Sunday, September 24, 2017

Theft by Finding: Diaries: Volume One, by David Sedaris

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The first volume of David Sedaris's diaries, covering the period 1977-2002.

David Sedaris’s complete diaries run to some 159 handwritten journals. For publication, he has edited  them down into two volumes. Theft by Finding covers the period 1977 to 2002, beginning when Sedaris was barely twenty and struggling. During these years he had no money (a constant worry), worked lousy odd jobs and lived in rough neighbourhoods. Life was full of constant humiliations – angry people asking for money, or abusing you for no reason. The America he records is one of startling racism, sexism, anti-semitism, homophobia and white supremacy.

The self-portrait that come through in the early diaries is of a hopeless, aimless young man that can’t take any initiative. This wasn’t entirely true, though, as Sedaris kept chipping away at his writing, theatre and art projects.  When America’s National Public Radio broadcast him reading one of his stories in the early nineties, success was almost immediate. The second half of the diaries records extensive travel and living abroad, although his focus is always other people, not personal fame.

Sedaris is a dedicated recorder of the everyday – overheard conversations, unusual people, awkward social interactions, bizarre TV progams, his family, life with his partner, Hugh. Theft by Finding is funny, entertaining, self-deprecating and honest, a book that is true to life.

Theft by Finding: Diaries: Volume One, by David Sedaris. Published by Little, Brown. ISBN: 9780349120737 RRP: $29.99

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Thursday, September 21, 2017

Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal: QE67, by Benjamin Law

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A guide to the Safe Schools controversy for the perplexed. 

This latest Quarterly Essay by Benjamin Law (The Family Law) looks at the vexed issue of the Safe Schools program. Initially set up by the Labor government, it was inherited by the Abbott Liberal government. The program was launched by Senator Scott Ryan, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education and Training. By his own admission, Ryan knew next to nothing about the gay community and once he became acquainted with the details of the Safe Schools program, he had a few quibbles.

Besides this slightly bumpy start, Safe Schools was implemented without much fuss. The program was designed as an aide to teachers who were not too familiar with the issues facing LGBTI people. All seemed to be running smoothly, then three things brought everything unstuck:

* A  booklet, available as a PDF, called All of Us was later produced as an additional resource for teachers and not meant to be taught in schools. It captured the real life experiences of LGBTI people. Once details of this booklet got out, the conservative media used it to attack Safe Schools.

* One of the program’s founders, Roz Ward, had a history of making some controversial and political statements.

* The documentary, Gayby Baby, was shown in a Victorian school. The documentary is about young kids growing up in families where both parents are of the same sex.

The above formed a powder keg that blew up. At the forefront of the confected outrage was The Australian. They went hard, devoting, according to Law, some 90,000 words on the issue. All sorts of big names piled on.

The question that remains is, was Safe Schools a wicked program of social engineering, pushing kids into identifying as gay or transgender? The Abbott government had an independent review of the program, performed by Professor Bill Louden. The professor suggested some minor changes, but essentially backed the program as good policy. Conservatives continued to go on the attack. The Liberal federal government did not renew funding for Safe Schools once the initial period ended.

Benjamin Law describes The Australian’s campaign against Safe Schools as a beat up. The title of the essay, Moral Panic, seems more appropriate. It all turned into a full blown culture war when, interestingly, the whole Safe School's program had a very innocuous start.

Benjamin Law’s essay provides a useful history of the Safe Schools kerfuffle, with nuanced discussions of queer theory and transgendered children, among other LGBTI issues.

Moral Panic 101: Equality, Acceptance and the Safe Schools Scandal: QE67, by Benjamin Law. Published by Black Inc. RRP: $22.99

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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture - A New Earth, by Charles Massy

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Farmer and environmentalist Charles Massy's new book, Call of the Reed Warbler, is sure to become an Australian classic.

Early on in Call of the Reed Warbler, author and farmer Charles Massy relates an instructive story. On his New South Wales property he has a kurrajong tree. He'd always wondered how it got there, seeing it was not the type of tree you'd find in the Monaro region. One day an Aboriginal Ngarigo elder, Rod Mason, visited his property to have a look at it and became emotional. There were several long, vertical strips where Aboriginal women had stripped back the bark to make fibrous materials. The tree was 400 years old. Rod Mason, the Ngarigo elder, said seeds would have been planted by Ngarigo women, after travelling the songlines from western desert country.

The story highlights how for Aboriginal people the land is rich with meaning. For non-Aboriginal people, the relationship to land is nowhere near as strong. In short, we don't have a deep knowledge or feeling for country. We brought Western methods of farming, using intensive chemicals – pesticides and herbicides – and battered the land into submission. Now we face a situation where much of the soil has been near destroyed. Over the last 200 years, it is estimated that 70 percent of our agricultural land has been seriously degraded.

Charles Massy has been thinking deeply about the land, the environment and our relationship to it for most of his adult life. Brought up in a culture that saw industrial farming methods as the only way to work the land, with its intense use of chemicals, he slowly changed his thinking about the wisdom of such farming practices. Over time he would embrace more holistic methods of working the land.

