Sunday, October 15, 2017

Terra Nullius, by Claire G. Coleman

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Claire G. Coleman's debut novel is a powerful re-imagining of Australia's violent and oppressive past.

Jacky, a male youth, is on the run. He’s on the run from the Troopers, part of the colonial police force, well known for their human rights abuses. Jacky has been working as a virtual slave at Sister Bagra’s religious mission. A mean woman who despises the Natives – she thinks them vile savages – Jacky has run away and is now trying to find his true home. Sergeant Rohan, a violent  and amoral man, is leading the chase.

Not all of the colonial masters, invaders, despise the Natives as lesser beings. A Trooper, Johnny Star, has absconded after being made to participate in a vile massacre. He is on the run from the colonial authorities.

A young woman, Esperance, is leading a group of Natives out into the desert. Their hope is to create a new beginning for themselves, out of the reach of the invaders. The invaders hate dry places, indeed can’t survive there, and so dry, remote places are their best chance.

This is a familiar Australian colonial narrative – invasion, brutality, dominance. Or so you would think. Half way through the novel, however, the reader learns that we are not reading about events that have happened in the past. The colonisers of the story are not the British. The year is actually 2041 and something quite unthinkable has happened to Australia.

By any measure, Claire G. Coleman’s Terra Nullius is mind blowing. By projecting Australia past into a speculative future narrative, Coleman holds an inescapable mirror up to the nation. She makes us confront the horrors of dispossession and genocide. The great achievement of the book is its empathetic power. The reader really feels the terror and desperation of being an occupied people, considered sub human. Setting the story in the future, with Australian society turned upside down,  explodes preconceived ideas about how to approach our colonial past and highlights that for many, the past is nowhere near over.

Terra Nullius, by Claire G. Coleman. Published by Hachette. ISBN: 9780733638312 RRP: $29.99

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Friday, October 13, 2017

Piglettes, by Clementine Beauvais

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The victims of online bullying take to the road, pedal to Paris and meet the president.

Three teenage girls – Mareille, Astrid and Hakima – have been voted their school’s ugliest in a Facebook poll. Parents and teachers have tried to intervene, but Malo, the wicked boy who set up the annual poll, won’t be pulled into line. The girls have two options, either fall in a heap, or keep their heads high and show that they are better than this. Mareille – who narrates their story – takes the lead and has an ingenious idea. The girls will ride their bikes to Paris to gatecrash a garden party the president is having. Not only that, they’ll attach a trailer to their bikes and sell sausages (vegetarian ones included) along the way. Soon enough the media is breathlessly following their road adventure and complete strangers are praising them. The girls, exhausted after a week of pedalling, enter Paris victorious.

What a joy this book is! Marielle’s voice throughout is perky, witty and super smart. She keeps the story zooming along at a cracking pace. The reader experiences the girl’s elation as they go from triumph to triumph (with admittedly some hurdles to be cleared along the way.) Original, inventive and wonderfully human, Piglettes will make you feel like anything is possible.

12 +

Piglettes, by Clementine Beauvais. Published by Pushkin Children's. ISBN: 9781782691204 RRP: $16.99

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Keeping Henry, by Nina Bawden

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A quirky young squirrel named Henry is adopted by a family evacuated from London during the war.

Charlie, James and their older sister (we presume a young Nina Bawden, although as narrator she never gives her name), have been evacuated to the countryside during the Second Wolrd War. They are living with their mother on a Welsh farm while their father is part of the war effort overseas. Seven-year-old Charlie has discovered a nest in a tree by a brook. Using his brother’s catapault, he disrupts the nest and knocks a young squirrel out of it. Happy with his prize, he bring the squirred home and he is soon named Henry.

The children’s mother, a teacher, is immediately enchanted with the little creature and so he is adopted as a family pet. Henry’s interactions with the humans, his funny laguage, his misadventuers (falling into a pail of milk), the way he attempts to eat an apple and most amusing of all, Henry’s industrious and rather innovative building of a nest within the family home (he collects knickers and bras to make a cozy home), are all detailed in Nina Bawden’s beautifully simple yet evocative prose.

