Biff Ward, The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War (#BookReview)

Biff Ward’s The third chopstick was my reading group’s October selection. It’s the second book by Ward that we’ve done, the first being her memoir, In my mother’s hands (my review), about growing up with her academic father, the historian Russel Ward, and her mentally ill mother, at a time when mental illness was shameful and to be hidden. It was a moving book that engendered an engaged and wide-ranging discussion. Biff Ward, in fact, attended that meeting.

The third chopstick is another personal book, but one that’s not so easy to classify. I would describe it as hybrid memoir-creative nonfiction. Memoir, because it’s about her experience as an anti-Vietnam war protester who later chose to meet Vietnam veterans and listen to their stories. And creative nonfiction, because, although nonfiction, it uses some of the devices of fiction to engage its readers. These include hinging her story around one particular vet, Ray, whom she describes as her “muse”, her “archetypal veteran”, her conduit, perhaps, to “the missing piece”. His story, combined with his powerful presence, gives the book its compelling, narrative drive.

The implication of what I’m saying here is that while The third chopstick is historical it is not an academic history. Although Ward did the historian thing, and conducted recorded interviews with vets, she does not attempt to present an “authoritative” analysis of protesters or of vets, but a thoughtful, personal quest. It has no footnotes, although there is a selected reading list at the end, and there’s no index. This is not to say, however, that it doesn’t add to our understanding of history, because it certainly does.

The book has a logical, and more or less chronological, structure, though there is criss-crossing of timelines where appropriate. It has three main parts – Protest, Veterans, Vietnam – which are bookended by a Prologue and Epilogue. In Protest, Ward describes her life as a protester, and introduces us to her ongoing interest in Vietnam long after the war ended. In Veterans, she introduces us to the veterans she met and interviewed, shares their stories and experiences, and reflects on these. Finally, in Vietnam, she discusses post-war Vietnam, including how Vietnamese people have processed, and live with, what happened. She has visited the country many times – as a sole tourist, on war-themed tours, and as a tour leader herself. On some of those visits, she either accompanied or met vets. Through these postwar connections, she starts to bring together her central questions concerning how we Australians got caught up in this, and what it did to us – as a nation, as individuals – though, of course, there are no simple answers.

“a scrambled snarl”

A bit over halfway through the book, while interviewing Nick, an SAS veteran of the war, Ward confronts the issue of “killing”. Nick’s story causes her to think about that and, thence, her stance as a pacifist. She realises she’d never really grappled with it. She had, she writes, a ‘”natural” antipathy to killing, a generalised kind of pacifism which yearns for peace’ but she also believed that, if needed, she would strive as hard as she could to defend “me and mine”. Her pacifism was “a scrambled snarl of thoughts and feelings”. She doesn’t explore this further, as it’s not the subject of the book, but …

… I liked this expression because what her book does is explore just what “a scrambled snarl” war is, whichever way you look at it. I particularly liked her various reflections on war. She makes the point early on that it is well known that war takes years to recover from. Vet Graham tells her that medieval knights “used to go into a monastery after being on a crusade”. He himself had, after leaving the army, been ill; he’d been in hospital and at a health farm, before spending “thirteen years, mostly alone, making music, keeping quiet”. By the time Ward met him, he was working with the Federation for Vietnam veterans.

Throughout the book, then, Ward reflects on war in general, but I’ll just share a couple that captured my attention, both resulting from her reading of Ray’s journal, where he expresses the trauma he experienced. It leads Ward to suggest “that the truth of all war is only these depthless oceans of grief”. A few pages later, she discusses “moral injury”, which “refers to an injury to the soul, to morality, to what can happen when a soldier has to do something against his own sense of what is right and wrong.” The injury done to Ray is immense.

Ward may not have intended this, but her book also functions, at least a little, as a cautionary tale, because she shows how easy it is to believe you are doing the right thing when you protest for a humane cause, and be oblivious to the potential for unintended consequences. The anti-Vietnam War protesters’ beef was with the government and its policies, but the result, as we all know now, was that the soldiers who went to Vietnam were vilified – not so much by the core protesters but by others who took their ideas on without understanding the politics. Ward shares some of the facts and myths about how it played out.

Ward also discusses those other two big fall-outs from this particular war – Agent Orange and its ongoing impact on the health of both soldiers and Vietnamese people, and PTSD, which she describes as the Vietnam vets’ gift to the world.

What makes this book a particularly good read, besides all this subject matter, is the language, which mixes journalistic-style reportage with more evocative writing. There’s too much to share, but here’s one describing her experience of transcribing Ray’s journal:

As I transferred his words from the page to pixels on my screen, they sometimes spiralled off and pranced about the room like leering pixies.

(This sometimes necessitated her needing to take a break!)

Here’s an appropriate point to explain the title, because it came from Ray, as she explains in Chapter 2. While in a restaurant, he places two chopsticks in parallel lines, about two centimetres apart, across a bowl, and names the space between the two as “normal life … where people get born and grow up …” etc. Then, he takes another chopstick (“the third chopstick”), places it parallel to the others, the same distance apart, and says

The veteran lives here, alongside but separate, see? He can see this life, he pointed back to the first space. He can see what other people are doing, but he can’t join in. He doesn’t know the rules anymore. It might look like like garbage to him. It’s got no connection to what’s happening inside him, see?

The secret, Ray continues, is for the veteran to be able to handle both “his own stuff” and join in. There’s a little more to it but that’s the gist.

    Lest you be thinking so, The third chopstick is not just relevant to those who lived through the Vietnam War era. As I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking about a war that is happening right now. Near the end, Ward writes:

    So even today, for the People of the Bag*, the mountains and the rivers, the land and the water and their interconnectedness are concepts integral to the way Vietnamese conceive of themselves. And, I chucke to myself, those men in Washington and Canberra thought they could somehow beat them, that the People of the Bag would eventually give up? Really?

    Given its origins in a leftie anti-Vietnam war protester who went on to engage openly and genuinely with soldiers involved in that very war, The third chopstick is quite an astonishing book. For anyone interested in the complex experience of war, it makes excellent reading. All eleven who attended my reading group agreed.

    * The Vietnamese, from their Creation Myth

    Biff Ward
    The third chopstick: Tracks through the Vietnam War
    Penrith: IndieMosh, 2022
    313pp.
    ISBN: 9781922812025

    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

    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

    Non-fiction November 2019, Weeks 1 to 3

    Meme logoI’m a relative latecomer to Non-fiction November, but I like to take part in some way because I do like and read non-fiction. However, I don’t have the time to fully take part, so as in previous years, I plan to do a couple of concatenated posts.

    The meme is jointly hosted by Julz (Julz Reads) (Week 1), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves) (Week 2), Katie (Doing Dewey) (Week 3), Leanne (ShelfAware) (Week 4) and Rennie (What’s Nonfiction) (Week 5).

    Week 1: (Oct. 28 to Nov. 1) (Julz ReadsYour Year in Nonfiction:

    There are several questions for this week, but I’m just going to answer a couple …

    What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

    My year starts at the end of last November. I’ve not read a lot of non-fiction, but have read a lot of really interesting non-fiction! I’m choosing three highlights:

    • The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (my review): because it’s a biography that also explores the history and ethics of science, as well as social justice and racism. It’s the whole package really.
    • Axiomatic, by Maria Tumarkin (my review): because, again, social justice is at its core, and it forces us to rethink those maxims that we trot out, often without thinking about them too deeply.
    • You daughters of freedom, by Clare Wright (my review): because it illuminates how progressive Australia was at the time of our Federation, and the significant role played by women, nationally and internationally, in that progressive thought and action.

    Do you have a particular topic you’ve been attracted to more this year?

    I wouldn’t say this is a topic I’ve been particularly attracted to this year, but I have had a long, ongoing interest in the stories and rights of Indigenous Australians, and try to keep my reading up in this area. This year, in terms of non-fiction regarding Indigenous Australians, I read Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia (my review) and Stan Grant’s On identity (my review). I also read Neil H Atkinson’s The last wild west (my review), in which he chronicles his enlightenment of the injustices under which Indigenous Australians live.

    Week 2: (Nov. 4 to 8) (Sarah’s Bookshelves) Book Pairing:

    “This week, pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction title. It can be a “If you loved this book, read this!” or just two titles that you think would go well together. Maybe it’s a historical novel and you’d like to get the real history by reading a nonfiction version of the story.”

    Clare Wright, You daughters of freedomI love this week of the Challenge, because for as long as I can remember I’ve enjoyed seeing connections between my reading. However, because I’m doing three weeks in one, I’m going to do just one pairing, and it pairs two books I’ve read this year, Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom (my review) which chronicles the women’s suffrage movement in Australia with Sue Ingleton’s Making trouble: Tongue with fire (my review) which tells the story of two women’s rights advocates, Harriet Elphinstone Dick and Alice C Moon.

    Book coverBoth these books focus on the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, though Ingleton’s ends right at the beginning of the twentieth century. Ingleton’s Dick and Moon weren’t actively involved in the suffrage movement, but they were passionate advocates of the rights of women and of women’s ability to live independent lives, and they, particularly Moon, met and associated with early Sydney leaders of the suffrage movement, like Rose Scott and Louisa Lawson, who feature in Wright’s book.

    Week 3: (Nov. 11 to 15) (Doing Dewey) Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert:

    Either share 3 or more books on a single topic that you have read and can recommend (be the expert) … [or] put the call out for good nonfiction on a specific topic that you have been dying to read (ask the expert) or … create your own list of books on a topic that you’d like to read (become the expert).

    Hmm, except that I wouldn’t and couldn’t call myself an expert, I could choose Indigenous Australian rights and lives, and repeat the three books I listed under Week 1’s particular topic question. I will stay with this idea, and share some more books I’d like to read, but with the proviso that I, as a non-indigenous person, could never actually become the expert. Some non-fiction indigenous works I’d like to read include:

    • Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza: Power and colonial storytelling (Lisa’s ANZLitLovers review): this book which explores/exposes early writing about Indigenous Australians has been on my TBR for a few years now. I hope to read it for Lisa’s 2020 Indigenous Literature Week.
    • Stan Grant’s Australia Day (my post on a conversation with Stan Grant): having heard the conversation, I’d now like to read the book!
    • Alexis Wright’s Tracker (Bill’s The Australian Legend review) which won the Stella Prize in 2018, and which appeals for its story of a strong but controversial Indigenous Australian activist and for its “take” on biography/memoir.

    (I am early with Week 3, but I figure that balances the fact that I’m very late with Week 1. I hope I’ll be forgiven.)

    Maria Tumarkin, Axiomatic (#BookReview)

    Maria Tumarkin, AxiomaticA couple of weeks ago, I posted a guest post by Amanda for Maria Tumarkin’s book of essays, Axiomatic. At the time that post was negotiated, I had no immediate plans to read the book myself, but that changed when Brother Gums and family gave me a copy for Christmas …

    Now, if you are a regular reader here, you may remember that Amanda had mixed feelings about the book. She liked the writing, and found the analysis was “at its best in the first three sections when dealing with complex social issues”. But, she found the book “unrelenting”, “not balanced or fair”, and ultimately nihilistic in not offering hope or, to put it simply, ways forward. She concluded by asking what Tumarkin wanted to achieve with the book. Having now read the book, all of these comments make sense to me, but my response is more positive. Perhaps it’s because this Ukrainian-born Australian Tumarkin reminds me of Helen Garner whose bold, clear-eyed writing about tricky subjects I greatly appreciate. Indeed, Garner is quoted on the back of my edition, describing Tumarkin as charging “headlong into the worst and best of us, with an iron refusal to soften or decorate…” That’s Garner, and that’s Tumarkin.

    Axiomatic comprises five long essays, each interrogating an axiom:

    • time heals all wounds
    • those who forget the past are condemned to re–––––
    • history repeats itself
    • give me a child before the age of seven and I will show you the woman
    • you can’t enter the same river twice

    As you’ve probably worked out by now, Tumarkin doesn’t unquestionably accept these axioms, showing them instead to be simplistic or misguided, if not, false.

    In the first essay, she explores the notion that “Time heals all wounds” through the prism of teenage suicide. At one point she references psychologist Erminia Colucci’s study of “attitudes to suicide and suicidal thoughts among young people in Italy, Australia, India”, and adds, in parentheses:

    (There are intellectually rigorous reasons for her choice of countries. There are lovely simple ones too: ‘I am Italian. I love Australia. I am fascinated by India.’)

    This description could also be applied to Tumarkin’s rather idiosyncratic approach to her book. There is intellectual rigour – at least to the best of my knowledge and experience – but it also frequently feels personal, subjective, drawing on stories that interest her, that relate to her experiences, and that may not, initially anyhow, seem the most obvious choices. A lot of names – like Colucci’s, for example – are given, but this is not a foot-noted academic book, so you need to use your search engine if you want to check out the authorities she invokes. All this suggests that the book belongs to the creative non-fiction genre, one for which Garner, too, is well recognised. Amanda described Tumarkin’s writing as “a powerful composite of investigative journalism, analytical thinking and literary technique”. I’d agree, and add “personal reflection”.

    But, now, how to discuss this complicated, rather slippery book? Discuss each of the essays, teasing out the ideas Tumarkin explores? Choose just one essay, and use it to discuss Tumarkin’s approach? Or, just focus on some specific aspects of the book that stood out for me? I’m opting for the latter.

    What most appealed to me is the iconoclastic way Tumarkin thinks, the way she looks behind the assumptions we make, confronting the platitudes, or the way she asks questions from different (but often logical) angles. Regarding adolescent suicide in “Time heals all wounds”, for example, she identifies the nature of adolescence itself:

    … one of adolescence’s constants is not knowing what’s happening inside you. And by extension not knowing what you’re capable of.

    How do schools, society, handle this inherently unstable nature of adolescence? Then there’s the current “untreated depression” model of suicide causation, an explanation more common, Colucci tells her, in Australia than in Italy and India. What are the implications of this? This is a powerful essay – offering no resolution or answers. Just questions. I’d argue, though, that there’s value in that. Without asking the right questions, there can be no answers?

    In “History repeats itself”, Tumarkin applies her pen to the justice system and the way it treats “offenders”, the way it assumes that they’ll re-offend, and then behaves, treats them, accordingly. It’s devastating – and certainly discomforts those of us, including herself she admits, living “cushy middle-class” lives.

    Tumarkin discusses how offenders fall through the cracks. For example, she writes:

    It’s a real issue, how to keep people real. And not make them into catchphrases for banners, appendixes to principles … Many of those who advocate on behalf of others don’t want a connection with those they are advocating for.

    And yet, there are paradoxes, she sees, in connecting. Beware what you start if you can’t see it through. What, for example, does giving up drugs do to a person whose whole life is bound up in that community? What indeed? Do you have an answer?

    (An aside: I can’t resist mentioning here that the idea of “connecting” recurs several times in the book, reminding me of EM Forster’s Howards End and its theme, “only connect”.)

