Category Archives: Non Fiction

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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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

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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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

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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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Non Fiction

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

Persepolis

This is a book that I have been meaning to buy for a long, long time. I’m a pretty big fan of graphic novels in most genres, but I really enjoy the perspective that you get from non-fiction graphic novel and this one is meant to be one of the best. I finally picked up a copy with a gift card I got for my birthday this year.

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“Persepolis” by Marjane Satrapi is a graphic autobiography about Marji’s experiences growing up in Iran during and after the Islamic Revolution. Marji’s parents, politically active and reasonably well-to-do, protest tirelessly against the regime of the last Iranian monarch, the Shah. However, when fundamentalists seize power, Marji’s family publicly acquiesce to the new and frequently changing laws while they watch friends and family around them suffer under the brutal new regime. Living an educated and liberal life at home, but forced to wear a veil and be submissive in public, Marji starts to chafe against the double life she lives. Her parents decide to send her overseas to live and continue her education in Austria. However, when she arrives, Marji’s expectations and the reality of a new country and culture seem worlds apart.

This is a fascinating take on a part of recent history that before reading this, I knew nothing about. The black and white artwork is very understated which allows the dialogue and the narration to take the forefront of the story. However, Satrapi’s creativity really shines through when young Marji is imagining the things that she doesn’t always see herself but hears about from her family, the news and her friends. I thought another particular strength was the way that Satrapi depicted Marji’s deteriorating mental and physical health during here time in Austria, and the overwhelming challenges of navigating another country as a teenager with no support.

I think probably the only thing that was a bit challenging as a reader of this book is that unlike most graphic novels, this one takes much longer to read. Part of that is the complex and heavy subject matter, but part of it is that the subtly of the artwork is quite demanding and the images are a bit hard to distinguish between sometimes. This means that it takes a lot of concentration to interpret what is going on in each page.

This is a challenging but incredibly important graphic novel, and if you would like to learn more about the diverse history of Iran, this is a really great place to begin.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels, Non Fiction

The Trauma Cleaner

Content warning: gender identity, trauma, suicide, neglect, abuse, mental illness

The author of this book came to speak at an event in Canberra earlier this year, and although I unfortunately couldn’t make it – I did manage to meet the author later on in the evening. Having heard the premise of this book, I knew it was one I was going to have to read. Then I had the absolute pleasure of seeing her speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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“The Trauma Cleaner” by Sarah Krasnostein is a biography of transgender Melbourne woman Sandra Pankhurst. A trauma cleaner whose business is in cleaning up humanity’s worst messes from suicides to hoarding situations, Krasnostein’s book explores how Sandra went from a neglected little boy to a successful and resilient woman. Interspersed throughout Sandra’s story are the stories of her clients: sad and lonely people who are being suffocated by their traumas.

Krasnostein writes with a piercing depth that is difficult to encapsulate. She applies an academic rigour to the story, but also manages to reach multiple layers of humanity both in sharing Sandra’s story as well as the story of her clients.  This story is so thoroughly researched yet so honest about where the limits of verifiable fact lie. Sandra is a fascinating person and Krasnostein explores each of her many lives with an exacting sensitivity that demands empathy from the reader. Krasnostein maintains her sense of candour when describing Sandra’s sad upbringing, exiled to the shed by her neglectful and occasionally violent family; her brief stint as a father and husband; the shocking grief of losing her girlfriend; her years working as a sex worker; her years as the wife of a businessman; and, finally, her life as a successful businesswoman.

Having worked in the mental health sector, I thought that Krasnostein did an excellent job navigating the stories of Sandra’s clients. Hoarding is a particularly insidious mental health issue and although it is actually relatively common, it can be difficult for others to relate to. I think one of my favourite parts of the book was when Krasnostein captured Sandra’s finesse and compassion in speaking to these people and asking them to help her help them.

I think the only thing that felt a little jarring was that on a few occasions, Krasnostein goes to some lengths defend Sandra and her choices. However, I think that Sandra’s story really speaks for itself. Sandra’s kindness radiates off the page and the occasions where she made mistakes just make her feel even more relatable.

Anyway, there is absolutely no question why this book won two prizes at the Victorian Premier’s literary awards. It is excellently written and excellently researched, and it tells the story of someone whose story would otherwise never have been told.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction