Meet the Frugalwoods

I set to reading Meet the Frugalwoods: Achieving Financial Independence Through Simple Living for three not-entirely-deep reasons:

  • The title seemed intriguing. I mean, what’s a frugalwood?
  • I’d just finished reading The Barefoot Investor and figured a book about frugality was a good way to continue refining my financial plans and processes.
  • The book was in demand at the library, which is the book-reading equivalent of seeing a long nightclub queue and figuring it that club is the place to be.

So, despite not having known anything about the Meet the Frugalwoods or its author, I was sufficiently intrigued.

While Meet the Frugalwoods didn’t explicitly impart financial advice in the same manner as The Barefoot Investor, it did chart the story of how a couple of 20-somethings had scrimped and saved enough to pay cash for their dream home and be financially independent by their early 30s.

And that’s without hyperbole but with plenty of mistakes. ‘I’m astounded at how many ways there are to waste money, and at how many of them I’ve personally fallen victim to,’ author Elizabeth Willard Thames writes, which is heartening. She wasn’t, like the kinds of people I tend to find write these kinds of books, born impossibly good with money and had been saving since she was seven.

Instead, Willard Thames kicks off the book with explaining that she found herself finishing uni with good grades but little to no experience and struggled to find anyone who would hire her. She eventually landed herself a job in New York that paid just US $10,000 per year and found herself having to live in a pretty dire Brooklyn neighbourhood and develop some extremely good money-conserving skills on the fly just to survive.

It seems like that forcibly lean year set her on the path to ensuring she never had to feel so financially stressed again. As she writes: ‘While I’m pretty sure the phrase “extreme frugality” sounds like penance, it’s actually the exact opposite. It’s deliverance … Frugality opened up my mind to what I can do with my life, as opposed to what I can buy.’

She makes some salient points throughout the book, not least: ‘It’s not about how much you like or dislike your job. It’s about how dependent upon it you are for your paycheck.’ Also: ‘Buying clothes didn’t automatically make me more confident or more beautiful; it just automatically meant I had less money.’

Meet the Frugalwoods centres around the premise that Willard Thames and her husband aimed to have enough money saved up so they could work if they chose (which they do choose), but that they don’t need to work to survive. It’s an aim almost everyone could relate to.

Spoiler alert: The couple achieved that and more, saving more money than I just about thought possible. Willard Thames even went so far as to give up make-up, a crutch she’d used to bolster her self-esteem since she was 14, and the couple used YouTube to teach themselves how to do their own haircuts.

All of which is probably a little extreme for most of us, but which illustrates what’s doable if you’re motivated enough.

But saving money isn’t the only boon. A byproduct of frugality, Willard Thames writes, is that it’s good for the environment because it involves ample use of second-hand items: ‘I’m of the belief that you can’t buy your way green because consumption, by its very action, usually has a negative impact on the environment.’

Not having known what a frugalwood is or what the book was going to be like other than the fact than it seemed to be in demand worked out ok for me. Meet the Frugalwoods was a pleasantly interesting, thought-provoking, and ultimately useful foray into frugalism and a no-nonsense look at achieving financial independence.

While I probably wouldn’t give up haircuts (and frankly couldn’t be trusted to cut my own hair—not now, not ever), there are plenty of other areas where I’m saving money and others this book has inspired me to try.

Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy

I’ve written before about rescue goat animal sanctuary Goats of Anarchy (GoA), founded by event planner turned goat rescuer Leanne Lauricella. GoA cares for goats in need of a home, which often includes special-needs goats (AKA ‘robogoats’) who require prosthetics and/or carts to help them get about.

Lauricella has previously released children’s picture books about some of GoA’s residents, including Polly and her Duck Costume (a blind goat with a neurological disorder who is becalmed when she is swaddled in a duck onesie) and Angel and her Wonderful Wheels (a tiny black and white fainting goat who’d lost the tips of her ears and toes to frostbite and who’d survived some unnecessary amputation surgery and now gets about with the help of a custom-built cart).

Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy: How my Little Goats Taught Me Huge Lessons About Life is Lauricella’s latest book, but this time aimed more as a gift book for adults. Hardcover and petite-sized, the book features stunning images of many of the farm’s residents, including through a collage and some full-page portraits in the book’s initial pages over which I pored for minutes before eventually turning the page to start the book’s text. Also, its cover image is stellar.

Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy tells a little more about how Lauricella started rescuing the goats and what she’s learnt from them along the way. The super-short chapters are organised by themes of change, finding purpose, unconditional love, strength, confidence, patience, grief and courage, fight like a goat, and hope.

As with Lauricella’s previous books, the 120-page book’s writing is simple, spare, functional. It’ll never win prizes for the prose, and the advice-giving summaries at the end are a little rah rah and redundant, but it definitely gets the job done.

Especially in the latter sections, which recount some fairly difficult times around some of the goats we fell in love with, not least Lawson and Mellie, who both had terminal heart conditions. Having witnessed their stories via GoA’s Instagram, I cried some ugly tears reliving their stories via this book.

And really, if you do nothing other than skim the chapters and enjoy the images before bouncing off to social media to follow GoA, then Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy has done its job.

My three wishes for any future books Lauricella releases is, first, I’d like to put in a request for an Ansell the Destroyer book. AKA a book about an incredibly intelligent, curious, accidentally mischievous, and often misunderstood goat named Ansell who survived a horror of a start to life and has an unrivalled gentleness and zest for life. No hints, or anything.

Second, that Lauricella engages a professional writer to write above book and also to really uncover and convey the deeper stories we know exist about GoA. For example, just how hard it is to do the job she’s doing. The current books are a little superficial when we know there are some significant and significantly compelling stories that warrant telling.

Third, that she discusses how she can manage the farm financially. GoA is a registered charity, yes, but that can’t be the whole story. As someone who adopts ex-battery hens, I know only too well how expensive their medical care can be and really, really want to know how Lauricella is making it all work—is the charity pumping along or is she getting by by the skin of her teeth?

Regardless of these last two quibbles, Peace, Love, and Goats of Anarchy would make a good present for someone interested in animals and animal rescue, and would make an adult companion to the children’s book range Lauricella has published. At the rate she’s going with book releases, her books could comprise the entire range of Christmas presents I’ll be getting for the different people in my family.

Trace Times Two

I wasn’t familiar with Maria James or her 38-year-old murder cold case. The single mother from Thornbury, Melbourne, was stabbed 68 times in her bedroom one weekday morning by a person or persons never definitively identified. Coincidentally or otherwise, she was killed the morning she was going to confront the local priest about molesting her young, disabled son Adam.

What I refer to as ‘Trace times two’ are the astonishingly good podcast and book by the same name about James’ unsolved murder and the people tangentially affected by it—first, and foremost, her patient, polite, generous, trusting sons.

Brought to us by the team at the ABC, led by ABC journalist Rachael Brown, Trace features Ron Iddles—whose name literally condenses to ‘Riddles’—the kind of detective you’d definitely want investigating your or your loved ones’ untimely deaths, should they occur. James’ murder is the first case Iddles encountered as a fresh-faced 25-year-old homicide squad inductee and it’s the one case he hasn’t yet successfully solved.

For Iddles and the many people affected by James’ death and the events that occurred around the time of her death, re-opening investigations into the case is painful and an enormous responsibility—something Brown struggles with: ‘… we’ve been lost down countless rabbit holes. We’ve asked people to relive their nightmares and brought on tears, many of them our own.’ She also writes: ‘… interviewees unwittingly place a great amount faith in us, complete strangers, in handing over their story. It’s like a blind date with potentially far more damaging consequences.’

It’s also a blind date that almost came to nought, with Brown having first to fight to get the podcast picked up and second to ensure it got to see the light of day: ‘This is a story that’s crawled under my skin, stayed there, and is screaming to be told,’ she wrote to her bosses. ‘I set out to find if a priest murdered Maria. If one did, it’ll be a first for Australia’s modern history. Given the current climate of the Royal Commission, it’s a question that must be asked.’

Indeed, the tale is incredibly timely.

While it would be easy to dismiss the podcast and book as just another dip into the true crime wave (there are, admittedly, a lot of true crime podcasts finding their way to iTunes), this one is top-tier quality. Apart from stellar investigative journalism and storytelling, Trace times two breaks new ground of the ilk that Serial and Dirty John have before them, leveraging all available skills and platforms and giving a sense of what could be possible. As Brown writes:

‘It’s an odd synergy, this podcast’s reliance on old-school journalism techniques (federal roll checks, microfiche searches, handwritten letters), alongside the innovative element of interactivity, but that’s where I think its beauty lies …’

Trace the book is a handy companion piece to the podcast (and also works as a standalone text). I’d highly recommend reading it alongside or after listening to the podcast to enrich the podcast-listening experience. Here’s hoping Brown is able to help James’ sons and dogged detective Iddles find the answers they’ve been searching for for almost four decades.

Review: The Barefoot Investor

The Barefoot Investor book isn’t new, but it’s one I’ve simultaneously been intrigued by and slightly dismissive of. I thought: Surely it’s a bit gimmicky? But I figured it’s unfair to write off a book before even reading it, so I recently dug in.

Reader, I’ve been wary of it for no good reason.

While Scott Pape’s The Barefoot Investor isn’t the best written book I’ve ever encountered, and I at times found its text and analogies a little cheesy and hyperbolic, I’ll also heartily acknowledge that that’s not its need or design. Rather, the book is functionally and accessibly written serves its purpose well.

That purpose is to make confusing and overwhelming financial issues interesting and understandable to lay readers. And also to offer an alternative to budgeting, which is akin to dieting and destined to fail.

Providing the advice in three parts with the umbrella themes of ‘plant’, ‘grow’, ‘harvest’, under which sit chapters that include information about scheduling a monthly date night to eat good food and make tackling financial talk fun, ‘domino-ing’ (i.e. lining up and knock over in planned succession) your debts, buying your own home, and maximising your super. None of which sound particularly exciting, but each of which are peppered with gems of achievable information that neither require a finance degree nor a tonne of time, and that together provide a cohesive approach to well and truly sorting yourself financially.

For example, I ended up downloading a useful spending tracking app and slightly tweaking my mortgage and superannuation set-ups based on some of the takeaways. I’ll be contacting my bank to renegotiate my mortgage interest rate once they’re open on Monday. (Pape handily even provides a script for such renegotiations.)

Through reading this book, I finally started to understand how not to budget, which has always seemed boring and inflexibly strict, but how to split money among buckets that then ensure there’s always money available at short notice for unexpected expenses while simultaneously building compound interest. For the first ever time in my life, I actually found myself enjoying reading about and figuring out how to finesse my finances. If that isn’t a resounding sign of the success of a book, I don’t know what is.

Hearteningly, Pape’s advice is about long-term financial control and comfort rather than getting rich quick. It’s solid, measured advice that he revisits and revises annually to ensure its information and pop culture references are still current.

So I happily write that I stand reminded that books become bestsellers for a reason. The Barefoot Investor conveys crucial information in ways that suit lay people like me. Which is to say it cuts through the guff few of us understand. It’s definitely worth at least a flick through if not a proper sit-down read.

Review: I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, the book about a serial rapist and killer whose crimes terrorised Californian communities and have long stumped authorities, popped up on my radar the same way it did for many people: because of the tragic story behind it.

Writer Michelle McNamara died unexpectedly in her sleep while partway through writing the book. Her bereaved husband, actor, and fellow writer Patton Oswalt stepped in and, along with McNamara’s researcher and an award-winning author, finalised and published the book. Oswalt also recruited Gillian Flynn, AKA she of Gone Girl writing fame, to write a foreword.

All of which is heart-warming, but that hints that the book might be a bit patchy or uneven. So I’ll be honest that I didn’t know what to expect when I cracked its spine, and that at best my expectations were low.

But McNamara’s astonishingly good writing and storytelling that gets layers down deeper than traditional true crime tales is absolutely gripping. And, as with all quality writing, seems effortlessly so. Oswalt and co. have used editor’s notes to flag where they’ve assembled chapters or segments based on McNamara’s notes. The transparency is to be applauded, but in truth almost not needed—the book hangs together fairly seamlessly.

Essentially, the book documents McNamara’s efforts to uncover the identity of a prolific and bolshy rapist and serial killer variously termed the East Area Rapist, the Original Night Stalker, the Ransacker, and later, by McNamara, as the Golden State Killer (GSK) whose crime spree is as bizarre as it has been seemingly unsolvable. Well, until recently. But more about that later.

While I originally thought the book’s title might have been a reference to McNamara’s death during sleep, but it’s actually a reference to the GSK’s ominous threats to his victims, which took the form of words like: ‘Make one move and you’ll be silent forever and I’ll be gone in the dark.’

Some 50 women were bound, gagged, and brutally raped in their homes during his crime wave, and while it started out being women alone, couples were later targeted, with the men tied up in another room and the GSK taking odd keepsakes from his victims’ homes. Around 10 people were killed, with authorities still attributing other unsolved crimes to the GSK as DNA analysis and cross-jurisdictional co-operation improves.

In fact, as McNamara outlines, it was the lack of sharing of information between police forces that in some ways allowed the GSK to operate as he did. As one rape victim who lived in a southern suburb not thought to be frequented by the GSK told the police when they eventually arrived to rescue her: ‘Well, I guess the East Area Rapist is the South Area Rapist now.’

McNamara wrote: ‘A forensic match between the cases didn’t exist, but a feeling did, a sense that a single mind was at work, someone who didn’t leave many clues or talk or show his face, someone who strolled undetected in the middle-class swarm, an ordinary man with a resting-pulse derangement.’

The GSK disappeared just as suddenly as he appeared, with people postulating theories about what ended his efforts as that he was either incarcerated for another crime or dead. That didn’t stop people working together and individually for decades to solve the mystery, and McNamara features cops and crime scene forensic specialists and Reddit-hosted enthusiasts alike as she tries to identify the GSK.

Without wanting to ruin the ending, there have been some significant developments in the GSK case since the book was published. Which in no way diminishes it. I’d just recommend trying to resist googling the case until you’ve finished McNamara’s book.

Oswalt has written an afterword that talks about the daughter now growing up without McNamara, who asks: ‘“Daddy, why do you and Santa Claus have the same handwriting?” Michelle Eileen McNamara is gone. But she left behind a little detective. And a mystery.’

Posthumously publishing McNamara’s book is perhaps the greatest tribute he could have made. Meanwhile McNamara’s tireless work arguably at least partially contributed to authorities solving the GSK case. Make sure you allow some time after reading I’ll Be Gone in the Dark for some serious GSK googling.

Review: Lost Connections

Sometimes someone writes a book that simultaneously highlights an obvious truth and reveals previously unknown issues. That’s the case with journalist Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions, a book that both exposes how many of the things we’ve been told about the causes and cures of depression are not scientifically accurate—and have even been disproven.

My entry to Lost Connections was actually listening to a podcast of Hari speaking on a panel at the Byron Bay Writers Festival. He was so passionate and so knowledgeable and entertaining a speaker, and his subject matter so startling and yet confirming of a nagging feeling I’d had for a while, that I bumped reading his book to the top of my list.

Combining an anthropological look at depression and conveying it in accessible feature article-style chapters, Hari steps the reader through his own decades-long experiences with depression and quest to figure out what what causing it and how on earth he could cure it. Like many others, he had found that despite being told that depression was caused by a dearth of serotonin in the brain that could be rectified by an antidepressant tablet, he was still depressed.

Employing his social research training, he started investigating the subject and met with experts. His book documents the startling but also common sense answers to what’s causing depression. For starters, it’s not a chemical imbalance in the brain or a lack of serotonin, as we’ve long been told. That was a hypothesis put forward by scientists way back that was quickly disproven, but that the pharmaceutical manufacturers picked up and continue to run with.

Frightening and depressing, much?

But while this rigorously researched book (seriously, I can’t quite get over how much peer-reviewed academic research Hari has found and how many experts he interviewed) did cause me moments of despair as it tipped everything I thought I knew about depression on its head, it ultimately comforted me.

Converting dense, dry scientific material into a gripping tale catering to a wide, non-scientific audience along the lines of authors Rutger Bregman and Malcolm Gladwell, Hari finally makes depression make sense. He also continues beyond identifying the issues, documenting the solutions.

