Mark McKenna, Return to Uluru (#BookReview)

Mark McKenna’s engrossing history, Return to Uluru, takes as its starting point the arrival in Central Australia, in 1931, of 29-year-old police officer, Bill McKinnon. Of course, Uluru’s true history reaches back into the almost-incomprehensible mists of geological time, and its human history back to the arrival of Indigenous Australians tens of thousands of years ago. But, a historian has to start somewhere, and McKenna’s choice of McKinnon’s arrival speaks to the particular story he wants to tell.

Uluru

Before I get to that, though, I would like to share my own little story. Mr Gums and I have visited Uluru three times (so far), in 2000, 2009, and 2015. Each visit, we walked around “the rock” rather than climb it, because that was the expressed preference of its traditional owners, the Anangu. In 2019, the climb was finally closed. Interestingly, each of our circumnavigations was a bit longer than the previous one, stretching from around 9kms the first time to around 11kms the last. This is because the Anangu have gradually moved the route away from particularly sacred sections of Uluru. It’s been a very slow process for the Anangu to claw back ownership of their own country and it is to this, really, that McKenna’s book ultimately speaks.

But, that’s not immediately obvious at the book’s opening. It’s divided onto four parts, with Part one, “Looking for the centre”, introducing the reader to Central Australia. It teases out the role of “the centre” in Australian life and culture, pitting its Indigenous history and significance against the early settlers/explorers’ “awe, terror and incomprehension” at what they found. McKenna writes that for the settler “to find the centre was to confront the metaphysical dilemma of being a white man in an Aboriginal country”:

What they saw as empty was layered with story … Where European explorers saw arid desolation, Aboriginal people knew a larder teeming with sources of animal protein and fat and a wide variety of plants that provided nutrition, medicine, tools and shelter.

McKenna then shifts from traditional history-writing to the personal, placing himself in the story by sharing his own experience of the Centre but continuing to reveal its history as well. This approach enables McKenna to reflect philosophically, as well as historically, on what he was doing. He conveys how confronting, and how paradoxical, the Centre can be. “It laid everything bare at the same time as it pushed all language and emotion within.” But, most significantly, he writes how actually visiting the centre “unsettled the history” that he had intended to write. So, let’s get to that.

Part two, “Lawman”, returns to a more traditional history – or biography, now – style. It tells the story of Bill McKinnon, who he was, how he ended up in the Centre, and what he did there. The focus, though, is a particular expedition in 1934 whose goal was to capture some Aboriginal men accused of killing, under Tribal Law, another Aboriginal man. One of these men, Yokununna, was shot and killed by McKinnon. This incident was to be just part of McKenna’s history but, as he wrote in Part one, it became the centre of the book when he recognised that the “biography of one moment in one man’s life encompassed the entire history of the centre and went straight to the heart of the nation’s long struggle to come to terms with its past”.

“Lawman” is the longest part of the book. Bill McKinnon was a complex man. He unquestioningly bought into the settler project and saw “discipline” as the key to maintaining control, a discipline that, of course, frequently involved brutality. But he wanted “to be both the centre’s law enforcer and its storyteller”. He was keenly interested in the centre’s history, and, writes McKinnon, had “moments of contemplation … when he became faintly aware of the depth and complexity of Aboriginal culture”. He was also a meticulous recordkeeper, and retained his records because “his desire to be present in history was insatiable”.

Part three, “Uluru”, the second longest part, returns, obviously, to focus on Uluru. Here, McKinnon comes back in the frame. He delves more deeply into the settler-era history of Uluru, interweaving it with Indigenous culture and stories. He traces the dispossession of the Anangu, as the settlers moved in, and their gradual return in the second half of the twentieth century. He identifies McKinnon’s shooting of Yokununna at the rock’s Mutitjulu Waterhole as “the foundational moment in a long history of injustice”. It is here that McKenna shows his historian’s eye for the symbolic that makes a point:

Uluru’s creation story and the frontier murder which defined the killing times for the Anangu more than any other event in the twentieth century took place at the same sacred site.

It is also in this part that we see the historian’s drive for the clue that nails the truth, and the challenge that can result. It occurs when he visits McKinnon’s daughter, and is given access to McKinnon’s archives. Remember what a recordkeeper he was? What McKenna finds transforms the story he was telling.

In the final part, “Desert Oak No. 1”, McKenna remains in the frame, as he shares more of his research journey. The focus is Yokununna (“Desert Oak No. 1”) and we start at the South Australian Museum where Yokununna’s skull had been identified. Till this point, I felt McKenna had managed well the tricky business of being a non-Indigenous historian writing an Indigenous-focused history, but I did feel he made a false step when describing the centre as a “region where darkness stalked the landscape”. The word “darkness” seems unfortunate in the context. This, however, is a small miss in a work that recovers a significant story and carefully places it within the context of the return of Uluru to the Anangu in 1983, and the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart. Returnng Uluru to its rightful owners is a win for all Australians because Uluru is the spiritual heart of our nation, and it’s critical that our heart be in the right place – if you know what I mean!

Return to Uluru is a beautiful book in every way. It is gorgeously produced. Those of us in my reading group who read the physical version loved the paper and the extensive images. We felt sorry for the Kindle readers who missed this experience. But more importantly, Return to Uluru is sophisticated, conceptually, in the structured way McKenna elicits the symbolism from the facts to make very clear not only what happened but why it matters.

For an historian’s perspective, check out Janine’s review.

Mark McKenna
Return to Uluru
Carlton, Vic: Black Inc, 2019
256pp.
ISBN: 9781760642556

Jess Hill, See what you made me do (#BookReview)

Jess Hill See What You Made Me Do

I took me a long time to read Jess Hill’s 2020 Stella award-winning See what you make me do, partly because I bought the e-book version which I read in fits and starts and partly because of its content. As the Aussies among you will know, Hill’s book is an intense, thorough discussion of domestic abuse. It’s not an easy topic but it is a critical one because if statistics tell us anything it’s that the situation in Australia is not improving.

There’s no way I can share the wealth of information or fully convey the impressive depth of research Hill has done. However, I’ll do my best to give a sense of what this book does, and how Hill does it. She starts on definition, explaining that wherever possible, she replaced the term “domestic violence” with “domestic abuse” because “in some of the worse abusive relationships, physical violence is rare, minor or barely present”. “Domestic abuse” is the term now used by UK police because it undercuts the assumption that abuse is only serious if it’s physical.

Those of you versed in trauma will appreciate a fundamental challenge Hill faced, which, as she describes it, is that “power imbalance built into the journalist–source relationship: the journalist usually has ultimate power over what gets published”. For survivors of abuse, who have suffered at the hands of power, this could effectively mean abusing them all over again. So, Hill “wanted to flip that and give the power back to them. If this process was not a positive experience for them, there was no point in doing it”. So, she gave “them the chance, wherever possible, to review their story, suggest revisions or ask for things to be deleted – especially if there were safety concerns”.

In her Introduction she lays out the road map:

In the chapters that follow, we will travel through an extraordinary landscape, from the confounding psychology of perpetrators and victims to the Kafkaesque absurdity of the family law system.

