Tag Archives: Non Fiction

The Porcelain Thief

Family memoir about lost wealth and retracing history

I can’t quite remember where I found this book, but I certainly bought it secondhand. Although I often struggle with memoir as a genre, there is a very niche subset of memoir that blends personal history with actual history like “H is for Hawk” and “The Hare with Amber Eyes“. When I picked this up, I remember being intrigued by the premise. As I draw to the end of 2020 and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, I thought it would be a really good time to read this book.

Image is of “The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu, a hardcover edition pictured on a wooden table next to a Chinese style white and blue bowl, a ceramic spoon and a chopstick rest

“The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu is a memoir about American journalist Huan who decides to finally take up his uncle’s offer to work in his Shanghai company. However, Huan’s decision is not fuelled by a desire to carry on the family legacy but rather a desire to trace his family’s history and the stories of his great-great-grandfather’s buried porcelain collection. However, once he arrives in Shanghai, things are not so straightforward. Stymied by his patchy Mandarin, close-lipped relatives, family hierarchies and a culture that, after growing up in America, is indecipherable to him, Hsu will have to take some real risks if he is ever going to find out whether the stories about the buried porcelain are true, and whether or not he has a shot at finding it himself.

This is a complex and challenging book. Through Huan, we see that navigating family history is indistinguishable from navigating family. Despite Hsu’s excellent research skills honed through his career as a journalist, this book is at heart about relationships and identity. Hsu is unflinchingly honest in his writing, especially about himself, the criticism levelled at him by his relatives, and the mistakes he makes in his quest to return to his ancestral home. Some of the most powerful parts in the book were the clashes Hsu has with local Chinese people in which American-born Hsu is certain of his cultural and moral superiority. It was interesting seeing this approach mellow as the book progresses and Hsu realises that if he wants to succeed, he will need to befriend more locals and defer to their cultural expertise. Another powerful part of the book is the rift that forms between Hsu and his very elderly grandmother over her reluctance to discuss what happened after the family fled their home, and the way it mirrors the rift that formed between his grandmother and her own grandfather, the patriarch of the family, so many years earlier. I really enjoyed reading about how his grandmother and her sisters and cousins got an education, and the generally good-natured feuds between his uncles and between himself and his own cousin.

This is a well-researched book and Hsu weaves family history with China’s history. Understandably, among the relatives and old neighbours that Hsu interviews there are significantly differing accounts of the family history, the character of his great-great-grandfather and the stories of the lost porcelain. To try to make sense of the different histories, Hsu traces each relative’s story from the source: his great-great-grandfather. While this structure had logic behind it, it made for difficult reading. It felt like Hsu was rehashing the same experiences over and over from slightly different perspectives, muddling the central narrative which I think should have been his own experience. I completely understand the desire to show off all the research that he did, but I think a book like this needs to be really carefully curated. I was hoping that everything would come together in the end, but the ending itself was a bit disappointing as well.

A fascinating, touching and at time frustrating book that I think could have benefited from a structural reshuffle.

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Singapore, very old tree

A collection of photographs and stories about the trees of Singapore

I first came across this project on Tumblr (remember Tumblr?) where I followed this great Singaporean bookshop called BooksActually that sadly this year transitioned to a fully online store. I spent a lot of time in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore growing up, and this celebration of South-East Asian trees and history really resonated with me. I ordered this beautiful pack that included a book, postcards and a poster back in 2016 but, like many of my books, it sat on my shelf waiting for the right time. After chatting to a friend online recently about banyan trees and thinking about how long it will likely be before I can go back to South-East Asia again, I figured now was the right time to read this book.

This photo was taken at the National Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Collection, and this particular Bonsai is a fig

“Singapore, very old tree” curated by Zhao Renhui is a collection of stories and photographs about trees in Singapore. The collection is inspired by a postcard dated 1904 and titled “Singapore. (very old tree)” with an enormous tree towering over a small figure. The photographs and accompanying stories highlight the relationship between individual Singaporeans and individual trees, and weave in themes of history, urban planning, environmentalism and horticulture. The contributors are represent a diverse cross-section of genders, race, age and class in Singaporean society united by a love for the trees that have given them shade, fruit, peace and comfort.

