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…

Review: The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver

Chicken Keeper's Problem SolverEven a cursory examination of my social media hints at the fact I adopt ex-battery hens. Which means I’m constantly on the lookout for information on how to best care for them.

That’s both in terms of providing them with the best quality of life, heading off potential illnesses and issues, and giving them the best medical support if and when they fall ill.

A friend and fellow writer and editor Clare found Chris Graham’s The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver recently. She sent me one of those random awesome texts you get where it’s a picture of a book you might be interested in.

Obvs I completely was, so I promptly ordered a copy of it.

(As a side note, I discovered Graham has a 500-issue version entitled Wisdom for Hen Keepers: 500 Tips for Keeping Chickens if you’re after a slightly more robust version. Given that it talks about showing and breeding chickens, it’s the antithesis of what I need, but I’m flagging it here just in case it’s of interest to anyone else.)

Identifying and explaining 100 of the most common chicken problems, The Chicken Keeper’s Problem Solver book is a fantastic reference, and its communication design is to be applauded.

Divided into 10 sections that include Food and Water, Housing, Parasites, Health Issues, and Behavioural Problems, with roughly 10 questions in each, the book is logical, functional, and designed to be scanned quickly.

Wisdom for Hen KeepersEach question is posed as you would think of it: My hens have gone off their regular feed; My hens seem bored; One of my hens has a swollen, hard lower neck; I can’t catch my chickens. They’re all for real, including the latter one, with which I have had personal experience.

Squeaker, one of the current battery hens I look after, is absolutely tiny and arrived with nary a feather on her. But she’s also the Speedy Gonzalez of chickens, which is probably what helped her survive to date. She’s had me running around my backyard with Benny Hill music playing in my head.

Thankfully, she’s a little more trusting of me now and applies her speed mostly to moments when she’s trying to scoot in the door to snarfoo some of the dog’s food.

Anyway, each of the questions is summarised and then explained in greater depth. All are in lay terms and all are accompanied by strong images, call-out boxes with handy hints, and—as I discovered on a second read—fab illustrations that often sit subtly behind or near the text.

So if you are fortunate enough to have chickens in your life—ex-battery hens or other varieties alike—I’d suggest this book is a handy go-to troubleshooter.

It’s written for the northern hemisphere, so I’d love to see a southern hemisphere version (*cough* *hint*), but there’s still enough in there to make it suitably applicable here.

It’s definitely one of the books I’ll be recommending slash loaning out slash gifting to other people kept by chickens (because frankly, I think it’s the chickens who are doing the keeping, not so much us).

Review: Love Quinoa

Love QuinoaThere’s an internet meme that does the rounds every so often showing Joaquin (pronounced Wah-keen) Phoenix and quinoa (pronounced keen-wah). It says something along the lines of how they’re both tricky to pronounce, but are awesome and also vegan.

I thought of that meme as soon as I saw Love Quinoa was available for review. Obviously, I put my hand up to roadtest it straight away. (As a side note, it appears to be part of a series—there is, for example, a Love Kale book by the same authors available too.)

Although quinoa’s superfood status has been well and truly heralded, I’ll include some details of its apparent properties here. It contains calcium, magnesium, manganese, vitamins B and E, amino acids, and old favourite fibre. It’s known as a complete protein source—something fairly good and properly exciting for vegans such as me.

Suffice to say, a cookbook about this grain was always going to intrigue me. Containing more than 100 recipes, Love Quinoa isn’t entirely vegan, but it contains enough recipes to make it worth vegans’ while (and, truthfully, most of the recipes could easily be veganised).

It’s another quality Murdoch publication, which of course means it’s the kind of book Murdoch produces incredibly well. The images are salivation-inducing and the book design stellar. A colour-coded key that demonstrates which recipes are vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, etc. makes discerning as easy as a quick glance.

The book also includes details of quinoa’s history and why it’s good for you (read: me). Think as a more ideal and versatile option than rice, that it makes hearty fillers for soups and stews, and that it helps with muscle recovery after sport.

Love KaleThe book actually has five authors—I can’t remember the last book I read that had so many, or at least not one that wasn’t an academic journal.

Lead author Karen S Burns-Booth is a writer and food stylist who lives between the UK and France. She’s joined by London-based recipe writer Jassy Davis, food blogger Carolyn Cope, and two vegan writers, Kristina Sloggett and Jackie Sobon.

So the book contains a range of recipes that reflect the authors’ diverse experience and interests, along with variations to mix up the core recipes to suit specific tastes.

There are sweet breakfast recipes: Toasted Coconut and Quinoa Breakfast Pudding; Vanilla Cardamom Quinoa Granola; and Quinoa Waffles. There are savoury main meal ones: Vegetable Paella-Style Quinoa; Risotto-Style Quinoa with Caramelized Onions and Mushrooms; Quinoa Couscous with Blood Oranges and Burrata; and Roasted Winter Vegetable, Quinoa, and Wild Rice Salad.

Then there are desserts such as: Apple Crumble with Quinoa Topping; and Iced Orange, Semolina, and Quinoa Layer Cake. Suffice to say, the latter in particular went straight to the top of my must-try list.

I would have loved Love Quinoa to be a wholly vegan publication, but that’s a personal preference and I understand Murdoch and the authors were going for the widest, investment-recouping audience. Regardless, I’d recommend Love Quinoa be an addition to the recipe book collections of vegans and others alike.

Review: Carol

CarolWith Cate Blanchett playing the lead character that gives the film its name, Carol needs no introduction. The film realisation of The Price of Salt (or Carol), it charts the tale of two women who fall in love in 1950s New York.

One of the women, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), is in the process of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), who loves her deeply but is wounded his love is not returned.

The other, Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara), is young and politely deflecting the advances of would-be suitors as she tries to find her way out of a dead-end job working in a department store doll department and into her dream photography job.

The opening credits are set against the pattern of a street grate—it looks not dissimilar to a gilded cage. It then cuts to an interrupted date between the two women to which we eventually return as the film comes almost full circle and then slightly beyond.

I liked this film but I didn’t love it, but for reasons that are difficult to explain. Blanchett is, as ever, exquisitely effective in her role. Mara is brilliant too, although I found myself fairly frustrated with her character—she’s rather two-dimensional and I needed more from her to truly invest in the tale. What a strange girl you are, flung from outer space, Carol tells Therese at one stage, and I found myself agreeing, albeit perhaps for not quite the same complimentary manner.

Not helping that was the fact that I have an enormous soft spot for Chandler. Known for being the actor everyone adores but whose name no one quite remembers. (My friend and co-reviewer Lise tipped me off that she was sold on coming along because of the actor even before the film started. I said ‘who?’ and she said I’d know once he appeared on screen. The moment he did, I knew who and what she was talking about.)

Chandler was exceptional as Coach Eric Taylor in Friday Night Lights and, as I found out from Wikipedia, even in such roles I loved as the head bomb guy in Grey’s Anatomy. You know, the one who helps Meredith out when she puts her hand on live ammunition in a body and, well, I won’t tell you how it ends, but suffice to say I love Chandler all the more now realising he was that guy.

All of which is a rather long way of saying it was rather difficult to root for Carol’s and Therese’s love to triumph when Chandler was the guy who would ultimately lose out.

The film is fairly chaste, but shoulder touches take on significance, and there are an incredible lot of cars scenes and wistful looks out windows, which, once you notice, you can’t unnotice.

But, like Suffragette and The Danish Girl, Carol is an important film. Though imperfect, it is an important tale to be telling and forms part of a larger movement and conversation we need to have.

Review: The Danish Girl

The Danish GirlLike many others, I have mixed feelings about The Danish Girl. On the one hand, I am heartened that such an important but overlooked tale is finally being represented thoughtfully on film. On the other, I am troubled by both the cis gender casting and the film’s execution that doesn’t quite fulfil ambition.

Lili Elbe (whose surname was derived from the river and who is played by Eddie Redmayne) was a Danish transgender woman and one of the first to undergo gender-confirming surgery.

She transitioned from landscape painter Einar from Veijle (pronounced Vi-la), the latter being a Danish town that is reportedly incredibly beautiful.

Elbe’s autobiography Man to Woman was published in 1933 and that, along with David Ebershoff’s fictionalised account of Elbe’s life, The Danish Girl, forms the basis for this film of the latter’s same name.

Coincidentally, Ebershoff is an author I keep stumbling across but never quite managing to read. His third novel, The 19th Wife, which is about polygamy and 19th wife Ann Eliza Young, who exposed the truth of it.

Bizarrely, I couldn’t remember the number of the wife of the title and the ‘the’ and the ‘th’ of the number make it difficult to search in bookstores’ databases. It took me an age to find the book after hearing about it and being, by the time I went to search for it, rather sketchy on the details.

As a side note, the internets tell me Ebershoff also worked at Random House for 20 years, including being its vice president and executive editor. So he’s, you know, reasonably experienced and respected in the industry and that’s even more reason why I need to get round to reading some of his books.

But I digress enormously.

The Danish Girl tells the story of Elbe and his wife, Gerda Gottlieb.

The couple met at Copenhagen’s Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts, where they were studying to be painters.

The film portrays Gottlieb as a dedicated wife deeply in love with her husband. Other versions say she was a lesbian and suggest hers and Einar’s marriage was one of convenience, even if it also involved a great deal of care.

Regardless, Alicia Vikander, who plays her, puts in an absolutely steller performance. I knew I would come away from the film with a healthy respect for Redmayne performance, but it was Vikander’s that truly impressed me.