    Then there’s the notion of “knowing [my emphasis] your life is precious” and the assumption that that is “the default state of the human psyche”. But

    How about all those people for whom their life does not feel precious? Why not is often the easy bit to get [and she then catalogues the reasons why not]. A harder question is can the feeling your life’s worth shit be fixed, whether from outside in, or inside out? Can it? All the services offering legal aid, food, counselling, employment (tedious employment), shelter, they cannot get close to this worth-shit feeling … I mean this feeling’s impervious to being messed with, it is too deep and diffused … And when this feeling is there it skews the survival instinct  …

    “History repeats itself” also provides examples of another feature of the book – its writing. There are perfect (often gut-wrenching) descriptions like this:

    Perhaps one way of putting it is that many of Vanda’s [her main “guide” in this essay] clients live their lives on a highway where they are repeatedly hit by passing trucks. As they are bandaging their wounds, cleaning them out with rainwater, putting bones back into sockets, another truck’s coming.

    Beyond this, the writing is varied, and rather eccentric, slipping from formal perfection, dialogue and narrative, to, at times, idiosyncratic syntax and punctuation that stop you in your tracks, forcing you to think about what she is saying. Compounding this are digressions and odd juxtapositions which also keep the grey matter exercised.

    There is so much more to say about the content, style, thought processes, and inspirations for the book, not to mention the ‘yes’ moments – so many of those – but I’ll close with what I see as a unifying idea running through the five essays – the past. How the past affects us, how we perceive and deal with it. I’m not sure I fully grasped her meaning on one reading – and maybe there is no one meaning. But I sense she’s saying that although the past is significant, although it doesn’t “disappear”, we are not – to quote one of her contacts – “all sum totals of our histories.” That idea is too simplistic – and yet is the way it is too often viewed, which limits us, repeatedly, in our interactions with each other, personally, politically and systemically.

    Axiomatic is, for me, a compassionate work. While Amanda sees it as lacking hope, I see it as realistic. True, it doesn’t offer answers. As Vanda says, “there are no fairytale endings.” Why not, Tumarkin asks. “Because,” replies Vanda, “people are people.” And that, I’d say, is the fundamental humanity of this slippery, uncomfortable, provocative book.

    AWW Challenge 2019 BadgeMaria Tumarkin
    Axiomatic
    Brow Books, 2018
    201pp.
    ISBN: 9781925704051

    Non-fiction November 2018, Weeks 4 and 5

    Non-fiction November 2018Well, bizarrely, I did the first three weeks from 2016 for my first Non-fiction November of 2018 post! I won’t revisit those – they’re similar topics to this year’s anyhow – but I’m back on track for this post. Non-fiction November, if you haven’t guessed, involves celebrating non-fiction for the month, with each week focusing on a specific issue, question or topic. This year’s meme is being hosted by Katie (Doing Dewey), Kim (Sophisticated Dorkiness), Rennie (What’s Nonfiction), Julz (JulzReads), and Sarah (Sarah’s Bookshelves). 

    As with my first post which covered weeks 1 to 3, I’m combining weeks 4 and 5 into one post and am publishing it during the weekend between the two weeks.

    Week 4: (Nov. 19 to 23) – Reads Like Fiction (Rennie @ What’s Nonfiction)

    This topic essentially asks whether we like a form of non-fiction called “narrative” or “creative non-fiction”, which Wikipedia describes as “writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives.”

    Well, in a word, yes – I do – very much. If that makes me sound soft, then so be it, but I’d argue that non-fiction writer using literary styles and techniques to engage readers doesn’t automatically weaken the seriousness or worthiness of their content. Commenting on a previous post of mine, historian Yvonne Perkins quoted historian Penny Russell who said that “Writing history… is a creative art. It requires empathy, intuition, a keen sense of drama and pathos, a distinct narrative flair.”

