Tag Archives: Non Fiction

On Doubt

About a year ago, my friend suggested that I check out a podcast called “Chat 10 Looks 3“. It’s a conversational show with media heavyweights and real life BFFs Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales and I quickly became hooked. The fanbase of the show, who call themselves Chatters, have swelled in numbers and Crabb and Sales have started doing special live events around the country. My friend wangled me a ticket to one such event in Sydney and we drove up from Canberra to see the pair speak a few weeks ago. Both Sales and Crabb are published authors, and they had a number of books for sale (theirs and books by their own favourite authors) after the show. I bought one book by Sales, and one by Crabb, then lined up to get mine signed. Sales’ book is very small and very short, so it didn’t take long for me at all to get to reading it.

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Disclaimer: I would never actually throw a book in the bin (I would either donate it or, at the very least, recycle it). Leigh Sales, however, has no sentimentality or qualms about getting rid of books once read and Annabel Crabb has taken to inscribing gift books to Sales with her personal address and mobile number just to make sure she doesn’t ditch them!

“On Doubt” by Leigh Sales is a short non-fiction personal essay about Sales’ observations on truth in politics and media as an Australian journalist. Originally published in 2009, this 2017 reprint includes a postscript about changes in media and politics in the past 8 years.

It is a quick read, and this is going to be a quick review because really there’s no excuse not to read this book yourself. It cost me $12.99 and you can buy the eBook version even cheaper. Sales investigates politicians who frequently make decisions based on gut feelings and instincts and the stigma and perception of weakness that is associated with those who doubt or are uncertain. For example, Victorian Premiere Daniel Andrews’ public admission that he changed his opinion about euthanasia was headline news because it is so unusual.

Opinions are increasingly being substituted for facts and the although the rise of the internet was expected to mean more information, it has in fact meant more platforms for people to voice mere opinions without being challenged. This book champions the courage it takes to tell the truth and the courage it takes for politicians and media magnates to admit when they are wrong, have made mistakes or have changed their mind. Sales has a clean, honest and matter-of-fact style of writing and makes her points both eloquently and succinctly.

In a world poisoned by fake news, alternative facts and baseless mantras like “everyone is entitled to their own opinion”, this book is the antidote we all desperately need right now.

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The Case Against Fragrance

So I’ve held off on writing this review because, strictly speaking, I didn’t buy this book for myself. It isn’t very long, so even though I got it signed for my Grandma a couple of weeks ago when I saw Kate Grenville speak at the National Library of Australia, I had a cheeky flip through before I put it in the post.

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“The Case Against Fragrance” by Kate Grenville is a non-fiction book about the pervasiveness of fragrance in products we use everyday. Although Grenville is best-known for her novels, she started this book after becoming increasingly affected by her own “fragrance sensitivity” – something that is actually not uncommon at all. In clear, accessible language, Grenville sets out what we do and what we don’t know about the chemicals included under the umbrella term “fragrance” or “parfum” and the impacts that they can have on our bodies and on our health. Her findings are shocking. Every day we apply things to our skin, clean with them and spray them into the air and due to “trade secrets”, we have no idea what is in them or the effects they have.

This is a very important book. I am no stranger to fragrance sensitivity. I’ve worked in a workplace where fragrance was banned, and I know people who cannot abide to be in the same room with someone who is wearing perfume. Personally, I can’t stand new car smell, petrol fumes or even the shower cleaner I use. Nevertheless, I am constantly surprised at the amount of products we buy and use, trusting that the big companies we buy them from have ensured that they are safe, ethical and environmentally friendly. After reading this book, I did a quick whip around my house to see how many cleaning and bath products I use on a daily basis have the mysterious ingredient “fragrance” listed in their ingredients, and it was nearly every single one I looked at. The only product I could find that was fragrance/parfum free was my bottle-free bar of Ethique shampoo which contained essential oils instead. This is including brands that I deliberately go out of my way to buy because they don’t test on animals or because they’re eco-friendly. I have to admit, I felt betrayed.

I think Grenville is really onto something here and this book may be a game changer in the increasing social awareness about what we buy, what’s in it and where it comes from. This is a real wake up call for us to constantly check what we put in, on and around our bodies. It’s a quick read and I think it’s a critical reminder that consumers cannot guarantee that companies have their interests or wellbeing at heart.

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A Bit of Earth

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author, with whom I had quite a bit of rapport over email about Edmund de Waal and coincidences. I was very taken by her enthusiasm and was keen to enjoy more of her crackling writing in book-form.

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“A Bit of Earth” by Wendy Crisp Lestina is an autobiographical collection of vignettes about her many lives. After inheriting a family property in a small town in California, USA, and taking over a weekly column in the local newspaper, Lestina adapts these stories (constrained by neither space nor time) about her varied life into a rich collection.