Either way, as the story goes, Elbe started wearing women’s clothes after posing for Gottlieb when one of her models cancelled. It unlocked what had always been repressed: outwardly Einar appeared a man, but inwardly he—she—was a woman. Elbe is introduced throughout the film as Einar’s sister.

What follows is a rocky path to gender confirmation that incorporates experimental surgeries and that spans locationsThe 19th Wife in Copenhagen, Paris, and Dresden.

The Danish Girl is exquisite to look at it, as if the film itself is a painting, but I felt it lacked depth beyond its pretty façade. We never seem to the heart of what it means to be a transgender person and to grapple with not just your own emotions but societal expectations.

The film seems to get stuck on portraying what we already know or think we know, fetishising clothing and feminine eye fluttering and hand gestures instead.

Coincidentally, I saw The Danish Girl with a Danish friend, so it was fascinating to hear her perspective. For starters, the locations puzzled her somewhat. Apparently Veijle wasn’t Veijle, which isn’t hilly but flat. For reasons we can’t fathom, the film’s scenes looked like they were shot more in a place akin to Norway.

Also slightly disconcerting was that the film wasn’t subtitled. Instead, the characters were English-speaking and English-accented. Not what you’d expect of a film about Danes. Still, the accent would have been admittedly difficult to master and distracting if it were even slightly off, so understandable to not be.

It’s hard to know whether to recommend The Danish Girl as a film (and as noted above, I’ve yet to read Ebershoff’s book version of it or even Elbe’s own). I enjoyed it enough to warrant saying yes. As in, it’s enjoyable and fascinating and thought-provoking if you’re new to the topic and don’t want to think too hard about it.

But I also know the film doesn’t go far enough to show true understanding of the issues with which transgender people grapple and it is, when you even slightly scratch its surface, rather lacking.

So instead I’ll hedge and say it’s an important first step. There’ll come a time when, hopefully soon, we won’t rely on casting a cis gender person in a transgender role in order to get audiences in. And there’ll come a time, hopefully sooner, that we’ll start to tell some more robust stories about and for people who are transgender.

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars BlueprintsIt’s hard to find a blog’s worth of words to say what I can really say in one sentence: Star Wars: The Force Awakens lives up to the heady hype and breathless anticipation.

I mean really, I’m pretty sure today we’ve heard the collective happy exhalation slash fist pumping of Star Wars fans the world over. I’ve yet to hear one say the film didn’t live up to their expectations.

Of course, it’s easy to say now I always had faith in JJ Abrams’ ability to execute an on-song film, but I did. He obvs has a strong track record, the Star Trek reboots being the most recent, but he is also a master at drawing out the key narrative elements and enhancing them.

Which is exactly what he did here. Balanced with just the right amount of action meets heartstring-tugging meets fantasy meets comedy, this Star Wars iteration impresses. Its look and feel is accurate. More importantly, its tone feels right.

In a nod to episodes past as well as a clever way to link the past and the present, TIE fighters, X-wings, the Millennium Falcon, and the Deathstar return in various forms (I for one have spent plenty of time poring over their blueprints). As do some of the most beloved characters.

FramesBut the film is carried by a cast of next-generation relative newbies—arguably in George Lucas’ tradition, but still much more than I’d expected, if I’m honest, but hats off to it.

These newbies include a modern droid that is Wall-E-like in nature, but mostly endearing rather than abundantly annoying. Is it just me, or did anyone else find Wall-E annoying? And BB-8 was cute, but only in small doses. I felt it was overdone in early scenes, but the rest of the film reigned it in.

There was, of course, also a resourceful junk scavenger named Rey, who upends stereotypes about which jobs women are or aren’t good at. In fact, she executes my favourite joke of the film—‘No, no, no. The one I’m pointing to.’—which is one about asking her male co-protagonist to hand her a spanner.

In fact, there was a fair amount of role reversal in this iteration. The women are strong and centre stage and less sexualised—more so than in the past. There’s Rey, of course, but Leia too, and no gold bikini in sight. There’s also a brilliant, bespectacled, oracle-like woman Maz (Lupita Nyong’o), whose opening words to Han Solo were: ‘Where’s my boyfriend?’ It turns out she’s a fan of the Wookie. She’s so incredibly compelling she just about steals the show.

Everyone is wearing masks in this film—some literally, others metaphorical. Peeling them off to reveal truths is at the film’s core. And, as a Star Wars fan who is also a Harry Potter fan, I have to point out what’s probably already been pointed out a bunch of times by now: Was it me, or were the new Darth Vader-ish and Supreme Leader Snoke rather Snape- and Voldemort-looking? And Rey very Keira Knightley meets Natalie Portman? Inadvertent or not, to me the resemblances were uncanny. (Then again, maybe I’ve spent too much time obsessing over Lucas’ every decision.)

Star TrekI don’t want to give to much away about the film, but I will say it’s a crowdpleaser—sentimental but not soppy, and a return to Star Wars form. Forgive me for admitting I actually cried at one stage when the Resistance fighters appeared.

‘This is so not how I thought this day was going to go,’ Han Solo says in one scene, as things go pear-shaped. But I’d prefer to recast this: This film so didn’t go how I expected it to. And for that, and the fact that Jar Jar Binks remains banished, I am entirely thankful.

Review: Suffragette

SuffragettesCurrent cultural debates around feminism revolve around:

  • whether it’s a dirty word
  • shifting perceptions of and reclaiming it (thanks to the help of some universally liked women like Emma Watson) as something positive.

Which makes the release of Suffragette, the historical fiction-based film about the suffragette movement, incredibly prescient and timely. The term used then might have been suffragette instead of feminism, but this is a debate that is long-running and perennially important.

As someone who’s always identified as a feminist (I successfully petitioned to get female bin girls and female altar servers back in my local municipality), there was no question I would review this film. And while I don’t know what I expected of Suffragette, but I have to admit it wasn’t the realisation that I don’t know my suffragette history as well as you’d think I would.

It’s London, 1912, and the suffragette movement is gathering momentum. The voiceover contains excerpts of politicians and other powerful men debating the pros and cons of giving women the vote. Protagonist Maud Watts (Carey Mulligan), a 24-year-old laundry worker, is largely oblivious to this.

She was born in the laundry and was strapped to her mother’s back as an infant. Her poorly paid, poorly educated mother was forced to return to work as quickly as possible. Maud started working for the laundry part time when she was seven years old and full time when she was 12. Repeating the little-opportunity cycle, she now has a child of her own.

Maud doesn’t identify as a suffragette—in fact, she denies it multiple times throughout the film. But trapped and dreaming of a better life, she gradually she finds herself drawn in, and eventually contributing, to the movement out of necessity.

Suffragette is the story of one group of women’s experiences of the suffragette movement. Emmeline Pankhurst (played by Meryl Streep) looms large in the psyche, making brief cameos at key moments, but this film drills down to the personal. Maud, with her blistered hands, poor pay, exhausting hours, and lecherous boss is an everywoman with which we can identify.

She’s supported and encouraged by a cast of incredible actors, including Helena Bonham Carter, who plays a chemist who was never allowed to become a doctor. One police officer describes her character as ‘educated with scruples’, which makes her particularly dangerous.

‘It’s deeds, not words, that’ll get us the vote’ is one of many memorable phrases this film contains. ‘You want me to respect the law, then make the law respectable’ and ‘They don’t want to be lawbreakers, they want to be lawmakers’ are other phrases bandied about as the women participate in national campaign of civil disobedience.

My StoryI spent a vast portion of this film wondering what I would have done had I been alive during this time—I’m the beneficiary of these women’s courage, but I wonder how courageous I would have been. I came away with a whole new level of respect for their bravery. And an appreciation for the filmmakers who saw this film as warranting being told, which all too rarely happens with ‘women’s stories’.

There was much impromptu and impassioned murmuring as the film credits rolled. Or, more specifically, a list detailing when and where women’s rights began to be recognised.

For example, after years of suffragette action, women over 30 and of a certain character in the UK were finally allowed to vote as of 1918. It took until 1928 for the rest of the women in the UK to be allowed to. And it took until 1925 for the UK to recognise a mother’s right to her child.

Australia was comparatively forward: women received the vote in 1902.

We sat right until the end of the credits, marvelling, talking, maybe even shedding a surreptitious tear or two. It was during this time that my co-reviewer noticed two women leaving the cinema wearing suffragette hats. Something tells me they contributed to the original suffragette movement and the film held special significance for them.

In light of this, and in light of the fact I’ve realised I don’t know as much about suffragette history and homage as I probably should, I’ve decided my Christmas present to me is going to be suffragette-themed books. I’ll be starting with The Suffragettes: The Fight for Votes for Women and the simply titled Suffragette. If you can recommend any others—particularly seminal texts—I’m all ears.

Review: Spectre

SpectreThere was some benefit to not knowing a new James Bond film was coming out: I managed to bypass all of the anxious anticipation and skip straight to the enjoyment of trundling along to the theatre to view it.

Well, view it after an interminable 30—yes, 30—minutes of largely sponsor-related and poorly considered ads. One ad in particular incensed me: bottled water, a product so wholly environmentally unfriendly it should almost be illegal.

But then I reminded myself that the Bond films are if nothing else about impractical and unattainable things.

I’ve never read any of Ian Fleming’s books, but I’ve long wished I had. Bond is the kind of hero slash anti-hero I like: suave, dapper, capable, well-travelled, able to function wholly using his skill, charm, and wit.