Those solutions are perhaps the most interesting part of the book and range from a diverse community coming together to protest social housing evictions to prescribing socially and environmentally meaningful gardening.

I read Lost Connections in short snatches while waiting for meetings or queuing up for public transport, which allowed me to cogitate over its topics and meaning. Suffice to say, I’d recommend the book as both an absorbing read but also a thought-provoker or conversation starter. As Hari notes, with depression rates climbing, current depression treatments clearly aren’t working. Lost Connections does, as a minimum, prompt a rethink.

The Book That Helps Nurture Australian Native Bees

September in Australia means many things to many people, but it means all action stations for those of us who care for bees as bee colonies ramp up their warm-weather activity. In northern hemispheres, the bees come out of hibernation, but in temperate tropics like Queensland they simply double their pollen-collecting efforts. Meanwhile beekeepers like me set about splitting healthy colonies to create new safe homes and double the number of bees to help protect the environment.

I’ve written previously about the vegan beekeeping I do for European honeybees—that is, beekeeping that focuses on ensuring bee and hive health rather than producing honey. But I’ve written little about the equivalent native beekeeping I do. And the book that helps me do it.

There are thousands of Australian native stingless bees, and I have four hives of tetragonula carbonaria, one of the more common social bees (where social means they live together in a hive rather than pottering about solitarily). More the size of fruit flies and foraging not more than 500 metres from their home, these bees are often overshadowed by their European cousins, who are much more visible to the naked eye and who travel between five and 10 kilometres to gather food.

University of Queensland entomologist Tim Heard has been studying native bees for decades—you could say he was interested in them before they were cool. But with no sting (technically, they can nip when they’re really unhappy with you), being super low maintenance, and taking up so little room they could live on a balcony, native bees provide invaluable pollination services to their local environment. Which explains why their popularity has surged in recent years.

For those of us who now give native bees homes, Heard’s book is basically gospel. Written based on thorough scientific understanding, but in lay terms accessible to those of us who are not entomologists, The Australian Native Bee Book includes in-depth information about how native bees operate, as well as crucial step-by-step information for constructing and locating hives to the precise specifications that allow native bees to thrive.

It’s also packed with photographs that illustrate points and show what’s possible in terms up set-ups and support. Combined, and despite its not entirely attractive cover*, this book is a goldmine of information and images every person caring for native bees should access and learn.

 

*I get the brown might match some of the colours of the hives’ inner workings, but it’s still a terrible cover choice. And reprint or revised editions should rectify this.

Revisiting RBG

I’ve written previously about both the RBG book and documentary, but having just turned the last page of the book, I’ve been reminded that the book alone warrants special attention. Because the New York Times bestseller RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, dedicated to ‘the women on whose shoulders we stand’, is phenomenal.

Tracing the life and career of US Supreme Court judge and human rights advocate Ruth Bader Ginsburg (AKA ‘RBG’), RBG is written by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. They are, respectively, a then law student who started the Notorious RBG Tumblr ‘digital tribute’ and a journalist who interviewed Knizhnik and was captivated by the RBG story. It’s a stellar combination, seeing the book balance feature writing-style compelling narrative further informed by solid legal depth and detail.

And its diverse but cohesive 195-odd pages contain something for absolutely everyone. The book chapters are, for example, named after Notorious BIG’s song lyrics. An artist who runs a women’s graffiti collective illustrated each chapter title. The pages are punctuated with memes and artworks, as well as photographs—some seen before, some not—of RBG at work, at the opera, or spending time with her family.

There are annotated versions of RBG’s judgments that highlight the poise, finesse, laser-like sharpness, and subtlety with which she weaves together her judgments. And there are summaries of her dissenting judgments and reasoning, which sounds dry but is actually a brilliantly succinct way to appreciate both RBG’s intellect and just how vast her contribution has been to shaping legal and cultural history. (Seriously, her dissenting Voting Rights Act judgment is iconic: ‘… Killing the Voting Rights Act because it had worked too well … was like “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”’)

Not hired because she was a woman, despite finishing top of her class, fired because she was pregnant, and paid less because she was a woman and her husband earnt a decent wage, RBG has encountered and overcome more discrimination in her lifetime than many of us could imagine. Better still, she’s not just overcome it, but made it easier for other women to at best avoid and at worst overcome it too.

‘RBG has been extraordinary all her life, but she never wanted to be a solo performer. She is committed to bringing up other women and under-represented people, and to working together with her colleagues even when it seems impossible,’ we read. Meanwhile the ever humble RBG says: ‘I just try to do the good job that I have to the best of my ability, and I really don’t think about whether I’m inspirational. I just do the best I can.’

A ‘firebrand’ concealed in an apparently conservative casing, RBG belies Gloria Steinem’s adage: ‘Women lose power with age, and men gain it.’ RBG’s tale is one that should be read and appreciated by women and men alike because she makes you not only see the world and inner workings differently, but she inspires you to imagine what we can, without raising our voices and by bringing others along with us, possibly achieve.

Review: The Emerald Sea

Needing some escapism after being smashed with a combination of work and uni deadlines, and having come off the back of reading—and still mulling over—Eggshell Skull, I turned to my favourite guilty-pleasure author: Richelle Mead.

Mead has thankfully recently released the third and final book in the Glittering Court trilogy.

In The Emerald Sea, we follow the third of three friends attending what is essentially a live-in intensive deportment school prepping them for travelling to the colonies where they hope to secure themselves rich husbands. Which sounds superficial until you discover the three are actually each harbouring huge secrets and kickass skillsets and courage.

Tamsin, the protagonist of this latest tale, was actually my least favourite character in the previous books. My impression of her was that she was two-dimensional, her hyper-competitiveness and Type A personality overplayed to the point of being unbelievable.

So I had admittedly hesitated to order and then dive into this book in quite the same way as I had the previous two. It turns out it was a rookie mistake because, while I believe Mead could have provided Tamsin with a bit more depth overall, in this book we gain insight into why she’s so uptight. And it’s kind of worth the wait.

With Tamsin’s tale diverging from the other two’s by way of a storm that shipwrecks the boat she’s traveling on, she’s alone, equipped with only her ingenuity to tackle crisis after crisis. It’s here thar Tamsin really comes into her own.

It also provides a fresh take on the overlapping tales, with so much of Tamsin’s story taking place far away from the Glittering Court, instead in a bizarrely religious small colony and in the company of a swag of interesting characters that include a dashing party boy turned trainee priest, a sour spinster, a charismatic but not-so-dashing trader, and a strong lady leader of the local Icori.

Featuring many of Mead’s trademark wit and one-liners, The Emerald Sea is eminently readable and a surprisingly fitting and solid conclusion to the trilogy. Perhaps my greatest marvel of it and its predecessors The Glittering Court and Midnight Jewel is that Mead has managed to write three entirely independent yet interwoven narratives that converge fairly seamlessly. For this reason, I’d definitely recommend reading it and its companions.

Review: Eggshell Skull

I should preface this post with a warning that it is about a book about sex crimes, which might be confronting for some readers.

But Eggshell Skull wouldn’t be effective if it wasn’t evoking discomfort.

Let me back up.

Eggshell Skull is the tale of a daughter of a cop, law graduate, and District Court judge’s associate Bri Lee (AKA she of Hot Chicks with Big Brains) who is, by way of the juxtaposition of these three elements, uniquely positioned to discuss the Australian justice system’s handling of sex crimes. She went from helping facilitate sex crime trials in her role as an associate to being a complainant navigating the system as she sought justice for sex crimes that were committed on her by her older brother’s friend when she was just in primary school.

Her own life and work experience should have prepared her adequately for what was to come. But that’s the point of the book: the system is so difficult, so imperfect, and so arguably segmented and broken that even with her background and a strong support network, making a complaint, then seeing it all the way through to its trial conclusion, was inordinately grim. ‘The more I learned of the huge, “blind” justice system,’ she writes, ‘the more I learned that it was just as human and fallible as everything and everyone that created and preceded it.’

Also, she notes: ‘Nobody tells you that if you want to press charges against the man who molested you, you still have to go to work, get jobs done, and interact with people as though you’re a normal human being … You’ll still drop the roast you just made, and miss your bus, and run out of toilet paper.’

There are so many parts of the book that both shocked and resonated with me (and, going by the number of people who have bought the book and flocked to panels Lee has been on, many others). These include the parts about the number of women who excuse themselves from sex crime trials because they themselves have been victims of sex crimes and cannot bring themselves to sit through (much less do so impartially) a trial about that very subject.

These also include the number of defence barristers who go out of their way to strike women from the jury—with eight free-pass ejections available to the defence, it’s highly possible to stack, or at least strongly influence, Australian juries. (Interestingly, as Lee has herself flagged in subsequent interviews and panels I’ve seen, the British legal system from which we adopted this practice no longer allows eight strikes because it’s widely recognised just how much it can skew outcomes.)

These include too that sex crimes are less often committed by paedophiles and more often by opportunists—who are frequently very ordinary, suburban men. A 2011 report found that most offending occurred in the home, without the use of a weapon or violence, and the offenders are known to the victim. This runs counter to the violent-attack-by-a-stranger narrative. Lee notes unsurprisingly, but sadly, sex crime trials that feature weapons and non-white defendants have higher conviction rates.

Meanwhile the female complainants seem to simultaneously need to show that they are both desirable enough to have been raped, but that they did not consent to it. As Lee outlines, the perfect complainant is a cute little girl who you can’t ask which contraception she is on or how short her skirt was or how many drinks she’d had. It’s not, as in one case that played out before her, a woman who had been drinking with the guy, who was on the pill, who was combative when questioned, and/or who was medicated for anxiety and depression.

‘The case felt like a David and Goliath battle,’ Lee writes. ‘”There’s no evidence apart from the complainants story,” they kept saying, but what evidence what evidence was she supposed to bring? So many of them were terrified, submitting to intercourse to avoid the punches or cuts that, ironically, would have helped them secure a conviction. So many took months or years to come forward—then, despite showing monumental strength in making a report, they were cross-examined about their “inexplicable” delay.’

The ‘eggshell skull’ legal principle that lends the book its title is, as Lee explains: ‘The premise is that if Person A were to have a skull as thin as an eggshell, and Person B struck them on the head, intending only to punch them, but in fact killed them, Person B is responsible for the damage they cause … a defendant must “take their victims as they find them”’. That is, you can’t absolve yourself of some responsibility because someone had a weakness or pre-existing condition. You are responsible for the full extent of their injuries.

Lee flips that premise, considering what it might involve if that person is educated, articulate, feminist, and prepared to stand up, speak out, and fight back. That, combined with the juxtaposition of Lee’s insight as a police officer’s daughter turned complainant forewarned and forearmed with a law degree and experience working in the courts but no longer interested in pursuing a career in law, is perhaps what is most powerful about Eggshell Skull. Lee sits both inside and outside the system enough to be able to articulate its problems and its potential solutions.

For example, Lee skewers arguments that you can’t shift the presumption of innocence for sex crime defendants. As she notes, we do in fact already have equivalents: If you car is found to have been speeding or drugs are found in your house, as the car and house owner you are presumed to be responsible and have to prove otherwise.

Which is a hint of what I suspect will be Eggshell Skull’s legacy. Apart from being a gripping read most people will cancel plans for and inhale in a few short sittings, the book’s legal and social justice issues will continue to resonate. More than a misery memoir, Eggshell Skull has real potential to help shift how we handle sex crimes from initial complaint to final trial outcome.

Side note: I learnt from this book that the mural I ride past on my daily work and uni commute is actually by the fantastic Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. Apparently it’s entitled Eyes are Singing Out. At Law school, I’ve heard them reference it as the eyes looking up at the judiciary and warning them that they’re being watched and their behaviour must be exemplary. Which surprised me. I’ve always considered it a rather intimidating mural denoting that defendants are being watched and judged by a jury of peers. Who knows. Maybe it’s meant to mean both ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

The first words on the first page of The Tattooist of Auschwitz read that the book ‘has the quality of a dark fairytale’. Indeed, it does. Journalist and foreign correspondent Hugh Riminton’s quote continues: ‘[The Tattooist] is both simple and epic, shot through with compassion and love, but inescapably under the shadow of the most devouring monsters our civilisation has known.’

Not much more needs to be said about the book, other than that it should be read, for Riminton’s statements both sum up my sentiments and do so more eloquently than I ever could. And while I inhaled the eminently readable The Tattooist in one three-hour sitting when it first came out, it’s taken me some time to get round to writing this blog post about it—the subject matter was so stellar and so moving I needed some time to gather my thoughts.

For anyone who is still unfamiliar with the book, which has been a bestseller since its launch and which has undergone multiple reprints, it is a fictionalised account of a non-fiction story: that of concentration camp prisoners Lale (pronounced ‘Lah-lay’) and Gita (Ghee-ta) Sokolov.

The prologue begins with Slovakian Jewish prisoner Lale tattooing the number 34902 on Gita, the woman who was to become the love of his life, in Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1942. Conflicted about his role in inflicting pain on his fellow prisoners, but also aware that he must do whatever he can to survive, Lale finds that his tattooist role provides him safe passage around the concentration camps and extra rations, both of which he leverages to help himself and others. Deftly woven throughout, and offsetting the horror, is Lale and Gita’s love story.

‘To save one is to save the world’ is a phrase uttered in, and that aptly captures the tales contained within, The Tattooist. The book was originally conceived as a screenplay, with author Heather Morris capturing Lale’s story through interviews and penning drafts that eventually became a novel. Morris spoke wonderfully eloquently about the book and the interviewing and writing process on Conversations with Richard Fidler. I highly recommend listening to that interview in tandem with reading the book.

The Tattooist is invaluable because we have little true insight into what it was like to actually live—well, exist—inside those concentration camps. And there are moments that continue to haunt me. For instance, Lale regularly encountered the infamous doctor Josef Mengele, who prowled the tattooing line, looking for victims, and who has since been revealed to have committed all manner of heinous medical research on prisoners.

Likewise, the prisoners were forced to play out a macabre game of football against the guards, while ash from the perpetually running crematoria rained down on them. Lale later had to walk into the crematorium to identify a prisoner by their tattoo, only to be cruelly jibed by the SS officer in charge of him: ‘I bet you’re the only Jew who ever walked into an oven and then walked back out of it.’

‘Are you sure you’re not a cat?’ the same SS officer asks Lale at one time because he survived so many moments that would otherwise mean certain death. It’s a thought that had crossed my mind too, because although the tale is incredibly compelling, just occasionally I couldn’t quite fathom how Lale had survived when so many others hadn’t. Undoubtedly, his ability to speak multiple languages and his charisma were contributing factors.

Still, some questions remain for me: What happened to the tattooist who preceded Lale and who gave him his chance? And Aron, who saved him from Typhus? And was Lale not terrified having the SS know Gita was his girlfriend? Surely they’d have used that to torture him? Perhaps one day, with others having read the book and recognised overlaps with their own or their relatives’ stories, those questions will be answered.

Side note: While I would unhesitatingly recommend The Tattooist to anyone and everyone and stump up a case for why it should be on school and university reading lists, my one wish is that the book was non-fiction rather than fiction. Hazarding a guess, I’d say the author and publisher elected to couch it as fiction to cover themselves for any facts they couldn’t definitively verify—of which there were likely many given that so few people who could attest to their veracity are still alive. But still: The Tattooist is essentially a retelling of one man’s recollection of actual events, however surreal they may seem, and it jars slightly for me to have the tale fictionalised.

Regardless, my hope is that The Tattooist not only succeeds as a novel, but also as the film Morris and Lale originally envisaged it to be: with Brad Pitt playing Lale and Natalie Portman playing Gita.

Under the Lights and in the Dark

In Under the Lights and in the Dark, sports writer Gwendolyn Oxenham notes how women’s sport is the antithesis of American sportwriter Gary Smith’s answer to the ‘if you could trade places with any athlete’ question. ‘I probably wouldn’t,’ he famously said. ‘For the most part, they’ve had to whittle down their lives so much to excel at something that their possibility for personal growth is compromised.’