And so, in eleven chapters, Hill traverses domestic abuse from multiple angles, grounding it in case studies – usually with names changed – which force us to put a face on the accompanying theories and statistics.

Hill starts by establishing coercive control as a fundamental aspect of domestic abuse. Our understanding of its techniques, she writes, come from the Cold War and US Air Force social scientist Albert Biderman’s recognition of how the tools of coercive control had been used on American POWs in North Korean camps. From here she analyses how the same techniques are used by intimate partners – almost always male, though there is a chapter on women who abuse – to create a threatening atmosphere that will convince the victim of the perpetrator’s omnipotence, the futility of resistance, and the necessity of compliance. The aim is total dominion (which is exactly what Wemyss’ wanted over Lucy in the prescient Vera). Hill describes the techniques in detail, and it’s chilling.

The best word for this book is forensic, because Hill burrows deep. She confronts us with our uncertainties – why did she stay, for example – and makes us see just how deep the degradation goes. She explains how a concussed women can look drunk and so be missed by the police as the victim. She shows how a traumatised woman can come across as irrational and erratic in court versus her cool, calm, well-presented abuser. She interrogates the role of patriarchy, and how it damages men, as well as women. Feminists, as many of us know, were the first to recognise this.

She looks at disabled women. She looks at children and the way they are used and treated by abusers in power plays. Indeed, her chapter on children and the courts is horrifying. She details the gradual weakening of the Gough-Whitlam-established family court system through successive, mostly conservative, governments. She shows how some of this weakening has been underpinned by a particularly egregious theory called Parent Alienation Syndrome. She reveals the perfect storm created for children caught up in a family court softened by law and bolstered by such spurious theory.

And, she devotes a chapter to First Nations women, who are at significantly greater risk of abuse than their non-Indigenous peers. The stories just keep on piling up as you read, stories that you can barely countenance, except that anyone with any semblance of awareness will know they are true.

It’s tough going but it’s valuable reading, because for all I thought I knew, there were details I didn’t know or appreciate. Hill asks some pertinent questions, like:

In the years I’ve spent writing this book, I’ve found that it’s the questions we don’t ask that are the most confounding: Why does he stay? Why do these men, who seem to have so much hatred for their partners, not only stay, but do everything they can to stop their partner from leaving? Why do they even do it in the first place? It’s not enough to say that perpetrators abuse because they want power and control. Why do they want that?

Or, as “Survivor Queensland” put it, ‘I want people to stop asking “Why does she stay?” and start asking “Why does he do that?”‘

Some of the answers lie in “traditional notions of masculinity – particularly male entitlement” which are at “the core of men’s violence against women”. But Hill identifies more questions, such as “what are the different reasons men have for needing to dominate their partners?” and what is going on in their minds that makes them “sabotage the lives of their partners and children – to the point where they destroy even their own lives?” These are “critical parts of the puzzle” that are “missing from our public conversations about domestic abuse”. 

Hill titles her final chapter “Fixing it”. She notes Australia’s excellent record in tackling public health problems. “From thwarting the tobacco industry to criminalising drink-driving, Australian governments have shown they are willing to burn political capital to save lives”, she says, and have achieved results. She then shares some of the actions currently being taken – but, of course, this was just before the pandemic so I suspect some of them have fallen by the roadside.

In 2017, she writes, a KPMG report concluded that although “significant progress” had been made against the “National Outcomes”, not only was there no evidence of reduction in “domestic violence”, in fact, the evidence suggested that “the incidence and severity of domestic and family violence” was increasing. However, lest we close the book feeling completely hopeless, Hill concludes with examples of two recent programs that have worked. We just need government will and support to back more such targeted programs. It can be done.

Janine (Resident Judge) also reviewed it.

Jess Hill
See what you made me do: Power, control and domestic abuse
Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc, 2019
416pp.
ISBN: 9781743820865 (eBook)

Sarah Krasnostein, The believer (#BookReview)

One of the reasons I love reading fiction is to be introduced to lives and cultures I know nothing about. This is less so in nonfiction, but Sarah Krasnostein’s latest book, The believer, fits the brief. In it she explores questions concerning what people believe and why through six different people (or groups of people), all of which were foreign to me.

The six “beliefs” are eclectic, but can be divided into three categories : personal lives (a death doula and a woman who had been incarcerated for over 30 years for murdering her violent husband); religious lives (through a Creation Museum and some Mennonite families); and the unexplainable (paranormal seekers/ghostbusters and ufologists). These six “cases” all come from either the USA or Australia.

Different readers will be drawn to different ideas in the book, but in my reading group, the most popular were the two personal stories – death doula Annie, and ex-prisoner Lynn. Lynn’s story of abuse at her husband’s hands first and then the justice system’s was heart-rending. Yet Lynn had come to understand that she’d made choices, and had gone on to use her life to make things better for others. Inspiring.

The book has a disjointed three-part structure, with one of each of the three categories explored in “Below”, the remaining three in “Above”, and then some reappearing in the final “Coda: Here” section. Within these sections, the stories are told over several alternating chapters, so no one story is told in one go. One of the questions my reading group discussed was whether this structure helped or hindered our reading. We didn’t resolve this, though the overall consensus seemed to be that the alternating did keep us interested. There was probably method to the placement of the stories, but it wasn’t always clear to us, which might be more to do with the time of year and our concentration levels.

Lightbulb moments

What we did all agree on, however, was that the book had some great lightbulb moments – and for many of us, it’s the lightbulb moments that make a book special or memorable.

One refrain that ran through the book was that life isn’t easy or simple. Mennonite Becky says that “life isn’t just a bed of roses”, and ex-prisoner Lynn understands that “pain is a part of life”. Ufologist Jaimie has a more positive spin, seeing that life “is not just going to work and dying”. There are mysteries out there to explore.

However, for me, the most significant moment occurred in “Before”, in a Paranormal/Vlad chapter. It concerned the need for certainty. Krasnostein references German neurologist, Klaus Conrad, who coined the term apophenia, which essentially means that we look for meaning and coherence, and will go so far as to perceive them in unrelated events and ideas. We will, writes Krasnostein, “choose certainty over accuracy”. “We are compulsive converters of fact into meaning”.

I hope I’m not oversimplifying, but Krasnostein then cites a Science article which talks about the human desire to “combat uncertainty and maintain control” and the importance of this to psychological wellbeing and physical health. You can probably see the lightbulb here: it explained, to me, why some people have found the pandemic harder to handle than others, and why some people can become susceptible to conspiracies. People who feel out of control will look for patterns and answers. For me, living with questions is interesting – and in fact real, because I’m not sure there always are answers – but I feel I better understand now, those who do not feel this way, those who demand certainty, such as “promise there will be no more lockdowns”. I better understand why people might turn to conspiracies when authority doesn’t (indeed, sometimes can’t) provide consistent answers.

Other lightbulb moments were less applicable to my life, but were interesting nonetheless. An example was the Mennonites fear of higher education. It “contains an unacceptable risk of assimilation”, potentially causing tertiary educated members to leave the community (the Mennonite kingdom) and be assimilated into wider society. Higher education threatens their understanding of the world, their faith in the Bible as explaining the world. Krasnostein writes of one Mennonite man who had moved to New York in a mission “to make a difference in people’s lives”:

Anthony’s conflict comes from the fact that the certainties he received instead of education are poor tools for daily living.