Especially in these most recent films, with Daniel Craig’s Bond both on the outer with the establishment and being broken physically and emotionally. It makes him a far more relatable, realistic (if that’s possible for someone who survives so many insane scenarios), and sympathetic character.

In Spectre, Bond has gone rogue, pursuing leads even he isn’t sure about. But he’s a man on a mission and nothing—not even ‘smart blood’ that tracks his location—is about to prevent him from fulfilling the mission.

But bureaucracy is interfering, first in the form of his boss, M, and second in the form of his boss’ boss, an arrogant up-and-comer with the home secretary’s ear. The latter has written a report that the 00 program is obsolete and a lone agent in the field cannot compete with Big Brother-ilk technology.

Bond hasn’t helped his or the 00 program’s case. The film’s opening sequence involves him at the heart of an unsanctioned international incident that plays out in front of thousands of witnesses during Mexico’s Day of the Dead festival. (‘The dead are alive’ the screen reads ominously before we cut to the festival in full swing.)

Especially so when he is cavalier when M tells him he’s now in the extremely difficult position of having to explain 007’s actions. You’re right, Bond tells M. You’re about to have a very difficult day.

I love this grittier Bond. The one who’s a little less shiny and a little more aware of his own mortality. What I’m unclear on is whether that’s the doing of the filmmakers or Fleming.

One of the central complaints about the Bond character is perennially young (or at least becoming more of a silver fox) and untouched by the realities of life, and his flings increasingly younger and more beautiful than the previous ones.

This Bond is finally starting to feel his age and his mortality. And though the woman he ends up with in the film is implausibly young (and, if I may say so, not really his type), he has a brief dalliance with one who is closer to his age and style.

But really, love stories aside, Spectre contains enough intrigue and adventure to entertain. Craig has reportedly said he’s unsure if he’s going to reprise the role and that Bond, at his core, is pretty much a misogynist.

I’ll be disappointed if Spectre is the last time we’ll see Craig as Bond, but I like too that he’s not so caught up in the Bond ego that he can’t see the character has flaws.

Either way, having not known about this film until it was out, I’ll likely be pleasantly surprised if or when Craig does reprise the role.

Review: The Program

It's Not About The BikeThere are few stories more abjectly fascinating than those surrounding Lance Armstrong’s triumph over a cancer he was given infinitesimally small chance of surviving and his subsequent seven Tour de France (AKA Tour de Lance) victories.

Consequently, there are few stories more assumptions-shattering than the revelation that Armstrong had, in fact, been using drugs to aid his wins all along.

The Program, so named to describe the doping program Armstrong (played convincingly by Ben Foster) and his teammates followed, answers the questions we’ve been wondering for years: How did he do it? And how did he manage to get away with it for so long?

The film’s opening scene features a solitary cyclist climbing a mountain. The only sounds we hear are the wind, the rider’s breath, and the sound of a helicopter hovering overhead. It is, presumably, Armstrong out in front of the peloton in the Tour de France. Or it’s simply an arresting visual of a rider alone with their thoughts, battling the elements as they work to ascend a mountain.

The Tour de France features 180 riders, 20 stages, and just one—highly prized—yellow jersey. Armstrong won the event a record seven times, and he did so after overcoming a debilitating cancer no one should have overcome. It’s unsurprising his wins took on mythic proportions in our minds.

Armstrong would likely have remained a legendary figure had it not been for sports writer David Walsh (played by Chris O’Dowd). He was the only journalist who doubted Armstrong’s triumphant physical makeover (Armstrong was built for one-day cycling events, not three-week tours that involved mountainous range) and the only person to doggedly work to uncover the doping truth.

‘He’s a man transformed,’ Walsh says at one point. ‘He recovered from cancer and turned into bloody Superman.’

And: ‘I have no interest in going up a mountain to watch chemists compete.’

To be fair, Armstrong decided to dope because everyone else was already doing it. I know, I know, that doesn’t make it even remotely alright. And yes, the ‘if everyone jumped off a cliff, would you?’ example springs to mind. Armstrong wasn’t and isn’t a sheep. He’s a ruthless competitor who knew what he was doing.

But as one friend and avid cyclist said to me when the news of Armstrong’s doping finally broke, he might have been taking performance-enhancing drugs, but he still consistently beat a field of guys who were likely also doping. Was he simply levelling the playing field?

I don’t know. With Armstrong’s story, we’re knee deep in murky ethics. And consciences weighing heavy.

‘I just told them what they wanted to hear,’ he tells his future wife after he delivers an inspiring speech about beating cancer. Which is arguably true. We wanted to believe in Armstrong’s story just as much as he wanted us to believe it.

And there were arguably some benefits to his profile and success, however false. He raised millions of dollars for cancer research. He inspired people experiencing cancer to fight to live.

I’m not condoning what Armstrong did. Like everyone else, I got teary when he stood up on the podium time and again. And I felt foolish and frustrated I’d been duped.

I’d even read and loved his two ghost-written memoirs, It’s Not About The Bike: My Journey Back to Life and Every Second Counts, rabbiting on about how incredible it was he’d beat the odds and how hard he’d worked for his victories.

So I was particularly annoyed they turned out to be if not entirely false, then at least playing loose with facts. It’s well-documented—and slightly bemusing—that people shifted those titles from the non-fiction to fiction sections in bookshops.

Even though Armstrong’s actions were wholly wrong, The Program gives us the most insightful and nuanced examination of Armstrong and his motivations to date.

That’s not to say the film’s perfect. Plenty is skimmed over, not least Armstrong’s battle with cancer and his marriages and relationships. Seriously, the audience kind of chuckled in surprise at how the film cut from Armstrong asking a woman in a hallway if she liked Italian food to—literally—them emerging from a church married. We never saw her again and at one stage his three children, who had not been mentioned or appeared prior to that, joined him on the podium.

But that’s also a sign the film stayed true to its intent: depicting the doping program Armstrong and his teammates underwent in order to win.

Based on detailed legal documents and reports surrounding his exposure and the stripping of his titles, The Program is the closest thing we’ve got to date about how the doping was carried out. It’s fictional and Armstrong obviously hasn’t condoned it, but I’d like to think the film offers the rest of us some insight into the hows and the whys. It’s certainly closer to the truth than Armstrong’s two books. For those reasons, I’d recommend we watch it.

Review: Shelter

ShelterPhotographer and stylist Kara Rosenlund spent a year traversing Australia, towing her trusty vintage caravan to homes to photograph based on word-of-mouth recommendations.

The result is Shelter, an exquisite coffee table keepsake with a whole heap of heart.

Shelter wasn’t the book Rosenlund was supposed to write. She had a contract to create another book altogether about vintage caravans (she was into these caravans long before they were cool). But a wrong turn in rural Australia put paid to that: Rosenlund spotted a dilapidated house and was curious about its history, its residents, and how it came to be in the rundown state it was.

By the time she’d found her way home, she was convinced the book she needed to produce was about how Australians live. And she managed to convince her publisher of that too.

I’m generalising, but I think that those of us addicted to Pinterest (I’ll wholly admit I’m included in that group) tend to pin images of houses and apartments from other regions in the world. My own feed is full of New York, Swedish, and other all-white, architecturally designed spaces styled to within an inch of their lives.

Shelter departs from this aesthetic, showcasing real, lived-in homes and their broader, contextualising landscapes. They’re not homes that would necessarily appear in house and garden magazines, but I mean this as a compliment. They’re the homes we haven’t known about and for which images aren’t readily available to pin.

They also depart from the stereotypical ‘outback’ Australian imagery we’re used to seeing. For too long, it’s felt as though our landscape and our lifestyles had to occupy a truly urban or quintessentially outback identity.

Nor did Rosenlund, despite her background, ever style the spaces. She captured them as they were and the book is better for it. Unlike those Pinterest images I tend to pin, which are comparatively sterile or at least impossible to actually live in lest you muck up the aesthetics straight up, you get an unmediated sense of how people live.

As someone who rather fancies becoming a hermit (Seriously, I said that was what I wanted to be when I grew up as early as Year 2. Suffice to say, it didn’t wash well with the teacher I told and I sensed quickly it wasn’t an appropriate thing to say), this book speaks to me.

The bespoke homes, be they made from an old tram or shipping containers or simply an old cottage built from gathered materials, and surrounded by nature, seem absolutely heavenly. Some are lived in full time, while others provide humble getaways. Still others seemed like short-term shelters that have come to be long-term homes.

As a photographer and stylist, Rosenlund has an eye for creating and capturing composition and detail that is almost unrivalled. Her images are textured, detail-rich artworks in and of themselves. The book is wholly hers too. She put together the images and words for it, with the text containing brief tales of how she found the building’s owners.

To encounter Rosenlund (as I did when I attended one of her book launches recently) is to realise how warm she is. She writes in the introduction that she wasn’t sure how she was going to convince people to let her inside their homes. I’d argue that was never going to be the issue—I doubt anyone ever says no to her—and that finding the properties was more likely the challenge. Australia is, after all, a vast continent and the kinds of homes she was keen to photograph were not clustered together in easily accessible urban locations.

That’s evidenced in the continuing theme in the book that many of the homeowners who ended up in the book rarely go into town, have the internet, or check email. Regardless, through persistence and the occasional old-fashioned asking at the local pub, Rosenlund managed to track these people down.

From there, she often found herself often staying overnight and spending time with the homeowners—a far more personal and in-depth approach than most styling and book production practices entail. She writes in the introduction that she would come away from the experience ‘happy, and topped up with human spirit’.

