Thursday, June 21, 2018

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House, by Shoukei Matsumoto

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Shoukei Matsumoto, a Buddhist monk, explains the spiritual benefits of cleaning your house.

In this short, easy to read book, Shin-Buddhist Shoukei Matsumoto does two things. Firstly, he provides a fascinating glimpse of temple life for a Japanese monk. There are the daily routines, the way meals are prepared and the tools, clothing and utensils that are used. Matsumoto also gives some impression of the gentle, reflective atmosphere of the temple: incense, polished floors and a respect and appreciation of simple objects.

Secondly, Matsumoto explains some aspects of Buddhist philosophy. We learn the importance of cleanliness and how keeping our environment neat and orderly reflects our respect not just for objects, but for people as well.  (“People who don’t respect objects don’t respect people.”) A constant refrain of the book is how regular cleaning, in an almost ritual-like manner, will not only keep the house clean, it will also keep you heart pure.

Your everyday domestic chores will become a way to clean your heart.

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind is a captivating little guide to the good life. It comes with lovely illustrations and practical tips on all sorts of cleaning. It will give you a lightness of being after having read it.

A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind, by Shoukei Matsumoto. Published by Penguin. ISBN: 9781846149696  RRP: $19.99

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Courage to be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Japanese authors Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga present the ideas of Austrian psychologist and philosopher Alfred Adler in the form of a dialogue.

Along with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, Alfred Adler (1870-1937) is considered one of the greats of psychology. In The Courage to be Disliked, Kishimi and Koga distil Adler's key ideas and theories into an accessible dialogue between a youth and a philosopher. The youth and philosopher meet over five nights, where the philosopher puts forward the Adlerian recipe for a happy and contented life, while the youth argues and disputes many of the central tenets of this school of thought. In the end, over much intense discussion, the youth is converted to this new way of thinking.

The main point of departure that Adler makes from Freud and Jung is his denial of the importance of past traumas in our psychological make-up. The Freudian belief that past traumas affect us deeply is known as an “aetiology”, or cause and effect. Adler, by contrast, maintains past traumas are not so significant and that we often use past traumas as an excuse to avoid performing important tasks (social engagements, for example, or not applying for a new job). Adler calls this a “teleology”.

So, we avoid perfoming life's tasks and blame events from our past. Another main cause for inaction is our fear of what others think. We are all in competition with one another, often judging and assessing our social standing. Adler says that our interpersonal relationships are at the core of all our problems. The solution to this is to concentrate only on our own tasks in life and find the courage to be disliked by others.

The final plank of the Adlerian philosophy is something called “community feeling”. While we are encouraged to find some distance from others, and to disentangle ourselves from feelings of either inferiority or superiority, we should imagine that we belong to one large global community. The main goal should be to concentrate on how we are useful to others. This will lead to a simpler and happier life.

The Courage to be Disliked provides an engaging and at times challenging philosophical dialogue. Many of the complex emotional states that are described, the feelings we keep hidden from others, ring true and also explain some of our darker motives. The philosophy of Adler, as it is distilled here, really strives for a balance between not worrying too much about what others think and being active members of our communities. It's about being close to people, but not too dependent on their opinions of us.

A self-help book that resonates deeply because of the elemental truths it speaks about the human condition.

The Courage to be Disliked, by Ichiro Kishimi and Fumitake Koga. Published by Allen and Unwin. ISBN: 9781760630492 RRP: $24.99

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Thursday, June 14, 2018

Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce

Staff review by Chris Saliba

When an old grandfather clock strikes 13 at midnight, a new world is revealed to a young boy.

Tom Long is sent to live with his Uncle Alan and Aunt Gwen when his brother, Peter, develops measles. They live in a block of flats that was once a large old country house. It’s a rather grim, urban building, with no garden, only an uninspiring yard that is used to park cars and leave rubbish. Tom is unhappy; he’d rather be home with his brother Pete.