    Helen Garner, This house of grief book cover

    So, who (or what) are my favourites? One of the internationally recognised exponents of this form is the Australian writer, Helen Garner, whom I started reading long before blogging. Her books Joe Cinque’s consolation and This house of grief are excellent examples, and she influenced, I believe, younger Australian writers, like Chloe Hooper (The tall man) and Anna Krien (Into the woods and Night games). In these books the narrative drive comes from the writer’s involvement in the “story”, in their taking us along in their thinking and investigation. And to be not entirely ethnocentric, I’ll name one excellent non-Australian author I’ve read, albeit some years ago – Erik Larson and his book Isaac’s storm.

    Michelle Scott Tucker, Elizabeth MacarthurTurning to this year, most of my non-fiction reading has been biography, which lends itself to this “creative” approach though not all biographers do adopt it. Two that I’ve read this year did, however, Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner and Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world. Krasnostein achieves it by being part of the journey, by using a creative structure interweaving her subject’s past with her present life, and by evocative language which uses the sort of imagery more common in fiction. Tucker, on the other hand, takes the more traditional straight chronological approach, but she encourages us to engage with Elizabeth Macarthur the woman, rather than present her to us as a fait accompli. There are gaps in Macarthur’s story. For example, we might know what happened, but not, perhaps, how or why, so Tucker uses her imagination – and makes it clear she’s doing to – to consider the situation. Here’s an example:

    No. The most likely source is Elizabeth Macarthur, once more trying to mitigate her husband’s wilder misjudgements. But we have to imagine it: a hushed yet heated conversation with Edward to send him flying out after Oakes and then a vain attempt to placate and soothe John …

    This is a thoroughly researched and documented biography, but written with a narrative, dare I say, novelist’s flair.

    Week 5: (Nov. 26 to 30) – New to My TBR (Katie @ Doing Dewey)

    Unfortunately, like last year, and although I’ve been reading several participants’ posts, I haven’t added anything to my TBR as a result of these November posts, because – and it’s a big because – I have so much already on that pile, including, most recently:

    • Peter Ackroyd’s Dominion (History of England V)
    • Elizabeth Kleinhenz’s Germaine: The life of Germaine Greer (about which I have also posted recently)
    • Clare Wright’s You daughters of freedom (currently reading, and about which I have already posted)

    However, if I were looking for book ideas, I’d probably go back to some of “expert” posts. What a variety of topics – from Kate (booksaremyfavouriteandbest) on Empathy to Debbie (ExUrbanis) on Downsizing and Making Major Life Changes, from Buried In Print’s call for good non-fiction books on Indigenous Storytellers to Brona (Brona’s books) wanting more on the French Revolution (which reminds me that I must go recommend something!) To name just a few!

    Meanwhile, I’d love your comments on any of the above, but particularly your thoughts on non-fiction that reads like fiction. Do you like it? And if so, do you have any you’d recommend?

    Non-fiction November 2018, Weeks 1 to 3

    I’m not sure how long Non-fiction November has been happening in the blogosphere, but I first became aware of it last year. It runs for a month, with a different set of questions posed for each week of the month. Last year I concatenated my responses into two posts, one for weeks 1 to 3, and the other for weeks 4 to 5. I’m going to do the same this year.

    The meme is jointly hosted this year by Katie (Doing Dewey), Lory (Emerald City Book Review), Sarah (Sarah’s Book Shelves), Rachel (Hibernator’s Library) and Julz (Julz Reads).

    Week 1: (Oct 31-Nov 4) (KatieYour Year in Nonfiction: 

    There are several questions for this week, but, like last year, I’m just going to answer a couple …

    What was your favorite nonfiction read of the year?

    Now, last year, I read a disproportionate amount of non-fiction (in terms of my reading preferences, that is), and said that I would like to right the balance somewhat this year. I like non-fiction – a lot – but I don’t want it to overtake fiction as it nearly did last year. Well, this year I sure have righted it, with, so far, non-fiction representing around 15% of my reading to date – mostly biographies and autobiographies/memoirs.