Female footballers (soccer players), however, have to work, study, and generally juggle many, many, many commitments outside football. If anything, their personal growth accelerates.

Under the Lights spotlights some of the challenges women have had—and continue to have—to overcome in order to play football. As she notes in the book’s opening pages: ‘Dozens of players across the world shared their stories and their time. Whether from Liverpool or Lagos, Tokyo or Kabul, Kingston or Paris, here’s one thing that was always true: at an early age, they found the game and held on, driven neither by money nor fame—only the desire to be great. Here are their stories.’

Featuring a mix of well known and periphery players, and grouping tales under some key themes such as low or even non-existent salary, homelessness, and motherhood, Oxenham exposes some of the issues women face simply to play the sport they love.

One of the most striking is the bizarre and terrifyingly powerless experience of playing in Russia, where the team may or may not be run by, and acting as a money-laundering cover for, the mafia. Under these dubious conditions, the players are beholden to a coach and manager who forces them to take ‘vitamins’, both orally and via injections, that one player, on returning to the US and undergoing medical tests, determines to be anabolic steroids.

Another obstacle Oxenham exposes is the decades-long consequences of women’s football being banned in Brazil from 1941 until 1979 courtesy of a law that stated that ‘women will not be allowed to practi[s]e sports [that] are incompatible to their feminine nature.’

Women can now in theory legally play football in Brazil, Oxenham notes, but they’re being prevented from playing by other means. Santos, for example, was until a few years ago the best women’s football team. Was, because the club cut the entire team in 2012 in order to stump up cash to keep male footballer Neymar (AKA he of the ridiculous rolling that inspired countless 2018 World Cup mockery and memes) by paying him one million reals (US$558,000) a month. He was later sold overseas anyway. How Neymar can live with himself allowing the women’s team to be cut for him, I cannot conceive.

Motherhood is another theme Oxenham explores—specifically, how, just as in office-based workplaces, pregnancy and motherhood hampers or more often ends women’s football careers. Of the 24 teams and 552 women who competed at the 2015 Women’s World Cup, Oxenham writes, only 11 players were known to be mothers. Most of the national teams have no mothers, due to cost, commitment, the absence of maternity policies, and an all-round lack of support.

But Oxenham also highlights some of women’s football’s triumphs. Portland and its women’s team the Thorns, for example, are the town and the team that shows the rest of the world how women’s football and women’s football support should be. One of the iconic banners its avid supporters have painted is a quote from The Little Prince: ‘It is the time you have wasted for your rose that makes your rose so important’. Where ‘wasted’ can be read as ‘done it for the love of the game’.

About women’s football, but also about much more pervasive issues that affect women in society more widely, Under the Lights and in the Dark is yet another invaluable documentation of the issues women face and the progress they are making. With any luck and a lot of hard work, in the future female footballers will soon just be under the lights.

The Notorious RBG (x 2)

‘What are you doing taking a seat that could be occupied by a man?’ was the question put to Ruth Bader Ginsburg (RBG)—lawyer, feminist, supreme court judge, icon, ‘rockstar’, and just about the closest thing we have to a superhero—when she was just one of nine women in a law class of over 500 men.

The question—arguably rhetorical—reflects the sentiment RBG has not only encountered but triumphed over throughout her entire career.

And in contrast to the usual fate of older women, RBG is these days not being dismissed or overlooked, but is instead ‘winning the internet’. In fact, this 84-year-old feminist, who this month celebrated 25 years as a US Supreme Court judge, has become something of a liberal hero for those of us desperately seeking someone to believe in in the face of Trump-led chaos.

For those unfamiliar with RBG—or the ‘Notorious RBG’ as she’s come to be known thanks to a Tumblr set up in her honour that gives a nod to 80s rapper Notorious BIG—there is now a documentary and a book that unpack and celebrate her story.

RBG, playing in cinemas around Australia now, and The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, which comes in both an adult and young adult version to inspire people of all ages, provide insight into a remarkable woman who has, through quietly setting about doing her job as a lawyer, literally changed the course of history for women, particularly.

Softly spoken and never one to raise her voice in anger, RBG has overcome obstacles that would defeat most others. Apart from having to prove she deserved to be at law school, she excelled at her own studies. She also helped her husband excel at his while he was suffering from cancer, organising his friends to take notes in classes and typing up his notes and assignments. This was on top of doing her own study and caring for the couple’s young child. Only to find upon graduating that no law firm would hire her purely on the basis of her gender.

When RBG quotes Sarah Grimke, a kind of RBG of centuries past, in the documentary, I felt a tear-forming, chest-swelling mix of emotions: ‘I ask no favours for my sex … All I ask of our brethren is that they will take their feet from off our necks.’

That sentiment imbues RBG’s career, throughout which she has patiently and systematically set about trying to change discriminatory state and federal laws. These include the legal ability for:

  • husbands, considered masters of their communities, to decide where their families lived without women having any input
  • employers to fire women for being pregnant
  • banks to require a husband to give permission for their wife to have a credit card.

Which makes her accomplishments sound straightforward when they were anything but. ‘I did see myself as a kind of kindergarten teacher in those days,’ RBG says of having to explain some very straightforward legal concepts to men who could not conceive of anything being wrong with them.

And her work ethic was and is clearly extraordinary. A common theme of RBG’s and her late husband Marty’s marriage was that Marty would often have to coax her home—she would otherwise work late into the night. Likewise that he did the bulk of the cooking because this seemingly infallible woman is a self-professed and professed by others terrible cook. (I was relieved to discover this because: a) I’m a terrible cook too; b) it showed me that despite her impressiveness, RBG is also relateably human.)

When RBG was just one of two women appointed to the Supreme Court, she actually had to devise new cloak collar options because the existing collars catered to men’s shirts only. It was a practical logistical requirement, but now her ‘I dissent’ collar is iconic.

The ideal number of women on the Supreme Court, she believes, when asked the question, is ‘nine.’ It’s a statement that prompts laughter, including from me, until she aptly points out that there have, until she and another were appointed, been nine men.

Which makes you realise that even if you consider yourself a feminist, there are cultural and systemic ‘norms’ RBG not only sees but figures out how to tackle and that the rest of us need to pay attention to.

Suffice to say, the documentary is must-watch and the book must-read. For fear of spoiling the surprise, those in my immediate circle will be getting copies of the book for Christmas.

The Adversary

Trigger warning: The book this blog features is contains distressing subject matter, so may not be suitable for all readers.

About two years ago, I had the misfortune to be very, very peripherally affected by the real-life playing out of a most bat-insane story—one that involved a guy I vaguely knew having spent 15 years pretending to study medicine and practise as a doctor.

Without going into details—in part because the story’s so bizarre that I could not do it justice and in part because I don’t think it’s my story to tell—what I will say is that I and everyone else who knows the story has spent the better part of the past two years grappling with the ins and outs of it and basically going: What the hell?

So I was online and ordering The Adversary: A True Story of Monstrous Deception quick sticks after a friend recommended it. The story, which is of a man who spent 18 years pretending to study medicine and practise as a doctor before murdering his wife, their two children, and his parents, as well as attempting to murder his mistress, was notorious in France but largely passed me by in Australia. Until now.

While I don’t for a moment suggest the two tales have much in common other than faking medical careers, I was keen to see if someone else had been able to resolve the questions that remain unresolved (or even unanswered) in my own life: What prompts someone to fake doctory? And how on earth do they manage the logistics?

The how and the why clearly drive the book, as author Emmanuel Carrere parallels aspects of his own life with Jean-Claude Romand’s, at least in part to try to compare and contrast and ultimately understand Romand’s actions. For instance, the book’s opening paragraph reads startlingly matter-of-factly:

On the Saturday morning of January 9, 1993, while Jean-Claude Romand was killing his wife and children, I was with mine in a parent–teacher meeting at the school attended by Gabriel, our eldest son. Then we went to have lunch with my parents, as Jean-Claude Romand did with his, whom he killed after their meal …

Reading this book was more than a little eerie, as what may seem like an objectively interesting tale felt for me like deja vous as Carrere steps readers through the reaction to finding out that nothing about Romand was as it appeared:

Everyone was wondering: How could we have lived beside this man for so long without suspecting a thing? Everyone tried to remember a moment when some suspicion, some moment that might have led to some suspicion, had almost crossed their minds.

Romand’s life was ultimately a house of cards, but it seems no one had had their suspicions raised sufficiently to warrant investigating: Romand claimed he worked at the World Health Organization, but a simple phone call after the murders revealed there was no such person employed there. Romand wasn’t listed on the global list of physicians and had never graduated medical school, and so on, and so on—the details, once finally investigated, didn’t hold up.

While I was hooked enough to look forward to reading snippets of The Adversary before going to bed, I felt rising sadness as I approached its end. Carrere’s short tale is undeniably absorbing—so much so it was named a New York Times ‘Notable Book’)—but ultimately reflects my own frustrating findings: No one can truly know anyone else, and the kind of person who will fake being a doctor for decades is arguably not someone of whom you can make sense.

So while I was disappointed that the book wasn’t able to provide the answers I was after, I did really appreciate that it gave us some. At the very least, I got a sense of the logistics of maintaining and funding such a lie for so long. And I got a fuller sense of a man who could too easily be painted as two-dimensionally evil.

Whether you were or weren’t familiar with the 1993 murders, The Adversary is a fascinating read. At a mere 191 pages of easy-to-digest writing, it’s the kind of book you can quickly finish but that will remain front of mind for some time.

The Perfect Combo: Star Wars + Little Golden Books

There are arguably few greater kids-book combinations than the Little Golden Books and Star Wars. The Star Wars Little Golden Books six-book boxset is the gift I’ve just purchased for, ostensibly, a small child’s birthday.

The reality is that the books are as much for my brother, a giant Star Wars fan, as for his one-year-old daughter, who is way too young to truly appreciate them. That’s both because she can’t yet read and because her consumption of books largely revolves around eating them.

Still, my hope is that these books will be ones to treasure. And yes, it’s the start of me buying books I’d like to read or that hold sentimental, childhood-throwback value.

The boxset contains six of the iconic Star Wars tales:

  • Attack of the Clones
  • A New Hope
  • Return of the Jedi
  • The Empire Strikes Back
  • The Phantom Menace
  • Revenge of the Sith.

‘The epic Star Wars space saga—finally retold in timeless Little Golden Books! Read them all, you must,’ Yoda tells us on the books’ back covers. And really, is there not a more ingenious way of introducing a new generation of potential fans to Star Wars than through the tried and trusted Little Golden Books? Whoever came up with that combination deserves a marketing medal.

The illustrated books feature the most iconic opening line—A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away—and most of the tales’ iconic scenes. That includes the trash compactor one, the Han Solo freezing one, and the ‘Luke, I am your father’ one—scenes that always terrify me in the films and that I can safely say are similarly accurately conveyed in book.

The Ewoks, tauntauns, and AT-AT walkers feature too. Unfortunately, Jar Jar Binks makes an unavoidable appearance, but it’s thankfully brief and contained to only the elements crucial to progressing the story.

In some ways, these versions give a simplified-but-not-too-simplified overview handy for people not overly familiar with the Star Wars universe and its complexities. Or for people who need a quick refresher. And, at roughly 20-ish pages long each, they offer a self-contained pre-bedtime tale that won’t take hours to read.

The question is: I’ve set the bar high for book present purchases. What do I go to next and how can I possibly top Star Wars? Pig the Pug, Thelma the Unicorn, and Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas are stashed away as next book cabs off the rank. But beyond that, I’m out of options as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Hairy Maclary, and Spot are already well and truly covered.

Review: The Trauma Cleaner

The Christmas–New Year break contains but two priorities for me: to rest and to read books.

Strangely, given its slightly heavier subject matter, Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner: One woman’s extraordinary life in death, decay & disaster was one of the books I was most keen to read at this time.

In truth, I was attracted by both the concept and the cover art. The former is that the book is the biography of Sandra, whose work concentrates on cleaning premises that range from sites of hoarding to crime scenes. The latter is the simple but sharp contrast between a white background and slightly wrung bright orange plastic glove. On a semi-gloss cover that could, arguably, be wiped down with a wet cloth if needed.

While trauma cleaning is in and of itself a macabrely fascinating concept (Krasnostein quickly explains that it is a little-known but necessary business for crime scenes and the like—police and other emergency services aren’t there to clean up), Sandra’s story is even more so. Before she was a trauma cleaner, Sandra was, as the blurb explains, ‘a husband and father, drag queen, sex reassignment patient, sex worker, businesswoman, trophy wife …’

So yeah, there’s a lot to this tale.

The book’s first lines are actually the lines on Sandra’s business card, stating that ‘excellence is no accident’ before listing the types of services she offers. These include hoarding, methamphetamine lab, and death-scene clean-up, as well as odour control.

All the endlessly fascinating things that happen in the shadows and that provide insights into humanity. If this book shows us anything, it’s that these situations are but the extreme manifestations of the issues of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and more that we all grapple with at one time or another. Sandra included.

As Krasnostein writes: ‘Sandra knows her clients as well as they know themselves; she airs out their smells, throws out their weird porn, their photos, their letters, the last traces of their DNA entombed in soaps and toothbrushes. She does not, however, erase these people. She couldn’t. She has experienced the same sorrows.’

Adopted and then abused by her adoptive parents and trying to come to terms with being transgender at a time when it was even less accepted than it is now (if it even is now), what Sandra has gone through is soul-searchingly sad.

Seriously, the book’s opening chapters made me wonder how she survived much less triumphed over her childhood, and I can only imagine how confusing and difficult and stressful it would have been facing a lack of acceptance as well as medical scrutiny when trying to undergo gender reassignment surgery. Not to mention the fact that Sandra underwent all of this around the time of HIV’s arrival. It’s also heart-swellingly impressive just how much she’s managed to make of her life, rebuilding it time and again.

Krasnostein notes that Sandra is immaculately dressed at all times. And that she’s also accompanied by an oxygen tank to help her manage a respiratory condition that is exacerbated by the kinds of dusty, fume- and mould-laden environments in which she works. Trauma cleaning is brutally physical work: ‘See, people think “cleaning” and that you need a bucket of water and a cloth … We need crowbars, spades, rakes, a sledgehammer …’ Sandra explains.

At 260 pages, this book is of average length, but is so accessible and I read it so quickly that those 260 pages felt short. I still have questions. For instance, Krasnostein writes that she first encountered Sandra at a forensic support services conference. I wondered immediately what prompted Krasnostein to attend one. And I wanted to know more detail about Sandra in general—she so utterly fascinated me.

But I’m similarly conscious that there were many rabbit warrens Krasnostein could have gone down. Each life within Sandra’s life just about warrants a book of its own, so it would have been an unimaginably herculean task for Krasnostein to contain the tales to one book. Which she did well, giving mostly equal airtime to key times in Sandra’s life: her childhood, moving out of home and marrying, grappling with her gender and sexuality, careers she’s had, violence she’s endured, loves she’s lost, and how she’s had to repeatedly rebuild her life and finances multiple times.

My only criticisms of the book are that there is too much of the author in it and the text suffers a little from overwriting and thesaurus syndrome. While I’m sure Krasnostein felt a strong personal connection to Sandra’s story, Sandra’s story alone was so rich and compelling that it really needed to stand alone. Likewise, there were times when it felt like prose was over-explained. The story itself was so strong it could have been told matter-of-factly. Likewise, Sandra’s memory loss and subsequent unreliable narration were referenced too often. They just needed to be mentioned once at the beginning and left at that.

But these are small quibbles about what is ultimately an ambitious and refreshingly different book. Sandra’s is a little-told story that warrants greater attention and respect. I hope to read some follow-up articles or books about her—I get the sense she has many more incredible lives to lead and many more stories to share.

Review: Songs of a War Boy

I knew the gist of Deng Thiak Adut’s story via media grabs, but I didn’t until a few days know he’d written a book: Songs of a War Boy.

(For anyone unfamiliar with Deng’s story, he was, at just seven years old, forcefully conscripted from his family and his remote village in South Sudan to fight a civil war about which he had little to no understanding. Deng subsequently spent years undergoing cruel training compounded by malnutrition, disease, very little medical treatment, and no formal education.