There’s that idea of certainties again. Anthony tells Krasnostein that “Theology always scares me because it takes the things that seem simple and makes them complex”. This too returns us to the idea of certainties. Anthony sees life simply. In the Mennonites’ belief in a “loving presence”, they see (create?) “a perfect pattern embroidered into the fabric of reality”. Patterns, again.

What added to the book’s interest was that Sarah Krasnostein was, herself, searching to understand “belief”. She admits to occasionally envying Anthony and his co-believers’ “refusal to accept the absence of evidence as the evidence of absence”. She says at one point, “If I could only ask the right questions I could understand”.

This has not been one of my typical review posts, partly because this is a different sort of book, but mostly because I finished it nearly two weeks ago and am not in the brainspace for doing my usual thing. Forgive me. However, you should be grateful, because this book is jam-packed with stories – some tragic, some poignant, some inspiring and some, I have to admit, infuriating (I’m looking particularly at you Creation Museum) – and it would have been tempting to share too many of them. They weren’t, of course, all equally interesting. And occasionally, they got a bit bogged down in detail to the point that I risked losing the thread. That’s the challenge Krasnostein faced in meeting so many people and wanting to explore all their thoughts and ideas. Overall, it works. Her lyrical prose, and warm, open heart play a big role in that.

Talking about UFO sightings, ufologist Ben tells Krasnostein that “we need to find all these little stories. They build up into a big matrix of stories” which, for him, might locate the “truth” of the events. However, this is also exactly what Krasnostein did in this book and, in doing so, she found, as she writes at the end,

six different stories, six different notes in the human song of longing for the unattainable.

My reading group was a little disappointed that in the Coda, Krasnostein didn’t give us a clear summation of the sort you often find in nonfiction works. In fact, though, I think Krasnostein did find something very real, a belief that could help us accept each other’s wildly different shores a little more: it’s that we are “united in the emotions that drive us into the beliefs that divide us”. That is quite profound, and worth spending some time absorbing.

Challenge logo

Sarah Krasnostein
The believer: Encounters with love, death and faith
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2021
351pp.
ISBN: 9781922330208

Chrystopher J. Spicer: Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature (#BookReview)

I love thinking about place in literature, so I was intrigued when Chrystopher Spicer, cultural historian and adjunct senior research fellow at North Queensland’s James Cook University, offered me his book Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature for review. Unfortunately, I’ve taken a while to get to it.

Place can be a contentious issue for readers, and I’ve become embroiled in many discussions over the years on the topic. However, this is not going to be one of those, not because I have nothing more to say, but because Spicer’s book looks at place from a different angle. His focus is, obviously, cyclones, and was inspired by the fact that he lives in northern Queensland, a tropical region known for its often highly destructive cyclones. Despite this, people stay. How do they incorporate their experience into their sense of place, and, more significantly, into their understanding of who they are personally and as a community? Cyclones bring chaos and destruction, but, paradoxically, they are also part of the fabric of place they destroy.

It is in this context that cyclones (and similar “nature catastrophes”) can be catalysts for literature. It specifically was for Susan Hawthorne’s eco-poetry collection Earth’s breath. Spicer wanted to explore whether such literature provides “a means by which individuals and societies can cope with and integrate these events into their lives, culture and place” and how weather catastrophes like cyclones “speak of our relationships with place and the people in it”. Concluding his introduction, he identifies his objectives as

to explore how we integrate a violent, chaotic, and destructive weather feature into our culture through the use of storytelling and structure. At the same time, I hope to convey a sense of the connectivity and commonality of people search for meaning amid the meaninglessness of chaos and catastrophe.

“in with through” (Hawthorne)

Spicer explores all this through eight chapters. The first two and the last are devoted to general discussion about cyclones, cyclones and place, and cyclones in literature. In these chapters in particular, Spice draws on academics, critics, and other writers to provide a theoretical underpinning to his argument. The fundamental point is that stories shape the places in which we live and that in the same process people and place are mapped by those stories. He adopts the word “terroir”, traditionally used to describe wine regions, arguing that it encompasses both the tangible habitat and the spiritual sense that is imbued in that habitat from living within it. Weather, he argues, is inseparable from the physical and experiential aspects of the landscape. As poet Susan Hawthorne writes:

I am in with through the cyclone
which is inside with through me

The book’s other five chapters explore his ideas through specific works set in or around Queensland and its cyclonic environment: Vance Palmer’s Cyclone (Lisa’s review), Thea Astley’s A boatload of home folk (with references to other works including The multiple effects of rainshadow which I’ve reviewed), Patrick White’s The eye of the storm (Lisa’s review), Susan Hawthorne’s Earth’s breath, and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria (my post).

Storms and cyclones have, of course, featured in literature as long as people have been telling stories, and Spicer provides many examples. Their “propensity to be intense life-changing personal experiences” naturally leads to their use in literature, often as metaphor for “epiphany and revelatory apocalypse”. I’m sure all of us have examples from our reading. For me, Shakespeare stands out.

Alexis Wright, Carpentaria

The five authors Spicer explores use cyclones in different ways, but there are recurring ideas. Epiphany, revelation, with a corresponding opportunity to change or start afresh, underpin the stories. Serpents and similar monsters feature frequently, whether it’s Palmer’s Leviathan, or Hawthorne’s ouroboros, or Wright’s Rainbow Serpent. I’m simplifying here but, essentially, their role varies from being the monster that embodies and explains the chaos to something that is more organically part of the process of chaos and renewal. Somewhat related to this, but separate too, is a cyclical view of nature and thus life. This idea is particularly developed by Hawthorne and Wright, in whose works the apocalyptic event contains the cycle of beginning and end, of life and death and life again.

For White, the image or metaphor is a little different again, but also related, with his using the spiral and the mandala or circle. For his protagonist, it’s in the “eye” of the storm, or the “still point” of the spiralling word, that revelation is found, and epiphany achieved. Astley, too, suggests Spicer, sees us as all being “part of a swirling, spiralling, cyclonic universe”. However, instead of going into the eye, her characters try to escape the cyclone, something which Astley herself said, “is not possible”. The main Astley book that Spicer explores, A boatload of home folk, has been criticised as awful, unlikeable, but Spicer disagrees, arguing that, ultimately, Astley, like the other writers, “uses the elemental cyclone as a trope of apocalypse that is both an instrument of destruction and a catalyst of revelation.” It is what the cyclone draws out of the despair in the novel’s characters that is significant.

In the end, there are two main ideas I took from this book. One is that cyclone literature helps us to understand the event, to incorporate the resultant chaos into our lives, and thus, to “integrate nature catastrophes” into our sense of place, or terroir. While Spicer’s focus is cyclones, he also mentions “nature catastrophes”. Consequently, I’d argue that his argument holds for places which frequently experience other such catastrophes, like bushfires, tornadoes, earthquakes, and recurring long droughts. People who live in places frequented by such catastrophic events, and who choose to remain in those places, must surely “integrate” the experience in some way into their identity as a person of that place, and into their understanding of how to live in that place. Spicer’s discussion of Susan Hawthorne’s Earth’s breath addresses this idea in depth.