That’s kind of how I feel encountering Shelter. It’s a tribute to lives lived deeply and a brief peek into, and inspiration for, those of us who’ve been seeking out inspiration for new and fulfilling ways to live.

Review: Mockingjay 2 Film

The Hunger GamesI had the ‘I should have re-watched the last film before seeing this film’ feeling about a minute in to Mockingjay 2, the final film instalment of The Hunger Games trilogy. (The last book of which has, confusingly, filmicly been split into two to make the trilogy a kind of quadrilogy.) For I couldn’t remember where the last film had finished and this one, logically, picked up shortly after where the other one left off.

My guess, based on the neck brace and bruising Katniss has in the opening moments and the damage she has to her vocal cords, is related to Peeta’s lunging at her to choke her to death. I vaguely think that’s the cliffhanger the previous film finished on (feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). Even if I don’t remember exact details, what I can immediately tell is that things are extremely bleak—for everyone.

Katniss, of course, is completely traumatised from her experiences in not one but two hunger games and the horrors that have occurred beyond it. Compounding that is that Peeta, her in-game and post-game rock, seems to have been brainwashed slash lost his mind.

For his part, as Peeta continues to be shackled to a hospital bed for security reasons, he finds out his family hasn’t come to visit him because they didn’t survive the Capitol’s District 12 bombardment.

Meanwhile everyone around them is reeling from the ongoing war against antagonist Snow and tense about what is yet to come. Which is, clearly, going to be war-to-end-all-wars bad.

The culmination of the trilogy’s build-up, Part 2 is desolate in an appropriate sort of way. Perhaps more so given the bleakness surrounding us in the world. The Paris attacks took place just days prior to its release, but there’s also been (and continues to be) the relentless run-up of violence and war in places such as Syria, Beirut, and more. I’ll not deny there were moments in the film, such as when planes overhead and launched bombs that killed children, that I thought this was a little too close to reality right now.

Which is apt given that author Suzanne Collins’ aim is not to sugarcoat or lionise war or people’s actions during war. The Hunger Games’ point is that this is the stuff of horror and even good people are confronted with difficult, no-win decisions. Katniss is the protagonist, but she’s far from perfect or even likeable at times, and she grapples with her choices and her complicity in the violence. Peeta becomes unrecognisable as he loses all that makes him him. And no one around them—on their side or against them—can entirely be trusted.

As a side note, there are a lot of hospital scenes in this film, warranted by the sheer amount of violence being inflicted on the characters. I respect the realism, or the near-realism, of it all. Because no one gets through physically or emotionally unscathed.

I have to confess I thought the final book lost the plot a bit (the first two had been utterly outstanding). Or maybe I lost the plot. I don’t know. What I do know is I didn’t understand the pods and their aftermath as they were explained in the book. And I didn’t understand how it all hung together as Katniss and co. worked their way towards the city.

Seeing this aspect of the books realised on screen was what I was most looking forward to with Mockingjay 2. It didn’t disappoint. In fact, it was truly terrifying and gut-wrenching. And claustrophobic. As someone more than a little afraid of enclosed spaces, there was an extended sequence that left me so tense for so long I considered leaving the theatre until it had passed.

The film, like the books, made me pause at the stellarly insightful phrases—too numerous here to list or even remember, but that on their own could be grand statements summarising the tale’s messages. For example, Coin at one stage says that there is no sacrifice too great to make. ‘It just goes around and around…I am done being a piece in his game,’ Katniss says of Snow, that regardless of which side they’re on, they’re all Snow’s slaves and he’s the only one who ever wins.

There were better remarks than those. I just can’t recall them right now because my in-the-dark note-taking was on fleek, which is to say it really wasn’t. I’m sure I pencilled down some wisdom-filled gems, but they’re lost in illegible handwriting or, worse, illegible handwriting written over the top of other illegible handwriting. I really need to learn how to write clearly in the dark. And in a straight line.

Some reviewers have claimed the film starts slow, but I have to admit I didn’t find it that way at all. I’d argue Mockingjay 2 is pensive, not slow, as it tries to avoid drowning the books’ sombre messages in pyrotechnics and 3-D show.

If nothing else, the film, more so than the books, cemented for me that it was right for Katniss to end up with Peeta. (I wasn’t convinced reading the books and thought it was still all up in the air.) And despite the film’s required darkness, it still fit in some trademark black humour, including when we hear: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the 76th Hunger Games.’

Essentially, I’m giving this rendition of beloved books a thumbs up. I’d like nothing more now than to curl up and re-read the trilogy to compare notes on what was included, what was skipped or altered, and to tackle those scenes with the pods now I have a clear visual representation of what they are and how they played out.

Review: Fun Home

Fun HomeI bought Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home tragicomic some years ago despite not really having considered myself a graphic novel reader.

My purchasing decision came off the back of some glowing recommendations from people whose reading opinions I completely value. But then, as so often happens, the book got relegated to the books-I’ll-get-to-one-day shelf of good intentions.

I picked it up recently after a personally devastating few months that left me unable to tackle anything too arduous. After all, an image-led book with minimal but exquisite writing with subject matter about someone whose life was slightly more pear-shaped than my own seemed the fitting choice.

So I found myself reading the memoir about Bechdel’s upbringing and coming out. Her father, an emotionally distant obsessive house restorer, funeral home director, and English teacher, features heavily. He was gay in a time when it was wholly unacceptable to be so and the repercussions for the Bechdel family are enormous. The book also examines Bechdel’s realisation she too was gay and her emergence as a gay woman comfortable in her own skin.

Although covering subject matter vastly different from my own experiences, it proved the perfect book for an imperfect time: little enough text to give my racing mind a rest and strong enough images to help me enjoy the story in a not-too-taxing way.

At once sombre and blackly comic and containing richly wrought images I was admittedly too devastated to completely appreciate, Fun Home is unlike any book I’ve previously read.

‘Like many fathers,’ Bechdel writes, ‘mine could occasionally be prevailed upon for a spot of “Airplane”.’ That is, he was in some ways like any father. ‘…but it was impossible to tell if the minotaur lay beyond the next corner…And the constant tension was heightened by the fact that some encounters could be quite pleasant. His bursts of kindness were as incandescent as his tantrums were dark.’

Are You My Mother?Bechdel conveys the minutiae of life in ways that both provide insight and that seem bittersweet: ‘My mother must have bathed me hundreds of times. But it’s my father rinsing me off with the purple metal cup that I remember most clearly.’

Bechdel’s father died when she was 20 under circumstances that looked accidental but most likely involved suicide. This book is as much her attempt to reconcile his death as his life, and especially his emotional absence even when he was physically present.

It’s recently been turned into a Broadway production that is, by all accounts, utterly, transfixingly stellar.

In researching this blog I discovered that Bechdel has written a follow-up graphic novel. Named Are You My Mother?, a nod to the popular children’s book, it explores her relationship with her mother—something that would be complicated with any daughter and mother, but especially so given her mother was an aspiring actor trapped in a marriage to a man who was gay but who couldn’t openly be so.

It seems to fulfil the one part of the Fun Home story I felt was missing: her mother. Suffice to say, I’ll be ordering that one shortly. But this time, it’s unlikely it’ll go on my to-be-read-eventually book pile of good intentions.

(As a side note, Bechdel is widely credited with establishing the gender inequality-determining Bechdel Test, AKA the Bechdel–Wallace Test, with Bechdel preferring her friend Liz Wallace be co-credited for the concept.

Whichever name it’s called, the test involves asking whether a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man. It was apparently intended as ‘a little lesbian joke in an alternative feminist newspaper’, but has since been adopted more widely. It’s presumably helped change both the number of women included in such works and how they’re portrayed.)

This Changes Everything

This Changes EverythingI’ve been avoiding Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. Because the only thing that makes climate change-themed book harder to read than its already difficultly depressing subject matter is a climate change-themed book that’s the thickness of a brick.

Seriously, Klein has written War & Peace.

Coupled with the fact that her writing is fairly dense and, well, there is an impossibly long list of books I’d rather read before I got to it.

But I also know it’s a must-read book. The modern Silent Spring, if you like. So I cheated. I watched Klein’s just-released documentary by the same name.

‘Can I be honest with you?’ Klein asks in the opening moments of the film, because saying that she’s always looked away from climate change-related subject matter (and yes, I was like, what a relief it’s not just me). That’s because it’s too difficult, too overwhelming, too despair-inducing. Until she couldn’t look away any more.

But then she asks: What if the problem isn’t climate change? What if the problem is the stories we’re telling ourselves about it?

Her thesis, which is presumably the same across the film I’ve seen and the book I’ve been avoiding reading, is that if we change the stories we’re telling ourselves we’ll change the climate change outcome.

Silent SpringThat makes This Changes Everything difficult to watch, but arguably less difficult than I’d expected. But perhaps I’ve come to expect only bleakness with climate change subject matter and anything that offers an iota of hope is a pleasant surprise.

The hard-to-watch parts of the film include Klein traveling to Fort McMurray (AKA Fort Money), which is ground zero for tar sand oil extraction and is something of an environmental horror show.

They also include following the court case of a Canadian community and traditional landowners having to fight to even access the land to inspect the environmental damage that’s been inflicted.

But she also features people persevering in tackling contamination and a business empowering people to learn how to install their own solar power.

The latter are important reminders that it isn’t entirely hopeless. As one of the film interviewees says: ‘You have to keep going no matter what.’