Some fortunate circumstances saw him rescued from his dire situation by one of his older brothers. Together they sought refuge in a Kenyan refugee camp before Australia eventually offered them a home. Through his brother’s encouragement and through Deng’s own fierce determination, Deng has gone from a child soldier who knew no English to an accomplished lawyer with his own law practice in Western Sydney. He is also, no biggie, an Archibald Prize featuree (that’s a technical term).)

In the Songs of a War Boy’s foreword, Journalist Hugh Riminton writes that ‘it is impossible, on meeting Deng now, not to be in awe of him. And that is before you know where he has been. This book tells that story […] It would be unbelievable, were it not true.’

Those unbelievable elements include how much trauma Deng has experienced in his short life and how many near misses he has had with death. Seriously, there are so many moments it’s almost incomprehensible how he survived any much less all of them. But as he outlines, that trauma haunts him—mostly at night while he’s trying to sleep.

Co-written with Ben McKelvey, Songs of a War Boy is accessible and inspiring. The way Deng describes his experiences so eloquently and so matter-of-factly is startling. And far from gratuitous or graphic—I’m squeamish as all get-up and I coped. In fact, it’s arguably the most human description I’ve yet read of what it was like to be a child soldier.

Songs are hugely important to the Dinka people from which he comes, Deng explains in the book’s opening pages. Songs are, as Deng describes them, their ‘avatars’, ‘biographies’, and how Dinka morality, culture, and laws are passed on.

But Deng doesn’t have any songs—they’re reserved for those who have undergone manhood initiation ceremonies. Ceremonies Deng missed out on because he was taken to be a boy soldier. He observes: ‘It is a strange fact, though, that war could make one less of a man.’

This book is, as the title suggests, Deng’s song (or songs). It also shows his life beyond being what could have been an all-defining role as a conscripted child soldier. As a byproduct, both the book and the speaking engagements Deng now regularly completes also go some way to changing peoples’ perceptions of refugees.

As Deng writes of his speeches: ‘I knew that people came to hear about war and sadness and a past that was so unusual for them, but I also knew that they left thinking about how normal my present was—and how much I was like them … If you can relate to me—a reformed child soldier coming from one of the most isolated and disadvantaged nations on earth—then there are few refugees in Australia that you can’t relate to.’

Without getting overtly political, at a time when it seems as though the Australian government is doing all it can to ensure we don’t relate to people seeking asylum, it’s arguably more important than ever to read books like Deng’s. And Songs of a War Child makes this far from a chore. I read it in three sittings and I finished it wanting more. My hope is that Deng writes a follow-up.

Review: Watching Brief: Reflections on Justice and Injustice

The opening of Julian Burnside’s book Watching Out: reflections on justice and injustice reads: ‘This book does not set out to equip the lay reader to mount his or her own litigation. Neither is it designed to help law students pass their exams …’

Which made me chuckle. Clearly Burnside, barrister and QC, spends a lot of time fielding questions about both. (And I’ll not deny that, having recently returned to study Law, I wasn’t looking for exam answers but I was looking for some sort of inspiration and guidance.)

Probably most recognisable to Australians as a leading voice on and advocate for human rights—particularly in relation to refugees—Burnside is an experienced lawyer whose insights into the justice system are worth taking note of. Unbeknownst to me until I read this was that he was actually one of the barristers who acted in the infamous Tampa case in 2001. He was also involved in the equally well known Maritime Union of Australia v Patricks Stevedores case.

A friend of his pointed out that Australia doesn’t have a justice system, but rather a legal system. That sentiment, expressed on page one, sets the book’s tone. As Burnside writes, he’s interested in justice rather than law.

What follows are chapters that likely first lived as standalone essays or columns and that discuss little known and puzzling aspects of Australia’s legal system. For example, that the people who judge whether people seeking asylum will be granted refugee status are not lawyers and are more likely to be reappointed if their decisions align with the government’s stance (read: they reject applications).

In these chapters Burnside also explains how, unlike courts, which have checks and balances designed to catch biases and errors, there are no such checks and balances in place for these asylum-seeking tribunals. As in the aforementioned tribunals overseen by people in whose interest it is to bias results toward rejection. Frighteningly, until 2001 it was impossible for a court to overturn a decision because of an error of law.

Burnside also outlines some abominable details of the facilities in which Australia locks people seeking asylum. Facilities that stem from the Labor- and Liberal-alike position that Burnside terms as: ‘We are so worried about you drowning, we will punish you if you don’t drown. That will persuade others to stay at home and face persecution.’

That punishment includes being detained indefinitely in places like Woomera—bearing in mind that that facility now seems luxurious when compared with the more recent Manus and Nauru—which held 1500 people, which was three times its designed maximum, had just three toilets for that population, and at which women had to make written applications for sanity napkins.

Then there’s the legislation that made it illegal for medical professionals to report human rights abuses (such as child sexual abuse) they witnessed in detention centres—something that is normally unquestionably fundamental to their jobs. But in addition to outlining the facts and faults of the justice system, Burnside also outlines his thoughts on its opportunities and solutions. So it’s not all reading in outrage. It’s reading to learn about the facts rather than the fear-mongering, and to encounter some heart-swelling inspiration from someone who’s working to right the legal wrongs.

Burnside also explains some fascinating legal aspects, such as the poorly understood Cab Rank Rule. That is, that barristers don’t pick and choose who they represent. Rather, if they are offered a brief commensurate with a fee and legal matter related to their experience, they are obliged to accept the brief. At least, they are barring something like a conflict of interest such as that they are Jewish and are being asked to represent a neo-Nazi. So next time someone says something like ‘How can they represent such as such who’s been accused of such and such hideous crimes?’, people like me can knowledgeably (but not know-it-all-ingly) refer to the Cab Rank Rule.

Watching Out also provides insight into Burnside’s human side and, arguably, the abuse he’s copped throughout his human rights-advocating career. It seems he regularly receives hate mail. About which he has a brilliant sense of humour: ‘The people who write actual letters are a very forgetful bunch; they never remember to put their name and address on the letter, so it was not possible to reply to them’.

But Burnside does reply to people who write him emails—even entirely abusive ones. What he has found is that replying politely to even the rudest of emails often triggers a quite polite response. Burnside estimates that some people change their minds and others at least get to the point where they don’t agree, but are civil about it, better informed, and appreciate him taking the time to discuss the issues with them.

All of which is to say that there’s a bunch of interesting, if eclectic, information contained within this book. If I had one criticism to make, it would be that there could have been some smoothing out of the chapters. There is often unnecessary repetition and re-explaining of concepts. This likely relates to the fact that I suspect they were, as I mentioned before, published as separate essays or columns and simply collated.

Also, if I’m honest, I bought Watching Out thinking I was buying Watching Brief: reflections on human rights, law, and justice. Although I get the sense that Watching Out is a continuation of the Watching Brief subject matter and themes, and I would have ended up reading it too, so no matter. In the meantime, I recommend reading Watching Out. I’ll report back once I’ve read Watching Brief.

Review: The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly

I devoured 90% of The Hen Who Dreamed She Could Fly in just over an hour, then took months to read its final pages. My procrastination was based purely on the fact that I knew those last pages would make me ugly cry. Which is to say that this book was both wonderful and utterly gut-wrenching.

The Hen (which is what I’ll call it hereafter) is the English translation of a South Korean bestseller by author Sun-Mi Hwang. It’s fair to say that my knowledge of the South Korean publishing industry is sorely and vastly lacking, but this book, which has sold more than two million copies, appears to have been something of a phenomenon: It was an instant bestseller upon publication, remained a bestseller for 10 years, and in addition to inspiring a play, a musical, and a comic, has been turned in South Korea’s to-date highest-grossing animated film.

Better yet, its author’s story is wonderful: Sun-Mi Hwang was too poor to attend school, but thanks to a kind teacher entrusting her with a key, she was able to go into the classroom and read books outside school hours. Sun-Mi Hwang’s gone on to become one of South Korea’s most beloved and award-winning authors.

So it’s basically an all-round feel-good story.

I can’t actually recall how I stumbled across The Hen. Because it was a stumble. Regardless, I ordered the book because I just figured its subject matter about a hen who glimpses the possibility of a life beyond being forced to lay eggs for humans was right up my alley. (Full disclosure: I adopt ex-battery hens, and my PhD concentrated on raising awareness about the cruel practices relating to battery and other intensive, environmentally destructive farming.)

The book’s opening pages introduce us to Sprout, the hen, and her decision to not lay one more egg. But the farmers view her body as valuable only as long as it produces eggs. Because her body will not—in fact, cannot—produce any more eggs, the farmers remove her from the coop not to grant her freedom but to kill her.

Sprout survives against all odds, and The Hen, which contains similarly powerful stories and evoked in me similarly strong emotions as Charlotte’s Web, sees the equally compassionate and gutsy Sprout encounter all manner of farm and wild animals from a duck to a rooster to a dog to a weasel. And, like in Charlotte’s Web, you know the story is going to end sadly.

At a mere 134 pages long, including adorable images that reduce the text-based page count by almost a quarter, The Hen is a book you can knock over in a couple of hours (unless, like me, you spend a bit of time avoiding the inevitable). And what I will say is that the final pages didn’t destroy me quite as much as I expected. They were nuanced and considered and presented a fitting end to the tale.

So I’d definitely recommend The Hen, especially if you ever loved Charlotte’s Web (or even films like Babe). It’s also a timely reminder to me to explore books by writers from other and often non-English-speaking countries.

Review: The Book of Dust

Given that it was a book I desperately wanted to read, I spent a lot of time, money, and energy trying not to read The Book of Dust.

And by time, money, and energy, I mean:

  • pre-ordering the book as soon as I heard it was going to be released
  • waiting anxiously for it to be shipped on its release date
  • tracking slash stalking the courier who was set to deliver it
  • boring everyone in my household with reminders to keep an eye out for a delivery that under no circumstances could be missed and re-routed to the local post office
  • unwrapping said book the moment it arrived and admiring its cover and introductory pages
  • posting said book, unread, to my sister interstate.

Which is, granted, bizarre behaviour for someone long a fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, the breakout series that preceded The Book of Dust Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage (hereafter referred to as The Book of Dust) by some decades.

Unfortunately, it was because the release date, 19 October 2017, was bang in the middle of when I was frantically studying for uni exams. I couldn’t spare even a day or two to devour The Book of Dust, a book that’s neither a sequel nor a prequel, but one that runs tangentially.

But I have read it now, after waiting what felt like an interminable amount of time for my sister to return it at the agreed time: once my exams were over. And having finished The Book of Dust quick smart, I am still figuring out what I think of it. In fact, I’d be really, really keen to hear what everyone else does.

On the one hand, it was phenomenal to sink back into the world Pullman so powerfully crafted, even if the protagonist was not Lyra but a brand new character: 11-year-old publicans’ son Malcolm Polstead.

Polstead, the owner of the La Belle Sauvage canoe of the book’s subtitle, is a clever, compelling character whose publican life and bookishness grant him entry to crucial plot elements. Polstead is also arguably a little more likeable than the feisty, wilful, head-first-into-danger His Dark Materials Lyra. In this book, Lyra’s an infant relegated to crying and sleeping and generally being on the sidelines, which took some getting used to.

But at the same time, some of the familiar and previously little explored but intriguing characters, such as Lord Asriel, reappear, and their stories are thankfully more fleshed out. I mean, who didn’t want to know more about Lyra’s parents, who came off fairly two-dimensional in the books and, gosh, one-dimensional in The Golden Compass film (the film based on the first book that in no way did the book justice)? And who doesn’t want to spend more time imagining a world in which people’s souls are captivating, external, shape-shifting, independent characters who just about warrant a book all of their own?

In short, I thoroughly enjoyed The Book of Dust’s Part I. Part II, however, didn’t feel as strong.

I should preface this with me flagging that Pullman is a pro and my misgivings could simply be related to groundwork Pullman was laying for later books. I should say too that maybe it’s just me. But I felt that Part II was at worst implausible and at best a little so-what and same-y.

Spoiler alert, the monotony of the paddling about in a canoe only to repeatedly pull up into some danger didn’t quite work. There was too much of it, it didn’t usefully progress the plot, and the villain who was conveniently crazy and just wouldn’t die … was meh. Nor did I think the sexual assault aspect truly resonated. In fact, I found it a little leftfield and unnecessary. And a canoe was much less gripping a plot-device object as the knife or alethiometer of previous books …

It seemed to me that Part I built towards a biblical flood, which could and should have been exciting. But Part II was less climactic than weirdly puzzling. The underworld-y and the evil fairy parts, particularly, had me wondering what on earth was going on. And why. Because most of Part II’s plotlines felt like filler and thin.

I also felt that there was some significant plot holes that were too large too ignore. Like how the villain kept surviving, and kept finding and kept catching up to them when no one else could.

Of course, I could be wrong. And even if I’m not, my misgivings don’t change the fact that I’m an avid Pullman reader and am invested for the longhaul. There’s no chance I won’t read the subsequent two books and revisit my verdict on the first. I just hope that Pullman releases the next books at times when I don’t have to go to extraordinary lengths not to read them because I need to studying for some pesky exams.

Review: Polly and her Duck Costume

Goats of Anarchy (GoA) sounds like a bikie gang, but it’s actually an adorable special needs goat rescue organisation based in New Jersey. The sanctuary’s is one of my favourite social media accounts, and I am comprehensively invested in its residents’ lives.

One of those residents is Polly, a blind goat whose neurological and separation anxiety issues are becalmed by a duck onesie. No, really. Polly’s story went viral a while back.

Unable to see and worried she had been left behind if left alone for even a moment, Polly would freak out and pace about and chew the wall. The GoA team taught Polly the shapes of the rooms so she could navigate them easily, but it was separation rather than navigation that troubled her most.

Polly found comfort when tightly wrapped in a blanket, but blankets, as GoA founder Leanne Lauricella notes, fall off. They especially fall off active goats. Enter a random duck onesie, put on as a whim but immediately apparent to be a hit. Swaddled in it, Polly was soon happily asleep, free from anxiety and fear.

Polly and her Duck Costume: The True Story of a Little Blind Rescue Goat is the book about Polly and this viral-worthy, heart-warming tale that Lauricella has published with (presumably writer) Saskia Lacey and illustrated by Jill Howarth.

Simple, straightforward, and unaffected, the book’s words are fine but not brilliant. This isn’t a book that will win awards for its ability to transport readers through powerfully wrought prose. But that’s ok, really, because the book’s magic is in the unlikely, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction feelgood story itself. Also, the illustrations are wonderful, depicting Polly gallivanting about as perfectly on the page as could be hoped.

The book also contains images of Polly, lending some real-life context and leaping-off point to the tale. I’d be surprised if few people who read the book don’t pick up their phones to google the story and subscribe to GoA’s social media channels.

As a side note, Polly and her Duck Costume goes some way to filling an infuriating gap in children’s book options in that it doesn’t gloss over the fact animals have often had some pretty brutal experiences at the hands of humans. From Old MacDonald Had a Farm and beyond, children’s books for some reason constantly portray farm animals as having ‘bucolic’ experiences, which cannot be further from the truth in this factory farm-based society.

But I digress. Polly and her Duck Costume impresses and, at the very least, gets you thinking about how animals are people too. I’d recommend this book as a much-needed alternative to traditional children’s books.

Review: Small House Living Australia

‘You need a small house, not a tiny house’ is how my friend succinctly summed up my years-long, hard-to-articulate disquiet with the whole tiny house movement. And that: ‘Often, tiny houses are tiny for the sake of being tiny’. Couldn’t have said it better myself.

I am obsessed with having a small, well-designed, minimalist space, but while I like the idea of tiny houses, I’ve yet to be won over by their reality. Compact is good, but tiny houses often take compact to the point of impracticality.

Sure, tiny houses work for some people. And hats off to those people. But something as simple as storing the mandatory seven years of tax receipts or even having the space to spread them out and properly look at them would pose at best an annoyance and at worst a problem. And having to completely pack up one thing before you could use another thing would be next-level annoying.