The other idea relates more generally to how writers use cyclones/storms to explores broader ideas. In a way, this extends beyond Spicer’s specific goals regarding place. Whether or not writers are inspired by actual cyclonic events or purely imagined ones, in real or imagined places, they can and do use cyclones to explore spiritual and/or psychological upheavals in their characters’ lives. Spicer’s selections are all Queensland-related, so place is quintessential to the stories, but his analysis shows that cyclones in literature also transcend place to encompass something more universally human.

In the final section of his book, “The Cyclone as Universal Trope”, Spicer writes that –

Such events and the stories of them can challenge previous human experience, thereby providing opportunity to move forward and rebuild, opportunity for the emergence of the new.

– with “the new” embodying both the tangible and the intangible aspects of our lives.

Spicer’s book is well-researched and thorough in its analysis, and is supported by an excellent bibliography and index. I found it fascinating. It’s not for everyone. However, it makes an excellent contribution to our understanding of the tropes of Australian literature, including reminding us that it’s not all about “the bush”.

Lisa also reviewed this book.

Chrystopher J. Spicer
Cyclone country: The language of place and disaster in Australian literature
Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2020
202pp.
ISBN: 9781476681566

Review copy courtesy of the author

Sara Phillips (ed), The best Australian science writing 2020 (#BookReview)

In 2016, my reading group discussed the 2015 edition of The best Australian science writing. We enjoyed it so much that we decided to do it again, and so this month we read the 2020 (tenth anniversary) edition. Our discussion was as engaged as before (and the overall reasons I enjoyed this volume are the same as those I listed in my post on it, so I won’t repeat them here.)

The publishers invite a different editor each year, and for 2020 it was Sara Phillips, a respected and award-winning science writer herself, with a particular interest in environmental science. The edition opens, however, with a Preface by UNSW Press’s publisher Kathy Bail. She references the annual Bragg UNSW Prize for Science Writing, which was named for the father and son who were Australia’s first Nobel laureates. All shortlisted pieces are included in the anthology. 2020’s winner was Ceridwen Dovey’s fascinating, moving essay, True grit. (Dovey, many of you will know, is also a respected writer of fiction.) The runners up were Ricky French’s Case of the missing frogs and Konrad Marshall’s Jeepers creepersLesley Hughes’ The milk of human genius, Donna Lu’s Stranger thingsand Nicky Phillips’ Bringing home the ancestors, were the other shortlisted articles.

COVID-19?

There is so much I want to share about this volume, but I’m going to start with a quote I used in my 2015 edition post. It came from one of that edition’s Bragg Prize runners-up, Idan Ben-Barak’s Why aren’t we dead yet. This essay provided a wonderfully lucid description of pathogens and the immune system. You can guess why I want to share it again!

And so, an immune system must correctly identify a diverse array of harmful creatures and react to each one in its own special way. Oh, and you know what would be very helpful? If it could remember the pathogens it’s encountered before and store this information on file, somehow, so that it could make short work of them the next time they pop in. And it needs to be prepared for new invaders it’s never encountered before, because life is like that. And it needs to be prepared for completely new invaders nobody has ever encountered before in the history of humankind, because pathogens evolve over time. And it needs to be economical, so the body can keep it operational. And it needs to be fairly unobtrusive, so the body can keep functioning normally. And it needs to do it all very quickly, every time, or the body will be overrun, because pathogens multiply like the devil.

It sure does, as we all now know only too well. However, if you’re expecting pandemic articles to dominate the 2020 edition, you would be wrong, because the edition’s cut-off was March 2020. There are a couple of articles on the topic, but presumably there’ll be more in the 2021 edition. The two in this edition are Liam Mannix’s The perfect virus: two gene tweaks that turned COVID-19 into a killer, which tells us exactly what the title says it will (and in a clear, intelligent way), and Tessa Charles’ Synchrotons on the coronavirus frontline, which describes the importance of synchrotrons to mapping the crystallography of the SARS-CoV-2 protease. Knowing this is critical for the development of drugs/vaccines.

Science and politics

Each edition seems to have threads, which must surely relate to the “zeitgeist”. Introducing the 2015 edition, editor Nogrady wrote that while the 2014 anthology featured several articles “on our changing climate and its repercussions, this year there were an overwhelming number of submissions about our vanishing biodiversity, and what could be or is being done about it”. There were also several articles on robotics and artificial intelligence. Well, five years on, issues like climate change and biodiversity still feature strongly, as Phillips writes in her introduction, but there are some different threads too, as she also identifies, such as the role and importance of description and taxonomy, which, in fact, underpin many of the biodiversity articles. Dyani Lewis’ Identity crisis for the Australian dingo, is an example.

But, Lewis’ article also references something else I detected running through the volume, the close – and sometimes uncomfortable – relationship between science and politics. In the case of the dingo, there are political implications for whether the dingo is classified as its own (native) species (canis dingo) or as a dog (canis familiaris). As a native animal it “could be listed as threatened” if its populations decline, but as a dog “it wouldn’t qualify”. Some scientists accuse others of “bad science”, of forcing the dingo into its own species in order to protect it, when, they believe, the scientific arguments aren’t there for separate classification or taxonomy.

Nicky Phillips’ Bringing home the ancestors discusses the use of DNA to help identify indigenous remains held in museums (and similar institutions) but, she writes, “As a result of the history of mistreatment, some Indigenous people fear that unscrupulous governments or scientists might misuse their genetic information”. To invoke the potential of science or not, that is the question! The following article, The Murray–Darling’s dry mouth, by Jo Chandler, uses the stressed ecology of South Australia’s Coorong to exemplify “the mal-administration, negligence and ignoring catastrophic risks of climate change” that has brought the river-system to the parlous state it is in.

These are just three of many articles which explored the science-politics nexus. I’d love to share them all with you, but, given the year it is, I’ll end this section with an article written before the pandemic but which is so apposite, Felicity Nelson’s Pathogen sovereignty. Nelson explains how such a thing came to be and its implications for scientific research into, yes, pathogens like SARS-CoV-2. “For poorer nations, exercising state power over pathogen samples was quite often their only point of leverage”. Fair enough, as they’d been taken advantage of, but you can see the implications for the quick-sharing of samples so needed during pandemics.

A related thread through the volume concerned the practice, philosophy and funding of scientific research, but I’ll have to leave that, as I do want to get onto …

Inspiring people

It’s not surprising that articles written by journalists for educated-but-lay readers will often hang their information on the stories of inspiring personalities. Bragg Prize winner Ceridwen Dovey did this in True grit, by telling the story of Brian O’Brien, whose inspired idea about gathering and measuring moon dust in the 1960s was overlooked until the 2000s, when, quite serendipitously, his work was noticed by a scientist after NASA realised that it did indeed need to understand moon dust! Jo Chandler tells her above-mentioned Coorong story through the work of ecologist David Paton. He has studied the region for decades, and, though now officially retired, is not giving up, “not least because of his concerns about the capacity of working scientists to conduct deep, unfettered research. ‘You talk, they cut your funding. It’s as simple as that.’”