The documentary sufficiently piqued my interest to make me pluck the book version from the shelf. I’ll confess I haven’t yet cracked the spine, but given that I’m housesitting and have it as the only book I’ve brought with me, I’m one step closer to reading it.

And who knows, maybe it’ll be like the film: less difficult to read and more full of hope-encouraging surprises than I would expect.

Review: Owning It

Owning ItIt seems weird to be writing a review of a book I haven’t yet entirely read, but I have a feeling I’ll be reading this book, and writing reviews about it, for some time to come.

Owning It: A Creative’s Guide to Copyright, Contracts, and the Law is the legal book I’ve been looking for for sometime (I’d also really love a tax equivalent, hint hint).

Independently published by Tess McCabe of Creative Women’s Circle fame (yet another reason to love and support it) and written by experience lawyer Sharon Givoni, Owning It is the kind of book I would put together had I the expertise and the skills to convey in lay terms that expertise to those of us who most need it and can often least afford it: creatives.

As in, the people who are often asked to work for free or who rarely get paid what we’re worth.

As the book’s opening pages note, a 2013 report estimated the creative sector is (unlike the agricultural and manufacturing sectors and despite what the government stripping funding out of the creative industries would tell us) on the rise. Out of the $90-ish billion of Australia’s turnover, the creative industries apparently generated around half.

Yet another 2013 survey showed almost 80% of respondents working in the creative industries earnt below the average Australian income, and more than half of those respondents cobbled together their incomes from multiple sources.

So yep, Owning It is a well-timed, much-needed resource.

The book is designed to empower creatives to protect their brands and intellectual property (IP). It includes information about starting and growing your creative business, enforcing your rights, using social media, working with lawyers, resolving disputes, and even achieving positive legal outcomes.

It demystifies copyright, trade marks, IP, moral rights, image use, design registration, contracts, your rights online, business structures, insurance, and more. It also gives concrete examples of what each one is and how it plays out.

Best, Owning It makes the law seem less scary and more understandable. For instance, it opens with an illustrative example of interpretation: Ask a child if black and white are colours and they’re likely to say yes; scientists not so much. And so it is with the law—it’s open to interpretation.

Owning It’s communication design is to be commended.

Colour coded along the bleed (I think that’s the term), so you can easily determine and flick to the section you need, it logically tackles key, practical questions such as: How is copyright infringed? Can I recreate a work in a different media? What do I do if someone copies my work? How do I trade mark my brand name?

It features Takeaway Tips too, including for writing and blogging, the interwebs and social media, contracts, creative commons, and more. Handily placed infographics help you work out your next steps should you need to take some action. Meanwhile the sidebars include links to useful resources, such as the IP Australia website. (Is now an appropriate time to admit I wasn’t even aware there was an IP Australia website?)

Owning It also contains lots of fantastic quotes, e.g. ‘Only one thing is impossible for God: to find any sense in any copyright law on the planet.’ (Mark Twain) and ‘Nothing in life is to be feared. It is only to be understood.’ (Marie Curie)

Given that I’m only a few chapters in and it’s the kind of book you need to dip in and out of, I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be revisiting Owning It on this blog. In the interim, I heartily recommend it. It’s not cheap (read: in the vicinity of $80), but it’s a worthy investment.

Fever of Animals

Fever of AnimalsI can’t remember if I put my hand up to review Miles Allinson’s Fever of Animals or if it was sent to me because the publisher’s PR team thought it might be up my alley. Either way, I was pleasantly and slightly surprised and confused when it arrived.

The winner of the 2014 Victorian Premier’s Unpublished Manuscript Award, Fever of Animals is a fictional tale of a narrator named (slightly confusingly) Miles who’s trying to determine what happened to Romanian surrealist painter Emil Bafdescu.

Bafdescu disappeared in a forest in 1967. Miles hears about Bafdescu and is intrigued by his mysterious disappearance courtesy of a painting hanging in a Melbourne restaurant.

Still with me?

Let me first say that the premise of this book is intriguing and it undoubtedly hooked me (I would love to know the novel’s creative origins slash backstory). Let me say second that it is exquisitely written—Allinson possesses a lyrical writing skill far above and beyond any I do.

Let me say third that as a non-fiction reader who’ll forgive poor writing as long as the book is plot-driven and actually takes me somewhere, I’m probably not Fever of Animals’ target audience.

I assumed I was about to read a non-fiction book about animal rights ala Eating Animals when I pulled the book from its postal envelope and read the title.

Even having finished it, I still don’t know to what the title refers. If you’ve read it and know what I missed, please let me know. And yes, I feel a little silly—it seems a big thing to have missed.

That’s a three-way way of saying I truly admire the book Allinson’s crafted, but I’m afraid I didn’t enjoy it. I was never caught up in the tale as I so often am by other books. Case in point: I’ve recently found myself re-reading excerpts of, and imploring others to pick up, Andrew Westoll’s The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary.

I’m still not entirely sure what Fever of Animals was about—that may well be me not being clever enough to discern its points—and my abiding thought both while reading and after finishing its final pages were the ever-dreaded ‘so what?’.

You see, Fever of Animals ruminates on life. It’s quiet and internally focused. Which is great in and of itself. But the book doesn’t really go anywhere—something I struggled with as a time- and brain space-poor reader.

I needed something that would really pull me in, something strong enough to compete with life already demanding huge amounts of my time and attention.

Truth be told, I’m also probably a little too close to the whole ‘lost 20-something wandering around Europe’ trope to be able to view it with any decent perspective.

I’ll never argue a book has to resolve all its plots in neat fashion, but I do like to come away from a book having a sense of something having shifted. Of the character having (forgive the terrible cliché) ‘grown’ or attained some insight into themselves or their circumstances.

Still, there were moments of the novel that wholly impressed me. These include a passage where Miles reflects on flying home to see his dying father: ‘It’s rare, I suppose, that our lives are given such definition, are marked out as clearly as that, so that the part which is over tilts away, and another part—the future, for instance—begins.’

Also, it turns out there’s a (relatively unpronounceable) word for ‘Are you going to keep tickling me in the face in the same spot repeatedly?’

There are these rather memorably bleak passages too:

They say an elephant will stay on its feet for ten days after it’s been shot. They say that some animals can sense a volcano days before it erupts, and that they’d rather kill themselves. In such cases, the water in the bay will teem with drowning snakes.

[smoking]…and I stand with the students there beside the sliding doors, breathing out plumes of toxic smoke towards the rain, like one of those grey patients I remember from the hospital: like someone who feels free to smoke as much as they want now because they are dying from something else.

Despite not being its best reader, I can see why Fever of Animals won the unpublished manuscript award. Allinson is clearly talented and this text would have leapt off the submissions pile.

The book may not be for me, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t for others. It also doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be interested in reading what Allinson creates after this, his first novel. I look forward to see what he publishes next.

Peace & Parsnips

Peace & ParsnipsLee Watson’s Peace & Parsnips: Vegan Cooking for Everyone looked so good from the preview cover art and blurb that I went out of my way to see if I could obtain a review copy of it.

I mean, who wouldn’t be sold on the adorable cover with almost-stamped images of pears, broccoli, and what I think are figs?

Once the review copy arrived, I discovered there are pros and cons with the cover design—things I hadn’t noticed in my earlier excitement.

The issues aren’t with the artwork, which I still love, but the format: The book comes with a dust cover that is, for someone like me, something that appears quite finicky and easily damaged.

But what do I know? I’m a terrible cook who can’t be entrusted to have expensively produced books in the vicinity of liquids and solids being smashed together without badness happening. And there’s precedence for having dust covers on cookbooks.

Besides, the glass-half-full slash person-who-can-be-entrusted-with-this-stuff view could be that the thinking behind the dust cover is that it’s removable and therefore ideal to protect the book’s extremities from getting damaged with food splodges and splashes.

But I’m getting ahead of my nitpicking self.

Peace & Parsnips overarching theme is captured by the Dalai Lama quote ‘Approach loving and cooking with reckless abandon’. Which is what it does. For the foundation of vegan cooking, Watson writes in his introduction, is creativity.

Watson’s written this cookbook some five years after converting to veganism from being a hardcore, nose-to-tail carnivore. It means he’s bringing five years’ worth of experience to the fore—enough time for him to have developed expertise in the vegan cooking realm, but not so much that he’s forgotten what it’s like to be a wide-eyed, overwhelmed newbie.

Watson’s argument is that if he can go vegan, anyone can, and here are some recipes to get them started. What we eat reflects who we are, he continues. Also, there’s much, much more to vegan cooking than tofu.

As my introduction intimated, what’s immediately apparent about Peace & Parsnips is its beautiful design and investment in quality. The paper stock, for example, is recycled but organic and expensive in feel rather than dowdy. The images too are gorgeous.

Above all, the book’s useful. For example, there’s a spread tackling food myths that include:

  • meat is the only way to get protein and cow’s milk is the best calcium source
  • we have incisors for a reason
  • it takes cream to make things creamy.

The book also breaks down some of the food groups, outlining, for instance, some of the different types of grains that are great for vegans and tips for how they can be cooked and served. The book also covers fruit, nuts, milks (vegan, of course), and more.

My cookbook wishlist always includes having one colour image for every recipe—I’m such a terrible cook I can’t make what I can’t see the finished product of (and in fact I have a theory that recipes that don’t have full-colour images to accompany them are made far less frequently than ones that do). That would be my one suggestion for improving Peace & Parsnips.