So when I heard Catherine Foster was releasing Small House Living Australia: Smart design in homes of 90m2 or less (what appears to be a follow-up to her New Zealand equivalent), I basically did a real-life enactment of the hands-up-in-praise emoji. A book about small rather than tiny houses in Australia was, I thought, exactly what I needed.

Like most architectural books. Small House Living Australia is basically pinterest-worthy porn. Containing a bunch of professional images that show off the architecture at its best angles, accompanied by text and basic plans, it’s inspiration for people who are—or who dream of one day—building a small but well-designed space. And as a flick-through, aesthetically appealing dream-fest, Small House Living Australia doesn’t disappoint. It makes you itch to have a plot of land on which to commission such a clever space.

However, I will confess I have two concerns about the book that left me a little disappointed. The first is that many of the small houses—such as The Copper House, The Doll’s House, The Barn TAS, and The Sawmill House— have already appeared on blogs such as The Design Files. Had I known the book was featuring houses I’d already seen (in fact, I think some of the photos are identical), I’d have been a lot less likely to buy it.

The second is that I have some concerns about the quality of the editing—issues that cannot be attributed to style decisions and that so frustrated me I fair nearly emailed the publisher. That said, they’re errors that probably only an editor would notice and the book’s text is really only playing second fiddle to the images and designs. I enjoyed it a lot more when I stopped reading the text altogether and just pored over the pictures.

That’s not to say the book isn’t worth reading—in fact, I’d like to see it succeed to show publishers, developers, architects, and the general public alike that small (as opposed to tiny, which arguably requires decent amounts of compromise) is a viable, sustainable, largely compromise-free option. I’d just approach it with more information than I had, and with a view to concentrate on the images rather than the writing.

Film Review: Breathe

With the dumpster fire of a year that 2017 has been (and that 2016 was before that), it seems fitting that the Boxing Day film releases will include something more measured and contemplative than the usual everything’s-fine-some-hero’s-implausibly-saving-the-world blockbusters.

The fictionalised tale of real-life events Breathe (not to be confused with Tim Winton’s similarly titled Breath) is one of those releases. (You can watch the Breathe trailer below.)

Recounting the unlikely life of Englishman Robin Cavendish, who was paralysed from the neck down by polio at age 28 while working as a tea trader in Kenya, it is both uplifting and tears-inducing. And I’d wholeheartedly recommend heading out on Boxing Day to watch it.

‘What follows is true’ appears on screen as the camera traverses English countryside in the film’s opening shots. It’s an arguably necessary statement because what follows does seem a little far-fetched at times. But the film does, we’re assured, recall the real-life events of film producer Jonathan Cavendish, partner to actor-turned-director Andy Serkis (best known for playing such characters as Lord of the Rings’ Gollum) in the Imaginarium Productions production company, which brought this film to screen life.

Marking Serkis’ directorial debut, Breathe is both about how we understand and treat disability and about love. Specifically, the kind of pragmatic, deeply held love that refuses to give up.

In the film’s early stages we witness Diana (played by Claire Foy of Crown fame) and Robin (Andrew Garfield) meet and fall madly in love. Their adoration for each other is infectious, and I found myself smiling in the cinema’s dark.

In the film’s middle, we see a different Robin. One whose charisma and charm is replaced by a deep depression and desire for the medical team keeping him alive with 24-hour hospital care to switch off the respirator. It’s difficult to watch, but sets the ground for Diana to refuse to let depression and then-current medical approaches limit his—their—life. What follows is both heart-wrenching and inspiring, with Diana and Robin defying doctors’ orders and expectations to take Robin home.

I was tense much of the time watching this film. Robin’s death was a certainty without oxygen, so much so that doctors didn’t believe he could survive outside a sterile hospital setting. The risk of death is, unsurprisingly, a constant theme throughout the film. In fact, there are two scenes—one at home and one in the Spanish countryside, of all places—that had me physically rigid with worry and that have continued to haunt me. Which goes to show just how much this film succeeded in drawing me in.

Of course, Breathe does have some nagging flaws—most notably that Robin is played by someone able-bodied, which reminds me of the issues that surrounded cisgendered Eddie Redmayne playing Einar Wegener/Lili Elbe in the film adaptation of The Danish Girl. The film is also relentlessly optimistic. It would have benefitted, for example, from showing a little more of the day-to-day difficulties profound disability presents both the person with the disability and the people who love and care for them. Foy’s Diana is British stoic, sure, but we catch but one mere glimpse of how difficult it must have been for her.

Still, Breathe is arguably true to Jonathan Cavendish’s childhood memories. The memories that provided the film’s foundations and that, at the very least, help show disability and our treatment of people with disability in new light. It also offers insight into the medical technologies available then and makes some inroads into altering how people think about—and how we can innovate for people with—disability.

I’ll not deny that Breathe made me ugly cry. I admit that only so you might not make the mistake I did and turn up without a handful of tissues. But it also made me laugh and contemplate and appreciate life and love and the ability to triumph over adversity. In short, it felt like the right kind of film for this year’s Boxing Day.

Utopia for Realists: Revisiting Ideas of Universal Basic Income

I dare say that few of us truly understand why our work and welfare systems are the way they are, and that many of us have thought, in at least in passing, that things seem a little back to front.

Dutchman Rutger Bregman has done more than think about the this-system-seems-broken concept. He’s researched and penned a case for universal basic income (UBI)—a foundational amount of no-strings-attached money for everyone—and other similarly counterintuitive concepts such as opening up international borders. (The latter warrants a post all of its own.) In the pragmatic, evidence-based Utopia for Realists, Bregman shows how these things could be not far-fetched idealism but economically viable realities.

‘The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones’ is one of economist John Maynard Keynes’ famed quotes, which Bregman employs to emphasise his point. (Forewarning: Bregman quotes quite a few economists in this book.) And while many of the theories discussed in the Utopia for Realists have in truth been around for donkeys’ years, Bregman reintroduces us to them via fresh, illustrative case studies and wider historical contexts. Iconic popular culture cartoon The Jetsons even rates a mention.

A historian by trade, Bregman conveys traditionally fairly dense, dry subject matter in an accessible, engaging, storytelling- and context-based manner. That is, I actually kind of understood some of these concepts and their potential once Bregman had parsed their data. (Bregman’s Conversations with Richard Fidler interview also provides an audio overview of the book’s theories, and is fantastic to listen to to boot. I highly recommend queuing it up in your podcast rotation, stat.) Take the case studies for addressing poverty and, by happy proxy, a host of other issues.

One London-based 2009 study involved providing 13 men who had been sleeping rough long term with a modest, no-strings-attached sum of money. These were men who had spent decades on the streets and on whom the government inadvertently spent swathes of money through things like policing.

It turns out that, instead of frittering away the money as anticipated, the men were incredibly frugal and thoughtful in the way they spent it. Some even had some cash left over at the experiment’s close. This free-money experiment also saved the government a bunch of money as the need for policing and its ilk decreased.

Similar case studies, such as ones where entire poverty-wracked towns in Kenya, Uganda, and Namibia were provided a UBI, demonstrate equivalent results: people spent the money not on frivolous items but on things such as repairing homes and starting businesses. Although in the case of a Canadian experiment from decades ago, it’s only recently that they determined these results.

That’s because of a change in political climate mid-trial and a resultant nervousness about spending money analysing a ‘mincome’ (minimum income) experiment to give an entire town a UBI. It was one thing to have given away free money in the past, the powers that be surmised. It would be another to continue throwing money after it. So the analysis was shelved. Until recently.

It’s a sliding-doors moment because things might have been very different today if those decision-makers had had the courage to see the analysis through. It turns out the UBI was a resounding success and, rather than making people lazy, it improved life and society on a range of fronts. Truancy and teen pregnancy rates decreased, students stayed in school longer, and mental health issues and domestic violence rates improved too.

Similarly, a study of American First Peoples who benefited from the opening of a casino, of all things, reported similarly positive results. Bregman included this study to demonstrate that being poor affects your IQ and something as simple as having access to money improves it. Bregman cites economist Charles Kenny’s wise, if slightly circular, observation: ‘The big reason people are poor is because they don’t have enough money.’ He also cites, what is possibly my favourite quote of the book, which is from economist Joseph Hanlon: ‘Poverty is fundamentally about a lack of cash. It’s not about stupidity. You can’t pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have no boots.’

To reinforce these quotes, Bregman points to findings consistent across these studies that giving money to people is more effective in addressing poverty than creating complicated bureaucratic and punitive-in-nature systems for them to navigate. Especially when their decision-making abilities are crippled by what’s termed a poverty-induced ‘scarcity mentality’.

Bregman cites George Orwell’s quote that poverty ‘annihilates the future’. It’s a statement Orwell was qualified to make having experienced poverty firsthand. UBI is, Bregman argues, an idea whose time has come, and I’m inclined to whole-heartedly agree.

Does Utopia for Realists contain all the answers to all the world’s problems? Obviously not. But it’s commendably at least trying to spark a rethink of how we’re rather unsuccessfully approaching wicked problems. The question is whether the people who have the power to introduce UBI and other similarly innovative concepts—to un-annihilate the future, if you’d like—are paying attention.

Leveraging Laws Levers for Environmental Good

‘A man cannot despair if he can imagine a better life, and if he can enact something of its possibility.’

ClientEarth’s* epigraph (above) is, fittingly, American novelist, poet, and environmental activist Wendell Berry’s famous quote. I say fittingly because environmental lawyer James Thornton’s career and, by proxy, non-fiction book ClientEarth embodies that sentiment.

An American lawyer currently living in London, Thornton has practised environmental law, which is a relatively new concept, since its early days. He’s been instrumental in shaping and shifting the law to better protect the environment. This includes helping remove some of the onerous costs that prevent people suing companies running roughshod over environmental protections.

Thornton cut his teeth doing things like suing a businessman negligently running a pig factory farm. The businessman had nothing but contempt for complying with legislation designed to prevent environmental degradation resulting from the farm’s waste. That contempt and cockiness cost him a substantial amount of money.

With litigation like this, Thornton developed a reputation for cleverly using the law as a stick when necessary, but more readily as a tool for tackling injustice and as an antidote to despair. ‘Irresponsible businesses and governments need to be faced by two realities,’ Thornton writes: ‘that people object to them so strongly that they stop buying their projects or voting for them; that the law makes life so difficult for them that they have to change their behaviour.’ The pig farmer experienced the latter.

‘ClientEarth’ is two things. It’s the name of the environmental law organisation Thornton founded and still runs. It’s also the name of the book he and his partner of 25 years, writer and academic Martin Goodman, have penned to document the tale of the ground-breaking legal organisation that leverages legal mechanisms to change or enforce environmental law. (As Paul Steinberg says in the book: ‘If you want to change the world, change the rules. A rule is just an idea with an anchor attached to it.’)

As the primary storyteller in this book, Goodman explores the tale from a biographer’s perspective. Thornton’s thoughts intersperse Goodman’s chapters. Although less sophisticated in storytelling capacity, Thornton’s chapters give voice to his thinking around particular issues or key moments.

ClientEarth is an important book for a variety of reasons, not least because with climate change accelerating and few world leaders even attempting to apply the handbrake through good environmental policy and outcomes (I’m looking at you, Malcolm Turnbull and Donald Trump), people are looking for information about what non-politician-led mechanisms might be available. (Illustrating the hopelessness and incredulity people currently feel, ClientEarth points to the Tom Toro cartoon with a family sitting around a campfire. ‘Yes,’ the father says, ‘the planet got destroyed. But for a beautiful moment in time we created a lot of value for shareholders.’)

Environmental law is fewer than 50 years old, so its parameters and power are still being determined. Regardless, it is, according to Thornton, the answer to the what-can-we-possibly-do question with which people are grappling. But Thornton alone cannot create or enforce all the environmental laws we need, which is why a book outlining and analysing how he’s achieved what he has, what hasn’t worked, and what environmental law’s potential might be, is crucial.

One issue that’s plagued action is, he notes, that the environmental lawyers who tend to help NGOs—and I realise I’m making sweeping generalisations here—are young, activist lawyers with lots of enthusiasm but, due to their relative inexperience, little heft.

Another observation is that there’s room for a range of activist approaches, and ClientEarth’s approach is designed to complement rather than compete with approaches like that of Greenpeace. The thinking is, as it’s put more memorably, that: ‘Each superhero has their superhero skill, but you need a bunch of them.’

ClientEarth is well told—an experienced writer at the tiller draws out the key stories and keeps it the right side of being dry textbook-y. That said, it’s a book that’s more gripping in some chapters than others, and its niche audience is undoubtedly one that has an interest in the law and its levers.

Which I do. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve headed back to uni to study Law with the express purpose of incorporating environmental law into my existing career. But I’ve since recommended ClientEarth to—read: thrust the book at—various friends and family who haven’t got legal backgrounds, all of whom have been able to take away plenty of invaluable information from it.

ClientEarth is comprehensively researched, with chapter-by-chapter endnotes for further reading or fact checking if you have the energy for it. And even if you don’t, ClientEarth’s chapter content alone imparts a hope-imbued sense of what’s possible if we can strategically shift society’s legal levers in the environment’s favour.

*Yes, it is one word. Yes, it’s troubling me and I am itching to uncouple the two words logically.

The Full ‘I Need to Buy and Post Books’ Panic

It’s November, which means I’ve hit the full ‘I need to buy and post book presents to my overseas friends’ panic. This panic will, of course, subside temporarily and I’ll procrastinate about buying and posting said books until, oh, 1 December. At which time the panic will return with a vengeance.

It happens every. single. year.

In an effort to get out ahead of it this time around, I’m trying to publicly hold myself accountable. Also, I need some help.

One particular set of friends who are Dutch and Irish, who live in London, have an 18-month-year-old Dutch–Irish child. Their child is about as adorable as any child could be, but I know nothing about kids, much less their reading habits. I’m wondering if anyone can recommend some awesome, modern Australian-authored books for young avid readers?

I’m particularly less after slightly dated and slightly inappropriately racist Gumnut Babies, less books like Alison Lester’s Magic Beach that have been around for decades, and more modern Australian books ala Aaron Blabey’s Pig the Pug, Piranhas Don’t Eat Bananas, and Thelma the Unicorn. (Side note: How awesome is Blabey’s work?! I stumbled across the three aforementioned books a few months back and loved them so much I could barely bring myself to gift them when I headed to visit my Dutch and Irish friends in London. Their child loved the books, and I actually enjoyed reading the books to them, so it was win–win, really.)

Basically, I’m after books that showcase contemporary Australian authors and tales my friends may not have otherwise encountered. Which is a big ask given the flattening of the world thanks to the internets making everything available everywhere all the time. Think witty storylines that double as cultural critiques about ponies who stick carrots on their heads and reinvent themselves as unicorns. Think piranhas who demonstrate veganism as something interesting and fun. Think a pug with the name of another animal species whose outrageous selfishness contains abundant lessons for us all.

If you have any recommendations, I’m all ears until the 1 December freak out kicks in.

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In the Shadow of Man (AKA Jane Goodall’s Remarkable Influence)

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love or feel like Jane Goodall influenced their lives, so I don’t pretend to be a bigger Goodall fan than the next person. ‘At least one person at every book signing tells me that In the Shadow of Man [hereafter referred to as Shadow] was instrumental in their deciding on a career with animals,’ Goodall writes in the book’s preface. ‘Usually there are several people in the same line who want to thank me for influencing their lives in some way or other.’

Her work had, for instance, an undoubtable impact on, and was a precursor to, one of my favourite books, The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. That award-winning book concentrates on Canadian primatologist turned writer Andrew Westoll’s time working in a sanctuary for chimps rescued and retired from medical research.

Like the people who queue up at Goodall’s book signings, I too would like to say that I’m ever so grateful that she has done what she’s done in this world. Because for me, as for so many others, Goodall’s been a particularly powerful role model. That is, one who did what no one thought could be done and most thought was outright crazy. I’m particularly impressed that she wasn’t contained by the traditions of the time that expected her as a woman to focus not on obtaining knowledge and sharing it, but on settling down in suburbia and raising a family.

