Category Archives: Non Fiction

The Water Will Come

Non-fiction book about the impact of ocean levels rising

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World” by Jeff Goodell is a non-fiction book about various coastal cities and towns and the impact he predicts rising sea levels will have. Goodell has a particular interest in property, and a lot of his research, analysis and interviews centre on wealthy investors, politicians and property-owners. Goodell visits a number of places around the world to explore how rising sea levels are already impacting the enormous number of people who live on the coast.

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When I read the opening chapter of this book, I thought it was a dystopian novel about a world underwater. However, Goodell only writes the first chapter about that, and the rest of the book is a non-fiction account of high profile interviews primarily about housing. Unfortunately, as a narrative, this book was not particularly compelling. This book is very America-focused, and Goodell spent two chapters talking about Miami and another talking about Alaska. Yes, he did write a bit about Nigeria and the Marshall Islands but this is primarily a Western-centric book about an issue that will disproportionately affect non-Western countries. Island nations like Indonesia, the Maldives and the many Pacific Island countries were just throwaway lines while the reader was left instead to sympathise with the fact that the insanely lucrative practice of flipping houses in Florida may not always be so lucrative.

I didn’t particularly care for the way that Goodell wrote about people of colour either. He uses colonial and outdated terminology, and refers to the “dying languages of Australian aborigines”, “a nearly extinct Aboriginal language” and the Calusa people as being “wiped out”. Even the title of the book is divisive, indicating that Goodell is only interested in the “civilized world”.

A rather one-dimensional take on a global environmental issue, I really wish it had been a dystopian novel. Perhaps a good companion book for “The Mosquito“?

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The Mosquito

History of the impact of mosquito-borne disease on war

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

“The Mosquito: A human history of our deadliest predator” by Timothy C. Winegard is a non-fiction history of the influence mosquitoes and the diseases that they carry have had on humanity. The book encompasses ancient and modern history, and explores the devastating impact of diseases such as malaria on pivotal historical moments. To make sure you don’t think it’s a book about something else (like I did), this is at heart a military history.

I was really excited to read this book, and I loved the opening. Winegard connects with the reader through the universal experience of being annoyed with a mosquito, and provides a play by play of just exactly how the mosquito’s bite is so irritating. Winegard is certainly very knowledgeable about history, especially military history, and provides a thorough overview of some of the most well-discussed parts of Western history.

Although Winegard’s enthusiasm doesn’t wane as the book progresses, mine certainly did. I was expecting a lot more social and scientific history, and was hoping to read how mosquitoes had shaped our culture and progress. Every time Winegard touched on an area of scientific significance like the decision not to drain the swamps outside Rome until a ridiculously late time and how the mystery of mosquito-borne disease was finally solved, he glossed over the detail. Perhaps it was a question of confidence in the subject-matter, but I really wanted to know how these brilliant scientific minds figured out mosquitoes were the vector for malaria! I reread over that part thinking I’d missed something, but no – it just wasn’t of as much significance to Winegard, who was far more interested in how casualties from disease influenced the outcome of particular wars.

There were also some questionable and likely controversial parts in the book. Probably the most striking was the suggestion that the reason (or at least part of the reason) that African people were sold into slavery was because of genetic blood disorders like sickle cell disease made them more robust against malaria and therefore better workers in the Americas. I think that this would likely not stand up to academic scrutiny, and seems to minimise the reality of racism, greed and racist greed. Margaret Kwateng puts it succinctly in her 2014 paper on race and sickle cell disease: “studies today that try and attribute disparities between the races to genetic differences may be similarly searching for a way to explain inequity in a way that does not selfimplicate”.

A well-written book with some interesting and some challenging ideas by an author whose interests are fundamentally different to mine.

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The Dark Fantastic

Non-fiction book about black women in fantasy

Content warning: racism

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

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“The Dark Fantastic” by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is a non-fiction book about the representation of black women in fantasy. Thomas focuses on four examples of popular fantasy books and television series that feature a black female character. Thomas presents her theory of the Dark Other as a lens through which to understand how black women are marginalised, even in magical worlds. Exploring the themes of spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting and emancipation, Thomas analyses “The Hunger Games”, “The Vampire Diaries”, “Merlin” and “Harry Potter” in depth while making mention of many other examples of afrofuturism and black fantastic stories.

This is a meticulous and thoughtful book that gives characters like Rue, Bonnie Bennett, Gwen and Angelina Johnson the attention and analysis that they often did not receive in their own stories. There were some very compelling arguments in this book, particularly Thomas’ discussion of hesitation and the rationale behind why readers, writers and publishers find black characters so disconcerting – even in fantasy worlds. I thought that the idea of waking dreams and the hypocrisy of how the idea of magic doesn’t break the illusion but an empowered black woman does was particularly piercing. Thomas is very frank about her experiences in fantasy fandom, and this first-hand knowledge and response enriches this structured and well-researched book.