Regardless, the book contains some pretty appetising-sounding recipes that, picture or not, warrant a try:

  • Raw-sli with Grated Apple, Blueberries, & Macadamia Cream
  • Scrambled Tofu with Buckwheat Pancakes & Avocado Butter
  • Sesame & Sweetcorn Pancakes
  • Braised Fennel, Pear & Radish with Toasted Almonds
  • Homemade Vegetable Crisps
  • Open-Top Asparagus & Cashew Cream Pie, with Fig & Apple Compote.

So, dust cover or no, a picture per recipe or no, this cookbook gets my thumbs up.

Review: The Little Book of Letterpress

9780811875073There are few things that excite me more than stumbling across something that has the three following components:

  • a book
  • letterpress themes
  • Chronicle Books the publisher.

The book part is self-explanatory.

The letterpress part—or the old-school form of printing that involves pressing patterns into paper and card via plates—is also self-explanatory provided you know what it is.

(The printing style went out of favour as fandangled digital printing came to the fore, but it’s undergone a resurgence in recent years, arguably dusted off, resurrected, and made cool by hipsters.)

A book about letterpress is something to be admired. Especially when you know it’s been created by the clever minds and hands at Chronicle Books (AKA the San Francisco-based publisher that never fails to both surprise with what it chooses to publish and to enviably nail whatever it chooses to turn its publishing hand to).

The Little Book of Letterpress brings together all three of the above elements in an almost pocket-sized book that charts the history of letterpress and some lust-inducing examples of it in practice.

This book also proves a fantastic resource, not least because, despite being a letterpress lover, I’ve never quite understood how it all came together. For instance, the text blocks are organised in a frame called a chase and locked in position using things called quoins. Clearly Imma going to be bandying those terms about now like I know what I’m talking about.

9781906417697The bulk of the book’s content comprises examples of letterpress work from around the world (AKA letterpress p&rn), which invariably leads you to marvel at how people come up with the designs they have. And how they executed them even after they had.

From alternating scissor-and-button designs to raindrops falling on and around an umbrella to maps to subtle animal-themed cards and swing tags, the book showcases letterpress’ diversity and frankly gorgeous effects. It makes me want to know a lot more about the ins and outs of how letterpress works, including googling the wheres and whens of my nearest letterpress course.

It also contains a handy list of resources and letterpress details for those of us who, after flicking through the book’s pages, are overcome by a sudden desire to print something with letterpress but don’t yet have a letterpress of our own to turn things out on.

All of which makes you wonder how letterpress ever went out of style in the first place. For while I know technology made printing faster, easier, and more efficient, letterpress seems to offer a quality and permanence that nothing has yet superseded. I’m rather relieved it’s been resurrected, even if it’s currently hipster-expensive.

As a side note, I discovered author Charlotte Rivers seems to be an author after my own heart. Her other publications include I Love Stationery. Clearly, that’s going to be my next purchase/perusal…

Review: Print’s Not Dead

Print's Not DeadLike books, magazines hold an immense pull for me. Print magazines, particularly, are something I’ll pore over for hours and keep and display on my bookshelves or coffee tables.

So a coffee table book about magazines holds an elevated appeal. I ordered Ruth Jamieson’s Print’s Not Dead as soon as I heard about it and set about eagerly anticipating its arrival.

With minimal text and maximal examination of the world’s best independent magazines, Print’s Not Dead explains the points that prove its title. That is, that niche, largely ad-free, design-focused, and reader-funded magazines are booming.

This is in large part to their leveraging of the barrier-removing internets and its social media and other faculties. Or, as Jamieson put it: ‘Instead of moaning about the internet moving their cheese, these magazines look for ways to use digital media to their advantage.’

The speed of the internets have also, Jamieson says, fueled and helped fulfill a demand for slower, higher-value products such as print mags. And the producers of these magazines don’t try to beat digital at its own game—they concentrate on what print alone can do to create timeless, keepsake items.

It’s no mistake, then, that these magazines are featured in a coffee table book, AKA the form that arguably best represents that which should be admired and kept.

Some of the incredible magazines featured in the book—a kind of convergence of two of my favourite things—include:

  • Wrap, a biannual magazine that includes news, features and interviews with illustrators, and five pull-out sheets of wrapping paper commissioned specifically for the magazine issue
  • Works That Work uncovers the design stories behind fascinating objects. It’s featured the works of Magnum photographers and World Press Photo winners. So it’s basically extraordinarily beautiful and informative about things you might think about but have no idea how (or the time) to investigate
  • Lalata, which means ‘the can’, and which is literally a magazine in a can—a rethink of what a magazine should look and operate like
  • Another Escape, which came about after co-founders Jody Daunton and Rachel Maria Taylor met and carried out a kind of long-distance relationship. Their weekend-away catch-ups were termed by friends ‘another escape’; their adventures inspired a gorgeous magazine documenting them and other adventures worth having
  • Delayed Gratification aims to be the last to news, instead allowing the dust to settle, the information to be digested, and for research to be conducted in order to provide a richer, fuller picture of an issue. The magazine also uses some incredible infographics. I heart this magazine much.

I’m not sure if Print’s Not Dead will be an annual collation—I’d very much like to see that—or a one-off. Jamieson is active in the industry and is one of the go-to people to discuss the future of print and magazines more widely, so I’d love to see what she predicts coming, or flags what’s worth examining, in coming years.

Even if it’s not an annual publication, it’s a fantastic point-in-time reference. Reading it, I’m reminded that just as digitally rendered books have not swept aside print books, electronic magazines and other media have and will not ushered print magazines aside.

What their future holds, I can’t begin to predict. But I do know they’ll be around and I’ll continue to enjoy them.

Go Set A Watchman

Go Set A WatchmanWhile I won’t deny I’ve been beside myself with anticipation awaiting the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set A Watchman, I’ve simultaneously been terrified about how it might read, for the publishers announced it would be printed in its organic, unedited form.

Go Set A Watchman is, after all, a kind of first draft rejected by publishers that facilitated Lee writing something vastly improved and iconic.

As a writer who also works as an editor, I see both sides of the fence. I am acutely aware of the value of a good edit—even the most talented writer benefits from some precision editing help.

I worry that we’re about to read—and judge her on—a not yet fully polished work. Lee is an undeniably exquisite writer, but the Harry Potter rejection myth arguably carries too much weight in our collective conscience. The book is no doubt good, but I doubt it was rejected in the first place without some feasible reason.

In fact, I’d hazard a guess the book’s less an overlooked gem than a book that’s good, but that led to something better. And without the benefit of an edit, as To Kill A Mockingbird itself had, it’s likely to pale in comparison.

Or worse, be the kind of thing you couldn’t resist reading, but that ever so slightly diminished your love for, and fascination with, the original text. For me, that was the extra the Picnic At Hanging Rock chapter, which that demonstrated finishing with the however infuriating unsolved mystery was a vastly better way to end.

To Kill A MockingbirdBut then, contention about whether the hermited Lee actually gave permission for Go Set A Watchman to be published, I realised I’ve become something like the pedants we’ve all encountered along the way. Everyone’s an expert, it seems, and everyone has an opinion on how a book could or should be better.

The hype around Lee’s book reminds me of the following two takes on the pedant issue. The first, a Buzzfeed in-joke if Jane Austen had received feedback on Pride and Prejudice from a peer in a writing class.

It includes such gems as:

  • I don’t usually read chick lit, but I didn’t hate reading this draft of your novel, which you’re calling Pride and Prejudice.
  • Anyway, good job. I do have a couple of notes to share, in the spirit of constructive criticism.
  • Also, why five sisters? How about just two?
  • Anyway, while this isn’t something I would pick up on my own to read, I still enjoyed it more than I thought I would. Thanks for letting me take a look, and let me know if you need any more help with it.

AdWeek carries the theme with its hypothetical client feedback for famous writers (F Scott Fitzgerald, Joseph Heller, and Salman Rushdie are among an esteemed crowd who spent time working in advertising to pay for the privilege of being a poorly paid writer).

The client feedback includes:

  • Great powwow earlier, but the team and I have just a few notes…
  • The title Catch 22 is a little ambiguous. Can we be more direct?
  • Could the characters be a little more working class and in line with our ‘strivers and survivors’ demographic?
  • Let’s rethink the adulterous theme running throughout. It is NOT on brand.
  • …can we add a cat? Everyone loves cats.
  • One last thing: Does it have to be a book?

Picnic at Hanging RockSo when I do manage to crack the spine of this breathily awaited Go Set A Watchman, which I have to admit I don’t think has a particularly great title, I’ll try to remember everyone’s an expert when it’s not their work and to respect Lee’s narrative decisions (including surrounding what I’m hearing is something to do with making Atticus slightly racist).

Regardless of what Go Set A Watchman covers and how it reads, or even why Lee chose that title, even Lee’s first drafts are likely to read vastly better than my best final drafts.

The book’s a precursor to a masterpiece and probably has a lot to offer both as a standalone piece of work and in its greater, other-book context. And it’ll give us more insight into, and a richer understanding of, this incredible author’s writing talent and approach. Inner pedant, be gone.

Review: Flashpoints

FlashpointsGeorge Friedman (AKA New York Times bestselling author of The Next 100 Years) asks three questions in his latest book, Flashpoints:

  • How did Europe achieve global domination, politically, militarily, economically, and intellectually?
  • What was the flaw in Europe that caused it to throw away this domination between 1914 and 1945?
  • Is the period of peace that following 1945 what the future of Europe will look like?