As someone who has spent their entire life feeling round-peg-square-hole about their desire to have an animals- and environment-focused career, there are few women to I’ve been able to look up to and—in my own feeble way—attempt to learn from or emulate.

It seems I’m not alone after all, as Goodall notes this a few pars later in her preface: ‘Shadow, I think, has been especially significant for women. Hundreds—perhaps thousands—have been inspired to attempt things that they had only dreamed about.’

Shadow, which documents Goodall’s first and ground-breaking forays into chimpanzee observations, has been around for quite a while. I hadn’t read it for complex reasons even I don’t entirely understand: I doubted it could tell me much more about Goodall that wider popular culture and articles, which highlighted key elements, already had. I simultaneously worried that the book wouldn’t live up to my altogether-too-high expectations.

I’m glad I did finally get round to reading it. It’s given me a more holistic understanding of Goodall and her successes, as well as her stumblings on the way to them. Those include that the chimps were terrified and wary of her for months and months and months, and that she contracted malaria and did not have any medication to treat it because a doctor had misadvised her that there was no malaria in the region. Then there are the wrenching moments, such as when the chimps contracted polio. That’s not something I’ve heard a lot of pop culture discussion about.

The book also helped me marvel at the intelligence of the chimps, not least at Figan cunningly leading other chimps away from food so he could double back and score himself an unshared feast. Or how a juvenile chimp kidnapping a younger sibling was an ingenious way of getting their mother to leave a termites nest at which they had otherwise decided to stay.

Goodall quotes her then husband Hugo as describing observing chimps in remote wilderness in Africa as ‘…like being spectators of life in some village. Endless fascination, endless enjoyment, endless work.’ For me, it sums up perfectly what a career involved in studying and caring for animals entails. But I’m sure most other people knew that. I just wish I’d stumped up and read Shadow earlier. Suffice to say, I’ll be delving into Goodall’s subsequent books soon.

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Review: This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor

I have a terrible habit of carefully selecting a new book—often one that’s been sitting on my bedside table for some time—to read on longhaul flights, only to be distracted by a shiny new book at the airport while waiting to board. I invariably end up rather guiltily but compulsively buying said distracting book and squishing it into my backpack.

Adam Kay’s This Is Going To Hurt: Secret Diaries of a Junior Doctor was one such impulse airport purchase. I was loitering in a bookshop in Heathrow airport waiting for the airline to announce from which gate the first of my interminably long flights to get back to Australia would depart. (Why they couldn’t announce it more than 30 minutes before the plane left, I don’t know. Surely they knew where an A380 was going park. But I digress.)

I get to call myself a doctor these days, but I’m of the non-medical variety because my family is genetically, pathologically squeamish. That doesn’t stop me gravitating toward books that are about not so much gruesome medical details as the experience of what it’s like to work a medical doctor’s job.

This Is Going To Hurt features, as the subtitle suggests, excerpts from diaries Kay kept during his years navigating the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) junior and slightly more senior doctor positions. (He’s long departed the medical world to be a writer and comedian—presumably much more fun jobs that still manage to leverage all that hard-learnt knowledge.)

And it is, to be concise: achingly insightful and funny. I read the book non-stop during my flights, foregoing sleep and new-release movies for it, closing it up only briefly to ingest airline food, and only then because space and awkwardness temporarily prevented me wielding both a book and cutlery. The book is ab-clenchingly hilarious, although the best bits—of which there are many—are probably not entirely suitable to discuss on this family friendly blog, or simply require a little more context than I can provide.

Essentially, the book provides a glimpse into the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed junior doctor experience. Specifically, how nothing could quite prepare (Adam) Kay for the NHS’ bureaucratic efficiency slash inefficiency: ‘Day one. H [his then-girlfriend whose identity has been protected] has made me a packed lunch. I have a new stethoscope, a new shirt, and a new email address: [email protected]. It’s good to know that no matter what happens today, nobody could accuse me of being the most incompetent person in the hospital,’ Kay writes. ‘And even if I am, I can blame it on Atom.’

But his email address is trumped by that of his friend Amanda Saunders-Vest, whose hyphen they spelt out: [email protected].

This Is Going To Hurt also outlines the kinds of truth-is-stranger than fiction moments Kay frequently experienced, such as receiving an all-staff email about ensuring all samples were sent to the lab, stat. What prompted the broadcast was a psych patient who had been transferred to the respiratory ward with pneumonia. He’d been discovered scavenging and ingesting sputum samples the previous day.

There are some slightly more serious undertones to the book too.

The book blurb says: ‘Welcome to 97-hour weeks. Welcome to life-and-death decisions. Welcome to a constant tsunami of bodily fluids. Welcome to earning less than the hospital parking meter. Wave goodbye to your friends and relationships…’

This Is Going To Hurt shows the slow unravelling of Kay’s relationship and documents myriad missed family or generally fun occasions through unending work commitments and last-minute emergencies. Also, I learnt from this book that (in the UK, at least) all junior doctors change hospitals on precisely the same day every six or 12 months—on what is known as ‘Black Wednesday’. I *think* this happens in Australia every January. ‘You might think it would be a terrible idea to exchange all your Scrabble tiles in one go and expect the hospital to run exactly as it did the day before,’ Kay writes. ‘And you’d be quite right.’

One review I read of This Is Going To Hurt (or rather Kay’s related show, which draws on much of the same material), mentions that the reviewer spent the first 40 minutes laughing and the next 10 crying. That’s an accurate summation of what I experienced.

Kay’s penned an open letter (in what could possibly be considered a rethink of the equivalent of an epilogue) to the Secretary of State for Health at the book’s end. Its opening sentence discusses how a Harvard Law professor once suggested we should seal the nuclear codes in a live human’s heart. The thinking was that if the president wanted to wipe out a bunch of people from a distance, he first had to cut open and likely kill one person up close and personal. Likewise, Kay argues, the Secretary of State for Health should truly comprehend what junior doctors are subjected to in terms of punishingly gruelling hours, comparably low pay, and terrifyingly enormous responsibility.

Apart from wondering how Kay found the time or energy to keep these diaries along the way, but eternally grateful that he did, I wholly recommend reading This Is Going To Hurt. It’s relevant even to those of us based outside the UK because the experience—and the pressures—is undoubtedly transferable.

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Shakespeare Saving Lives

I’m more than slightly hesitant to admit that I’ve never really liked Shakespeare. Mostly for the same reasons I don’t really like poetry—there is greater depth and elaboration that requires the brains and requisite patience I don’t possess in order to unpack the prose.

So it unsurprisingly took having Shakespeare Saved My Life recommended to me a few times before I finally picked up a copy. What finally sold me on reading the book was that it was about an academic’s life-changing in-prison teaching program. That’s something I’m definitely interested in.

I’ll preface this blog with the spoiler that even after reading this book—good though it was—I still don’t really like Shakespeare. But I do have a vastly greater appreciate of his—or her, depending on which ‘who actually was Shakespeare?’ theory you adhere to—prowess.

I also have an appreciation for—or rather despair of—prison systems around the world. Rehabilitation and educational opportunities are crucial, but unpopular with taxpayers, so programs like Laura Bates’ are few, far between, and constantly up against the wall.

Apart from having to navigate massive university teaching loads as a junior academic not yet able to secure tenure, Bates had to navigate prison bureaucracy and puzzlement. The Shakespeare-teaching program was actually the first of its kind, so Bates had to undergo standard prison guard training to learn to handle situations lest she find herself smack bang in the middle of a riot. If she wanted in, she was essentially told, she could have in, but the prison guards were unlikely to be able to or even have time to get to her if or when things went south.

And, as she wrote: ‘I quickly learned that it wasn’t the noisy ranges but the quiet ones—eerily quiet—that I needed to worry about.’

‘Female on the range!’ was the primary catcall in her initial visits. Over time, though, that changed to the more accepting ‘Shakespeare on the range!’

That’s not to say things went entirely smoothly. The term ‘gunned down’ referred to bullets of liquid-y products like urine, semen, and faeces. And there was plenty of bureaucratic farce, not least relating to the bulletproof vests the guards and Bates were instructed to wear to ‘protect’ them. As one guard said: ‘If we fall over in them things, we’re like a turtle on his back. [Freaking] dumbasses in Central Office!’

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Shakespeare Saved My Life centres around Bates, a newbie academic who stumbles across the power of teaching Shakespeare to prisoners. On the prisoners’ part they, despite the apparent chasm of time and life experience between them and Shakespeare’s tales, are able to relate to and learn from the texts.

They’re also able to translate the texts into terms even I can digest. Take, for example, this foreword to Hamlet: ‘Tell me if this has ever happened to you: Your uncle kills your father and marries your mother as he steals your inheritance. Your good friends try to trick you into your grave, but you trick them into theirs instead…When it’s all said and done, you kill your crazy girl’s brother and he kills you—but not before you finally kill your uncle. It was a rough month, to say the least.’

The star pupil and inmate is Newton, who is as intelligent as his moniker suggests. He’s also apparently the rotten-est of rotten eggs. When Bates met him, Newton had spent a record 10 years in ‘the SHU’ (read: isolation). But upon reading his thoughtful text interpretations, Bates quickly went from ‘I can’t work with this one’ to ‘there’s something incredible about him’.

‘It seems like you can spend time on just about each passage and come up with three different conclusions,’ Newton says at one stage. Hear hear. Although in my case, it’s more likely that I struggle to come up with a single interpretation of any given passage.

His insights into Shakespeare are simultaneously greater than any I’ve ever previously encountered and also more linked to real-life. He also absolutely adores Shakespeare: ‘When it comes to literature, Shakespeare is the equivalent to 2-Pac in the rap industry, Led Zeppelin in the rock industry, Michael Jordan in the world of basketball, or Muhammad Ali in the world of boxing. He is the man!’

I can’t say I’ll ever feel smart enough to like Shakespeare, but I heard myself going ‘huh’ a few times while reading Newton’s insights into them. If that’s the closest I’ll get to accessing, understanding, and actually enjoying Shakespeare, then it’s A-Ok with me. And if Shakespeare is helping people who are incarcerated, and therefore helping rehabilitate them ready for release into the community, then it’s doubly A-Ok so.

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10 Vampire Years On

While my staple diet of books consists primarily of non-fiction books about what’s messed up with the world and how we can possibly mitigate the issues, every so often I need to take a break from the all-too-real difficulties and escape into someone else’s figments of imagination. Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series is one such escape for me—a series I’ve followed and re-read with a mix of shame and shamelessness.

So I met the announcement of a 10th anniversary edition of the book that kicked off the series—one that contains some side stories Mead’s long wanted to tell that will answer questions many readers have—with slightly giddiness. Then I promptly commenced a countdown until its release.

‘Vampire Academy worked—far better than I’d ever expected,’ Mead wrote of the series’ initial success. ‘I’d fallen in love with the Romanian myth of two races of vampires, and I became obsessed with visualising how they’d create societies within our society. I’d read countless books about kickass heroines but never about how they became that way. What did they do while they were young? How did they temper a reckless nature with doing the right thing? And of course, there was the romance piece: just a tiny flicker of an idea about a girl in love with her mentor and the fallout that ensued.’

Yeah, that whole tempering of a reckless, youthful, badass heroine nature is definitely intriguing and explains in part why the books have been the successes they have been.

So how does the anniversary edition hold up, some 10 years on from the original publication?

Pretty well, methinks.

The bulk of the book is a reprint of the original, which I enjoyed re-reading once I got over the surprise that the book contained this reprint. In truth, it’s savvy repackaging of existing content to revitalise sales and I was completely suckered by it.

Still, its latter pages contain the promised short, arguably deleted chapters or chapters that could and should, with hindsight, have appeared in the original text. Whether Read had them in her back pocket or wrote them in response to the questions she is most frequently asked I don’t know. What I do know is that it was great to gain even slightly greater insight into the plots and characters.

The stories cast light on some enduring mysteries, such as how did Christian’s parents turn into strigoi, what running away from school was like for Lissa and, most pressing of all: what did the elusive, poker-faced Dimitri truly think of Rose.

My favourite of the new story additions was one that focused on Dimitri and Rose plus a—of all things—forbidden treasure hunt. Think seniors engaging in an elaborate scheme to obtain items of importance from various staff members, snaffling them out from under the staff members’ noses all the while in constant danger of discovery and detention. Yep, it was good fun. And not entirely unlike a cut-down version of an escapade you’d see in Harry Potter.

Overall, the new chapters feature yet more of the snappy banter we’ve come to know and love:

‘Hey Rose, welcome back. You still breaking hearts?’

‘Are you volunteering?’

His grin widened at the thought of the permanently detention-ed Rose’s efforts. ‘Let’s hang out sometime and find out. If you ever get parole.’

Not to mention how her battle cry gave her away during those training sessions with Dimitri: ‘Would it really have made a difference if I’d been quiet?’ Rose asks. Dimitri thought about it. ‘Probably not.’

Oh, and some overheard conversations courtesy of Roses and Lissa’s psychic connection: ‘…Christian—who I could hear…telling some kid it was impossible to make a manatee out of a balloon…’

Basically, the Vampire Academy anniversary edition is most of what we already know plus a little bit more. My only constructive criticism of it is that I’d have loved it to have included more new stories—the ones it includes are a good taster, but they’re just that. Fans like me who continue to hanker after the now-wrapped-up series are always going to be hoping for more.

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Review: Louis Theroux Live

Louis TherouxThe breathless anticipation with which I awaited Louis Theroux’s first-time-in-Australia gig was rivalled only by the Ira Glass equivalent. Both are lions in the televisual and radio storytelling domains, and both have in recent years come to Australia to speak about their trades.

Glass, of course, is famous for the game-changing podcasts This American Life and Serial, while son of travel writer Paul Theroux Louis has broken the TV and book moulds with his awkward but endlessly fascinating ventures into subcultures that include survivalists, neo-Nazis, scientologists, brothel workers, and religious fanatics such as the Westboro Church.

Brisbane’s QPAC theatre foyer was packed on Saturday night with Theroux fans who politely queued up to purchase tote bags and mugs adorned with Theroux’s endearingly geeky moniker. And then we all eagerly filed in to the theatre itself to witness Theroux part present and part be interviewed across a two-hour format with interval.

It wasn’t until I was minutes away from the event’s start that I realised I had no idea what to expect. For the most part I was pleasantly surprised, barring a terrifying few minutes where Theroux stalked the aisles to select unwilling interviewees.

For example, the normally dead pre-show and interval times were filled with snippets of segments from Theroux’s shows over the years, which was an excellent touch and one I wish more shows featured. And the show itself opened with a spotlit Theroux telling a story about his beginnings before being joined on stage by Julia Zemiro, whom we know from, among other things, her hosting role of RocKwiz.

What was striking about Theroux in person, although probably shouldn’t have been, was how utterly unintimidating he was. I mean that in a heartening way. In a conversation that ranged from how he got his break, how he navigates the topics he investigates, and how—despite what his wife says—there’s only one way to stack a dishwasher, he showed us an unassuming guy who finished uni and didn’t know what to do with his life. Studying history, as many of us have discovered, doesn’t exactly qualify you for lots of jobs.

Via a brief stint working in a glass factory in the US, Theroux chanced upon Michael Moore needing a British correspondent for TV Nation.
‘What Michael (Moore) saw in me—as much as I’d like to see a suave, kind of interrogating intelligence, it was the opposite of that,’ Theroux said. ‘He saw my gangliness and my slight awkwardness as an asset…just being myself, but being sent out into these rather weird and wild fringes of American society where I was very out of place.’

Either way, what transpired was an apprenticeship of sorts that led to Theroux developing his own style and being offered his own show.

I could bandy around terms like ‘gangly’ and ‘unassuming’ and ‘relatable’, but what I really want to say is that although Theroux is undeniably talented and charming, what struck me during the show was how he is the quintessential example of a creative who carves out his own niche, making the kind of TV and writing the kind books he himself desired. And that in and of itself is probably invaluable inspiration for creatives the world round.

I’m not a big TV watcher, but I came to Theroux via his documentaries. They’re the kind that are so fascinatingly watchable that they find their way even to non-TV-watchers like me. Many of the documentaries have etched a permanent pop culture mark, not least the Jimmy Saville iteration, which Theroux has apparently just revisited in the form of visiting survivors of Saville’s sexual assaults.