This is not a book to rush through. Each of Lestina’s stories is wonderfully complex and starts out with several seemingly unrelated threads that cleverly weave together to a wry, poignant or awe-inspiring ending. Lestina shrugs off convention and lives life to her own standards, and is as quick to critique herself as she is inequality and outdated attitudes. Entirely unapologetic when it comes to social expectations regarding marriage or wealth, Lestina instead inspires the reader with her focus on kindness, honesty and family. Each story has a theme and Lestina has a sharp eye for serendipity. This book reads like a mosaic spread across time made up of snippets from all walks of life.

Beautifully written and acutely observant, a great book for an alternative perspective on the realities of the American Dream.

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Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

This is a borrowed book from my bestie who has been telling me I should read it for absolute yonks. The way she described it to me made it sound a bit like Mad Max – a wild, lawless society. It had mosied its way to the top of my reading pile, and finally I decided to give it a crack.

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“Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” is a memoir by Alexandra “Bobo” Fuller of her childhood growing up in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. Her English heritage parents scrape a living managing tobacco farm after tobacco farm, moving frequently both by choice and by force as war and political climates in post-colonial Africa dictates. Raised amid rampant drinking, smoking, guns, violence, disease and hunger, it’s not the safest upbringing for Bobo and her sister Vanessa and the family’s feral lifestyle ultimately takes a big toll. Nevertheless, Bobo falls in love with Africa’s adventures, smells, landscape, wildlife, freedom and, finally, her people.

Fuller is an incredibly vivid writer and as someone who has never visited the African continent, this was an incredibly immersive book. She paints a stark picture of war-torn countries, abject poverty and unrepentant racism interspersed with humour and appreciation for beauty. While in the beginning her book has a white film over it, in line with the uncritical thinking of a child, as the cracks appear in her parents’ lifestyle and the white stronghold on ruling African nations, so too do they appear in what Bobo has been taught about white superiority. I think my main criticism of this book is that it did feel like she didn’t go far enough with her critique of either her family or the society she lived in. A lot of the things she wrote jarred against the eyes of someone reading in 2017, and I do appreciate that it’s a fifteen year old memoir about Africa in the 1970s, but I felt like the criticism should have been a bit more pointed.

An unparalleled and eye-opening insight into crumbling colonialism and the effects of neglect and mental illness on families, this is would be a great start for someone who wanted to learn more about Africa’s tumultuous history and the rise and decline of white settlers.

 

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The Hate Race

This book has been on my radar since it was released in August, but when I found out that local Canberra journal Feminartsy would be using it to kick off their Read Like a Feminist book club this month, well I knew I had to get myself a copy ASAP. I picked it up from the National Library of Australia bookshop and I’ve been waiting to read it.

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“The Hate Race” by Maxine Beneba Clarke, is a memoir about Clarke’s experiences growing up black in 80s and 90s Australia. Born in Australia to British parents, a mathematician and an actor, Clarke’s childhood was largely the quintessential suburban 90s Aussie kid experience. However throughout preschool, primary school and high school her skin colour again and again makes her the recipient of assumptions, stereotypes, microaggressions and even outright racism from teachers and children alike. As she grows older, Clarke learns about the significance of her West Indies and Guyana heritage and about Australia’s own dark past – one that from her perspective doesn’t seem so very distant after all.

I just recently reviewed a famous childhood memoir by Maya Angelou about growing up black in America’s south. This is better. This is a book that Australian kids should be reading. In fact, the high school curriculum should be reviewed, another book scrapped and this put on the list instead. There is no doubt that Angelou could write, but Clarke can do that and more: she can tell a story. Each paragraph, each chapter has a purpose and each memory echoes after you turn the page. For any kid who grew up in the 90s, this book will resonate. Clarke’s experiences – new bikes, concrete toilet blocks, spitballs, cabbage patch kids, 50c bags of red frogs, Trish on Playschool – they’re all of our experiences. Except when white is Australia’s default colour, it’s not white kids who get constantly reminded what colour they are.

This book is one of the best that I have read all year and it should be mandatory reading for all Australians.

 

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How Fiction Works

One can never be part of too many book clubs. I’ve recently joined another one, and we just had our inaugural meeting with our inaugural book: “How Fiction Works” by James Wood. Although it wasn’t a book that I would have chosen (I find the idea of a book purporting to explain all fiction books a bit trite and unlikely), I bought myself a copy and gave it a go.