The inspiring people aren’t all old, however. Cameron Stewart’s Brain wave tells of Vietnamese-Australian inventor, Tan Le, whose work on producing technology that can read brain waves is already providing benefits – to quadriplegics, for example. The potential of this technology is immense, and Tan Le, herself, is astonishing, particularly when you read her trajectory from boat-person to Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

To end …

It’s impossible to do justice to an anthology like this, so, as I did last time, I’m concluding with three quotes that make important points, to my mind anyhow. First is Michelle Starr, who reminds us about the practice and limits of scientific research in The repeating signals from deep space are extremely unlikely to be aliens – here’s why:

‘Wild speculation can sometimes inform the next generation of instrumentation, which can then either confirm or refute the wild hypothesis, or see something else entirely unexpected. And that too is what makes science fun.’ The difficulty lies in understanding the difference between pondering wild ideas as a thought exercise, and evidence based on data and prior experience, observation and conclusions.

Then comes Brian Key from Peter Meredith‘s Underwater and underrated, which is all about fish brains and intelligence:

On the question of animal welfare, Brian emphasises it needn’t be linked specifically to an animal’s ability to feel pain. ‘You can apply human principles to animal welfare,’ he says. ‘Those principles don’t have to be based on scientific evidence; they can be based on the morals and ethics of a society.’

Finally, here is a Moore Foundation grant recipient in Smriti Mallapaty’s For risky research with great potential, dive deep commenting on one of the Foundaton’s sensible research grant conditions:

‘Science has a rich history of not talking about what doesn’t work,’ says Wilhelm, a grant recipient …. ‘By sharing our failures, we have been able to help each other and avoid making the same mistakes over and over again’ … 

Another rich volume, with so much to offer, but I really must end here – or, I’ll be putting you all to sleep.

Challenge logo

Sara Phillips (ed)
The best Australian science writing 2020
Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2020
ISBN: 9781742245072 (ebook)

Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston, Trailblazers: 100 inspiring South Australian women (#BookReview)

South Australia, say the authors of the beautiful coffee-table book Trailblazers, “was an early leader in women’s rights, so it’s no surprise that it has produced an army of trailblazing, inspirational women”. However, they continue, their stories are not well enough told or known, hence this book!

As with any endeavour like this, it was a challenge to limit themselves to 100, but they did. The women they chose cover “an array of fields – from vineyards to laboratories, from the judiciary and politics to schoolrooms, charities and the stage”, with their influence ranging from local communities to the international stage. They make the point that not all the women they chose were born in South Australia or, alternatively, not all those who were born in South Australia made their mark there. They also make the point that although South Australia was the first Australian jurisdiction to grant women the vote and the right to stand for election, back in 1894, “the fight for a ‘fair go’ continues today”. This means, I’d argue, that the women in this book serve as both a record of what has been achieved and as inspirations for what still needs to be done.

Book cover

The women are ordered alphabetically, which is clever as it saves the need of an index (though an index would be good if you seek other information, like writers, politicians, activists, etc. There is an excellent bibliography at the back, organised by subject, so you can quickly check what sources were used for each woman. I was pleased to see, for example, that Desley Deacon who wrote the authoritative (I’d say) biography of Dame Judith Anderson (my review) was used for the Anderson piece. The sources include primary sources, like newspaper articles, from the subject’s time. The book – a heavy tome I must say – is also beautifully illustrated with plentiful photographs.

So, who is here? There are the feminists, of course, including 19th century born Muriel Matters (who was featured in Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom) and 20th century born Anne Summers (author of Damned whores and God’s police). There are the social reformers, such as Catherine Helen Spence who was also an early Australian woman “novelist, journalist, preacher and teacher”. Born in 1825, she was, as well, an early campaigner for women’s rights. On her 80th birthday in 1905, she described herself as “an awakened woman”:

Awakened in the sense of capacity and responsibility, not merely to family and the household, but to the State; to be used not for her own selfish interests, but that the world may be glad that she had been born.

South Australia has produced many women who have made significant political careers in Federal politics, such as, from recent times, Julie Bishop, Julia Gillard, (the late) Janine Haines, Natasha Stott Despoja and Penny Wong (listed alphabetically to avoid bias!). What a powerhouse of women. What is in South Australia’s water?

There are Indigenous Australian women, such as the activists Ruby Hammond and Lowitja O’Donoghue, Alice (Alitya) Rigney, Australia’s first female Aboriginal school principal, and Faith Thomas, the first Aboriginal woman selected for an Australian sporting team (cricket)

Australia’s beloved cook, Maggie Beer, and fashion icon, Maggie Taberer, are included, as is the Olympian, “Lithgow Flash” Marjorie Jackson, who, among other achievements, was South Australia’s governor from 2001 to 2007.

Book cover

And there are the writers, artists and performers. Mem Fox, author of the children’s classic Possum magic is an example. She was, writes the authors, “fired up over the need for more Australian stories for children”. But also included are the aforementioned actor Judith Anderson, writer Nancy Cato, artists Nora Heyson and Margaret Preston, composer Miriam Hyde, to name just a very few. I knew some of these were South Australian, others, like Margaret Preston, surprised me.

However, there are also the unsung, or lesser-known achievers. Medical workers, lawyers, educators, charity workers, activists and campaigners of all sorts, churchwomen, and more. I’ve never heard of environmentalist Barbara Hardy, or Pearl Wallace who became Australia’s first female riverboat captain in 1947 after passing “a gruelling three-day examination”. Gladys Sym Choon, described, simply, as an “entrepreneur”, was born in Unley in 1905 to Chinese parents. She opened her own store in Rundle Street, Adelaide, in 1923, believing herself to be the first woman in South Australia to incorporate. Doris Taylor, the founder of Meals on Wheels, was called “one of the great unsung heroines of Australia” by the late South Australian premier Don Dunstan.

There are so, so many stories here of women who have strived and achieved, often, of course, against immense odds. Because of its alphabetical arrangement, Trailblazers works more as a reference book, or one to dip into, rather than one telling “a story”, which it might have been under, say, a chronological arrangement or if ordered by spheres of activity or influence. The approach is, in a sense, encyclopaedic, providing brief biographies relevant to each woman’s reason for inclusion. This is not the place for whole-of-life, warts-and-all stories. Nor should it be, as that’s not its intention. However, the writing is bright, engaging and accessible. These authors want you to read about these women, so the pieces launch right in:

Living eight months a year on the Nullabor Plain while your dad hunts foxes and rabbits gives you a great backstory if you’re a kid with ambitions to be a country singer. (Country-singer Kasey Chambers)

OR

When Mary Miller went to work for the war effort in 1942, she was surprised to find her co-workers at the munitions factory were more afraid of their bosses than of the explosives. (Unionist, activist and teacher)

Published just days before last Christmas, Trailblazers probably didn’t make it under many trees, but it would be a great Christmas present for anyone interested in Australia’s trailblazing women, in South Australia’s settled history, or, in fact, in that of Australia as a whole. An enjoyable read.