The latter question is the one Friedman ultimately aimed to answer, with the initial two marking the entry points and background to facilitate answering it. He wants to know if Europe’s current peace is permanent or merely an interlude.

In the years spanning 1914 and 1945, approximately 100 million Europeans died from political causes that included war, genocide, and planned starvation. So Friedman tells us in the opening line of Flashpoints.

He and his family experienced some of this first hand and their stories form the throughline to the book, contextualising and punctuating some pivotal historical events. Friedman was born in Hungary in 1949; his parents were born in 1912 and 1914 respectively.

The family, through a harrowing journey, eventually escaped to the US, which is where Friedman has spent most of his life. But his life abroad has, if anything, drawn his European heritage and the what-ifs surrounding his family’s survival into sharp focus. He aims to make sense of the world through his own life experiences.

The European Union was created to ensure ‘peace and prosperity’, he notes, asking what would happen if prosperity were to disappear in some or all European states. ‘If Europe has transcended its history of bloodshed, that is important news,’ he writes. ‘If it has not, that is even more important news.’

And so Friedman explores this notion and attempts to answer his three questions through analysing historical events and border tensions. His argument is that the issues have been stitched over, but remain, simmering below the surface.

Friedman’s father believed Europe hadn’t—and would never—change. It would simply act as if nothing had happened. Until tensions reach their peak, that is, and old rivalries and disputes resurface.

Part memoir, part history lesson and thesis, Flashpoints uses the carefully analysed past to predict the future. Only time will reveal how accurate Friedman’s predictions are. In the interim, his hypotheses make for thought-provoking reading.

Review: The End of Plenty

The End of PlentyNational Geographic writer Joel K Bourne Jr studied something MEGO—short for ‘my eyes glaze over—at university. For agronomy, a combination of soil and plant science, doesn’t exactly inspire intrigue.

Or even understanding of what it is for that matter. (I’ll confess I had no idea what an agronomist was prior to reading this book—I’d have hazily guessed it was something agriculture-related.)

But it’s also proved one of those areas of research whose time has come. With climate change and its effects on food production snowballing, an in-depth understanding of how food is produced and the effects of various chemicals, soil types, and more have on it, is invaluable.

Especially when combined with the ability to convey that information to others. Bourne, who marries his agronomy knowledge with writing prowess, has written The End of Plenty to explore and convey complex issues in engaging, accessible terms.

At its crux, the issue is that we’re fast approaching a point where, through a combination of factors such as climate change and skyrocketing population growth, we won’t be able to produce plentiful enough food to feed everybody.

A four-degree temperature increase, which is highly possible and even likely, would render half the world’s farmland unfarmable. Which means dire things for humanity. (Bourne cites one of his university lecturers’ favourite sayings: there can be no culture without agriculture.)

Currently, farmers produce enough calories to feed nine billion people nutritious, 2700-calorie vegetarian meals. But most of that food is concentrated in first-world nations and doesn’t make it to the people who most need it. That gap is only likely to widen as climate change effects exacerbate.

Agricultural researcher Norman Borlaug famously said (and Bourne quotes him on page 55) that: ‘If you desire peace, cultivate justice, but at the same time cultivate the fields to produce more bread; otherwise there will be no peace.’

The world is far from a good place now; it’s almost unimaginable how terrible it will be once food shortages kick in vehemently. Which is why The End of Plenty is timely read and one that’s attempting to get us to head off the issues before they come to pass.

This book contains much I hadn’t known. There are, for example, some 50,000 edible plants in the world, but just three—corn, wheat, and rice—directly or indirectly (through livestock feed) make up 90 per cent of the calories we consume. And who’d have guessed Egyptian people ingest more wheat per capita than any other people in the world?

We’re also feeding most of the grain we produce to livestock—a kind of double handling, if you’d like. For it actually takes five times more grain to get the equivalent amount of calories from pork as it does from eating the grain itself. Lots of grain grown also goes not to food but to (the misleadingly named) biofuel production in the form of ethanol.

Frighteningly, a 2013 of 27,000 UK primary children survey showed one in three thought cheese was a vegetable and one in five thought pasta came from animals. Australian students weren’t exempt: a quarter of Year 6 students thought yoghurt grew on trees.

All of which makes me think: blergh, depressing stuff.

Embedded among these facts are some meaty discussions of some of the theories around these issues, the most famous being that of Thomas Malthus. Though his theories of population growth being ruthlessly reigned in by food scarcity are contested by some theorists for various reasons, Malthus outlined a plan that includes the following remarkably common sense steps:

  • cease farmland expansion (especially into rainforests)
  • shift diets away from meat consumption
  • wean cars off biofuels
  • reduce the amount of food wastage.

As in the kind of steps we really should be taking if we want to have any hope of keeping global temperature increases to the wishful two degrees.

We all tend to switch off when it comes to wicked problems—they’re too vast, too overwhelming, and we feel too helpless to have any hope of tackling them. But understanding them and arming ourselves with some key guidance is a first step. Bourne’s The End of Plenty gives us this, and in very readable, digestible terms. Something tells me agronomy is no longer—or soon won’t be—MEGO.

Spaces

SpacesThere are some nights when it’s bitterly chilly, assignments are looking even less appealing than usual, and all you want to do is curl up with an inspiring book to dream about fabulous spaces in which you’d be completely inspired to write.

Clearly this is one of those chilly, assignment-avoiding nights.

Naturally I’ve gravitated towards Frankie’s two volumes of Spaces—two hefty, larger-than-A4-but-I-don’t-think-quite-A3 (I should know what that measurement is, but obviously don’t) books that double as coffee table centrepieces.

The books feature the illustrious spaces occupied by creative types. You know the kind of spaces styled by the effortlessly and successfully arty people we all aspire to be and the eclectic, gorgeous spaces we aspire work in while creating said art. Because clearly such great spaces attract visits from the elusive creative muse and subsequently help artists bring forth fully formed, polished, genius works of art.

Images lead these books, which are essentially part inspiration, part porn. The stories behind the pictures are interesting too, although it’s times like this flicking through the images magazine-like will suffice.

The featured spaces include those Chris and Kara of AHD Paper Co.—an art deco house that doubles as the space in which the couple creates incredible cards and wrapping paper through collaborations with artists.

The spaces include a house formerly owned and occupied by an artist’s grandmother now turned home and art space. This is a house that gives new meaning to collecting habits, with the walls covered and decorated with vintage crockery and paintings and cross stitch and more.

The spaces also include a house made of reclaimed materials that started off as a cubby for baker Lili’s daughter, but became a space for them both. Nestled on Lili’s parents’ property in improbably lush Tasmania, it’s given her opportunity and freedom to pursue her own interests while just next door to her close-knit family members who offer plenty of support.

There’s also the Daylesford cottagey space that offers the best of both worlds—it’s a home turned (and shared by) business.

All of which have convinced me that if I can set up the perfect workspace, my assignments will write themselves. I suspect this home makeover bent is the ultimate in procrastination—far, far worse than that ‘I just need to wash these dishes, do this load of washing, clean my room…’ that usually plagues me.

Still, inspiring stuff and a reminder that there are some very eclectically cute cottages, homes, cubbies, and workspaces around we’re now privy to peeking inside.

Superlegumes

SuperlegumesYou need a solidly designed cover to sell legumes, and that’s exactly what Chrissy Freer’s Superlegumes part cookbook, part guide has. With vividly displayed and shot legumes, it’s the kind of cover worthy of more enticing ingredients that would not only inspire you to pluck the book from the shelves but even buy it.

For, frankly, legumes aren’t a particularly gastroporn-worthy topic. The perception (mine included) is that legumes are bland and take copious amounts of time to prepare. The whole ‘I forgot to soak the legumes overnight’ thing is what most often stops me from attempting to prepare them. Well, that and the fact that I hate cooking. It’s a relatively lethal combination.

I’m vegan, and I’d have thought I’d know more than the average person about legumes, yet this book still taught me plenty, such as the legume family includes green peas and beans, soy beans, and peanuts.

Also that legumes are whole foods (they’re as close to their natural state as possible) and one of nature’s super foods, high in protein, carbohydrates, and fibre, as well as iron, calcium, zinc, and magnesium. They’re gluten-free and low GI too and are much cheaper than other food sources that contain similarly important nutrients.

Crucially, legumes are also incredibly environmentally friendly and sustainable—they help remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and also fix nitrogen in soils, improving their quality, preparing the soils for subsequent crops, and doing away with the need for environmentally damaging chemicals to achieve the same effect.

Refreshingly, Superlegumes is actually written by someone with some know how. I hadn’t realised cookbook authorship was such a hot-button issue for me until I read the author’s bio on page one. Freer is a nutritionist and writer—not, say, a celebrity chef who thought it a good idea to throw together an ill-informed paleo book for babies—and Superlegumes is her second book (note to self: seek our her first one, Supergrains: Eat Your Way to Great Health).

Freer’s also the nutrition editor for www.taste.com.au, and freelances for Australian Healthy Food Guide, Belle, Prevention, and Weight Watchers. So she, you know, writes for publications that fundamentally promote health and healthy, sustainable approaches to eating.

SupergrainsSuperlegumes showed me recipes for legumes far more interesting than my usual efforts (including two tables showing how to soak and/or cook each legume type and for how long).

For that’s perhaps the beauty of this book: it encourages a rethink of an invaluable protein and fibre source that’s also good for the environment while simultaneously making it appetising and unscary to attempt to cook with. I’m not sure I would have believed anyone if they said they could make legumes appealing, both aesthetically and tastily, but Freer’s managed it.