“How Fiction Works” by James Wood is a short non-fiction work that explores different elements of the fictional novel and, using examples of various classics, demonstrates how they can work well (or not so well) in practice. The book is broken up into chapters which are divided (seemingly arbitrarily) into numbered parts. In particular, Wood focuses on perspective, detail, character, language, dialogue and realism.

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If I could only use two words to describe this book, they would be ‘pompously enthusiastic’. Wood is clearly very passionate about literature, and particularly towards the end of the book his rather insufferable tone eases up somewhat and he starts to share some interesting insights. However there are so many things about this book that fall very, very flat. First of all, this book should really have been titled “How European Fiction that was Mostly Written by Men Works”. Although at one point Wood pats himself on the back for reading so diversely, the list of books he refers to throughout the text paint a completely different picture. Of the 93 books he talks about, only 13 were written by 9 women. And yes, I do know that George Eliot was a woman.

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Far, far worse was racial diversity. Out of 93 books, only 3 were written by non-Caucasian writers and none of those writers were women. The books he referred to were overwhelmingly European and American. Two were from South America, one was from Asia. The little Oceania book was by a woman, but she was a white New Zealander.

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The problem with this is not only is James Wood a white man writing about white male books for white men. No, the problem is that Wood is writing a book about fiction and he has completely failed to take into account the incredibly rich, interesting, diverse and groundbreaking fiction that exists in the rest of the world. If he pulled his head out of the sand, his book could have been filled with amazing examples of narrative, realism, character and style. Instead, this is a boring whitewash with a self-congratulatory tone.

Which brings me to my next big criticism. Wood writes a smug little introduction explaining how his book is superior to other books about fiction because, unlike his predecessors, he has the ability to write a book for the “common” people (I’ll just let that little insight into Wood’s views on class hang for a second). However, only pages into this book it becomes abundantly clear that this is not a book for a layperson. Given the response at my book club (only one person had finished it by the day and it was declared resoundingly unreadable), this isn’t even a book for university educated and enthusiastic readers. No, the only person this book is for is James Wood.

My partner can always tell how I’m enjoying a book by how much laboured sighing I engage in. I was sighing constantly throughout this book. It was a struggle to read, I didn’t learn much and I was astounded at how narrow the focus was for a book that claimed to explain to the common person how fiction works.

 

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Midnight at the Pera Palace

Expectations are everything when it comes to books. “Midnight at the Pera Palace” was the set book for July/August for one of my book clubs. It had glowing reviews all over the internet, and somehow I’d gotten the idea that it was something like a microhistory of a Turkish hotel in the 1920s. I think I even went so far as to imagine it was a fictionalised version of the night of Turkey’s independence, where all the characters were big name diplomats and historical figures in a small bar at the Pera Palace hotel. Boy did I have the wrong end of the stick.

“Midnight at the Pera Palace” by Charles King is a non-fiction work about the city of Istanbul in Turkey from just prior to World War I to after World War II. Each chapter focuses on a particular theme or historical figure including Turkey’s first president, Turkey’s first and only Miss Universe champion, Leon Trotsky, Turkey’s first feminist, the introduction of jazz and the birth of Turkish cinema.

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King is an eloquent and thoughtful writer who showcases his meticulous research throughout this book. For the most part, “Midnight at the Pera Palace” is an interesting expose on the constantly shifting region of and around Turkey. This book really demonstrates that nationality is often a question of where the boundaries fall around you, and that cultural identity often comes from the top down. However, there were a couple of things that bothered me about this book. Firstly, despite its thoroughness, this book did feel a lot like it kept rehashing the same ground over and over. Each chapter was structured loosely around the pre-WWI to post-WWII timeline which gave them a somewhat repetitive feel. Next, some of King’s language felt a bit outdated – especially his (incorrect) use of ‘schizophrenic’ as an adjective to mean ‘having multiple natures’ and his repeated use of ‘indigenous’. Finally, although this was a book about Turkey, I actually came away from “Midnight at the Pera Palace” still feeling largely ignorant of Turkish people, their history and culture. The reason for this is that King had quite the preoccupation with the rising and falling elites of the period who, for the most part, were either Western, wealthy or both. Multiple chapters were spent discussing the exodus of ethnic minorities from the newly established independent nation of Turkey, and the influx of refugees from other parts of Europe and Middle East during the World Wars. In between the diplomats, the spies, the military men, the well-to-do upper class, the writers, the revolutionaries and the refugees there simply didn’t feel like there was much in there about your average Turk.

I was disappointed by this book because it wasn’t what I was expecting or interested in, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t good. The more I read, the more I am convinced that I’m just not interested in the fading gilded histories of privileged people past. I’m interested in reading about humanity. There are some glimpses of that in here. King’s real strength was the little snippets of real life amongst the history and they glint like jewels in the dark.

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