Challenge logo

Carolyn Collins and Roy Eccleston
Trailblazers: 100 inspiring South Australian writers
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2019
311pp.
ISBN: 9781743056905

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)

Julia Baird, Phosphorescence (#BookReview)

Book cover

Much as I love watching Julia Baird on The Drum, and much as Mr Gums and I worried about her multiple cancer diagnoses and her extended journey to recovery over recent years, I’m not sure I would have read her book, Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark, if my reading group hadn’t scheduled it. However, we did schedule it, and I did read it. I found many of its ideas affirming or confirming, or, if not those, thought-provoking. In other words, although it feels like a self-help book which I usually avoid, I’m glad I read it.

Why? Her hope, which she shares late in the book, is pretty straightforward:

I wrote this book in the hope that it might be a salve for the weary, as well as a reminder of the mental rafts we can build to keep ourselves afloat, the scraps of beauty that should comfort us, the practices that might sustain us, especially in times of grief, illness, pain, and darkness. (p. 274)

She goes on to say that she understands that the things she’s shared, “stillness, kindness, the sea and ancient trees can hardly be a universal panacea for all the suffering on the planet”. This is true, but there is more to the book. In the Prelude, she describes her intention as being ‘to search for “the light within”, for what makes people shine’. What she shares, I’d say, will speak to each reader differently, according to our personal values, beliefs, and life experiences.

The book is divided into four main parts, focussing in turn on awe, wonder and silence; the importance of accepting and valuing failure and imperfection; the art and value of friendship; and the practice of looking and savouring, of paying attention to our inner strengths. Each of these explores its topic from three perspectives: documentary evidence from researchers, writers, philosophers; anecdotal evidence from people Baird knows or has spoken to; and, of course, her own personal experience.

It is an unusual hybrid of a book. Part book of essays, part memoir, and part quest (for “phosphorescence” or “the light within”), it sometimes felt more like a collection of random thoughts and ideas than the coherent argument I was expecting. This may be partly because several of the essays originated in previously published pieces, whose links are not immediately obvious. However, while this uncertainty was at the back of my mind as I was reading, it didn’t stop me enjoying each essay as it came along, because each had something interesting – and often heartfelt – to offer.

So, for the rest of this post I’m going to share some of the ideas that appealed to me and why.

Japanese thought, friendship, imperfection and doubt

First was the frequency with which she references Japanese thinking and aesthetics – and many of you know how much Mr Gums and I like Japan. The ideas, which are hard to put into Western words so my descriptions are loose, are Shinrin-yoku (or forest-bathing, the physiological/psychological benefits of being in the forest); Yūgen (mysterious or sublime, perhaps, experiences of beauty); Wabi-sabi (beauty in imperfection or transience, often characterised by asymmetry, roughness); Kintsugi/Kintsukuroi (repairing broken pottery visibly, so that the damage becomes part of its history and beauty); and Moai (the groups created among newborns in Okinawa to provide lifelong social support).

It’s not surprising that a nation that is generally known for values like stillness and stoicism, for preferring what novelist Juni’chirō Tanizaki calls “a pensive lustre to a shallow brilliance”, might have ideas relevant to a search for our “inner light”.

Anyhow, Moai was discussed in the section on friendship which is titled “We are walking each other home” (after Ram Dass). If there’s one image from the book that moved me it was this, the idea of “walking each other home”. It speaks of grace, tenderness and care, and of the way I’d like to think my friends, family and I are with each other. Baird’s section on friendship is beautiful .

In another evocatively titled section – “We are all wiggly” – Baird discusses failure and imperfection. Again, as in the other sections, she ranges over a wide range of ideas and examples, which are too numerous to share here, but they include honouring our failures, letting ourselves go (appearance-wise), and appreciating impermanence.

In the fourth section, Baird, a Christian, writes about faith and doubt. While I appreciated her discussion of her faith and what Christianity means to her, I most enjoyed her discussions of other forms of faith, hope and stoicism, and its corollary, doubt. Embracing doubt is valid, she argues, though she adds this aside:

(Although, seriously, if you can’t accept what the vast majority of scientists have to say about climate change, it’s not doubt that is your problem.)

I also enjoyed her exploration of the importance of searching for our “ert” (a term coined by marine biologist Lisa-ann Gershwin to oppose “inertia”).

In this section she also refers to Helen Garner and Tim Winton, Australian writers for whom faith is important, but whose thinking about it is personally rather than institutionally focused.

Setting a “low bar”

However, what struck me most was her articulation of a philosophy that I live by. It is, as described by psychologist Barry Schwartz, that “the secret to happiness is low expectations”. Or, at least, Baird adds, “realistic ones, erring on the low side”.

When it first dawned on me that this was how I managed my life, I was surprised. It didn’t seem to accord with my view of myself as an idealist, but I then realised that the two were not mutually exclusive. I could have high ideals of how we should all behave and treat each other but I could also not expect that we all would (all of the time). I worried that this might sound snooty, or holier than thou, but hoped not. For me, this approach encompasses the realisation that we don’t all come from the same place; we don’t all have the same experiences or values; we have not all had the same opportunities; and, perhaps most critically, many of the things that affect us are out of our control and that, to remain sane, I need to be able to accept them.

As I’ve been writing this post, it’s become clear to me that the book does, in fact, satisfy Baird’s goal of searching for “the light within” – even though, while reading it, I sometimes felt I was losing the overall plot as I followed her down multifarious paths. In retrospect, I’ve decided that this could be the book’s strength. Not only does it offer a variety of experiences and thinking, but it enables us to choose paths most suitable for us, paths that may change depending on our circumstances. I won’t be swimming with giant cuttlefish like Baird, but I’m very happy to bathe in the forest.

Challenge logo

Julia Baird
Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark
Sydney: Fourth Estate, 2020
310pp. (including 23 pages of Endnotes)
ISBN: 9781460757154

Chloe Hooper, The arsonist: A mind on fire (#BookReview)

Chloe Hooper, The ArsonistIt may not have been the most sensible decision to read Chloe Hooper’s book, The arsonist, during Australia’s worst-ever bushfire week, but in fact I picked it up a few days before the crisis became evident, and once I started I couldn’t put it down. The arsonist tells the story of the man arrested and tried for one of the major fires in the Black Saturday series of bushfires that ravaged much of Victoria in February 2009. I have often wondered how you identify how and where a fire started. Hooper answers much of this.

However, what made this book unputdownable was that Hooper adopted, as she did in The tall man, the narrative (or creative) nonfiction style to tell her story, and proved herself, again, to be a skilled exponent of this genre. For those not sure about this genre, Lee Gutkind’s definition, quoted in Wikipedia, is a good start: “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.” In other words, the information must be true or factual, but presented like a story.