This is a beautiful project and book that I am so, so glad that I supported. It features 30 different trees, and the photographs are edited in a way inspired by the techniques used in the original postcard. The introduction to this project was really helpful to provide some political context for this project and Singapore’s own identity as a Garden City. However, this project also includes the real tension between maintaining this arboreal identity and the pressures of development, and the times where protests have saved trees through compromise. Many of the trees featured in this book are banyan trees, a species of fig that is great not only in size but in spiritual significance.

This is a beautiful collaboration and while the first edition of this project is now sold out, you can now order the second edition online. If you are looking for something incredibly soothing and beautiful to take your time over, I cannot recommend this project enough.

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The Good Girl of Chinatown

Memoir about burlesque dancing in Shanghai

Content warning: racism, drug use, family violence

Three years ago I went to an event at Muse Bookstore where I saw this author speak about her new memoir. Even though it was a great talk and I was interested enough to buy a copy of the book for the author to sign, for one reason or another, this book has waited very patiently on my bookshelf since then for its turn. This year I have been making a bit more of an effort to get through my to-read shelves, and it was high time I read this book.

“The Good Girl of Chinatown” by Jenevieve Chang is a memoir about her experiences as a burlesque dancer in Shanghai, China in the late 2000s. After moving to the UK from Sydney to study dance, Jenevieve marries a man of Nigerian heritage called Femi. Although she envies his close-knit family, living with three generations under the one roof eventually becomes too much, and the couple jump at a job opportunity for Femi as a yoga teacher in Shanghai. Despite her family being from China, Jenevieve struggles to find a place in the performing arts scene in a city looking for Western faces. She mixes instead with an eclectic mix of “expats“. Her marriage slowly unravelling, when an opportunity comes up to star as a showgirl in a vaudeville, Jenevieve jumps at the chance. Cecil’s dreams of a club called Chinatown are intoxicating, and it’s easy to overlook some of the issues with payment, venues and transparency in the beginning. However, when things begin to really fall apart, Jenevieve is forced to face up to who she is beneath the costumes and performance and the traumas that ripple through generations of her family.

As I have mentioned many times on this blog, memoir is a genre that I often struggle with. However, this was an excellent memoir. Chang is a natural storyteller blending hard truths and entertainment on every page. The structure of this book was very effective using three key perspectives: Chang in the first person, Jenevieve as a child in the third person and fictionalised accounts of family history. I think it is a really courageous thing to write about your family, and although Chang provides plenty of empathy and cultural and historical context, she does not shy away from writing about the impact of corporal punishment on her family. One of the most powerful parts of this book, after having learned as a reader about Chang’s grandparents being exiled to Taiwan after the fall of Kuomintang in 1949 and Chang’s own estrangement from her parents, was her connection with family who still live in China.

However, Chang’s experience as a burlesque dancer and “Chinatown Girl” was also riveting reading. Cecil is the classic charming con artist, winning supporters over with his plans for Chinatown as the next great thing while quickly succumbing to greed and siphoning invested money instead of paying staff and contractors. Despite little to no pay, the performers are whisked along on a journey of late nights, flowing champagne and many creative differences. There was a particularly striking part of the book where many of the performers are taking an experimental drug that just seems to be available all the time, and it is strongly suggested that whoever is providing it is using the performers as guinea pigs. A big turning point in the book is Chang’s realisation that the Chinatown concept is a nostalgic colonial fiction that bares no resemblance to her family’s experience of 20th century China.

This is a captivating memoir and a testimony to Chang’s flexibility as an artist. In a time where the possibility of Australians travelling to and living in Shanghai in the near future is extremely low, and anti-Asian racism is on the rise, this is an important book as well as a great read.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Signed Books

Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism

Non-fiction book about the invisibility and dominance of whiteness in feminism

During National Reconciliation Week this year, while sharing recommendations of books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, I came across this tweet:

I hadn’t even read this book let alone included it on my list, so I immediately bought a copy.

“Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism” by Aileen Moreton-Robinson is a thesis on the whiteness of Australian feminism. Across six chapters, the book explores:

  • Indigenous women’s own life writings,
  • the representation (and invisibility as the “norm”) of white women in feminist theory,
  • representations of Indigenous women in white women’s ethnographic writings,
  • representations of Indigenous women in white Australian feminism,
  • white women’s self-presentation in white feminist academia, and
  • Indigenous women’s self-presentation within white Australian feminism.

Moreton-Robinson argues that because of feminism’s inherent but insufficiently examined white perspective, Indigenous women are excluded, minimised or merely tolerated conditionally. She argues that because race is considered to be something that is “other”, white feminists are unable to acknowledge their own race and associated privilege, their own role in perpetuating racial discrimination and are therefore unwilling to relinquish some of that power. Moreton-Robinson stresses that because of this, white women are unable to recognise that for Indigenous women, sexism is inextricably linked to racism, and that until racial oppression is addressed, sexism cannot be adequately dealt with.

This is a complex and well-researched book that highlights an enormous barrier to intersectionality in feminism: a lack of self-awareness among white feminists. Moreton-Robinson combined literature reviews, oral history, writing by Indigenous women and other women of colour and interviews with white feminist academics to produce this work. This is an original and critical text and even though Moreton-Robinson wrote this book 20 years ago, the messages are just as relevant today as they were then. The University of Queensland Press has just released a 20th Anniversary Edition which came out a month or so after I bought my copy, which I understand includes additional commentary by Moreton-Robinson that reflects on the book’s reception by white feminists. I’m tempted to buy a copy of that as well!

Although the book is not very long, it is not an easy read. Moreton-Robinson uses an appropriately academic tone to explore complex and challenging concepts, and asks the audience – predominantly white feminists – to critically examine their own assumptions, privilege and complicity in continuing to centre whiteness in feminism. For readers new to feminist theory, this book is a great starting point because Moreton-Robinson provides an excellent historical overview of feminism. However, although Moreton-Robinson is a succinct writer, it is a lot of information to take in and this book unearths some uncomfortable truths about the role white women have played in facilitating racial oppression in Australia, especially in relation to the removal of children and stolen wages. I think the most challenging parts for me were considering mistakes I had made in the past, the diversity of perspectives I surround myself in and roles played by myself and my ancestors in perpetuating racial oppression.

This is an extremely important book that is just as relevant (if not more so) today as it was at publication 20 years ago. I recommend white women reading this book with an open mind, an open heart and a willingness to commit to taking on board the lessons the book has to offer to improve feminist practice starting with acknowledging whiteness and its associated privilege.

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Troll Hunting

Non-fiction book about the motivations and impact of online trolling

Content warning: sexist and racist slurs

I have seen this Canberra journalist and writer speak at quite a few author events over the years, including with Carly Findlay, Margaret Atwood and Miriam Sved. However, despite being familiar with her work in cyberhate and online trolling, I had not actually read her book. Just when COVID-19 lockdown started to kick off, I saw that she had some signed copies available so after a contactless swap, I finally received a copy. After very recently being trolled for the first time (though certainly not harassed online for the first time), I thought it was high time I read it.

Troll Hunting

“Troll Hunting” by Ginger Gorman is a non-fiction book about the phenomenon of online trolling.  The book is divided into three sections: Trolls, Targets and Troll Hunting. Against the background of her own experience on the receiving end of trolling, Gorman walks the reader through what trolling is, who the perpetrators are, who the victims are, the emotional and financial impact of trolling and how effective different mechanisms are in trying to prevent, curb and prosecute trolling.