At night he notices the strange grandfather clock in the communal hallway. It keeps odd hours, and at midnight strikes 13 times. Tom decides to get up and explore. He opens the backdoor and instead of  the dingy backyard, he finds it transformed into a magical garden from the Victorian era. He meets a young girl named Hatty.

As Tom develops more of a friendship with Hatty, he discovers she is an orphan, having lost both her parents. Time moves back and forth as Tom visits the midnight garden again and again, and he gets to know Hatty at different times of her life. Eventually, at the end of Tom’s stay, the midnight garden disappears and Tom screams in shock. Only then does the mysterious landlady Mrs Bartholomew explain the secrets of the garden.

First published in 1958, Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden is a nostalgic fantasy that idealises a lost Victorian world of pleasure gardens and beautiful mansions. It has a hazy, dreamy quality that works almost like a narcotic on the reader. Philippa Pearce skilfully creates a fantastic yet believable Arcadia, fully imagined in intricate detail. When contrasted against the drab suburban environment of the block of flats, it seems only right that the midnight garden exists, if only in dreams.

A children’s novel that demonstrates the central place fantasy takes in our emotional life, even how it contributes to our well being.

Tom's Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780062696588 RRP: 14.99

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Thursday, June 7, 2018

Botchan, by Soseki Natsume

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Botchan is an early novel by Soseki Natsume, one of Japan's most famous writers. First published in 1906, it is still widely read in Japan today and enjoys classic status.

When first his mother, then his father dies, Botchan (boy master) is given 600 yen by his older brother. He uses the money to study physics for three years. When Botchan graduates, he takes up a post teaching mathematics in a middle-school in Matsuyama on the island of Shikoku. All should go well, but soon Botchan finds himself entangled in an intricate web of workplace politics. The head teacher, nicknamed Red Shirt, seems the picture of decency and probity, but it soon turns out that he is quite duplicitious. When Red Shirt tries to have one teacher sent to another post and Botchan's name besmirched in a local newspaper, Botchan knows he must teach the head teacher a lesson, a “Heaven-commissioned punishment”.

Botchan tells his own story in this humane and gently comic novel. His style is rather pompous and self-important, like one of Dickens' grandly deluded characters. Yet underneath his pretensions and formality (Botchan constantly refers to himself as a “Kedo man”, from a long, aristocratic line) there resides a simple man of basic moral values. He can only countenance doing right in the world and where he sees lies and deceit, he feels it incumbent upon him to seek justice and truth. The enduring popularity of the novel obviously derives from Botchan's plain honesty intertwined with his comic bufoonery.

Natsume's early classic is the tale of a simple everyman and eccentric whose sense of decency prevails in a world full of charlatans and double dealers.

Botchan, by Soseki Natsume. Published by Tuttle. ISBN: 9784805312636  RRP: $14.99

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Thursday, May 31, 2018

North Melbourne Books June Newsletter - featuring Peter Cochrane

In the June edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to Australian historian and now novelist, Peter Cochrane.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Peter Cochrane

North Melbourne Books: It's 1806 and a terrible flood wipes out ex-convict Martin Sparrow's crops. He's chronically in debt and years of hardship lay ahead. Martin is talked into “bolting”, making a run for the other side of the mountains where myth has it that a lush, Eden like place exists. When he does bolt, he unwittingly leaves a trail of destruction. Where did you get the idea for the story?

Peter Cochrane: The history of that early frontier was dramatic and I knew it quite well. Everything about that early period on the frontier invited a fictional rendering, freeing the writer to explore that world in ways that you can’t in history. Various features of the river community caught my attention – illicit distilling, the flood-prone river, the back-breaking work, the brutality of the garrison, the convict ‘dreaming’ of a better world on the other side of the mountains; the plight of ‘put-upon’ women; the menacing presence of the indigenous people, much violated but not vanquished at the moment I chose to write about – 1806. So, they’re just a few key pointers and the idea for the story came out of them, and more. It also came from the notion, which emerged from the first exploratory jottings, that a conventional story with a rather upright, invincible hero was nowhere near as interesting as a story which chose to explore how a bit of a no-hoper - not a bad guy but rather a timid, hopeless fellow, a sad-sack, something of a vacuum so far as morality and purpose and courage was concerned - might survive or even prevail on this brutal frontier. From there it was Martin Sparrow who took over, so to speak. The idea for the story didn’t happen all at once of course. It evolved as the writing progressed.

