was born the same year as me, but she didn’t make it to 30. Shortly after submitting her story, she committed suicide. Her family said they wanted it included, and it was a heart-wrenching end to the event. Anita finished by saying in the spirit of reconciliation, the contributors would sign books. I very happily got my books signed by all four women, and I couldn’t wait to read this story.

“Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia” edited by Anita Heiss is an anthology of short autobiographies by 52 Aboriginal people. The contributors are incredibly diverse, young and old, male and female, from the city, from the country. There are some very well-known names in there like Celeste Liddle and Adam Goodes. There are people who are at once ordinary and extraordinary.

There’s no way of going through each of the stories here, so I won’t try. However, I do want to talk about how even though each story is unique and different, there are echoes that resonate across this book of shared experiences. Of families torn apart by the Stolen Generations policies. Of blatant and subtle racism. Of mixed race children feeling neither white enough nor black enough to fit in. Of resilience. Of family. Of kindness. Of stories. Of losing and finding culture. Of connection.

I completely agree with Anita, this book should be taught in schools but I think that all Australians can learn something from this book. This book captures a collection of experiences of growing up in this country that not enough people know about or understand. Reading this book is an exercise in empathy and empathy is a muscle we should never stop exercising.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Short Stories