I think the main question I have after reading this is who is the intended audience? Although softened y the autoethnography parts of the book, as well as the appealing subject matter, Thomas nevertheless has a very scholarly writing style that indicates her significant academic experience and qualifications. While I highly doubt anyone could fault her theories, research or conclusions, part of the advantage of writing non-fiction books is to bring complex yet important concepts to a broad audience and I think that some parts of Thomas’ book could be a little too intellectual for the average reader.

A fascinating and academic work about a phenomenon that any pop culture consumer has been exposed to but most probably haven’t even noticed.

 

 

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The Moth: This is a True Story

Collection of 50 true short stories

A couple of years ago, I was juggling (arguably) too many book clubs. Membership of one particular book club was made up of colleagues, and when one particular meeting fell around Indigenous Literacy Day, I thought it would be a good idea to run a bit of a Great Book Swap. The idea is pretty straightforward: bring books and gold coins, and for every gold coin you pay, you get a book and the coins go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. I ended up picking this book, but unfortunately the attendee who “donated” it didn’t realise that it was a permanent donation. I agreed to return it once I’d finished it, but unfortunately it fell a bit by the wayside. After introducing a new “system” where all my unread books are in a stack looming threateningly over me, I managed to finally get to it.

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“The Moth: This is a True Story” edited by Catherine Burns is a collection of 50 true short stories adapted from spoken word performances. I hadn’t heard of The Moth prior to reading this book. Essentially, The Moth is a particular type of live event where storytellers with a really good story about something true from their own lives tell it to a live audience. The stories are loosely arranged by theme and range in topic from travel, medicine, parentage, medicine and just about everything in between.

Needless to say, there are some very compelling stories in this collection. I think my favourite, and the one that stayed with me the most, was A View of the Earth by astronaut Michael Massimino. I also really enjoyed Mission to India by infectious disease specialist Dr George Lombardi, Notes on an Exorcism by Andrew Solomon about a particular experience with depression, and LOL by delightfully well-meaning father Adam Gopnik. Some were heartbreaking, like Bicycle Safety on Essex by journalist Richard Price who witnesses racism in action and Angel by Darryl ‘DMC’ McDaniels who finds out the truth of his identity. Still others were downright illuminating like Impeachment Day by Joe Lockhart, Elevator ER by Jon Levin and The Prince and I by Jillian Lauren.

I think like every collection of stories, there are always going to be some that speak to you more than others. While most were pretty enjoyable, interesting or illuminating there were a couple that irked me. One in particular was by a man who trained monkeys in a laboratory, and just about every single part of the premise of his story I disagreed with.

A fascinating and diverse collection of stories made all the more engaging because they are all true.

 

 

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Say Hello

Memoir about living with a disability and facial difference

Content warning: discrimination

I had heard about this book long before it was published because I have followed the author online for some time. When I heard she was coming to Canberra to speak about her book, I not only went along to watch but scored myself a signed copy.

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“Say Hello” by Carly Findlay is a memoir about growing up and living with a skin condition called ichthyosis. Arranged as a series of essays covering various topics, this book is a candid account living with a disability and a facial difference, but living with society’s insensitive and often cruel reactions to her appearance and barriers to accessibility.

Findlay is a clear and frank writer whose book combines her personal experience, the stories of her friends and fellow activists and her significant knowledge of disability activism. I consider her courageous not for living her life (as so many people tell her), but for discussing deeply personal issues in such a public way and for building a platform to advocate for disabled people and raise awareness about the barriers that they experience throughout both Australia and the world. Some of the most powerful chapters in this book address the often well-meaning but ill-considered comments she constantly receives from people she meets and the diverse and sometimes diverging perspectives within the disability community. However, I think my favourite chapter was the chapter on fandom. Findlay’s experiences struggling to make friends throughout school, the difference to her life that getting a job at Kmart with a supportive manager and team made, and her discussion of how friendship as a skill we must learn and practice really stuck with me.

Memoir is a genre that I believe is very important to ensuring diverse stories and perspectives are heard, that I read quite a lot of, but that ultimately I struggle with. One criticism that you may have made me make is that I often feel like the author hasn’t given enough information or detail. However, how much to share with the reader is a question of balance, and I think Findlay may have tipped a little far towards too much detail. One thing that I hadn’t realised until I googled something I was reading in the book is that Findlay has adapted many essays she has written in the past as chapters for her book (something that I understand a lot of writers do). This means that quite a few of the chapters are overlapping, and because Findlay’s writing has improved a lot since she first started blogging, there is a bit of a range in quality. I think it also meant that this book didn’t always have a clear thread or audience, and I felt that it would have benefited from some more robust editing.

This is a very important book that highlights the impact that unsolicited comments have and the nuance and diversity within the disability activism space. Regardless of my own struggles with the genre, there is no doubt that memoir is critical to building empathy and this is a book that definitely builds empathy.

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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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