Tag Archives: Non Fiction

Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life

Non-fiction about how to deal with the worst day of your life

Content warning: death, trauma

I first read this author after I started listening to her podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3“. There had been quite a lot of talk about her new non-fiction work coming out, and I was very lucky to get a copy courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, resilience and what happens after the worst day of your life” by Leigh Sales is a non-fiction book about life-changing events. After experiencing a close-call herself, Sales decides to investigate the likelihood of experiencing a terrorist attack, a natural disaster or even cancer, how we survive them and how we cope with the grief to move on with our lives.

Sales has a methodical style of writing and systematically applies logic to the problem of unexpected disasters to determine how likely it is something like that could happen to you. Although Sales is very cautious about applying research and reason to everything in her book, she writes with warmth and sensitivity. Sales interviews many people about the extremely personal topic of grief and the things that helped them through, including a survivor of the Lindt Cafe Siege. I think my favourite part of the book was towards the end where Sales explores the types of worldviews and personality traits that make someone more resilient to coping with trauma and grief. I also really liked Sales’ exploration of the importance of having someone accompany you when you go to see the body of a loved one, to guide you through the process of understanding death.

Although there were lots of things about this book that I found really interesting, I think there was something about the approach of this book that I fundamentally disagreed with. I think it is to do with the beginning of the book, where Sales walks the reader through an ordinary day, and asks them to imagine a blindside, an unexpected tragic event that they never expected to happen to them. Sales interviews a woman who suffered the double-whammy of being a survivor of the Lindt Cafe Siege as well as being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. I felt like a lot of the beginning of the book was spent trying to understand why people are ‘victims of misfortune’, especially multiple misfortunes. How it is that extraordinarily bad things can happen to good people?

I found it surprising that Sales, who is otherwise such a rationalist, had such an anthropocentric view of these ‘events’. That somehow there must be a connection between cancer and a natural disaster and a violent gun attack. Sales tries to apply a number of different academic approaches to understand the connection, and I really felt like that it was an act of futility trying to calculate the odds that someone would be involved in a hostage situation and would also be diagnosed with an incurable disease. I felt that at the beginning of the book, there was a lot of why, why, why? To me, however, it seemed clear that the common denominator of all of these things has nothing to do with the cause, and everything to do with the impact.

There are so many kinds of illnesses and natural disasters and accidents, why wouldn’t someone experience an event or a diagnosis or a loss that results in grief? Even the religious people that Sales interviewed had a great deal of pragmatism about this. They hadn’t been singled out by the universe, it was just something that happened. Why not them? When Sales starts to explore what it is that makes people more resilient to traumatic events, it definitely seems like the people who are asking questions like “what if” and “why me” find traumatic events far more difficult to deal with than those who accepted that grief is a part of the human condition. Anyway, I realise I’ve gone on about this for a while now, but I felt that maybe some of the solution could have influenced the beginning of the book a little better. Plus, I would have liked Sales to go into far more depth about black swan events, uncertainty and the idea that hindsight has 20-20 vision.

The truth is, although we can’t predict what kind of grief we will experience, it is almost a certainty that we will experience grief of some kind and I think that overall, this is an important and useful book that unpacks what it takes to make it through trauma and grief. While I found the beginning of the book felt like it was asking the wrong questions, by the end of the book I felt like it was providing the right answers.

buy the book from The Book Depository, free delivery

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

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

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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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.

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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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Joe Cinque’s Consolation

Content warning: death, mental illness, murder

I’ve been listening to the podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3” which is hosted by Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb for a while now, and they are both enormous fans of Helen Garner. I have actually never read anything by Helen Garner before, and so I was inspired to try one of her books. I wasn’t quite sure where to start, but there was one story (as someone who lives in Canberra and went to the Australian National University) that I have always wanted to know more about.

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“Joe Cinque’s Consolation” by Helen Garner is a non-fiction book about the killing of engineer Joe Cinque by his girlfriend Anu Singh with a lethal injection of heroin in Canberra in 1997, and the subsequent trials in the ACT Supreme Court. Although not present for the aborted joint trial by jury, writer Helen Garner attended the trials of Anu Singh and her friend Madhavi Rao and interviewed friends and family of the accused as well as Joe Singh to try to understand why this death happened.

This was a really difficult book to read. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the surroundings to me – parts of Canberra, the ACT Supreme Court, even the street where Singh and Cinque lived. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the mental health system to me. Maybe this book just felt a bit too close to home.

Also, maybe it was Garner’s writing style. She had a compelling but really terse tone that seemed quite at odds with her descriptions of her own emotional reactions to the events around her. I read the book and didn’t feel like I found much empathy or even information but instead found a lot of judgment. There was something about this book that reminded me of a Louis Theroux documentary I saw once. Unable to get an interview with Michael Jackson, Louis Theroux instead spends his time interviewing everyone he can who is as close as possible to the pop star, trying to find out the real story. I felt like Helen Garner in this book was a smarter version of Louis Theroux. She tried to get to the heart of the story, but in the end, without being able to speak to Anu Singh directly (which was hardly Garner’s fault) the book felt unfinished somehow. I also felt like despite trying to instead shift the focus on Joe Cinque, and having access to his family, the picture of Joe Cinque was incomplete as well.

There were two other things that got under my skin as well as made me think. The first was that despite all the focus on Anu Singh and her actions, you simply cannot tell this story without shining a spotlight on the inaction of the people closest to her. I think this was a source of tension in the story because although the temptation is to think of Anu Singh as some demonic succubus, the reality is that she did what she did because the people around her didn’t stop her. It was a completely preventable crime, yet nobody prevented it – despite Singh’s clearly deteriorating mental state. I felt like this was a concept that Garner herself struggled with, because I felt like Garner’s gut reaction was to dislike Anu Singh.

This leads me to the second point – Anu Singh through a feminist lens. I think Anu Singh herself was problematic because although everyone who knew her was attracted (or repelled by) her beauty, histrionics, fragility and body image obsession – apparent paragons of femininity – she then rejected that femininity by becoming a criminal of the worst kind. Suddenly she wasn’t a thin, pretty and melodramatic young woman anymore. She was a sinister she-devil who used sex to commit an abhorrent crime. I think perhaps Garner struggled to find an objective medium when it came to Singh’s character, especially one that encompassed mental illness, and particularly a personality disorder. Garner focuses a lot on femininity and female relationships in this book, but despite being drawn to the women she meets while researching this book, she never quite seems to be comfortable in that kind of discourse or those kinds of relationships. The lingering of the book over what Singh and Rao are wearing, how they were sitting, how they were reacting during the trial irked me. Perhaps these superficial observations would have been less prominent if the book had been written today. Perhaps today there would have been more of a focus on Singh’s deteriorating mental health and the inability of society to prevent her from hurting herself and others.

The entire time I was reading this book, I kept misremembering the title as “Joe Cinque’s Desolation”. I was looking for the consolation, as I think Helen Garner was as well, and I honestly don’t think in the end either of us found it. I think this is a powerful, insightful and well-researched book (given the circumstances) but I don’t think that it contained any revelations larger than the fact that Australia’s mental health system needs some significant improvement and people need to take threats their friends make seriously.

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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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