Life on the farm, however, is not all fun and games. There are many tough life lessons to be learnt, such as the cruelties of nature and the tough life and death decisions that need to be made on the farm. When the children discover the local farmer’s wife Mrs Jones is very ill, they must confront questions of mortality too.

Nina Bawden’s wartime children’s novel, published in 1988, is based on a seemingly meagre conceit, a childhood memory of a pet squirrel that stayed for a season. Yet around this simple childhood memory, Bawden builds a rich and rewarding story of war, the pains of growing up and the fragility of life. In large part it reads like a mix of memoir and natural history. What elevates it to the status of classic fiction is its concentration on the inner lives of its young main characters. They all experience such a wide range of complicated emotions – from shame and embarrassment to joy and wonder. Nina Bawden revives all the splendour and heartache of youth in a mere slip of a story.

A prize example of how a master storyteller can spin straw into gold.

Keeping Henry, by Nina Bawden. Published by Virago. ISBN: 9780349009193  RRP: $16.99

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Sunday, October 8, 2017

The Lone Child, by Anna George

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Anna George's compelling novel about motherhood and the isolation it can bring.

Neve Ayres is thirty-eight, suddenly single after her partner Kris has left her, and to top it all off, she’s just had a baby. Alone, she lives in an imposing seaside house in the coastal town of Flinders. One day she comes into contact with a lone child on the beach. The child appears neglected, although she is with her mother. Neve is quick to judge the woman, but as the story develops, it becomes clear that the harried mother on the beach has serious struggles of her own. Neve becomes obsessed with the child. The action takes place over an Easter long weekend. As Neve’s days spent alone with her baby spread out, the isolation makes her start to question her own sanity.

Anna George’s second novel is a spellbinding page-turner, a mystery where all the threads of the plot finally resolve on the final page. The story is suffused with a wonderfully moody atmosphere and the sea, windy nights, cracking storms – almost like a Bergman film. Anna George has created a compelling novel about motherhood and the isolation and loneliness it can bring. While The Lone Child is written like a thriller, its grounding in personal experience gives it a great immediacy and authenticity.

The Lone Child, by Anna George. Published by Viking. ISBN: 9780670077748  RRP: $29.99

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Thursday, October 5, 2017

Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the Machine Age, by Jim Chalmers and Mike Quigley

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A politician and a professor examine what the future of work in the machine age might look like. Tempered and sensible analysis.

How much will technology transform the way we work in Australia and how should we respond to the challenge? What jobs will remain, what new jobs will be created and which jobs will cease to exist? Who will be the winners and losers? These are some of the questions that Jim Chalmers (Labor MP and Shadow Minister for Finance) and Mike Quigley (former telecommunications industry leader and now professor in the School of Computing and Communications at UTS) attempt to answer in Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the Machine Age.

Predictions for the future of work in the machine age generally look pretty dire. Even optimistic predictions have a depressing effect, as there are always losers in any technological transformation. Best case scenarios could include large pockets of unemployment. Chalmers and Quigley sift through the various studies on employment trends, from the most pessimistic (up to 50 percent unemployment) to the fairly optimistic (no real change at all), and come out somewhere in the middle. They argue that, unemployment predictions aside, technology will definitely change the way we work. This will mean we will all need to concentrate on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects. Especially mathematics.

Education will play a big part in this technological revolution. Chalmers and Quigley offer many policy recommendations for improving our mathematical skills, but essentially, they argue we will all have to take a greater interest in our education. We will all need to become ‘computational thinkers’, roughly meaning we will have to think more like algorithms.

Government will also need to provide policy responses that help us train for work and provide a safety net where needed. Changing Jobs provides some 33 policy recommendations, all of which seem pretty sensible and none too radical. (The authors outright reject introducing a universal basic wage, an idea that is gaining interest in some quarters.)