In this remarkable book, Massy argues for five regenerative landscape functions to restore life and health to the soil: solar, water, soil, dynamic eco-systems and the human-social. The last point gets special emphasis. Massy writes that our thinking is akin to a "Mechanical mind", where we seek to impose our will on the land. Instead we need to embrace a different type of thinking, an “Emergent mind”, one that judiciously uses technology and science, but also stands back and allows nature space to breath and find its own expression.

It's hard not to think that Call of the Reed Warbler is destined to become a classic of its kind. Massy has clearly spent years thinking and talking about the land and our relationship to it. His book has echoes of Thoreau's Walden, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and Jared Diamond's Collapse. Massy's honesty and depth of feeling, coupled with his clear vision, makes Call of the Reed Warbler essential reading.

The Call of the Reed Warbler: A New Agriculture - A New Earth, by Charles Massy. Published by UQP. RRP $39.95

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Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, by Norman Ohler


Staff review by Chris Saliba


The untold story of how German society and its leadership got hooked on drugs. 

Millions upon millions of words have been written trying to figure out the enigma of why Germany followed a murderous dictator like Hitler to their ultimate ruin. Enter German historian and novelist Norman Ohler. His thesis is that the Germans could not face the reality of their defeat in 1914 and took refuge in self-delusion. To immunise themselves against reality, the country took to drugs. All levels of society were involved: civilian, military and the elite leadership.

The German wonder drug was Pervitin, a synthetic methamphetamine, what's known as a methylamphetamine. It was sold extensively and even came laced in commercially made chocolates. As Ohler writes, “Pervitin spread among all social circles...Doctors treated themselves with it, businessmen who had to rush from meeting to meeting pepped themselves up; party members did the same, and so did the SS. Stress declined, sexual appetite increased, and motivation was artificially increased.”

The military were soon using it as well. Germany's stunning early successes against Britain and France can be attributed to its soldiers being high on methamphetamines. The reason Hitler stopped the onward march of his soldiers at Dunkirk was because he didn't know of their drug use. He couldn't understand their sudden military successes and felt the army was at risk of running on ahead of him.

Hitler, however, would turn out to be the biggest junkie of them all. He placed great faith in his personal physician, Theodor Morell, who kept him pumped up on a wild cocktail of animal hormones and opioids, most notably Eukodal. Hitler was attending some of his most serious military meetings high as a kite, according to Ohler. By the war's end, Hitler was a physical and psychological write-off. The great mystery is: how did he allow himself to be taken in by Theodor Morell, such an obvious quack?

Blitzed provides a fascinating study of the German body and mind during the Nazi period. It tells of how a population, believing itself to be physically and mentally pure, was hopelessly addicted to mind altering substances.

Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany, by Norman Ohler. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141983165 RRP: $24.99

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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Such Small Hands, by Andrés Barba

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A childhood game of playing at being dolls takes a very dark turn.

Spanish novelist Andrés Barba’s eerie novella opens with a car crash. Seven-year-old Marina has survived, although she has sustained a wound – a deep cut that has exposed her ribs. Both parents have been killed in the crash (“Her father died instantly, her mother in the hospital.”) All that Marina takes away from the crash is a doll, also named Marina.

Marina is interviewed by psychologists and admitted to an orphanage, where she meets other little girls like her. She soon becomes entwined in the lives of the girls. They become fascinated with Marina, a fascination that is cruel, perverse and uninhibited,  as can only happen in childhood. The girls begin playing a game, one that turns more and more into a ritual, an almost pagan rite, where each girl has to pretend to be doll. The other girls then “play” with the pretend doll, adding make up and poking and prodding, sometimes drawing blood. Finally, when it is Marina’s turn to play the doll, things go too far.

Such Small Hands is a definite original. It’s atmospheric, claustrophobic and uncanny. Andres Barba brilliantly captures the moral ambiguities of childhood, where children make up their own rules, games and ceremonies, a pre-civilised world that follows its own logic. The story is perhaps closest to French novelist Jean Genet’s bizarre play, The Maids, in which two downtrodden and self-loathing maid’s dress up as their madame. Both stories mix artifice, ceremony and a muddled up moral universe, where none of the players can figure out what is right and what is wrong.

This is a strange little novel, written with an inspired authenticity, that is a rare experience in literature. A slow, unfolding nightmare of a book, not to be read late at night.

Such Small Hands, by Andrés Barba. Published by Portobello. ISBN: 9781846276439 RRP: $24.99

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Thursday, August 31, 2017

North Melbourne Books September Newsletter - featuring Anna Broinowski

In the September edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to filmmaker and writer Anna Broinowski about her new book, Please Explain. It's a compelling, up close and personal portrait of Pauline Hanson.

After twenty years of watching Pauline's rise and fall, and rise again, you might think you know it all. Not so. Broinowski had close access to Hanson on her 2015 election bid, what was called the "Fed Up Tour", and she paints an extraordinarily detailed picture of her subject.

Please Explain is a must read for anyone interested in Australian politics.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Anna Broinowski



North Melbourne Books: Your documentary which aired on SBS, Pauline Hanson: Please Explain, covered Hanson’s 2015 Fed Up Tour. What made you want to write a book about your experiences? Did you have a book in mind at the time of the filming?