NMB: The novel has some amazing violence in it, almost darkly comic. What inspired your vision of such a dark, Hobbesian early Australia?

PC: I’m a great fan of various writers in the ‘dark’ realm, eg Cormac McCarthy and Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone). But I also love some of the great literary exponents who can mesh the comic with the tragic, or who find the comic in everyday life that is otherwise quite sad. I’m thinking, for instance, of Graham Swift’s masterpiece, Last Orders. And then there’s the wonderful amalgam you find in something like HBO’s Deadwood which can be hilariously funny and yet full of dread. Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove also comes to mind. These writers (and script writers) I find quite exhilarating. But I also believe that kind of amalgam has to come out of one’s own literary wellsprings – it’s either there or it’s not. It must conjure itself in your imagination, somehow; and that conjuring must mesh with the language you find to render it on the page. It’s a bit mysterious. Family might be a bit of an influence too, my mother seemed to find comedy regularly lurking in human affairs while, at the same time, taking a generally dim and suspicious view of the world beyond her front door.

NMB: Martin Sparrow is a true portrait of a weak, cowardly man. We feel pity and sympathy for him. Why did you want the focus of your book to be on such a flawed character, rather than a heroic one?

PC: In its first iteration, this novel did have an heroic character at the centre and I persisted with it for a short while, but it didn’t work, not to my satisfaction. I realised I was writing somewhere in the virtuous convict makes good genre and it’s been done before and, anyway, it just didn’t have the same fascination for me as did the vast challenge that a Sparrow-type character might have to take on if he’s to make his way in the world and somehow prevail or, at least, survive. The contrast is what got me – on the one hand, there he is in the most brutal and cruel of times, the first generation of colonial settlement when so much of the dirty work, in every sense, has to be done. And on the other hand, what has he got in the way of capacities – not much. To remake himself, or just to survive, is going to take something special. How will he prevail? That fascinated me, because a Sparrow cannot call on the heroic qualities that a ‘better man’ might call upon. He’s a bit of a midge in a whirlwind.

NMB: The novel has a broad range of characters and its plot is quite complex. How did you plan and write it?

PC: I didn’t plan it. You can plan a novel down to the last detail and that is probably the safe way to go. I wanted to ‘live’ the novel the way we live our lives – going forward, reassessing as circumstances change, adapting, making hard decisions as we go. The great American novelist , E.L. Doctorow had a useful view on this:  ‘Writing a novel [he said] is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ I was quite comforted when I read that, because that’s what I was doing, and I found that as you go you conjure where the road is going and what’s going to happen, what you might see and what’s to be said, next. It’s like life – you live it forward, with nothing but what you have in the form of accumulated experience and what you can make of the moment, of the circumstances that present; what your characters might make of that moment, and so on. I could have planned the novel from beginning to end, at the outset, but had I done that I would not have The Making of Martin Sparrow. I’d have something very different, or perhaps nothing at all.

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

PC: I’m reading The Shipping News again; and V.G Kiernan’s masterpiece The Lords of Human Kind. Kiernan’s book was one of the inspirations which led Edward Said to write Orientalism so, it’s a very important book.

The Making of Martin Sparrow, by Peter Cochrane. Published by Viking. $32.99

Sunday, May 27, 2018

A Dog So Small, by Philippa Pearce

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A faithfully drawn story about a working class family and its sensitive middle child.

Ben Blewitt is the middle child in a working-class family of five children. Even though Ben is part of a big family, life can be lonely as the middle child. Ben hopes that by getting a dog for his upcoming birthday, this will go some way to making his life a little less lonely. His grandfather has promised to get him one. But when the day of his birthday arrives, all he gets from his grandparents is a woolwork picture of a chihuahua. The real dog, as promised, has not materialised. Granny has said they can't afford to give a dog. If they did, they would have to give one to each of their grandchildren, and they have many.