Technology has improved everyone’s lives, but ironically the future as painted in these books on the future of work is often quite depressing. It makes for anxious reading. It makes you wonder if your job is safe. Should I be retraining now? What if I do and my training is suddenly rendered obsolete? Should I even be worried about the predictions of economists and technologists?

Changing Jobs offers much food for thought, with analysis that is tempered and sensible. It recommends that we at least start to seriously think about these issues and prepare for an uncertain future.

Changing Jobs: The Fair Go in the Machine Age, by Jim Chalmers and Mike Quigley. Published by Black Inc. ISBN: 9781863959445 RRP: $22.99

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Saturday, September 30, 2017

North Melbourne Books October Newsletter - featuring Charles Massy

In the October edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to farmer, environmentalist and writer Charles Massy about his new book, The Call of the Reed Warbler. 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.

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.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Charles Massy

North Melbourne Books: In Call of the Reed Warbler, you argue that industrial farming methods have seriously degraded our soils. To revive the land we need to embrace five regenerative landscape functions: solar, water, soil, dynamic eco-sytems and the human-social. The book feels like a passionate labour of love, with its impressively rich mixture of research , farmer interviews, personal stories and an appreciation of the natural history literature. What was the writing process like?

Charles Massy: The writing process – aside from the usual blood, sweat and tears etc. – was more enjoyable than the other books I have done, which were a bigger slog. This is because – and as you allude to – it was a passionate labour of love, and I was able to write creatively about landscape, imagery, feelings etc. in those aspects of my book that were more personal, and also about the Australian landscape. The passion also came through because of the urgent issues facing our planet’s systems and humanity.

NMB: There's a wonderful story in your book about a mysterious kurrajong tree on your property and how it got there. It took Aboriginal Ngarigo elder, Rod Mason, to properly "read" the tree and tell you it's long history. How much has Aboriginal knowledge influenced your thinking?

CM: Aboriginal thinking has been very significant. Through having Rod Mason and others teach me their ancient view of our landscape and its stories, the scales have come off my eyes as to its deeper, cultural and more ancient nature and stories. Combined with other writers like Bill Gammage, Bruce Pascoe, and friends like Prof. Kerry Arabena (Prof. Indigenous Health at Melbourne Uni), knowledge about 60 millennia or more of indigenous management and caring/interacting/surviving in Country completely changed my understanding of this land, how it functions, and how we current land managers are inheritors of a great and long tradition that sought to maintain and regenerate ‘Country’.

NMB: You make a compelling argument that our thoughtless modern economy has created an "Industrial Mind". We think it quite normal to intensively spray the land with herbicides and pesticides. Instead we need to cultivate an "Emergent Mind", one that uses technology and science, but also allows nature space to find its own self-expression. How do you we start to take those first steps?

CM: Taking those first steps begins with re-engaging with nature; getting our hands in the soil; growing our own vegies; getting involved with the new food movements and healthy food; allowing children to get outdoors, climb rocks and trees again and discover the wonder of the outdoors and beautiful birds and so on. It has to be a tactile, sensory engagement before the heart can respond. Other first steps involve becoming better informed about the Anthropocene issues, and coming to understand how self-organizing systems work – and their amazing and wonderful attributes.

NMB: Call of the Reed Warbler has echoes of Rachel Carson, Thoreau and Jared Diamond. Which writers inspire you?

CM: Those writers you mentioned; plus people Aldo Leopold; Annie Dillard, Nicholas Rothwell; Bill Gammage & Bruce Pascoe; poets like the Tang Chinese poets, Basho and other Haiku poets; Les Murray of course, and many others.

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

CM: Don Watson’s The Bush; Clive Hamilton’s Defiant Earth; Ian Argus’ Facing the Anthropocene; Charles Montgomery’s Happy City; and Nicholas Rothwell’s Wings of the Kite-Hawk.

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

Friday, September 29, 2017

Force of Nature, by Jane Harper

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Jane Harper’s exciting new thriller holds a mirror to some of the darker recesses of the soul.