Car in fire burnt bush

Bush, eastern Victoria, 9 mths after Black Saturday, 2009

Hooper structures her story like a classic three-act drama: I The detectives, II The lawyers, III The courtroom, followed by the Coda. She provides the facts – the whos, whens, wheres and whys – as much as they are known, but forms them into a narrative. So, after an opening paragraph which evocatively describes a fire-destroyed bush landscape, the second paragraph reads:

At the intersection of two nondescript roads, Detective Sergeant Adam Henry sits in his car taking in a puzzle. On one side of Glendonald Road, the timber plantation is untouched: pristine Pinus radiata, all sown at the same time, growing in immaculate green lines. On the other side, near where the road forms a T with a track named Jellef’s Outlet, stand rows of Eucalyptus globulus, the common blue gum cultivated the world over to make printer paper. All torched, as far as the eye can see. On Saturday 7 February 2009, around 1.30pm, a fire started somewhere near here and now, late on Sunday afternoon, it is still burning several kilometres away.

You can see, in this, that we are being invited in to see what her “character” Detective Henry is seeing, but we are also given very specific facts. The next paragraph, provides some personal background to this first “character” in her story:

Detective Henry has a new baby, his first, a week out of hospital. The night before, he had been called back from paternity leave for a 6 am meeting …

As Part I progresses, we meet other police officers and forensic experts; we travel with them as they investigate the fire itself and then follow leads to the most likely suspect; and we are with them as they interview this suspect and arrest him for the crime. We also meet many victims who lost family members and/or property. Their stories are heartrending – excruciating, in fact, as I wrote in the margins – and were particularly hard to read, with similar losses occurring in Australia right now.

Using a similar narrative technique in Part II – providing facts, and describing the “characters” and their feelings – Hooper then introduces us to the Legal Aid lawyers, or one lawyer in particular, brought in to defend the accused. As she does this, our allegiance and sympathies shift a bit from the hardworking police to the hardworking lawyer – and, perhaps even, to her client who, only now, at this point in his life, is finally diagnosed as autistic, which provides a previously missing context for his strange responses and behaviours. And then, finally, in the third “act” or part, these two – the police and the legal team – come head to head in court, with our allegiances swaying between the two as they tussle it out, until the jury delivers its verdict.

The Coda, “set” some years later, contains Hooper’s reflections on the aftermath and some commentary on the process. For example, it’s clear that she had researched the case, had visited the fire region many times, including soon after the arrest, and had interviewed many of the participants, but, like Helen Garner in her three major narrative nonfiction works, had not managed to speak to the person at the centre, in this case, Brendan Sokaluk, the arsonist. Her request is refused, for understandable reasons. She was, she writes, both “disappointed” and “relieved”. Would speaking to him, she wonders, answer the book’s central question of “why”, and, even if he were able to explain why,

would understanding why Brendan lit a fire make the next deliberate inferno any more explicable? Or preventable? I now know there isn’t a standardised Arsonist. There isn’t a distinct part of the brain marked by a flame. There is only a person who feels spiteful, or lonely, or anxious, or enraged, or bored, or humiliated: all the things that can set a mind – any mind – on fire.

And there, I suppose, is the multiple tragedy of this story: the tragedy of a man ridiculed and bullied all his life for being different; the tragedy of a community that isn’t very good at managing people who are different; the tragedy of the conflagration (in this case a fire, but it could be anything) that can result when the two collide; and the overriding tragedy that there are no simple answers to arson.

Now, I fear you might think that I have given the “story” away and that you therefore need not read it. But, you don’t read The arsonist for the “story”. After all, this is nonfiction and the basic “story” is known. You read it for the insights that a fine mind (not a mind on fire!) like Hooper’s can bring to the situation. What she brings is both clarity about the facts and a nuanced understanding of what they mean. The arsonist is, as everyone’s been saying, an excellent read.

Lisa’s (ANZLitLovers) review of this book includes information from a festival conversation session featuring Hooper.

Challenge logoChloe Hooper
The arsonist: A mind of fire
Hamish Hamilton, 2018
254pp.
ISBN: 9780670078189

Kim Scott, Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956 (#BookReview)

Book CoverDo you have a favourite house that you lived in? I do. It’s the lovely old Queenslander my family lived in for most of my primary school years. It was in Sandgate, Brisbane, and I still have vivid memories of those days, and that house and garden. Kim Scott, the author of Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956, also has such a house, the one her family moved into in Katherine when she was three years old. It was a 1956-built Type D1 N.T.A. (Northern Territory Administration) house and she loved it so much that many years later, she bought herself a similar house, a Type L “New Series” house.

The thing about these houses – like my Queenslander – is that they were built for the tropical climate. For a start, they were elevated, and had louvres, both of which facilitate the management of airflow so essential to cooling. The effect of this is that they are comfortable to live in – and are energy efficient – but what Scott most loves is “the feeling of the outside coming in” that comes with this design. It’s none too soon, I’d say, to produce a book about building environmentally-suited houses, particularly when, even in Katherine apparently, the ubiquitous brick house has been taking over. Scott is very aware of this as she writes in her introduction:

My hope is that the historical significance of these first, high quality, permanent houses, which are a key part of Katherine’s housing career will be recognised. Additionally, I hope they might spark some interest in the construction of houses that are more suitable for living in the tropics and for the remote living conditions of outlying communities. Houses that use easily available, sustainable materials and are designed with a smaller footprint, specifically to make the most of the environment, as an alternative to the brick and concrete housing built today.

Now, a book like this risks being very dry but, while a lot of information is imparted in this just-over-100-page book, Scott’s personal engagement with the subject enables her to inject the book with some local flavour, with a sense of who lived in (including her own family) and built these houses. The book is logically structured, and liberally illustrated as you really want in a book like this. There are copies of original plans, old and contemporary photographs, and artist’s illustrations by Scott herself. The book starts with a brief history of tropical architecture in Australia, including the work of Beni Burnett in Darwin in the 1930s. (We loved seeing his houses there, in Myilly Point.) She then writes about land ownership in Katherine and the Commonwealth government’s housing program for Katherine, before getting onto more practical matters:

  • the house designs and plans;
  • the building contractors;
  • the building materials; and
  • the provision of essential services (like water, electricity, sewerage and rubbish collection).

In her final chapter, “Living in Commonwealth houses”, she shares her family’s experience of living in these houses, using both her own memories and documentary and verbal evidence from her family.

Scott also refers, at times, to the “local Aboriginal people”, noting, for example, some ongoing hurts “from Aboriginal families who owned titled property in Katherine but could not produce the title after the war, so lost their land”. Early in the book she notes that there is no heritage protection for the government tropical houses still remaining in Katherine. Maybe this book will provide an argument for rectifying this oversight!

It’s clear that this book was a real labour of love, one that Scott worked on for a long time. One of the things I greatly enjoyed about reading it was her sharing of her research process, not only because it was interesting but because it also assures the reader that the work is as authoritative as she could make it. There were many reasons why the book took a long time to write, one of which was being told, falsely as it turned out, that the original houseplans for these government designed and built houses had been lost during Cyclone Tracy. She engaged family members in the on-the-ground information gathering process in Katherine; she scoured archives and libraries in Adelaide, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Perth, as well as Darwin; and she read books on the subject, such as David Bridgman’s on Beni Burnett (BCG Burnett, architect). I loved her comment, after describing yet another serendipitous discovery, that she “was beginning to feel the whole process was dependent on the serendipity phenomenon”. I suspect that research is often like this, particularly in the early stages of projects that don’t have obvious (or easily available) paths to follow.