Ben is plunged into a gloominess. Why can't he have a dog? He starts to imagine he owns the chihuahua in the picture by closing his eyes. This habit gets him into quite a bit of strife – at school and with his parents. Then one day he crosses the road with his eyes closed and later finds himself in hospital. But maybe Ben's luck is about to change when Grandpa and Granny's dog, Tilly, has a litter. If he can only find a place nearby to run a dog, then maybe he can have one of the pups.

Philippa Pearce's 1962 novel for children, A Dog So Small, is a faithfully drawn story about a working class family and its sensitive middle child. The scenes that involve Ben's grandparents, Granny and Grandpa, are wonderfully realistic and full of warmth. Pearce has clearly filled her story with many personal experiences and memories. Her storytelling is true to life. Readers who have enjoyed Eve Garnett's The Family from One End Street and Noel Streatfeild The Bell Family will embrace this wise and humble story.

A Dog So Small, by Philippa Pearce. Published by Puffin. ISBN: 9780141355191 RRP: $14.99

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Saturday, May 19, 2018

The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Rumer Godden’s classic autobiographical novel brilliantly captures a heady, transformative childhood summer. 

Five English children – Joss, the eldest, then Cecil (who narrates the story), Hester, Willmouse and Vicky – are taken to France by their mother, in the hope that they will learn something about the sacrifices made on the battlefield of war. En route, the mother is bitten by a horse-fly, and by the time they reach the hotel Les Oeillets, where they are to stay, she is seriously ill. Mother soon falls into the background and the children must learn to get on by themselves.

The five children soon make acquaintance with some of the curious and mysterious people of the hotel, most notably the hotel’s owner, Madame Zizi, and her English lover, Elliot. It somehow transpires that Elliot is given charge of the children and they become fascinated with him, often trying to make sense of his mercurial personality. Things become emotionally charged when it appears that Elliot is becoming enamoured of Joss, who at sixteen is blooming into womanhood. Just as the pieces of the story finally seem to be coming together, it’s discovered that Elliot is not all what he seems and is wanted by the police.

First published in 1958, The Greengage Summer is based on real events from Rumer Godden’s life. It’s primarily a coming-of-age story and has a somewhat similar tone to Dodie Smith’s I Capture the Castle. Godden infuses her story with a dreamy, hazy, nostalgic feel, describing a group of young to adolescent children in a sumptuous, exotic no man’s land. Authority has been suspended, a cast of unreliable hotel characters have filled the gap, and the children must try to figure out what rules should apply.

A slow, dreamy read that authentically captures a children’s lost summer.

The Greengage Summer, by Rumer Godden. Published by Pan. ISBN: 9781447211013 RRP:$19.99

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Friday, May 18, 2018

Fame is the Spur, by Howard Spring

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Howard Spring's 1940 novel Fame is the Spur paints an unforgettable picture of an era now gone.

Young John Hamer Shawcross is raised by his working class mother, Ellen, and his step father, the preacher Gordon Stansfield. It's the late 19th century, a time when the nascent labour movement is gathering pace. John Hamer Shawcross shares a room with his grandfather (in fact his stepfather's mother's brother), an old man affectionately known as the Old Warrior. He tells the boy stories of what it was like growing up in the early part of the century, especially his tragic experiences at Peterloo, where a peaceful workers' protest was violently put down. His girlfriend at the time was murdered in the melee that broke out.

These stories are absorbed by Shawcross, as well as the kindly instruction of his stepfather Gordon, leading to him first take up a career as a preacher, then a Labour politican. These early years are full of despair and struggle, yet as the decades roll on, Labour makes inroads until it starts gaining seats in parliament. Politics, however, doesn't enoble Shawcross. He comes to practice realpolitik, seeing compromise as necessary. Many believe he sells out his Labour values in pursuit of power and an eventual peerage.