This is a fascinating and insightful book that lifts the veil a little on something that is almost always hidden by the anonymity of the internet. Gorman uses her investigative journalism skills to connect with numerous and, in some cases, infamous trolls to unpack the motivations behind trolling. As she develops relationships bordering on friendship with her sources, Gorman finds herself asking ethical questions not only of them, but of herself. However, it is Gorman’s ability to empathise with and relate to these (mostly) young men that draws out why they spend their time trolling.

Gorman’s chapter “Deep in the grey” was one of the strongest and most unsettling in the whole book, and we learn that while online trolling has IRL (in real life) impacts on victims, the victims themselves are not always perfect either. The sources themselves are incredibly interesting characters, and by the end of the book, some of the trolls start asking themselves the questions that Gorman asks them about why they participate in trolling. Particularly unnerving is how much trolling is underpinned by sexist and racist beliefs, how organised some trolling is and how far it has to go before legal action is taken. I also really liked the Notes in the margins where Gorman provides a frank overview of how being a victim of trolling and writing a book about trolling starts to take a toll on her.

In terms of solutions to trolling, Gorman explores the pros and cons of stronger legislation, complaints-handling agencies, better training of police and even removing the anonymity of the internet. These are all systemic solutions, however following Gorman online, she clearly has developed ideas and strategies about how to target trolling as an individual. I think the only thing I would have liked to have seen in this book is a bit more about what we as individuals can do to tackle trolling. I had reasonable success with just being more annoying and inane than my troll, but I think in a future edition I would love to see an additional chapter on what strategies Gorman has since found that work well.

This is a book is full of nuance and depth that explores an issue that almost everyone is aware of but almost nobody truly understands. An important read for internet enthusiasts and policy-makers alike.

 

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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever

Self-help book about how to declutter your home

I first heard about this author a couple of years ago after there was some controversy in the bookish world about applying her methods to books. I had meant to read her book for some time but, like tackling decluttering generally, there always seemed to be something else to do instead. When she landed her own Netflix TV series, again, I thought I should have a go at reading her book, but again, I didn’t get around to it. Then, she found herself in the middle of another controversy. As with the previous controversy, I felt that again people were not properly taking the time to understand the author or her method. During self-isolating, I had been doing a significant amount of decluttering anyway, so although I tend not to go for self-help books as a general rule, I decided to finally buy a copy of her book (an eBook, of course) and see for myself.

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“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever” by Marie Kondo and translated by Cathy Hirano (though, she is not credited in the eBook edition) is a self-help book about how to correctly declutter your home in a way that is effective, achievable and lasting. Through the KonMari method, Kondo explains that decluttering should happen in a particular order:

  • clothing,
  • books,
  • papers,
  • komono (miscellaneous things), and
  • things of sentimental value.

Kondo also explains that we must first discard all our things that don’t spark joy – everything – before next contemplating where to store the things that we have kept.

This is an interesting (and, very happily, a brief) book with a very simple goal: to assist people to feel better about their lives by helping them tidy their homes. There were quite a few things in this book that really stuck with me. First was Kondo’s message that one of the biggest reasons that people struggle to keep things tidy is not that they are inherently lazy, but rather that they have never been taught to tidy properly. Kondo explains that tidying is a skill, and it is one that she has spent basically her own life fine-tuning. This really resonated with me, because there are so many things that people are expected to be able to do as adults like manage money and write job applications, but that we don’t receive any kind of formal training for. Thinking about tidying as a skill to develop rather than an action that you either do or not do was really helpful for me.

Another thing that I’ve found really helpful is Kondo’s insistence that belongings must be sorted by category and then stored by category. She encourages the reader to find all things of a particular type (e.g. clothing) from around the entire house, sort it all at once, then store it all in one place. She applies this principle to other things like cleaning products, coins, pens that certainly I tend to have scattered around the house with no one clear home. This has also been really useful for getting a realistic idea of exactly how much stuff you really have. I certainly don’t need a pack of ibuprofen and a cache of coins in every single room!