In her Conclusion, Scott returns to the points I quoted from her Introduction, but this time with a more personal spin. She writes:

If we had continued to build tropical housing that was specifically designed for Katherine’s climate, we would today have a town with a unique architectural style. One that perhaps may have drawn more people to our town and projected a more open, inclusive image of Katherine. I have seen the town develop from elevated, open homes with little privacy and security, with windows and doors flung open, to solid brick houses with their thick walls and windows tightly shut and barred. I know what image I would rather see.

Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956 is a self-published book, but Scott has done the sensible thing and used a graphic designer and an editor. The result is a book that is nicely produced and that makes an excellent contribution to both the history of Northern Territory architecture and the local history of Katherine. Scott’s labour of love has, I’d say, borne worthwhile fruit of which she can be proud.

AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeKim Scott
Katherine’s tropical housing precinct 1946-1956
Katherine: Kim Scott, 2019
103pp.
ISBN: 9781642045420

David Brooks, The grass library (#BookReview)

Book coverOK, I’m going to show my hand here. I love animals – and hate animal cruelty – but I am not vegan. More to the point though, I am cautious about animal rights activists because they can sometimes act out the very violence and cruelty on humans that they condemn for non-human animals. I was, therefore, a little wary when I was offered for review David Brooks’ book, The grass library. However, Brooks, a poet/novelist/essayist/academic/one-time co-editor of Southerly, has enough cred that I decided to take a chance. I’m glad I did – just as I was glad to have read, three years ago, Bidda Jones and Julian Davies’ more targeted animal rights book Backlash: Australia’s conflict of values over live exports (my review).

The publisher’s letter accompanying my review copy quoted the Sydney Morning Herald’s description of Brooks as “one of Australia’s most skilled, unusual and versatile writers”. It is the combination of this writing skill, with the thoughts contained within, that makes The grass library such an engaging and provocative read.

Although there is no doubt about the author’s commitment to his cause, The grass library is not an in-your-face polemical book. Instead, it is a thoughtful work in which Brooks, now a committed vegan and animal rights advocate – advocate being, perhaps, a more appropriate word than activist – works through his practical, philosophical and ethical position. And he does so in a way that encourages us to think along, and to wonder about and question our own thoughts, practices and values.

The book is part-memoir, part-reflection. It starts with Brooks’ partner, simply called T in the book, pronouncing that she can’t eat meat anymore. “We’re turning vegetarian”, she says. A week later, that becomes vegan. And so, a big change occurs in their lives, one that takes oyster- and cheese-loving Brooks not too long, in fact, to get used to. Brooks writes, heralding the book’s real subject-matter:

But this book isn’t about veganism, or guilt. If I’d permitted myself a more eighteenth-century subtitle it might have been “An account of three years pf philosophical and un-philosophical transactions with animals in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales”, but ultimately and more simply it’s about discovery and wonder: wonder and wondering.

After a couple of false starts, Brooks and T find themselves, in 2012, living on a small farm in the Blue Mountains, with their recently adopted dog Charlie, and, soon after, two rescue sheep, Henry and Jonathan. Not long after that, a new-born lamb, Orpheus Pumpkin, joins them, and by the end of the book, ram Jason brings the number to four. These sheep and Charlie form the book’s backbone and become (or, should I say in the spirit of the book, are) characters in their own right. Other non-human animals appear too, some briefly, including cicadas, ducklings, a snake, and rats.

What I most enjoyed about this book is the calm, non-histrionic way in which Brooks introduces and ponders on a range of random-sounding but coherent-as-the-book-progresses ideas, such as “dusk anxiety” and “herd music”. “Dusk anxiety” is introduced early on through a twitching that Charlie was exhibiting at that time of day. It’s a sort of mood-change or discombobulation that some humans (and, Brooks believes, some non-human animals like Charlie) feel at that strange twilight, half-and-half time of day. Sounds valid to me. However, it also provides Brooks an opportunity to raise the issue of anthropomorphism. His argument is that anthropomorphism is not a bad thing, that in fact, it is central to empathy. The barbarity we engage in against animals is made possible, he argues, by denying this empathy, by believing “that we are so different from the creatures we live amongst that we cannot know or even hazard how they feel.” To read this book, then, you need to understand (if not accept) this fundamental world-view. Brooks may not know what the non-human animals he writes of feel, but he writes with the assumption that they do feel (and that we may know what they feel).

Another significant idea underpinning the book is that of the binary way we view animals. This idea is one of the most confronting or, at least, challenging in the book:

There are so many old, rusty binaries involved here. […]

We categorise animals, and behave towards them – accord or refuse them protection or sanctuary – depending on whether we see them as wild or tame, feral or domesticated, native or exotic, rare or common, endangered or of least concern, pet or pest, livestock or otherwise …

In most of these cases, he says, one side of the binary will be given a higher “value” (in human terms), with, often, a justification to kill the opposing side. For each animal concerned though it is his/her life!

It’s not for nothing, I think, that the next chapter talks about rats at their farm!

This discussion of binaries is part of a major thread in the book, which is language, and how it “trips” us up, how it “will restrict us, hold us back, if we don’t learn to use it with greater care and respect”. Language is all too often speciesist, he argues. Grammar – the use of “it” for a non-human animal, for example – is violent, for example, or, at least, has the potential for violence.

It’s a book, then, that makes the brain hurt – albeit in a gentle, encouraging way. However, there is beauty in the book too, such as the chapter on “herd music”. This chapter starts in his writing room, his “grass library”, and is inspired by the appearance outside his room of the two sheep when (and only when) he plays music. He ponders this. They are herd animals, but being just two rescue sheep, they have no herd and are thus deprived of, he posits, the music of the herd:

… if music it can be called (but how else to call it?): the sound of hooves shifting in the grass or tapping on stone, the occasional bleat of a lamb, response of its mother, grunt or growl or call of a ewe or a ram, the sound of snipping at grass-blades, coughs, throat-clearings, nudgings, strokings, as one sheep passes another, regurgitations, ruminant chewings, fartings, belches, sounds nearer and further off, all in all a constant, rolling concert, approximated—very distantly resembled, in a bizarre, post-something way— by the muted rhythmical under-music of whatever it is that I might be playing on the stereo system in my cabin, an aural equivalent of warmth, the ghost of companionship.

I share this because I loved this, but also because it provides some insight into the way Brooks thinks (or wonders.)

I can’t say I agree with all that Brooks writes. For example, as vegans, he and T didn’t want to feed their rescue lamb lactose-based lamb powder, so they seek non-animal products like almond milk (which doesn’t, for the record, work). But, but, I say, lambs grow on milk! And then, of course, there are those binaries. Philosophically I take his point, but practically? I need to think about this more.

The grass library, then, can be a confronting read because it challenges us to reconsider some fundamental perspectives and assumptions. However, it is not a difficult read, because not only is it generous, but it is also peppered with engaging stories about life in the mountains and the non-human animals with whom Brooks and T. live. I recommend it.

Lisa (ANZLitLovers) also enjoyed this book.

David Brooks
The grass library
[Blackheath]: Brandl & Schlesinger
221pp.
ISBN: 9780648202646

(Review copy courtesy Brandl & Schlesinger)