Fame is the Spur (1940), a novel chronicling three generations, gives a comprehensive picture of the political struggles of the Labour movement, moving through such stages as the Suffragette and Communist movements. Howard Spring, a journalist before turning to full time novel writing, covered the Suffragettes in some detail. The sections of the novel dealing with the force feeding of women protestors  in prison and the general violence and opprobrium they attracted are extraordinary for their realism and detail. It makes for sobering reading to understand the sufferings these women underwent to gain the vote for women.

Howard Spring's bestselling novel is a huge, sprawling cultural history, suffused with  a deep melancholy. It's characters suffer much – the injustices of poverty, war, political struggle – and gain little individually for themselves. Shawcross, looking back on his life, has an attitude that is caught somewhere between a vain hope that things will improve and a cynicism fostered by much harsh experience.

For readers who want to understand the birth and early struggles of the Labour movement, the politics and social movements of the late 19th and early 20th century, and the inevitable failures of politics, Fame is the Spur provides an invaluable document.

Fame is the Spur, by Howard Spring. Published by Head of Zeus. ISBN: 9781784976347 RRP: $22.99

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Tuesday, May 15, 2018

Marriage, by Susan Ferrier

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Sharp, witty and brilliantly observed, Susan Ferrier’s Marriage may be 200 years old, but it reads as surprisingly modern. 

Susan Ferrier's 1818 novel, Marriage, jumps right into the action. The Earl of Courland calls in his daughter, Lady Juliana, for a serious talk. He has organised a marriage for the girl, to a rich old duke. Lady Juliana bristles at this and declares she will marry not for money, but only for love and romance. She soon elopes with Henry Douglas, a poor soldier. The couple flee to his native Scotland and are suddenly hit with a hard dose of reality. Lady Juliana's flighty and fanciful dreams of living in a kind of elegant poverty are dashed. When Henry inherits a run down farm, it seems the only life available is a hard one working the land.

In the meantime Lady Juliana has given birth to twins, Mary and Adelaide. Rather than work on the farm (a fate worse than death), Lady Juliana palms off one of her daughters, Mary, to her sister-in-law and then flees to London, taking Adelaide with her. Mary is brought up by the sensible Mrs Douglas and a band of mad, garrulous aunts: Miss Grizzy, Miss Jacky and Miss Nicky. The aunts are often crude and silly, but they are warmhearted and genuine. Mrs Douglas has a common sense approach to life, but is still influenced by rural Scottish ways. In London, Lady Juliana finds refuge living with her brother, who has now inherited his father's estate.

Sixteen years elapse and the sisters, Mary and Adelaide, find themselves in the marriage market. Mary moves to London to live with her English relatives, reuniting with her mother and sister. Despite being twins, the two sisters couldn't be further apart in temperament. Both contract very different marriages.

Comparisons with Jane Austen come naturally to mind when reading Susan Ferrier's Marriage. There are hints of Mansfield Park in orphan-like Mary's entrance into an unfamiliar London household and Pride and Prejudice in Mary's overhearing of some unfavourable words about herself by Colonel Lennox. While Marriage is not as tightly plotted, nor are the characters as expertly integrated into the story as in the novels of Jane Austen, Susan Ferrier has a genius for social observation and deft comedy. Some of the funniest characters, such as the formidable Lady Maclaughlan (a kind of kooky Lady Bracknell, if that's possible) and the scattershot Miss Grizzy, are works of genius. Another great aspect of the novel is how it vividly evokes the many levels – from the aristocratic to the working class – of London and Scottish society. We learn in a casual manner of 19th century British morals, tastes and fashions. Ferrier's minute descriptions of houses and their furnishings provide a living picture of domestic life.

Two hundred years on, Marriage reads as surprisingly modern in its familiar concerns about making the right choices when it comes to love. It's also very, very funny.

Marriage, by Susan Ferrier. Published by Virago Classics. ISBN: 9780349011219  RRP: $19.99

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Friday, May 11, 2018

Dog Man and Cat Kid, by Dav Pilkey

Staff review by Chris Saliba

The brilliant, funny, quirky fourth book in the Dog Man series.