I do want to make a quick point on books. One of the things Kondo has been criticised most about is that she tells people to throw away all their books and suggests that we only keep 30 books in total. Of course, if you take the time to read her book (which I now have) Kondo never says either of these things. In fact, what she says about books is far more interesting. She asks the reader, “[d]o you feel joy when surrounded by piles of unread books that don’t touch your heart?” She then asks the reader to “[i]magine what it would be like to have a bookshelf filled only with books that you really love. Isn’t that image spellbinding? For someone who loves books, what greater happiness could there be?” She is certainly pragmatic enough to acknowledge that her book, too, is an object and encourages the reader to keep “only those books that will make you happy just to see them on your shelves, the ones you really love. That includes this book too. If you don’t feel joy when you hold it in your hand, I would rather you threw it away”.

I’m still on the clothing part (which includes scarves, hats, bags and jewellery), but books are next on my list. I already give a lot of books away to either the Lifeline Book Fair or my street library, but I collect a lot of books and receive a lot of review copies, and my to-read piles are numerous. If anything, hopefully at least by tidying up the rest of my stuff, I’ll have more space for books!

Now, I do want to mention a few things that I wasn’t completely sold on in this book. First of all, Kondo is quite a quirky person anyway, but a few of her ideas (such as drying her dishes outside in the sun and standing carrots upright in her fridge) I don’t intend to implement. I think thanking each object for the contribution it has made to your life is a nice idea, but is honestly a little too labour-intensive for me.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that although the first edition of this book was only published about 9 years ago, Kondo does have a bit of an essentialist view of gender with men and women each having particular traits (though I’ve even heard Margaret Atwood make comments about why men can’t find socks). However, Kondo does gently encourage women to aspire towards elegance and femininity, and her target audience in this book appears to be mothers and housewives. This is not to say that I don’t think that her method could be applied to anyone, but she does seem to view these tasks – organising and tidying – as women’s tasks. I will say that in her TV show, she very happily sets both men and women to decluttering spaces without any concern whatsoever for gender.

Finally, I do think that there is one thing that Kondo doesn’t turn her mind to in this book which is one of my biggest obstacles when it comes to decluttering: how you throw things away. Although in my city we now have green waste as well as recycle, although I have two types of compost bins, although you can drop quality clothing and items off at op shops, although some places accept plastic bags, fabric and even batteries for recycling, there are still a lot of items that simply cannot be donated and are likely going to just find their way to landfill if you throw them in the bin. Things like old teddy bears and out of date or damaged electronics have hung around the house simply because I feel guilty just throwing them in the bin. I think that while reducing the number of belongings you have is a great way to think more sustainably about your life, the act of reducing itself is important and I think that part of the reason why we accumulate so many things is because things are so disposable.

If you want to declutter your house and you’re not really sure where to start, this book is as good a place as any. Although not definitive, especially with regards to disposing things, this book has some unique ideas and helpful tips about how to tackle the task of tidying.

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Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum

Non-fiction book about the history of an asylum in Georgia, USA

Content warning: racism, ableism, massacres, eugenics, neglect, abuse, slavery, forced sterlisation

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

“Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the haunting of American psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum” by Mab Segrest is a history of a mental health asylum from when it opened as the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum in 1842 and how it stood by, was influenced by, was complicit in and actively participated in features of American history such as the massacres of first nations people, slavery, the American Civil War, Jim Crow, forced labour, eugenics, forced sterilisation and the prison-industrial complex until its closure in 2010.

This is an exceptionally well-researched book. According to the acknowledgements, Segrest spent many years investigating the enormous institution that at one point was the largest mental health facility in the USA and the many threads that connected this facility to the American historical context. Under several iterations, and many more superintendents, the asylum is thoroughly deconstructed by Segrest who explores, through newspaper articles, annual reports, journals and clinical records, the impacts of racism, sexism, ableism and white supremacy on its administration and its patients. I felt like the case studies of individual patients who found themselves, one way or another, admitted to the asylum. Their stories were equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking, giving the reader a real appreciation of the impact of segregation, neglect, starvation, hard labour and forced sterilisation on the tens of thousands of individuals who lived and died there.