Boutique accounting firm BaileyTennants has organised a team building corporate getaway for its employees. There are two teams – male and female - who trek through the Giralang Ranges on a three day tour. The women’s group consists of Lauren, sisters Bree and Beth, Jill Bailey (brother of BaileyTennants chief executive, Daniel Bailey) and Alice Russell. As the women hike through the rugged and uncertain terrain, pitching tents and battling the elements, they find themselves lost. Arguments break out, ugly power plays develop and the domineering, almost Machiavellian Alice Russell starts to really throw her weight around. As their prospects become grimmer by the minute, Alice takes matters into her own hands and leaves the group, fully confident that she, and only she, can find help. But Alice goes missing...

Jane Harper’s much anticipated second novel is sure to please. Force of Nature is expertly plotted, a tantalising slow reveal. The story is so firmly grounded in reality, with identifiable character types (we’ve all met a pushy office psycho like Alice Russell) and authentic dialogue, it’s easy to become emotionally involved, making the overall experience more authentic and compelling. We’ve all been out camping at some stage in our lives and found our patience with others tested.

While ostensibly Force of Nature is a thriller, there’s also a subtle, underlying theme that deals with the  strivings of the affluent middle classes. BaileyTennants, a family firm of two generations, is under investigation by Federal Agent Aaron Falk for money laundering. Jane Harper paints these aspiring middle-class lives as ones of personal failure and lacking in values. The lingering descriptions of their expensive houses with their manicured gardens expose the lives within as sad and empty. The infighting of the women when left to fend for themselves in an inhospitable environment mirrors the ugly, often dishonest struggles played out in the supposedly civilised world of business. Even the children of these middle-class characters are spiritually and morally hollowed out.

An exciting thriller with elements of Picnic at Hanging Rock and The Lord of the Flies, Force of Nature holds a mirror to some of the darkest recesses of the soul and asks, what would we do in similar circumstances?

Force of Nature, by Jane Harper. Published by Macmillan. ISBN: 9781743549094  RRP: $32.99

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Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The Quantum Astrologer's Handbook, by Michael Brooks

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Michael Brooks has written a wonderfully accessible book on one of the fathers of quantum physics.

If quantum physics is something you've always wanted to learn about, but were too afraid to ask, then Michael Brooks's The Quantum Astrologer's Handbook offers a safe and non-threatening place to start. The book is a friendly mix of science, biography, history and even fiction. Perhaps it's even a literary first in mixing so many elements with such success.

The key figure is Jerome (Gerolamo) Cardano, a sixteenth century Italian mathematician, doctor, philosopher, astrologer and writer of some two hundred works. His stubborn character led him to suffer much poverty. To get himself out of dire financial straits he often took to gambling, which is turn led him to investigate systems of mathematical probability.  He was also the first mathematician to use numbers that were less than zero. It was this mathematical work which helped make today's quantum physics possible.

Michael Brooks tells Cardano's story in a rather kaleidoscopic way. We are given an engaging biography, full of the hair-raising, cut-throat politics of the time, then Brooks inserts himself into the story, placing himself in Cardano's prison cell just as he is awaiting trial by the Inquisition. The two men - author and subject - discuss science and politics. This may seem a bit self-indulgent and prone to error, but these  imagined dialogues work terrifically well. They are humorous, perceptive and help the reader to imagine Cardano. The rest of the book is interspersed with explanations of the development of quantum physics. Admittedly, these sections require a bit of concentration, and may escape the reader's full grasp. (Confession: some of the mathematics was a bit beyond this reader.) Nonetheless, Brooks writes in a simple style that aims for clarity. It is also a relief that once the brain has been taxed by these difficult concepts, Cardano's story is again taken up, giving the reader a bit of a break.

A work of popular science that reads like a philosophical dialogue, a Medieval history and an engaging biography of a fascinating sixteenth century Italian polymath, with liberal doses of quantum physics thrown in. A sure winner.

The Quantum Philosopher's Handbook, by Michael Brooks. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925322408  RRP: $29.99

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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.

To view the latest edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter, click here. To sign up for our monthly newsletter, click here.

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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