Once upon a time, when a police man and his dog were caught in an explosion, it looked like it was curtains for both. But then a nurse had a great idea. Why not attach the man’s body to the dog’s head? And so was born Dog Man, crime fighting super hero. Dog Man has made some great friends, such as Zuzu, the world’s greatest poodle, but unfortunately he has one terrible enemy: Petey, the world’s evilest cat. Petey has tried to clone himself, to double his evil powers, but botched the job and produced a super cute little kitten called Li’L Petey.

Can Petey turn sweet Li’L Petey to a life of crime, or will his cute little clone find that he can be good and not evil? In this latest book in the hugely successful Dog Man series, there are huge robots, adventures galore and a laugh on every page. The delightful Li’L Petey mesmerises with his adorable innocence, made all the funnier when contrasted against his evil “Papa”. Parents will find much to appreciate in this novel length cartoon story, with its clever mix of advanced vocabulary and kid’s speech, sure to stretch reading skills.

7 + years old

Dog Man and Cat Kid, by Dav Pilkey. Published by Scholastic. ISBN: 9780545935180  RRP: $15.99

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Tuesday, May 8, 2018

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works - A True Story, by Dan Harris

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A witty and entertaining journey from anxiety to mindfulness. 

Dan Harris is a journalist and TV anchor. In 2004, while presenting a news break on a chat show, he suffered an on-air panic attack. (You can see it on YouTube: Dan gasps for breath, fumbles his words and prematurely throws back to the presenters.) As an ambitious journalist, keen on furthering his career, this was seriously disconcerting on many levels. He sought the help of a psychiatrist and confessed to being a recreational drug user, mostly cocaine.

The sessions with the psychiatrist helped, but Dan wanted further help to deal with his ongoing anxiety problems, a lot of which centred around his ambitious nature. A friend suggested he read Eckhart Tolle, the German self-help author, famous for writing The Power of Now and A New Earth. He gave it a go. While Tolle's books had many insights, it was all mixed in with a lot of gobbledygook. Next Dan went onto Deepak Chopra (whom he found to be a bit of a fraud) and before he knew it, he was on a 10 day retreat, on the way to becoming a Buddhist, at least in practice.

10% Happier manages to do two things. It’s both enormously entertaining (Dan Harris is whip-smart and witty, with plenty of good lines) and instructive, explaining concepts like mindfulness in a practical way that resonates and makes sense. His simple message is that meditation might not solve all your problems, but with continual practice, it will make you at least 10% happier. And who doesn’t want to be 10% happier?

Another great advantage of the book is it's easy for modern day urbanites to identify with the author. He’s your typical young professional: energetic, smart and successful. Like most of us working in a cut-throat commercial society, we’re brutally sceptical and only see value in the holy dollar. The book’s narrative allows us to comfortably walk this sceptical path, rolling our eyes at the shenanigans of gurus and yogis and the spiritually eccentric, but as the author reluctantly discovers the insights of meditation, we too must allow a change of mind.

Heartily recommended. Dan Harris is a fun, likable guide on an often awkward and difficult journey.

10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works - A True Story, by Dan Harris. Published by Yellow Kite. ISBN: 9781444799057  RRP: $19.99

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018

North Melbourne Books May Newsletter - featuring Anne Aly

In the May edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to counter-terrorism expert and Labor MP, Anne Aly.

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North Melbourne Books talks to Anne Aly

North Melbourne Books: Finding My Place tells an amazing story. From Cairo to the suburbs of Australia, then back to Egypt, the hard years as a single mother raising two children, a successful life in academia and finally politics.

What made you want to write a book about your life?

Anne Aly: It wasn’t entirely my idea. I was approached to write a book and responded to the request with “sure. I’ll write a book about terrorism. I’ve got some new research I can give you 100 000 words in a couple of weeks.” Well, they responded with “No. We’d like you to write a book about yourself.”

I don’t consider myself a great story teller and it certainly wasn’t on my radar to write a memoir but I considered it and my husband convinced me that I do have a story to tell.