While Theroux never claims to be objective in his approach, he does try to understand or at least unpack his subjects’ thoughts and motivations. As he accurately puts it: ‘There is always a little bit of a logic—sometimes it’s a crazy logic—but (the survivalists) feel they didn’t sign up at birth to taxes, federal government, drivers’ licences.’

But while I think I’ve seen all of Theroux’s documentaries barring the game-hunting one (I’m vegan and no matter how sensitively he portrays the topic, it’s guaranteed to distress me), what I haven’t embarked on is reading his books. Which is, frankly, a bit ass about for my overarching book-first, TV-second philosophy.

I’ve bought one—Call of the Weird—but it’s high time I get around to reading it. I will, presumably, have Theroux’s voice and mannerisms in my head as I plough through it just as I do with Jon Ronson’s books. Either way, it was a privilege to see Theroux in the country and I can only hope he’ll return soon to cast his TV show-making and book-writing eye to some of Australia’s subcultures and social issues.Save

Review: People Who Eat Darkness

People Who Eat DarknessI normally fast forward through any and all recommendations slash advertorials on podcasts, but on the few occasions I haven’t skipped ahead I’ve heard a number of podcasters recommending English-born, Japan-based journalist Richard Lloyd Parry’s People Who Eat Darkness.

The book is a deep dive into a case that gripped people across two countries and spans all manner of language barriers and cultural misunderstandings. At its centre is the mysterious 2000 disappearance of Lucie Blackman, a 21-year-old former British Airways air hostess working illegally as a hostess for quick cash in Tokyo.

Blackman had gone there short term with a friend and was hoping to work under the table to pay off some debt. But she vanished during an outside-hours meeting an unidentified client outside the club in a practice called dohan.

Common misconceptions (mostly among westerners) are that hostesses are prostitutes. The reality is more nuanced than that, with most flirting with lonely businessmen and trying to increase the bars’ business and intake. Yet even within Japan, there are myriad variations on the ‘hostess’ role, with the subtleties largely lost on us lumbering westerners.

Fairly common, dohans offer hostesses a chance to earn extra money and mostly involve going to dinner with clients outside of the usual bar setting. In fact, dohans are a bit like add-on sales. Failure to obtain them is considered underperforming and can result in hostess’ dismissal.

In Blackman’s case, the particular dohan during which she disappeared apparently involved being promised an additional gift of a trip to the beach a mobile phone. The two seem fairly silly things to go out alone with a stranger for, but it was 2000, when mobile phones were prohibitively expensive, and Blackman was from the UK, which isn’t known for its spectacular beaches.

Either way, Blackman’s disappearance focused the spotlight on hostessing practices little discussed and even less understood. And it captured international imagination and touched on some concerning stereotypes. Blackman being young, pretty, blonde, and British no doubt helped with garnering some of the media coverage.

People Who Eat Darkness is divided roughly into two parts. The first part tackles Black’s messy, mostly pre-Japan personal life. The second spans her disappearance and endeavours to contextualise and unpack some of the post-disappearance actions, particularly those of her father, who didn’t behave as he ‘should’.

It’s a fascinating tale, albeit one that is at times challenging to comprehend.

What I struggled with most with this book, which is no fault of the writer’s and which seems to be what most people struggled with while the case was active, is that the family—particularly the parents—are not at all likeable or sympathetic.

Of course, you can be fascinated by people who aren’t endearing and you can’t choose who tragedy happens to, but the parents individually and together seem quite toxic and, frankly, foolish.

There is mother Jane’s vehemently embittered hate for her ex-husband, which puts their children in a difficult position of choosing one over the other at various times and prevents the couple from presenting a united front in the effort to find out what happened to their daughter.

There is also the recklessness and ridiculous—almost partying-like—approach the father took with little thought to what effects his actions might have or, simply, how they might look. Case in point: first, taking money from the accused murderer and second, spending money on a new boat.

I wholly recognise that it’s easy to be an armchair critic and that the machinations of such an experience can only truly be understood from the inside. I also concede that there were some pretty unconscionable psychics and other cranks preying on the emotionally vulnerable family.

Either way, I spent the bulk of this book marvelling that a family could wilfully be so utterly, incomprehensibly and seemingly deliberately messy. More than once, I recalled Leo Tolstoy’s famed Anna Karenina quote that all happy families are alike and unhappy families are unhappy in unique ways.

To be fair, maybe I am, as Lloyd Parry suggests, simply like most people who have encountered this crime:

People are afraid of stories like Lucie’s, stories about meaningless, brutal premature death; but most of them cannot own up to their fear. So they take comfort in the certainty of moral judgements, which they brandish like burning branches waved in the night to keep off the wolves.

Judgement aside, it perhaps explains why I found the second half of the book far more compelling than the first—I ploughed through the first half only to sate my fascination with both Japan and the murder mystery and not the minutiae of the family’s self-inflicted drama.

Because it’s in the second half of the book that we encounter the murderer and learn both how the crime unfolded and how the police and legal system tried to bring him to justice. Without giving away too much, this character and everything that surrounds him is utterly, truth-is-stranger-than-fiction bizarre.

What becomes clear is that this is not just a story about a young and naïve British woman, but one that envelopes people from Japan, Britain, Korea, and even Australia.

Lloyd Parry himself notes that he set out to get inside the murderer’s head, but soon realised that was impossible. Irrespective, employing his understanding of both British and Japanese cultures, he crafts an insightful, culturally sensitive story that gives us the best insight we’re likely to get about this tragic situation.

Which is to say that the Blackmans might test your credulity and patience, but Blackman’s is a crime worth documenting if nothing else but for the sake of other travellers’ awareness and crime prevention.

Review: Just Mercy

Just MercyThere are some books that just keep popping up in your book-awareness periphery. Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption is one prime example.

I first heard Stevenson when he was interviewed on a bunch of different podcasts I listen to. And I kept hearing the name of his book and the premise of his work in passing book-recommendation conversations.

Last weekend, with thesis submitted and fun book-reading time finally here, I cracked open Just Mercy. And I was so gripped I cancelled my other plans and didn’t leave the house.

Stevenson is the co-founder and executive director of the Alabama-based Equal Justice Initiative, a not-for-profit organisation that represents people on death row who cannot otherwise afford lawyers and who are frighteningly often on death row through no fault of their own.

Depressingly but unsurprisingly, most of these inmates are poor, black, and/or mentally ill. And they’re most often and rather than or.

The US has the world’s highest incarceration rate—one that’s skyrocketed in recent decades, fuelled by slogan-driven policies such as ‘three strikes and you’re out’. From 300,000 in the 70s to 2.3 million today, one in every 15 people born in the US is expected to go to jail—that number increases to one in three for black males.

Of those currently incarcerated, 50 per cent have been diagnosed with a mental illness. And there are three times as many people who are mentally ill in prison, where they are policed by people ill-equipped to handle issues, as are in hospital.

The US is also the only country that condemns children to life in prison without parole.

‘My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth,’ Stevenson writes. ‘The opposite of poverty is justice.’

Then: ‘…I’ve come to believe that the true measure of our commitment to justice, the character of our society, our commitment to the rule of law, fairness, and equality cannot be measured by how we treat the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and the respected among us. The true measure of our character is how we treat the poor, the disfavoured, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned.’

His is a lifelong quest to understand and address ‘how and why people are judged unfairly’.

To Kill A MockingbirdNow a Macarthur Genius Grant recipient and enormously respected human rights lawyer, Stevenson himself came from a poor, racially segregated background—he could just as easily have been one of the people on death row.

In fact, the book includes some anecdotes of Stevenson being racially profiled by police as a burglar when he was simply sitting in his car enjoying a favourite song. He has also been mistaken for being the defendant rather than the lawyer on a multiple occasions.

But at the book’s opening, we meet him as a very green 23-year-old Harvard law student feeling out of his depth. That’s both in terms of the law—he felt adrift and wasn’t sure he wanted to be a lawyer because he couldn’t fathom the applicability of the law in its abstract and white-collar settings—and in Georgia.

He was as an intern on a project that required him to visit a death-row prisoner at a maximum-security prison and he knew he wasn’t qualified to advise this man much less understand the direness of his situation.

I would have liked to have found out what happened to that man, but it appears it’s the entry point to the story and not a case he got to see through to its conclusion, whatever that may have been. Regardless, working with inmates on death row was where it all came together and Stevenson found the application of the law that both made sense and that he felt fitted him.

Stevenson set up his legal practice in Montgomery, a name familiar to many of us as it’s the setting for Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird. It’s also the place where Rosa Parks refused to give us her seat on the bus. The region is reaping related tourism dollars rewards.

Just Mercy examines a range of Stevenson’s cases. But it particularly follows a black death-row inmate called Walter McMillian who, coincidentally, lived in the region but hadn’t heard of To Kill A Mockingbird. And as Stevenson flags, despite its fame and boon for the local tourism industry, To Kill A Mockingbird’s core messages failed to cut through in the county or change legal outcomes for people of colour. The tale we so fondly remember isn’t actually one of triumph—the innocent black defendant isn’t, as most people mis-remember, found innocent. He’s convicted and later dies while trying to escape prison.

McMillian’s case is similarly tragic. A black man who dared have an affair with a white woman, he was framed for the murder of a woman despite the fact that there were some 20-odd witnesses to him being at a church function at his home at the time of the crime. It’s the kind of case that beggars belief but that is also far from isolated or unique.

Stevenson’s storytelling is unadorned but gripping and I raced through the book all the while knowing it was too-soon going to come to an end. Just Mercy is his memoir, which kind of implies there won’t be a follow-up. I mean, how many people do you know have released more than one memoir? I—and I assume others too, judging from the fact the book is a bestseller—sincerely hope there is more. Much more.Save

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Review: Bee Friendly Garden

Bee Friendly GardenSelf-described ‘beevangelist’ and urban beekeeper Doug Purdie espoused the benefits of beekeeping in his first book, Backyard Bees. That book highlighted what people are increasingly cottoning on to: pollinators, on which we rely for as much as 75% of our food supply, are in danger worldwide.

His just-released follow-up book, Bee Friendly Garden, concentrates on helping those who aren’t keen or aren’t able to beekeep through various circumstances, but who still want to contribute. Of which there are myriad ways. Case in point: planting a variety of shrubs, flowers, and trees on which bees can forage.

Naff as it sounds, Purdie asks readers to ‘think like a bee’. He has a point. Reconsidering our gardens is crucial to transforming monoculture or, worse, desert-like landscapes to ‘bee highways’ in which bees have a fighting chance.

That arguably means letting go of the highly manicured, architecturally rigid, pesticide-laden gardens and embracing, well, nature. As Purdie writes, ‘landscaping flair, while pleasing to the human eye, is fairly irrelevant to the bee’.

While we’re at it, we need to reign in our obsession with McMansions—Australia holds the unenviable record for the largest houses in the world, which means ground square footage is taken up by bricks and concrete and not forage-able landscape to support bees.

Among other things, Purdie identifies three habitat-related issues directly affecting bees. There’s habitat loss, i.e. we keep cutting trees down and concreting over what was once garden. There’s habitat degradation, i.e. what land is left is not healthy. And there’s habitat fragmentation, i.e. habitat is cut by highways, roads, and buildings, so it’s insanely difficult and dangerous for bees to obtain food.

Backyard BeesWhile European honey bees travel between five and 10 kilometres to find food, native bees only forage a few hundred metres from their front doors. So if there is no nearby habitat on which to forage, they literally starve to death. Lack of diversity through such things as monoculture crops is another complication in terms of the forage available.

It’s not just bee species affected by this either. Among others, butterflies are too. By killing off butterflies’ food through herbicide, we are steadily killing off butterfly populations. Throw in poorly understood and even more poorly reported factors such as illegal logging…it’s all a rather bleak and interminable list of things we are doing to harm bees and butterflies and all manner of species.

But Purdie’s book is about providing solutions, and particularly solutions accessible to those of use living in small plots in the inner city or suburbia. The book spans the benefits green roofs, details a range of plants suitable for different environments, and offers suggestions for natural stink bug and weed removal (with a vacuum cleaner and boiling water, respectively) as well as companion planting to discourage pests sans chemicals.

The book also contains some useful titbits of trivia worth stashing away. For example, bees have five eyes and use ultraviolet vision to seek out nectar and pollen. It also advocates creating pollinator highways, or corridors equivalent to ‘re-charging stations for electric cars’ that bees, who can only carry so much food with them on their travels, can stop in at to refuel.

Being a Murdoch publication, Bee Friendly Garden contains cut-above-quality images and layout. Richly coloured and with content chunked in digestible, aesthetically appealing design, it’s the kind of book you can hand to bee aficionados and fandom newbies alike. It’s definitely one for consideration as personal purchase or a giveaway gift. Me? I’m keeping my copy and adding it to the list of books I’ll buy others for Christmas.

Review: Depraved Heart

Depraved HeartI have lived a long tradition of receiving Patricia Cornwell’s released-just-in-time-for-Christmas books from Santa. Said tradition involves not so patiently enduring Christmas morning activities until it’s an opportune and appropriately not impolite time to steal away to read.

So it was, unsurprisingly, to Cornwell’s perennially popular character Kay Scarpetta that I turned when I was looking for a book to break my reading drought mere minutes after submitting my PhD thesis for examination.

I had little brain space and a lot of desire to read something a world away from academic papers. Handily, the prolific Cornwell had just released another Scarpetta instalment: Depraved Heart. (‘Depraved heart’ is apparently a legal term (at least, it is in the US) in which someone: is void of social duty and fatally bent on mischief; exhibits depraved indifference to human life.)

I will confess Cornwell has so many books these days I’m no longer sure if I’ve read them all. I couldn’t even remember the name of Depraved Heart to type it out for this review. And I was fairly confused when much of the book referred to an incident in which a serial killer had tried to kill Scarpetta in the book prior.

Which serial killer tried to kill her? I wondered. She has, after all, encountered more than her fair share over the book series’ years. Had I missed a book? As I progressed steadily through the pages I came to realise that yes, yes I had. I think.

I write I think because Cornwell follows a formula—a successful, satisfying formula that has kept readers such as me coming back and that has earnt her squillions, but a formula no less. And the themes throughout Depraved Heart were incredibly familiar.

For instance, Scarpetta, her husband Benton Wesley, and her niece Lucy Farinelli are each carrying the burden of secrets they can’t possibly share even though they know each other is entirely trustworthy and always has their back.

Also, everyone doubts Scarpetta’s memory/knowledge and she even begins to doubt herself, despite the fact that it always turns out she’s right. Seriously, she’s always vindicated, so why not just avoid the hassle and believe her in the first place?

So, while I still love Scarpetta, and Cornwell’s tale had the unenviable pressure of being the first fun book I encountered after three years of reading nothing but dry academic texts, Depraved Heart felt a lot like all build-up and not a whole lot of pay-off.

It commences with Scarpetta at the scene of a crime that looks straightforward, which of course means it’s not. Complicating the deceptively simple scene is that a video from Farinelli’s phone, which arrives under the guise of an emergency call. The video takes over Scarpetta’s phone (presumably such a thing is possible, although I’ve never heard of it) and disappears tracelessly once it ends.

On the video is footage of Farinelli in her then dorm from more than a decade ago. It was captured in secret by serial-killer-on-the-run Carrie Grethen, and in addition to Farinelli the video features a vintage, very distinct teddy bear Scarpetta rescued from a sad fate and gave to her niece oh so many years ago. Cue Scarpetta being glued to her phone to watch the apparently authentic video, unable to concentrate on the crime scene or tell anyone what she’s seeing.

Of course, familiarity breeds contempt and I may just have read a few too many Cornwell novels to be easily lured in. Regardless, she succeeded enough to make me read to the end. Medico-legal mysteries always intrigue me. I even enjoyed some aspects of the book, not least when they refer to Scarpetta’s medically equipped van as the Grim Reapermobile.