Anna Broinowski: When I began filming Hanson in January 2015 during her campaign for Lockyer in the Queensland  state election, I never imagined I’d write a book. At the time, Hanson was flying under the political radar - despite her regular paid spots on commercial breakfast TV, most pundits saw her as a serial candidate going nowhere. But Hanson ended up losing Lockyer by less than 120 votes, and with renewed confidence, she mounted a new campaign, for a Queensland Senate seat in the 2016 Federal election. With her bespoke Jabiru 2-seater and pilot-cum- spin doctor, James Ashby, in the cockpit, Hanson flew around regional Queensland on the “Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Fed Up Tour”, promoting herself as the only candidate prepared to stand up for neglected rural voters. People who felt ignored by the major parties, and those who had carried a torch for Hanson since her first foray into politics in the 1990s, flocked to her.

It was while I was filming Hanson at a Reclaim Australia rally in Rockhampton in late 2015 that the idea of a book first sparked to life. Rusted-on supporters, many carrying flags and tee shirts that she’d signed as the leader of One Nation in 1998, mobbed her. But younger voters who only knew her as a celebrity from Dancing with the Stars and Celebrity Apprentice were equally enamoured. I was struck by the absolute banality of the scene. The passionate anti-racism protesters who’d plagued Hanson’s public appearances with violent rallies in the late 1990s were absent. Hanson was spouting the same divisive rhetoric against minorities, refugees and the ‘politically correct’ elites, but this time, a handful of Cops looked on lazily from the shade as Hanson’s ultra-nationalist, flag-waving audience clapped and cheered. It was clear that Hanson hadn’t changed, but Australia had. This was the theme I explored in my 2016 SBS film, Pauline Hanson: Please Explain – but television is a fairly unsubtle medium. I knew a book would enable me to tease out in more depth the indelible impact that Hanson has had on this country.

NMB: Please Explain has an amazing amount of detail, building up an at times lavish portrait – Hanson's frocks, make-up, home furnishings and sprawling estate. Why did you decide to round out what is essentially a political story with such fine attention to detail?

AB: Because the kinds of stories I like to read or watch – especially political ones – are driven by character. Any political analysis – whether it’s about Roosevelt, Kim Jong Il, Gillard, Putin, the Clintons, Catherine the Great or Ghandi – is, in my mind, far more revealing if you learn about the personality behind the power. And in the case of Hanson, you couldn’t ask for a more Machiavellian, devious, passionate and conniving cast of characters. I have always been interested in anti-heroes and unbelievable-but-true stories. Hanson’s rags to riches journey – from fish and chip shop owner, to populist politician, to prison, to celebrity redemption on Dancing with the Stars and mainstream legitimacy in the Federal senate - is one of the most bizarre stories in modern Australian politics. The fact that Hanson’s trajectory from 1996 to 2017 also parallels Australia’s own swing to the right under Howard and his successors sealed the deal for me. Understand Hanson and what’s driving her, and you start to understand the ultra-nationalist ideologies currently sweeping the West under Hanson’s populist contemporaries: Le Penn, Farrage, Wilders and Trump.

NMB: You spend much time during the book trying to get Hanson to see that some of her views, on race especially, are damaging and harsh. Yet she seems to be locked behind a fortress of confirmation bias, refusing to speak to Muslim leaders or even read alternative views. Why do you think she refused to meet anyone?

AB: Because, ultimately, remaining “strong” on Muslims and refugees continues to win Hanson support. She is no longer the “unpolished politician” she claimed to be in her infamous Maiden Speech in the House of Representatives 1996: she is battle-scarred and wily, and knows how to stay on message. Hanson often claims she will “listen to anyone” and simply wants all Aussies to get a “Fair Go,” but this is disingenuous. The “Aussies” of Hanson’s tribe are a narrow section of the population. They do not include Muslim Australians, anti-racists, Refugee advocates, progressives, female domestic abuse survivors, Indigenous rights activists, asylum seekers, human rights campaigners, marriage equality supporters, environmentalists and even – if Hanson’s fat shaming of the global anti-Trump protesters who marched last year is to be taken at face value - overweight women. These groups all fall under that convenient, catch-all label which conservatives have used to stifle their adversaries since the end of the Keating era, the “politically correct”. But the Australia Hanson is fighting for is a mirage. It has not existed since the 1950s, the decade in which her unique brand of patriotism was formed. Each time Hanson claims she is speaking for “all Australians” on TV, she is selling the myth that her views are not marginal, but dominant. If she had to debate with former NSW Chinese-Australian MP Helen Sham Ho, or with Muslim writer Randa Abdel Fatteh, both of whom she refused to meet in my film, the mantle of mainstream relevance in which she’s worked so assiduously to cloak herself would fall apart. At 63, Hanson is not interested in “fair and balanced” debates. Absolutism is her greatest political asset. It’s worked for her so far, it continues to get her media, and she’s not prepared to let it go.

NMB: Please Explain paints perhaps one of the fullest pictures we've yet seen of Pauline Hanson – her strengths, her weaknesses, her vulnerabilities, her doggedness. What do you hope the book will contribute to the public debate?