    There are three standouts: Michelle Scott Tucker’s Elizabeth Macarthur: A life at the edge of the world (my review), Nadia Wheatley’s Her mother’s daughter (my review), and Sarah Krasnostein’s The trauma cleaner (my review). If I were forced to choose just one, I would have to go for The trauma cleaner for the sheer chutzpah of its subject against terrible odds and for the clever structure Krasnostein uses to tell the story.

    What is one topic or type of nonfiction you haven’t read enough of yet? 

    The same as last year – literary biographies – closely followed by Australian history.

    Week 2: (Nov 7 – 11) – (Rachel) Choosing Nonfiction

    Again, there are several questions and I’ll share them all: What are you looking for when you pick up a nonfiction book? Do you have a particular topic you’re attracted to? Do you have a particular writing style that works best? When you look at a nonfiction book, does the title or cover influence you? If so, share a title or cover which you find striking.

    Book cover, The forgotten rebels of EurekaThese are complex questions that could take a whole post, but I’m going to keep it succinct, with the following answer encompassing the first three questions above! The two main things I look for in a non-fiction book are subject matter and engaging style. For example, I like biographies (particularly of writers and achieving women) and Australian history, but I don’t like dry factual this-happened-and-then-that-happened writing. I particularly like something called creative non-fiction. However, while I want to be engaged, I also want to feel that the writing is authoritative so I like to see the author’s sources. Clare Wright’s histories, such as The forgotten rebels of Eureka (my review) and You daughters of freedom, are excellent examples. Wright writes with the narrative instincts of a novelist and yet her claims and statements are thoroughly cited.

    Covers are never hugely important to me in selecting books. Of course, a good cover can catch my eye, but I will never buy a book by its cover. With fiction, it’s the author or a recommendation from a person I respect, that will decide me once I’ve seen the book. With non-fiction, the cover is even less important to me, which is just as well, because in general I’ve found non-fiction covers to be less interesting. Non-fiction covers seem more literal, more determined to capture the “facts” of the book – an image of the subject of the biography for example or of a war scene for a war history – whereas fiction covers can get a little more creative and look to capture an emotional response rather than depict content.

    PS I also like Helen Garner’s non-fiction. She could write about grass growing and I’d be there.

    Week 3: (Nov 14 – 18) – (Sarah) Book Pairing

    I’m a bit ahead of the game here, but as I’ll be away from November 14 to 16, I’m going to sneak in my response now. The challenge is to pair up a nonfiction book with a fiction one – via whatever sort of connection seems fit. I loved this challenge last year, and found it fun again this year.

    My pair is:

    Yes, it is Clare Wright’s latest history, You daughters of freedom, which I’m still reading, and EM Forster’s Howard’s End which I reviewed just a week or so ago. You daughters of freedom is about the achievement of women’s suffrage in Australia, from the late 19th to early 20th century, and the role Australian suffragists played in worldwide suffrage movements, particularly in England.

    Howards End was published in 1910, and its two main female characters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are well aware of and support women’s suffrage, though, as you’d expect from their personalities, Margaret is the one who is clearer about its meaning and impact. The novel opens with Helen writing from Howards End where Mr Wilcox easily demolishes her arguments for suffrage and equality:

    He says the most horrid things about women’s suffrage so nicely, and when I said I believed in equality he just folded his arms and gave me such a setting down as I’ve never had. … I never felt so ashamed of myself in my life. I couldn’t point to a time when men had been equal, or even to a time when the wish to be equal and made them happier in other ways. I couldn’t say a word. I had just picked up the notion that equality is good from some book – probably from poetry, or you.

    Later, when Margaret holds a luncheon party in Mrs Wilcox’s honour, suffrage and women’s rights come up. Margaret sees the issue as wider than just “the vote”:

    “Aren’t we differing on something much wider, Mrs. Wilcox? Whether women are to remain what they have been since the dawn of history; or whether, since men have moved forward so far, they too may move forward a little now. I say they may…”

    Howards End provides a fascinating study of England during this time of political and social change – and gender is one of the issues which recurs throughout.