I thought that Segrest’s research clearly illustrated how dependent the conditions of the asylum were on personal views of those in charge – especially when it came to legislation and funding. As demonstrated by the way people with disability continue to fall through the cracks, better legislation and funding is critical to ensuring that they receive the support and dignity they deserve. It is clear that even in 2020, people with disability are still incredibly vulnerable to abuse. In just the past week here in Australia there have been three devastating stories of unfathomable abuse and neglect that demonstrate that on a systematic level as well as an individual level, people with disability are still being failed. The strongest parts of this book were the anecdotes about the day-to-day life of the patients who found themselves admitted to the asylum.

As is often the case with well-researched books, it can be difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out. There is no question about the breadth of Segrest’s research on this topic, and she follows up every single lead that might provide more understanding about the asylum and how it came to be. However, I think at times the breadth of this book was at the expense of the depth. While I appreciate how important political history is to the American psyche, and historical periods and events were to the nature of the asylum, I think a stronger focus on the asylum itself would have made the book a little easier to follow. Particularly in the earlier parts of the books, Segrest peppers the book so liberally with metaphors and historical and cultural references that it does at time result in quite dense reading.

Segrest approaches psychiatry with a level of skepticism informed by the circumstances through which the field has developed and evolved. She critically examines the social factors experienced by patients admitted to the asylum and offers alternative explanations for symptoms of mental illness including environmental factors such as poverty, physical illness, malnutrition, culture, abuse and prolonged exposure to trauma. I agree that these factors are important to consider, and I can understand Segrest’s reluctance to lean too far into genetic causes for mental illness and disability given the horrors of eugenics policies.

However, having worked in mental health, I feel that she did downplay the impact that untreated and unsupported mental illness can have on an individual’s life outside a clinical setting and that this too can leave them vulnerable to abuse, neglect and homelessness in the community, especially without families or friends equipped to care for them. Regardless of her views on the utility of diagnostic tools such as the DSM-5, I think that we must accept that sometimes people do have symptoms of a mental illness or disability that do not have an environmental cause. I think by accepting people for who they are without looking for an external explanation (and unintentionally apportioning blame), we can better design a system that works for the individuals affected.

An important and thoroughly-researched book whose proverbial forest was at times obscured by the (pecan) trees.

 

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A Room of One’s Own

Essay on the importance of independence for women writing fiction

This was a gift from a friend (I believe) who is quite the Virginia Woolf fan. It’s a beautiful little hardcover edition with light blue embossed fabric beneath the dust jacket and shiny gold edges. This my 81st, and last, book of 2019 and I was looking for something short but also inspiring to kick-start my writing in 2020.

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“A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf is an essay about the barriers for women in the early 20th century to becoming writers of fiction. Much of the essay reflects on the prestigious university campus of “Oxbridge”, a portmanteau of Oxford and Cambridge, and the ways in which doors had opened to women, but not completely. Woolf also writes about the way poverty impacts women’s ability to write fiction: poverty of money, but also of time, education, opportunity and privacy.

This is an intriguing book. Although it is non-fiction, fiction seeps into the edges and Woolf uses suggestion, exaggeration and imagination to convey her points. While she explores the Oxbridge university campus, Woolf also examines the lives of historical women fiction writers and analyses why they were able to find success. She concludes that it is not a lack of ability that holds women back, but a lack of time and resources, particularly due to the expectation that women devote themselves wholly to being mothers.

Woolf creates a parable out of an imaginary sister of Shakespeare’s, rebutting the argument that a woman couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s plays with example after example of sexism. Woolf later creates another character to explore the significance of women fiction writers in writing same sex relationships. This edition of the book includes an introduction by Frances Spalding, which provides useful historical and biographical context for Woolf’s writing.