AB: I have always been torn about writing this book. The idea of giving Hanson more oxygen doesn’t sit easily with me, as I disagree with most of her views. But if I hadn’t written it, someone else would. Love her or hate her, Hanson changed this country, and she and her supporters are still going strong. If you’re on the left side of politics, you can’t in good conscience shun and ignore her (as the majority of progressives attempted to do in the 1990s), without also shunning and ignoring the one million plus Australians who continue to endorse her views. It’s time we understood where Hanson has come from, why she thinks the way she does, and how she manages to continue to resonate with a significant part of the population. If you care, like I do, about resurrecting the inclusive, multicultural values that once drove mainstream debate in this country, and want to protect these values from being further eroded by the amoral, neo-liberal right, then understanding Hanson – and how she helps fuel the conservative agenda – is perhaps a good place to start. I guess I hope, naiively perhaps, given how many books are out there - that Please Explain will spark a deeper, more future-focused debate about Australia and where we’re headed, than the truncated offerings of the 24-hour news cycle. I hope it will prompt people to have robust chats with their friends and relatives about Hanson and her views – without wrecking dinner of course! Many Australians who vote for Hanson and One Nation do so secretly – which is partly why Hanson’s 2016 victory blindsided so many pundits. You’ll be surprised, once you dig, by who of the people you know despise Hanson, and who thinks she has a point.

NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?

AB: Jane Mayer’s Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, about the secret takeover of America’s institutions of power by the Koch brothers and their allies. I recently finished Stanley Kubrick and Me: Thirty Years at His Side, a 2016 biography of the filmmaker by his ex-chauffeur, Emilio D'Alessandro. And Human Acts, Han Kang’s harrowing novel about the brutal oppression of protesters in the 1980 Gwangju uprising in South Korea.

But I have to confess - and I hope North Melbourne Books readers won’t ask for a Please Explain - I am also addicted to thrillers, satire and Sci Fi – the more formulaic and plot driven the better. It’s literary fast food, for when I’m too fried at the end of the day to think. I raid Gould’s second hand books in Newtown regularly, and devour anything from old William Gibson, James Elroy and John le Carré paperbacks to Lee Childs, Colin Harrison, Jon Ronson and Patricia Cornwell.

Please Explain: The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Pauline Hanson, by Anna Broinowski. RRP: $34.99

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Please Explain: The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Pauline Hanson, by Anna Broinowski

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Anna Broinowski's up close portrait of Pauline Hanson is compelling and original.

Documentary maker Anna Broinowski followed Pauline Hanson at close quarters for her 2015 election campaign, called the Fed Up Tour. Hanson, a serial candidate of some 20 years, had not won a contest since the 1996 federal election. No one took her chances of success seriously. Then came the 2016 double dissolution election and Hanson stormed the senate, her party winning a swag of seats. The resulting documentary, Pauline Hanson: Please Explain! was broadcast on SBS after Hanson's senate win. Not content with producing a documentary, Anna Broinowski has now written a rip-roaring, tell-all book on her experiences with Hanson.

This is the second Hanson book of its type. Fairfax journalist Margo Kingston was there first with Off the Rails: The Pauline Hanson Trip, her hair raising diary of Hanson's 1998 federal campaign. Broinowski's book is perhaps even more gobsmacking and surreal, often descending into absurdity and camp farce. It's as though Nancy Mitford was sent out to cover Australian politics.

Please Explain covers much ground that Australians will already be famililar with. Hanson's school of hard knocks personal story, her sudden rise, the infamous maiden speech, the self serving advisors (John Pasquarelli, David Oldfield and David Ettridge), the utter chaos and disorganisation of One Nation as a Party and finally, Hanson's decline and fall. Only one chapter is devoted to Hanson's resurgence.

So, why bother reading this new account? Hasn't it been all done before? Broinowski has a hawke-like eye that she brings to bear on this often intimate portrait. Nothing escapes her gaze; the level of detail is dizzying. Hanson is approached almost as if she were an old Hollywood movie star – a Dietrich or a Garbo. Broinowksi gives sumptous accounts of Hanson's frocks, their fabrics, colours, cuts and decorative patterns (the iconic gowns made famous during various political battles are archived in sealed plastic bags), her make-up and lush home furnishings. For example, “Generously stuffed cream couches and a luxurious kilim set off a heavy glass coffee table, on which a white porcelain Lladro sculpture of galloping horses has been set on a delicate lace doily”.

A rich picture is built up of Hanson's personal style, her cooking skills, a can do attitude to household repairs, her shrewd business acumen and a fastidious attention to personal presentation. Hanson has the steeliness of a Joan Crawford.

While Broinowski has painstakingly captured the surface of her subject, she also does a meticulous job of interviewing all the main players and contrasting their various versions of the truth. Pasquarelli, Oldfield and Ettridge all have different opinions on Hanson and what went on. It's Hanson's choices in advisors that fascinates as much as her own character. Interestingly, they all agree Hanson was not intellectually curious. (Her first successful campaign for Ipswich council involved protesting the building of a new public library.) Pasquarelli calls her intellectually indolent, Ettridge says she has the “attention span of a flea.” Hanson disliked reading generally and wouldn't even read her own press releases. When her book Pauline Hanson: The Truth was published, she cheerfully signed copies and spruiked the book, but didn't bother to read it. It contained such extraodinary nonsense as the prediction that by 2050 Australia would be governed by a lesbian cyborg of Indian and Chinese descent.

Perhaps this is the biggest take-away from Please Explain: Pauline Hanson has locked herself into a fortress of confirmation bias. When Broinowski tries to get Hanson to meet highly respected moderate muslims, to have a discussion, she flatly refuses. Of course Pauline Hanson is not stupid – she's shown herself to be business savvy, energetic and practical. She rolls up her sleeves and gets things done. But her disinterest in reading creates a brick wall, protecting her from different opinions and other voices.