I was also entertained that—and don’t mean to be indelicate about—the Scarpetta character believing ‘a fox can’t smell its own’ is a minced idiom. She believes it should actually be ‘a fox smells its own hole first’. It’s not what you’re thinking. It was in the context of talking about crime scene smell being transported into the car she and cop friend Pete Marino are driving. It might be an Australian thing or just a me thing, but I’ve only ever heard ‘a fox can’t smell its own’.

Which makes an awkward (read: no) segue into saying I enjoyed this book, even if I wish there were more payoff. I acknowledge too that there might have been more payoff if I’d read the previous book and was therefore more invested in the events to which Cornwell regularly refers. Regardless, I’ll no doubt be sitting down to read her next book, whenever it arrives. My guess is just a few months away at Christmas.

Review: Patagonia’s Tools for Grassroot’s Activists

Tools for Grassroots ActivistsPatagonia, the repair-what-we-sold-you adventure clothing retail company synonymous with ethical business—and practically a giant stamp of sustainability approval for anything it puts its name to—runs an invite-only conference every couple of years.

For the conference, Patagonia invites heavy hitters in environmental advocacy from whom they can learn. For example, keynote speakers have included Dr Jane Goodall (chimp documenter extraordinaire), Annie Leonard (The Story of Stuff), Bill McKibben (350), and Beth Kanter (leading not-for-profit social media strategist). You know, the kinds of heroes we’d love to be even a little bit like when we grow up.

I’d sell my soul to get into this conference, but I’m far from being one of the heavy hitters in the industry. So the just-released Tools for Grassroots Activists: Best Practices for Success in the Environmental Movement is the closest I’m going to get to being in that room.

Given that this is where my career is heading—I’m this close to finishing a PhD looking at some of this stuff [imagine a thumb and index finger just millimetres apart]—I came to this book with both a keenly critical eye and breathless, fan-girl appreciation.

Edited by Nora Gallagher and Lisa Myers, Tools for Grassroots Activists collates various conference talks and insights gleaned over the conference’s history. My hope was to ferret out some ground-breaking information I could incorporate into my own practice.

And the book does deliver elements of that. Say, for example, tips on refining purpose, and targeting key groups with strategic marketing. But for the most part it offers the also-important elements of motivation and hope and stories about these particular activists’ efforts and learnings.

It outlines in their own words how they have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds throughout their careers, such as defeating the then apparently indestructible tobacco companies that had limitless cash resources to fund their campaigns.

It’s certainly great to hear these not-glossed-over parts (too often history rewrites battles as being efficiently linear rather than painstakingly messy and long-running). And I enjoyed this book and got plenty of shot-in-the-arm inspiration from it, I really did. But—and I fully recognise my expectations might be too high given I’ve spent the last three years avidly analysing this stuff—I was hoping for something a little more.

I understand that the book is a compilation of key lessons from the conference’s history, but it feels a little more cobbled together and a little less robust than expected, with entries varying wildly in structure and theme. Still, once you get your head around that, it’s fine. It meant I ended up dipping in and out of articles and skimming or even skipping the ones that it was apparent weren’t currently suited to me.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to me adoring this text was its design, of which I’m not at all a fan. Highly stylised and eclectic, and with a decidedly plain-Jane font selection, I don’t think it works both in terms of aesthetics, but also in terms of gripping the reader and effectively guiding them through its contents.

Or at least I don’t think it works with the kind of paper on which it’s printed and the book format in which it’s packaged. It just looks a bit grassroots-newsletter amateur and ultimately lets itself down. It’s certainly not the well-designed book I’d expect of a company that understands the combination of form and function is what makes the difference between a successful organisation or approach that can wield good in the world and one that has good intentions but ultimately fails. Again, that could be personal preference and someone else could consider it smashing.

I realise this is a slightly mixed review, and in truth my feelings about this book are mixed. Was it worth publishing and will people derive some benefits from it? Yes, absolutely yes. But could it have been better? Yes. Or, as one of the book’s contributors notes: activists need to get better at how they communicate their messages. Patagonia normally leads by example and it’s doing so with its conferences. Its conference-related publication just needs to catch up.

Review: Sherpa

Into Thin AirI’ve never ever even remotely been able to comprehend westerners’ fascination with ‘conquering’ Mt Everest. In fact, I’ve found the concept of ‘conquering’ it fairly ridiculously offensive. And I’ve often wondered about the people who get those westerners to the summit: the Sherpas.

Because with the exception of the yaks forced to carry loads of gear up and down the treacherous landscape, Sherpas seem to get the rawest deal. They don’t get paid well, yet they take the lion’s share of the load and risk.

The inequity and moral vacuum fuelled by aspiration surrounding summiting Everest was cemented for me years back when I read Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air, which documented the then worst accident on Everest.

The book was startling in what it captured: greed and ambition combined to see people pushing themselves way past their limits; one experienced guide died on the mountain through altitude-induced kind of magical thinking as his wife tried to cajole him down via a satellite phone; a climber left for dead—twice—who somehow eventually got themselves up and walking back into Base Camp…

And yet the Sherpas who were working furiously behind the scenes to aid these expeditions were only briefly discussed. I wanted to know more.

One of the first things I learnt from Jen Peedom’s Sherpa documentary, which I was fortunate enough to preview this week, is that the term Sherpa has been popularised as someone who climbs mountains—more specifically, someone who helps entitled westerners ascend Everest. But Sherpas are actually a distinct ethnic group with a long, rich history.

The most famous of all Sherpas is, of course, Tenzing Norgay, the amendable man who steered New Zealander Edmund Hillary to the peak in 1953 and then wasn’t entirely recognised for his work (he received a secondary honour to Edmund’s adulation).

Fast forward to 2013 and fisticuffs on the mountain, and the stereotypical smiling, subservient Sherpa is nowhere to be seen. Peedom and her crew set out to discover what had changed and to explore Everest ascents from the Sherpas’ perspectives.

But they didn’t end up producing quite the documentary they had planned—and it shows because the film’s narrative isn’t, through no fault of the documentary makers, on as sure footing as you’d hope. Instead, they captured the moment and aftermath of an avalanche that killed 16 Sherpas.

The incident has arguably changed Everest expeditioning forever. It was the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back, with the Sherpas demanding better pay, better recognition, and better compensation for the danger they face every day.

That’s because they risk their lives a whole lot more than the climbers, particularly by carrying gear back and forth over an especially unstable section known as the Ice Fall, but which is the only access point. The climbers themselves traverse the Ice Fall perhaps twice. The Sherpas more like 30 times. Disturbingly, the Sherpas actually draw straws to determine who will carry what across this part.

The government won’t allow anything to be flown up the mountain, so everything must be carried up. And westerners these days expect comfort, so the Sherpas are literally carrying things like TVs. Yes, TVs. And so, with a mountain further destabilised by climate change, the Sherpas’ lives are ruled by prayer, superstition, and luck. As one interviewee asks halfway through the film: ‘What is the moral justification for this?’

Phurba Tashi is the main Sherpa the documentary follows. Had he ascended Everest in 2014, it would be his 22nd summit and a new world record. His family was less than enthused about it. ‘I’m often scared,’ his wife told the documentary makers. ‘He loves the mountain more than his family.’ His mother said: ‘How many times can he climb? I’m over this.’

Sherpa isn’t the most successful documentary ever created—the sudden but necessary switch in subject matter kind of put paid to that. But it is solid. It warrants watching, whether you’re a cynic like me who finds the whole mountain-scaling circus unethical and depressing or an avid mountaineer thinking of setting crampon on this peak.

Twofold/Threefold Reasons Why I Adore JK Rowling

Harry Potter and the Cursed ChildThere are innumerable reasons to love JK Rowling, not least because she penned the beloved Harry Potter series through which she eternally, ever so slightly, changed the world.

But the reason I love Rowling is twofold. Note one of these reasons isn’t, as you’d expect, the fact that she made our dreams of another Harry Potter instalment come true with the announcement of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Although that’s a perfectly good reason to make it threefold.

It’s twofold because while I love and admire her imaginative writing immeasurably, I love it even more in partnership with her groundedness. She might be worth more than Queen Elizabeth these days, but she appears pretty pragmatic about how much she values what she has and how different things could have been.

‘Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life’ is a quote widely attributed to Rowling and that I can only assume she said. Preceding that sentence was also reportedly ‘I was set free, because my greatest fear had already been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea.’

That is, she was once a struggling, everywoman writer trying to make ends meet. Compounding that, she was a single mother. (It’s hard enough to find time to write and to cobble together some sort of a writing-based income at any stage, but to do so while managing sole parenting and with the burden of knowing it’s not just your life and food provision you’re responsible for…Yikes. The mere thought of it is terrifying.)

She also hasn’t for a moment forgotten that or the countless rejection letters she received before Bloomsbury took a chance on her manuscript. So, you know, hats off to her.

I’ve also enjoyed her pwning people on the internet who say highly in appropriate things. BuzzFeed and Mashable helpfully collated lists so I didn’t lose hours scouring Rowling’s social media feed. Some of my faves include how she said:

  • if she weren’t a writer, she’d like to be an otter weigher (because there’s apparently a job that entails doing that)
  • that contrary to what people think of her, celebrity has actually changed her a bit—she doesn’t cut her own hair any more
  • that she completely supports LGBT rights and that the Harry Potter universe does/would too
  • how even she was shocked by how hot the actor who played Neville Longbottom turned out
  • how despite others’ claims she is, she doesn’t consider herself a ‘world leader’. At least not beyond the worlds in her head: ‘In the real world I can barely lead my dog.’
  • how even she battles with her home printer: ‘Of all devices known to humankind, the desktop printer is the most evil. I am close to breaking point.’ And how she added: ‘I now feel the need to say (in case he sees this at work) “Neil, I haven’t broken your printer.”’
  • what we’ve all been thinking about Murdoch and then some: ‘I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.’

Robert GalbraithI’ve also got to say I have a huge amount of respect for efforts to release a book under a different name (Robert Galbraith)—I feel like it was almost a test to see if her work could successfully make its way in the world without the now-inevitable fanfare and hype. Because the pressure to succeed after such a breakout success is, well, unrivalled.

The only book that has sold more copies than Rowlings’ is Fifty Shades of Grey. And no one’s claiming that was good writing. Ergo, while there’s a bunch of pressure for EL James to pen a follow-up bestseller, no one would be expecting it to some sort of well-written, world-expanding masterpiece.

So while I’m undeniably excited about Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s impending release (hurry up, July), I’m also really just chuffed we get to hear more from Rowling herself, both in this forthcoming text and via social media. She seems like the kind of person whose work you’d admire but who you’d also—as arguably naff as it sounds—respect.

Review: The Naked Vegan

The Naked VeganIf the cover for Maz Valcorza’s The Naked Vegan doesn’t make you pluck the book from the shelf and cook something, nothing will. That and the knowledge that the author grew from being a child who ate Spam out of the can to someone who eats vegan wholefoods. Even with a detour of being a nursing-qualified pharmaceutical rep who lived a hard-drinking, hard-smoking party lifestyle.

Valcorza’s shift toward veganism and generally healthy living kicked off after a chance encounter with yoga based on the idea it might improve her co-ordination and tone her butt. She so fell in love with yoga that she studied to become a yoga teacher, during which she was particularly struck by the yogic principle of ahimsa, which advocates non-violence or non-harm. Obvs that philosophy extended to animals.

Having gone vegan but being starved of choice by the then limited vegan offerings available, Valcorza was buying up the vegan junk food versions of the foods she knew. She figuring there must be better ways to live vegan. And that she might be the one to help find some of them.

She heard about raw food and started experimenting, posting recipes on her blog. Her foray into the area was so successful she went on to found Sadhana Kitchen, Sydney’s first organic, raw-food café. Pronounced sah-da-nah, the name translates ‘one’s conscious practice’, and it essentially relates to your daily ritual. The idea is that you do good in this daily ritual stuff by consciously making ethical decisions, which includes ethical eating decisions.

By extension for Valcorza, conscious practice also involved leaving behind a job with a pharmaceutical company advocating throwing drugs at health issues that could probably be first addressed through healthy food. The irony is that since going vegan, she’s been so healthy she hasn’t so far needed any kind of the kind of medicine she used to peddle.

The takeaway of The Naked Vegan specifically and Valcorza’s story as a whole is if she can completely change her life and manage this vegan stuff, anyone can. Especially when you consider her Filipino heritage is one that was based heavily on meat. (The veganised roast pig incident in her introduction is, though thoughtful and well-meaning, nonetheless quite confounding.) Still, the book’s cover makes a good start on the anyone-can approach because it’s decadent and aesthetically appealing enough to lure even the most cynical eater in.

The book (which handily also falls into the #ByAustralianBuyAustralian category—that is, it’s buy an Australian and you can buy it from your local Australian bookstore) contains a glossary to explain the terms and—surprising to me, at least—it’s up front. I’m not going to lie. Vegan cookbooks that require glossaries make me nervous and invariably go in the too-hard pile. I’m a terrible cook, I live on my own and so have no one to prompt me to prepare food, and I lead an insanely busy lifestyle. When I see ingredients that I have to google or scale some distant mountain to locate a herb grown only in the kind of conditions that support a hardy but benevolent goat, I’m out.

But then I flipped from the glossary to the sesame and nori crackers. And then the bagels. And the zucchini crackers and the felafel plate with beetroot dip and zucchini hummus. And later the spaghetti and beet balls, and the mushroom, spinach, and caramelised onion quiche. And then the strawberry donuts, the bananarama cupcakes, the orange and poppyseed cake, the apple and strawberry crumble pie with rhubarb and ginger coulis. Oh, and the choc-raspberry cheesecake featured on the cover. You get the point.

So while I’ll qualify this review with saying I’d probably be a little more likely to visit Sadhana Kitchen and purchase the kind of incredible treats this recipe book features (I will and I do), I will say the recipes and accompanying images appear delicious. It’s also high time I stopped relying I’m my limited range of vegan recipes and branched out to try something new. With 140 recipes, The Naked Vegan would definitely be an excellent resource for doing that.

Many thanks to Murdoch Books for sending me the review copy.

Review: The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver

The Beekeeper's Problem SolverSubsequent to my The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver post of a few days previous, I discovered the book is actually part of a handy problem-solver series. So I ordered its companion book, The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver. Because in addition to bombarding my social media feed with about a billion pics of chickens, I intersperse some of those posts with images of bees.

I’m vegan, so keeping bees is an incomprehensibly weird thing to do, but I do so for environmental and bee-health reasons. As much as possible, I leave the honey for the bees (it is, after all, actually their food). And really, I’m less beekeeping and more providing fully serviced urban accommodation for three hives—or approximately 150,000—European honey bees.

Regardless, I am perpetually on the hunt for bee-related knowledge—both in terms of learning about bees’ make-up and their behaviour, but also understanding and analysing our treatment of them. Suffice to say I’ve just about single-handedly supported the bee-themed book industry with the amount of bee books I’ve purchased in recent years.

This book, by James E Tew, spans issues relating to bee biology to the beekeeping equipment itself. Its nine chapters include Beekeeping Basics (a logical place to start), Biology and the Behaviour of the Colony, Managing and Manipulating Hives, Diseases and Pests of Honey Bees, and Pollen and Pollination.

While it covers the most common issues, the book acknowledges that there is much about bees and beekeeping that remains a mystery to even experienced beekeepers. That’s something to which I can testify: I have a mere three years and three hives’ worth of beekeeping experience under my belt, but some days I feel like I know less than before I began.

The Chicken Keeper's Problem SolverBut dare I say, the content The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver covers is—as far as my rookie beekeeping experience goes—balanced and evenly spread.

The issues/questions it features are useful and, though each entry is brief, they are substantial enough to give you a solid foundation and send you off in the right direction to research the issue more deeply.

Case in point: It covers troublesome Nosema Apis and Nosema Ceranae—parasite-led diseases that I’ve encountered, the latter of which terrifyingly nearly wiped out my first hive.

As with The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver, The Beekeeper’s Problem Solver contains striking images, call-out boxes, and clean, clear layouts with concise, easily digestible questions and answers.

So thumbs up to this book too, and please do let me know if you stumble across other useful ones in the series. Say, for example, a problem-solving book outlining how to write a thesis painlessly…