Woolf’s key argument is that for women to be able to write fiction, they need £500 a year, the equivalent of approximately AU$63,000 by today’s currency, and a room of one’s own. For a bit of perspective, this is about half as much again as Australia’s minimum wage. While Woolf is very aware of the barriers that separate women of her class from their male peers, I think perhaps she is not quite nearly so aware of the barriers that remain between her and woman of other classes and races. Woolf, very fortunately, inherited a sum from her aunt, which set her up to be able to focus on her writing. However, wealthy aunts are not something available to all of us, and while Woolf’s family did prioritise her brothers’ education over hers, it was nevertheless a wealthy family that was supportive of her writing. 

This is a very creative piece of non-fiction that uses fictional characters to shed light to real barriers for women who write. I came away from this book very grateful that I have a room with a desk to write in, but also very aware that the time, space and financial means to write are not things that are available to everyone.

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My Name is Book

Creative non-fiction short history of books

I actually have no recollection of where this book came from. There are no clues on it either except for a faded sticker that says $16.99 on the back. Was it a gift? Did it appear in my street library? Who knows! The important thing was that it was short, because I had mere days left to reach my 2019 reading goal.

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“My Name is Book” by John Agard and illustrated by Neil Packer is a short creative non-fiction book about the history of books. The book is told from the perspective of Book, an anthropomorphised representative of all books, who reflects on how books evolved from stories told by the fire to the eBooks of today.

Agard is a talented wordsmith who has a clear background as a poet. It is an easy, lyrical read with plenty of historical highlights, interesting designs, calligraphy, illustrations and poetry to keep the reader engaged. Although not particularly a poetry aficionado myself, it was Agard’s poetry, and the poetry of his partner Grace Nicols, that I enjoyed the most. The illustrations are also very beautiful, and I think this would make a really nice coffee table book.

I think it’s probably pretty self-evident that this is not a definitive history of books, but rather a creative non-fiction piece with historical elements. This book has a focus on written language as it developed from the Middle East/Northern Africa and spread through Western culture, and does not go into much detail about other independent inventions of writing around the world.

Nevertheless, a quick and entertaining read that brings books as physical objects to life.

 

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Proof of Birth

Collection of essays about birth registration and the right to citizenship

I picked up book last year while I was attending the 2019 Castan Centre for Human Rights Conference. It was sitting on a table with a number of other pieces of free reading material, and as statelessness and the barriers that exist to obtaining documentation is something of interest to me, I nabbed myself a copy. Then, when I was looking for some shortish books in a desperate bid to meet my 2019 reading goal, I thought I’d better give it a read.

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“Proof of Birth” edited by Melissa Castan and Paula Gerber is a collection of essays that explore the issue of birth registration, the barriers that exist to obtaining a birth certificate and the legal and social implications of struggling to prove your identity and citizenship. The book has a particular focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences and how disadvantage, distance, traditional naming conventions and financial barriers can make it difficult to participate in Australia’s birth registration system. The book also investigates case studies in countries such as Nepal and Indonesia.

This book tackles an important issue that I think a lot of people are simply unaware of. A birth certificate is something that the majority of us simply take for granted. A birth certificate means that we can get other documents like a driver license or a passport. It means that we can easily reach 100 points of identity when engaging with the government or when doing a police check when applying for jobs. It means that we are counted, that legally we exist. However, for a lot of people in Australia, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, getting a birth certificate means having to overcome sometimes insurmountable barriers. This is a thoughtful and well-considered book that explores this issue from a number of perspectives, and sensitively compares the challenges experienced in Australia with challenges experienced in other countries in the region.

The contributors are from a wide range of fields – community legal centres, community health organisations, academia, government and business – and share some extraordinary expertise with the reader. I think that the essays are all well-edited and get their point across clearly and quickly, using statistics, analysis and some fascinating case studies of programs that work well and unintended consequences of overly punitive systems.

I think it is important to note that this is a book that is written in an academic and legalistic style. While not inaccessible per se, the intended audience is not the people who may struggle to obtain identity documents, but rather an intellectual elite who make the policies.

Nevertheless, this is an important subject and this book is short enough in length yet broad enough in scope to be able to cover the issues quickly and thoroughly. An important and under-discussed area of human rights law.

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