Please Explain is a must read for anyone interested in Australian politics. It's a compelling portrait, brilliantly written, and sure to become a classic of its kind.

Please Explain: The Rise, Fall and Rise Again of Pauline Hanson, by Anna Broinowski. Published by Viking. ISBN: 9780143784678 RRP: $34.99

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Friday, August 18, 2017

The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A cricket catches a train to Times Square station and makes some friends.

Chester the cricket has accidently found himself transported from his lush, countryside home in Connecticut to the busy metropolis of New York. Trapped in a family’s picnic lunch, he has taken a train ride into Times Square station. After managing to get off the train, he finds his way to a newsstand run by the Bellini family. There he meets Mario , Mama and Papa Bellini's young son. Mario begs his parents to allow him to keep Chester as a pet.

Chester’s adventures begin when he meets Tucker, a mouse that lives in a drain pipe and Harry, his friend the cat. The trio soon become good friends, but get themselves into a few scrapes, especially when they accidently set fire to the Bellinis' financially struggling newsstand, ruining some of the stock. It seems like Chester’s time could be up, as Mama Bellini accuses Chester of starting the fire, insisting Mario has to let him go. But then something wonderful happens. Chester, who has a talent for chirping songs, chirps one of Mama Bellini’s favourites. Suddenly the fortunes of the newsstand are turned around as people come far and wide to hear the musical cricket. Chester gives two performances everyday, one at 8am and one at 4.30pm. Everything seems to be going swimmingly. The group of three – Chester, Tucker and Harry - enjoy a wonderful friendship and business is booming for the Bellinis.  But then Chester starts to get homesick for Connecticut and grows weary of his demanding musical concerts. What will he do?

George Seldon’s 1960 children’s novel The Cricket in Times Square is a well deserved American Classic. The story has a wonderful warmth and kindness, somewhat reminiscent of Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. Chester, Tucker and Harry are all nicely drawn, with their own distinct personalities. The human characters are also varied and interesting, all helping to create a vibrant picture of multicultural New York. The book has some lovely scenes where Mario takes Chester to Chinatown to buy an ornate cricket’s cage from shop owner Sai Fong.

By the end of The Cricket in Times Square, you may feel sad to say goodbye to Chester, Tucker and Harry. Such sorrow is short lived by the fact that the trio’s adventures continue for another six books.

Suitable for 6 year olds and up

The Cricket in Times Square, by George Selden. Published by Square Fish. $16.95

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Saturday, August 12, 2017

The Adventures of Pelle No-Tail, Gosta Knutsson


Staff review by Chris Saliba

Pelle is a little different to all the other cats: he has no tail.

Gösta Knutsson (1908 – 1973) was a Swedish writer of children’s books, best known for the series Pelle Svanslös (Peter No-Tail). Knutsson wrote 12 books in the series and the first three have now been translated into English by Stephanie Smee and Ann-Margrete Smee.

In the first book, The Adventures of Pelle No-Tail, we meet little Pelle, a kitten born on a country farm. His life has started out rather unfortunately: a large rat has bitten off his tail. It makes his feel a little vulnerable, being so different to other cats. One day the spirit of adventure takes him and he hides away in a car. Soon he finds himself in the city and living with a family. More adventures ensue when Pelle goes on a train ride with his new family and manages to get lost. But all is soon enough resolved when the family put an advertisement in the paper asking if anyone has seen a cat with no tail.

While life in the city offers plenty of fun adventures, there are also troubles to contend with. A local cat, Måns, is quite a bully. He thinks Pelle is a bit of a goody two-shoes and is determined to teach him a lesson. With the help of his flunkies, Bill and Bull, he tries to humiliate Pelle, but luckily his attempts always backfire.

Pelle is a delightfully sweet and good-natured character. His innocence and naïvety will make you care about what happens to him. Knutsson writes in a clear and simple style, evoking the pleasures of Swedish life in the 1930s. Interestingly, the series was begun as a protest against growing sympathy for the Nazis within Sweden. Mans, the bullying cat, is based loosely on Hitler and Mussolini.

Classic storytelling that leave you cheerful. Pelle No-Tail is a winner.

The Adventures of Pelle No-Tail, by Gosta Knutsson. Published by Piccolo Nero. ISBN: 9781863959247  RRP: $14.99

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Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Science and Islam, by Ehsan Masood

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Ehsan Masood opens our eyes to the history of scientific achievement in the Islamic world.

A scientific tradition is not something we equate with Islam. London based science writer Ehsan Masood tries to rectify this error in his appealing history, Science and Islam. Covering roughly the period between the ninth and thirteenth centuries, Masood concentrates on what is considered an Islamic Golden Age. Islam produced a wealth of great thinkers in the sciences during this era: geographers, astronomers, physicians, engineers, pharmacologists, inventors, surgeons, mathematicians etc. The list is almost endless.

This Golden Age started under the Abbasid caliphate, when Islamic scholars energetically took to translating the great works of Greek and Roman thinkers. Coupled with this enthusiasm for translation was the mastering of paper production, learnt from the Chinese. This would have a huge impact on the spread of learning, as paper was so versatile.