Some of the recipes that leapt out at me as must-trys were Chickpea, lemon and silverbeet soup, Oat pancakes with berries, Best baked beans, Quinoa bean burgers with fresh beetroot slaw, Cauliflower crust pizza with white beans, pumpkin and cherry tomatoes.

The book does include some meat-related recipes, and I have to say I’m a bit disappointed about that, especially as Freer herself acknowledges the crazypants amounts of leafy matter required to feed livestock that’s ethically and environmentally inefficient. But I also acknowledge that Freer’s goal is likely to introduce legumes to as wide an audience as possible and its primary target audience isn’t vegans, but omnivores.

Either way, Superlegumes is both a solid resource and a beautifully presented inspiration for a range of audiences—even almost-non-cooking vegan ones such as me. First up for roadtesting now I’m inspired and the weather’s turned wintery: Chickpea, lemon and silverbeet soup.

Thanks to Murdoch Books for the review opportunity.

Courtyard Kitchen

Courtyard KitchenIncreasing numbers of Australians are living in apartments and fewer and fewer of us have yards in which to grow vegies or herbs. Worse, most of us have lost or never known produce-growing know-how.

I comprehensively count myself in the latter group. I never learnt the basics of growing things—soil prep, climate suitability, seasonal produce stuff, and more—and I make growing anything far, far harder than it should be. I also realise buying things like herbs, which can be grown in small spaces, is a giant waste of money.

Released on 1 May (just in time for Mother’s Day), Courtyard Kitchen contains growing tips for herbs and potted fruits, then segue into recipes to use that produce. That is, the kind of fundamentals for people like me.

Written by photographer Natalie Boog, whose experience spans working for various Fairfax publications such as Sunday Life and Spectrum and Pacific Magazines publications including New Idea and Better Homes & Gardens, Courtyard Kitchen of course contains beautiful images.

That’s both beautiful as in the shots but also their styling. They’re the kind of pics that encourage even the blackest thumbs of us to give growing herbs one more go and inspire us to whip up some delicious meals once those herbs have grown.

Containing tips about such things as preparing soil, planting, watering, managing pests and disease, which pots to plant in, and how to go about sterilising bottles and jars for things like pestos, the book contains plenty of information that, while practical and basic, is perfect for those of us needing to start from scratch. (The also layout comes complete with super-cute callout circles with handy hints inside them.)

Primarily a cookbook with some herb-growing tips at the start, Courtyard Kitchen caters mostly to omnivores, but offers a number of vegie options. The recipes are grouped by the herb they most feature. For example, Chocolate Basil Cake and Basil Pizza fall, as the titles suggest, under the Basil section; Rosemary Potato Wedges fall under Rosemary.

The recipes range also from Chili Vegie Tagine to Thyme Dumplings to Celeriac & Potato Soup and Parsley, Chilli & Lemon Spaghetti. All tasty options to experiment with and from which to derive a sense of ‘I grew this, I cooked this’ satisfaction. Not-so-green thumbs up.

Thanks to Murdoch Books for the review opportunity.

These Are The Names

These Are The NamesIt never ceases to amaze me that every so often you come across a cultural product (in this case, a writer) you’ve never heard of, but that’s (who’s) immensely popular and bestselling in another country.

Tommy Wieringa is an award-winning Dutch writer. He’s published many books to critical and award claim, and the book most recently released in Australia, These Are The Names, won Holland’s Libris prize. That’s the Dutch equivalent of the Booker.

That prize hints at the style of book These Are The Names is: challenging; containing characters and storylines that aren’t entirely likeable but that illuminate some key human and cultural lessons. So, an arduous read, but one that’s worthily enlightening.

These Are The Names contains a motley assemblage of characters. Pontus Beg is an ageing policeman chasing the skirts of his cleaning lady and taking stock of his life—past and present. He has not, as the first line of the book tells us, become the wise, calm old man he’d envisaged. One of his feet is perpetually cold. Life and routine and alienation from family have worn him down. His family history is something of a mystery.

Beg lives in a border town on the steppe. It’s unclear which country this steppe occurs in—perhaps deliberately, or perhaps because I’m obtuse and couldn’t figure it out. Regardless, it’s a bleak, harsh town reflected in the landscape.

Concurrent to Beg’s story is that of a group of refugees attempting to cross the border to a better life. Thrown together through tense circumstance, they find themselves on a relentless, wrenching march across the steppe. They are starving, distrustful of each other, unsure if they’re going to survive.

Their and Beg’s worlds collide when the group eventually makes it to the town, at which point Beg’s task is to discover their names, their stories, and to solve a related murder. Which is a difficult task, for they have ‘become people without a history, living only in an immediate present’. They’re also ‘dead people’, one tells Beg. ‘You have no idea how often we fell asleep in the certainty that there would be no tomorrow…You can’t get to us.’

These Are The Names tackles some big themes: religion, family origins, identity, asylum, hope, and despair. It’s an unflinching look at flawed humans, the choices they make, the repercussions of those choices, and whether redemption can be had.

Each character is complex and troubled in their own ways, and the journey immensely difficult, which Wieringa wrings out through exquisite turns of phrase. For example:

A thirst that drowned out all thought, thirst that tempted you with cool ponds, that conjured up the sound of dripping faucets. They wept for rain. Every word they spoke tasted of rusty iron. The child, a boy, pinched the skin on his forearm and pulled. The puckered skin rose up and remained in place, like a crease in a sheet of paper.

And:

The dreams with which each of them had left home had gradually wilted and died off. Their dreams differed in size and weight, and remained alive in some longer than others, but in the end they had almost all disappeared. The sun had pulverised them; the rain had washed them away.

While I can’t say I enjoyed These Are The Names per say, nor can I say it’s the point. As with any Booker-style book, it’s designed to test and incrementally shift our perceptions of the world. Wieringa’s book has haunted me, which is a sign its themes resonate off the page. Most particularly, it’s made me wonder what I would do in desperate circumstances, whether as a refugee or as someone ageing and feeling increasingly obsolete and out of place.

Wieringa will be in the country shortly, but crazy work and life curveballs will prevent me from hearing him speak. My goal is now to track down some podcasts and interviews to learn more about him and his oeuvre.

For although I didn’t know about him prior to Scribe giving me the opportunity to review this book, now that I do, I’ll be seeking Wieringa’s work out.

Film Review: Samba

sambaa4posterThe benefit of reviewing a film later than usual (I could not for the life of me make it to any of the Samba media screenings, so Think Tank Communications provided me with a double pass to see it once the film was out) is that you get to hear what other reviewers think about it.

I have to say, though, while other reviewers’ consensus was that Samba wasn’t as great as they’d hoped, I found it rather great. Put another way: As a follow-up to The Intouchables, it falls a little short. But as a standalone film, it holds its own just fine.

Although Samba isn’t precisely the sequel to The Intouchables, it was weighed down by the weight of sequel-like expectation. This was contributed to by the fact that the writing-directing duo Éric Toledano and Olivier Nakache reunited for the film, along with star Omar Sy.

In Samba, Sy stars as protagonist Samba (‘like the dance’), who winningly portrays an illegal alien trying to stay in France at all costs. After 10 years eking out a living in Paris working odd, lowly paid, and entirely insecure jobs (such as a construction worker, dishwasher, window washer, garbage sorter, and security guard), he’s picked up by the authorities on the Tube.

It’s in the lock-up that he encounters Alice, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg, a neurotic woman volunteering to help illegal immigrants while on sick leave from her executive job due to burnout.

Both Samba and Alice are in their own ways displaced and trapped. Samba’s willing to do whatever it takes to get working papers; Alice, a refugee from the corporate world, is trying to determine how to reset her life, while concurrently medicating to try to counter her anxiety and stress-related insomnia.

Don’t give them your number, she’s told by the more experienced volunteer. Don’t get personally involved. Of course, Sy’s Samba is warm and affable and Alice can’t help but be drawn to him.

The film is a social dramedy slash cross-cultural romance, with France’s immigration hurdles providing the high-stakes context. For me, the levity of the production was its strength. The Sisyphean existence Samba and his peers are forced to live, grappling daily for short-term gigs all the while sandwiched between worrying about getting caught and the pressure their families back home are placing on them to send money, is bone-wearyingly relentless. As Samba yells during a scene of particularly heightened emotions, even the mailman is freaking him out.

There are some incredibly touching moments in the film—and simple too. A conversation in a service station is one. A post-party group conversation around a table is another. Witty, bittersweet dialogue flows, written brilliantly and delivered with timing and panache that make it insightful and touching. There were also some tension-breaking humorous moments—one of the best involved a conversation about a piece of red paper.

While the Alice character was colder and more two-dimensional than Sy’s Samba, Gainsbourg handled the role decently well and found some ways to if not spark with Sy, then at least humanise her character and make her believable. My greater concern was that the film was ever so slightly too long. But I was still incredibly moved by it.

For for me, the film is part of a larger conversation of poverty-, war-, and desperation-led immigration around the world, and the lack of acceptance people often receive when they arrive in foreign countries. Australia—a country described as having tiny hearts and balls of steel for its treatment of people seeking asylum—is not so dissimilar to the France in which Samba is set. And that’s not something to be proud of.

So, while Samba mightn’t be as successful as The Intouchables, but it nevertheless warrants a watch and its issues warrant wider consideration. I’m breaking with review consensus to say: check it out.