One discipline where Islam truly excelled was medicine. Hospitals during the Golden Age employed physicians, surgeons and opthalmologists, as well as nurses, administrators and orderlies. Another area in which Islam excelled was astrology. The need to pray five times a day meant that there was always a strong interest in studying the slant of the sun and the position of the stars, so as to ascertain correct prayer times. Historians agree that eminent Islamic astrologers influenced Copernicus.

The most obvious influence of Islamic science on the world today is in the use of Arabic numerals. While what we call Arabic numerals were actually derived from India, it was the mathematician al-Khwarizmi who perfected the system we use for modern science and commerce. Key scientific words such as algebra, algorithm and alchemy are also Islamic in their provenance.

Science and Islam offers an accesible overview of some 500 years of Islamic thought and scientific endeavour. Ehsan Masoon writes in a beautiful lapidary prose, making his book a joy to read. The sections on great Islamic cities in their hey day, like Bagdad and Cairo, are a special treat for the reader who likes to time travel to exotic times and places. How magical Baghdad must have been in the ninth century, when it was the fabled city of The Thousand and One Arabian Nights.

A book that helpfully explains the rise of Islamic science, it unfortunate fall, and what needs to be done now to encourage scientific learning in the modern Islamic world.

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Monday, July 31, 2017

North Melbourne Books August Newsletter - featuring Toby Walsh

In the August edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to Toby Walsh, professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales, about his fascinating (and sometimes scary) new book It's Alive!: Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots.

The book looks at the history of AI and what its possible future might be, while also discussing the many disruptions and ethical questions that automation will bring to society.

Brilliantly researched and timely, It's Alive! is essential reading for anyone who wants to get up to speed on this subject.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Toby Walsh


NMB: Your book looks at the past, present and future of artificial intelligence. It describes how we got here, how AI (often unconsciously) affects our lives today and what a future dominated by AI might look like. Why did you want to write this book?

Toby Walsh: There's a real appetite to understand Artificial Intelligence (AI) and where it is taking us. We're making remarkable progress. I get calls from journalists almost every day. And as a scientist, funded by public money, I feel a real responsibility to help inform this debate. Especially so, when many people me included expect society to be in for a period of very rapid and dramatic change. However, talking to journalists is never entirely satisfactory. So I wanted to have a longer conversation, where I could go into more depth and explain the different sides to the issues. And in writing the book, I came to understand even more how critical it is that we have this debate now.

NMB: There are a lot of ethical questions that It's Alive! addresses. For example, how will driverless cars make life-and-death decisions and the dangers posed by the automation of war. Have you long had an interest in the ethics of AI?

TW: I've always been interested in big questions. This is what got me into AI in the first place.
There are a number of deep, fundamental questions that science asks. How did the universe
come into existence? Can we unify the laws that govern the very small like quantum mechanics
and those that govern the very large like gravitation? Are we alone in this universe? What is 
the nature of intelligence? Is it something we can simply create in silicon? 

I expect in time we will build machines that are more intelligent than us. You'll have to read the 
book to see how long this might take. This will hopefully be a humbling and important moment for the human race. But we can already see that it will have immense impacts on many aspects of our lives:  where we get our news, who we elect, how we educate our young, and how we look after our elderly.

The invention of machines that are more intelligent than humans will be one of the most far reaching inventions we ever make. Indeed, it could even be the last one that we make. 

NMB: While your book concentrates a lot on the advances that AI has made and how it has improved our lives, you devote a bit of time to discussing the negative aspects of new technologies. As technology transforms society there will be winners and losers, a further concentration of wealth, unemployment and general disruption. Are you optimistic about the future?

TW: I am mostly optimistic. As with any technology, there will be winners and losers so we need to make sure that we look after the losers. We will need to worry about issues like increasing inequality, technological unemployment, and the impact of autonomous weapons on warfare. Equally, technology is likely a big part of a successful future. The world faces some unprecedented challenges, in areas like climate change, and the ongoing and likely never-ending global financial crisis. Our only hope to defeat these problems is to embrace technology, especially technologies like Artificial Intelligence. We live better lives than our grandparents in large part due to the benefits of computing. If our grandchildren are going to live as good if not better lives than us, we need to take advantage AI whilst avoiding the pitfalls. The ultimate message of my book is that Artificial Intelligence can lead us down many different paths, some good and some bad, but society must choose which path to take, and act on that choice. There are many decisions we can hand over to the machines. But I argue that only some decisions should be – even when the machines can make them better than we can. As a society, we need to start making some choices now as to what we entrust to the machines. 


NMB: Do you think politicians are up to speed about how AI will truly transform society and are you confident they will be able to develop the right policy responses?

TW: No. Our politicians are neither up to speed, nor is our political system well suited to deal with such large scale disruption. There is one obvious precedent here, the industrial revolution. We made some major changes to the way that we ran society to deal with the changes brought about by the industrial revolution, as jobs on the farm were destroyed and new jobs created in factories and offices. We introduced universal education so the population had the skills necessary for these new jobs, the welfare state so those made unemployed didn't end up in the workhouse, unions to protect workers rights and help them share the benefits of industrialization, even bank holidays are on of the beneficial changes that came out of the industrial revolution. All of these changes made sure that Karl Marx's predictions were wrong and most of us shared the increasing prosperity that the machines brought. Society may need to go through equally profound changes this time. There is, however, one important and worrying difference. Last time, we still had a big edge over the machines. They replaced much of our manual labour. But we still had an edge in cognitive tasks. It is less clear that we'll have any such edge after the AI revolution. My book spends a lot of time considering what other edges we might have over the machines. and how we might deal with these changes so that the machines can take the sweat, both physical and intellectual, and all of us can enjoy the benefits.

NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?

​TW: I'm enjoying Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari, even if I didn't 100% agree with some of his ideas. In my view, he over-estimates the increasing importance we will all place on social contact, and how our markets will adjust to appreciate more the products of the human hand. What machines make will simply be valued less than what we make. We will appreciate everything more that speaks to the human condition.

It's Alive!: Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots, by Toby Walsh. Published by La Trobe University Press. ISBN: 9781863959438  RRP: $34.99

Saturday, July 29, 2017

It's Alive!: Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots, by Toby Walsh

Staff review by Chris Saliba

In this wonderfully accessible book academic Toby Walsh examines the past, present and future of artificial intelligence.

To get an idea of how powerful the human brain is, here's an interesting fact: the brain uses a mere 20 watts of power, compared to the world's most powerful computer, IBM's Watson, which uses 80,000 watts. Computing power has been growing at great speed over past decades, but will it ever match what humans can do?

Toby Walsh is Professor of Artificial Intelligence at UNSW and an expert in the field. In It's Alive!: Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots, he gives an overview of artificial intelligence, its past, present and future. The journey starts with Aristotle, the first thinker to be concerned with systems of logic, then moves through figures like Babbage, Boole, Turing and finally onto Facebook and Google.

The middle section of the book examines how AI is being used today and how it affects our daily lives. We've become so accustomed to AI that often we are engaging with systems that use it without even knowing. Tools such as voice recognition and Google translate are examples of where artificial intelligence is being used.

As you might expect, the most fascinating parts of It's Alive! examine what the future might look like. Walsh thinks it's a certainty that we will have driverless cars. In a nuanced exploration of the subject, he looks at the ethical issues that we will have to confront, such as how can computers be programmed to make ethical decisions on the road. 

Currently there is a lot of talk about what will happen to work in the future. Large unemployment numbers have been bandied about by futurists and technologists. Walsh thinks it highly likely that a lot of jobs will be automated. Interestingly, he gives an a-z of particular jobs and how they will be changed by automation. The analysis of what AI will be able (and not able) to do throws up quite a few surprises.

The biggest ethical issue the book confronts is the automation of warfare. It's genuinely scary how easy it may be for dictators and terrorists to get their hands on drones and killer robots. The technology is cheap and closer than we might think. Walsh has spearheaded a petition calling for the banning of automated weaponry. He sees it as the biggest threat AI poses to society.

There is much to recommend in this highly accessible and thoughtful book on artificial intelligence and how it will affect society and future generations.

It's Alive!: Artificial Intelligence from the Logic Piano to Killer Robots, by Toby Walsh. Published by La Trobe University Press. ISBN: 9781863959438  RRP: $34.99

Release date 31st July.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Blue Cat, by Ursula Dubosarsky

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Ursula Dubosarsky writes about Sydney during the Second World War, from a child's perspective. 

Columba is a young girl trying to come to grips with a world that is strangely changing, and perhaps not for the better. The year is 1942, the place Sydney, Australia. She hears stories around her, especially from her brassy friend Hilda, that a frightening war is happening overseas. Then the war comes one step closer in the person of Ellery, a mysterious young boy from Europe. Ellery is German-Jewish, doesn’t speak English and is a refugee. The book ends on a hazy, dreamy note, with Columba, Ellery and Hilda running through Luna Park in pursuit of a missing cat, the blue cat of the title.

The Blue Cat is an impressionistic story, told gently in a patchwork fashion. (The text is accompanied by photographs from the era.) Told from a child’s perspective, the reader gets glimpses of the adult world during the upheaval of wartime - news stories of the Nazis occupying Paris and the bombing of Darwin, neighbourhood gossip, the gruff comments of Columba’s father. For young readers (10-14)  interested in trying to imagine what it might have been like living in Australia during the Second World War, then The Blue Cat provides a moving story to contemplate.

The Blue Cat, by Ursula Dubosarsky. Published by Allen and Unwin. ISBN: 9781760292294  RRP: $19.99

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Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Good Daughter, by Karin Slaughter

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Two crimes, twenty-eight years apart, need to solved. Two sisters, their lives ruined by murder, haven't spoken to each other in two decades. Karin Slaughter's new thriller will have you in its thrall.

1989, North Georgia, the small town of Pikeville. The Quinn family have lost a considerable amount of money. Rusty, a lawyer and father of the family, can't help but take on legal cases that no one else will touch: rapists, brutal murderers and other low lifes. His legal bills are never getting paid and so the family has moved into an old farmhouse. One night, while Rusty is out, two men let themselves into the house. One of the men, Zachariah Culpepper, is known to Rusty. His intention is to murder Rusty, but confused and angry he kills Rusty's wife, Gamma. The two sisters, 13-year-old Charlotte (“Charlie”) and 16-year-old Samantha (“Sam”) witness the murder. They are dragged out into the woods by Zachariah, where some truly horrific things happen to them.

Twenty-eight years later. Both sisters are now practicing lawyers. Sam works in New York, while Charlie has remained in Pikeville. The relationship between the two sisters is deeply fractured. They have barely spoken to each other in two decades. A major drama changes that. Charlie manages to get caught up in a school shooting. Kelly Wilson, a baby-faced 17-year-old student who is lacking in intellectual development, has shot two people dead at the Pikeville middle school. Why did this apparently simple natured girl commit such a crime? As Rusty cannot take on the case due to a stint in hospital, both sisters must work together to find out what really happened. Many skeletons come out of the closet and grievances are aired until the sisters find healing and forgiveness.

I must confess to not reading any contemporary crime novels, but Karin Slaughter's muscular prose and expert sense of pacing and suspense grabbed me from the first page. I knew I didn't have a hope of resisting and would have to finish the book's 500 pages. While The Good Daughter is ostensibly a thriller, with two crimes at its heart that need solving, much of the story concentrates on the difficult relationship of the two sisters. You presume that the sisters would be close because of their shared trauma, but the opposite is the case. It takes the novel's considerable length to tease out all the difficulties of their relationship and finally achieve a reconciliation. At the heart of the Quinn sister's problems is a family secret one of the sisters, Charlie, has been forced to carry for most of her life. Hence the ironic title: Charlie is the good daughter, holding onto a secret for the good of the family, but destructive to herself.

The Good Daughter is quite an achievement. It's a complicated, multifaceted story that is brilliantly organised. There is a lot here for the reader to sink their teeth into. It's crime plot is rivetting, while the human drama of the two sisters is absorbing and emotionally satisfying. A thoroughly enjoyable read, but one that will also haunt you for days after you've finished it.

The Good Daughter, by Karin Slaughter. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9781460751732 RRP: $32.99

Release date: 1st August 2017

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Friday, July 21, 2017

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, by Jerry Brotton

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The story of how a politically shrewd Queen Elizabeth tried to build military and trade alliances with the Islamic world. 

Elizabeth I reigned from 1558 until her death in 1603, an amazing forty-five year stretch of power. She is a figure central to English history, a political maverick who saw off Spanish attempts at invasion. What is perhaps less known is her wheelings and dealings with the Islamic world, most notably the Ottomans and Moroccans.

Religion at this time was just as much about politics as it was about faith. England was grappling with the devastating divisions between Catholics and Protestants. Elizabeth was Protestant, but a majority of the country remained Catholic. Sectarian violence often led to massacres and hideous executions. To be suspected of the wrong religious allegiance could mean your life was at risk. The major international conflict for Protestant England was with Catholic Spain. All energies were marshalled to see off the Catholic menace.

Just like in our own time, political allegiances and enmities wove a complex web. Religion made things even more beguiling. Elizabeth tried to establish a power bloc against the Spanish by cultivating diplomatic ties with the Islamic Ottomans and Moroccans, sending out trade missions and  bribing rulers with all sorts of lavish gifts. English officials, diplomats and royal advisers would reason that Protestant Christians had more in common with Muslims than the hated Catholics. For example, Islam shared the Protestant ban on material representations of god and the prophets. The English made all sorts of convoluted arguments, full of hypocrisy and delusion, in order to try and get Islamic military assistance to fight Catholics. Indeed, Elizabeth would help arm Muslims:

With the queen's sanction, Protestant English merchants were removing metal from ecclesiastical buildings - including lead roofing and bell metal - and shipping it to Constantinople to arm Muslims fighting against Catholics.

Elizabeth also formed a military alliance with Morocco to defeat Spain with a pre-emptive strike on Cadiz in 1596.

The English public knew a fair degree about these political shennanigans. Figures like Muhammad al-Annuri, the Moroccan ambassador who arrived in London in 1600, made many public appearances. His swarthy good looks, seen in an official portrait, make him look like a model for Othello. As Jerry Brotton writes, Shakespeare probably started to write Othello six months after al-Annuri's arrival.

  Muhammad al-Annuri (1600; Unknown artist)

Public attitudes to Muslims came through in the theatre, most notably in the plays of Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe (and in lesser figures such as Thomas Kyd and Thomas Dekker). A substantial chunk of This Orient Isle is devoted to a fascinating interpretation of these plays, culminating in Shakespeare's Othello. What Brotton finds is that the theatre reflected the deeply ambivalent views the public held towards the Muslim world, often willfully misinterpreting Islam and its scriptural beliefs. Othello himself, while nominally Christian, is an unsettlingly mysterious character: did he start life as a Muslim, or a pagan, then convert? We're not sure. Brotton writes that Othello is a "profoundly ambivalent figure who embodies so much of Elizabethan England's contradictory relations to the Islamic World."

Indeed, while Elizabeth was sending out proclamations expelling "blackamoors and negroes" from the realm, she was secretly negotiating alliances with the Moroccans. As happens today, when one's political fortunes are sliding (as were hers at the time), spreading xenophobia is a useful trick.

This Orient Isle is full of rigorous scholarship, fascinating critical interpretation and enlightening  history. Jerry Brotton shows how, while much has changed in 400 years, a lot has also remained the same. 

This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World, by Jerry Brotton. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9780141978673 RRP: $24.99

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