NMB: Although the book has wide appeal, strong themes emerge about how women - especially Muslim women - are defined. Do you hope these aspects of the book may inspire younger women who are entering work and university?

AA: Absolutely. I couldn’t write a book about my journey without exploring themes around my cultural and religious heritage and the impact on the person I am today. I wanted the book to speak to younger women who, like my younger self, may be struggling to find their place and their voice- not just Muslim women but all women. It’s also about looking at how we are defined by those around us and how we navigate the inevitable expectations that come with being defined in ways which may not always align with how we see ourselves or what we want for ourselves. I think that’s a theme that can also appeal to men as well as women.

NMB: Some of the writing is very personal. Did you find you find the writing process difficult at times?

AA: Yes. It was hard. And very confronting. I haven’t really ever looked back at my  life and where I’ve come from or how I got to where I am. I’ve kind of always had my eye on the road ahead as opposed to the road I’ve travelled. So that was confronting. It is a very personal story. And I probably could have curbed some of it but I decided that if I was going to write this then I was going to lay it all out- warts and all. That’s scary because we get judged on so many levels as public figures- on how we look, what we say, what we wear etc. And this book is like saying “well here I am. This is me. Judge me.”

There are moments when I wish I had chosen a quieter life. But then I think about all those years I stayed silent about the physical violence in my first marriage and I realise that nothing ever changes if you stay silent. I’m incredibly privileged to have a platform and a voice and I don’t want to waste that by being silent or having reservations.

NMB: You write that you have always liked literature and the arts. Do you have any favourite writers or books that particularly inspired you?

AA: I have an embarrassing obsession with true crime books that I tend to purchase at airport book shops!

But I also love Camus, Kafka and Satre.

My favourite book of all time is Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives. In my book I also talk about how Kafka’s Metamorphosis really spoke to me. It’s about a man who wakes up one day and finds he has turned into a giant insect. He spends the rest of his days locked in his bedroom because his family are so ashamed of him.

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

I don’t get a lot of time to read but right now I’m about ¾ of the way through The Dry by Jane Harper. It’s a crime thriller (of course. What else!) set in outback Australia and it’s Harper’s first book. I love Aussie novels and we have some fantastic literary talent.

Finding My Place: From Cairo to Canberra – The Irresistible Story of an Irrepressible Woman, by Anne Aly. Published by ABC books. RRP: $32.99

Friday, April 27, 2018

The Making of Martin Sparrow, by Peter Cochrane

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Historian Peter Cochrane's first full length novel makes for an impressive debut.

Ex-convict Martin Sparrow has had the good fortune to be granted a plot of land. It's a first rung on the ladder to self improvement. But when the terrible flood of 1806 strikes, it destroys his crops. This can only mean more backbreaking work and debt. He already owes Alister Mackie, the chief constable of the Hawkesberry river, a considerable sum. The idea of years of more hard work and debt is unbearable.

Is there a way out? Martin could join the many before him who have “bolted”, tried to make it to the other side of the mountains where myth has it that a lush, Eden like place exists, populated with sympathetic fellows and beautiful, available women. The punishment for bolting is often death by hanging, but Martin is too morally weak to stay on the farm and put in the hard work. He lies to himself, believing such a place exists and that it is possible to reach. When he does bolt, he unwittingly leaves behind a trail of destruction.

This is historian Peter Cochrane’s first major work of fiction, following his 2013 novella, Governor Bligh and the Short Man). It depicts an early Australia that is a dry, unforgiving hell on earth, a Hobbesian nightmare world. With its cast of disturbing characters, most notably the chillingly evil Griffin Pinney, Cochrane creates a story that is sometimes darkly comic, but often frightening, violent and mad.

Written in an elegant, muscular prose, Martin Sparrow describes an Australia we've never seen before. An impressive debut and sure to garner a lot of attention.

The Making of Martin Sparrow, by Peter Cochrane. Published by Viking. ISBN: 9780670074068  RRP: $32.99

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Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the Unexpected Solutions, by Johann Hari

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Swiss-British journalist Johann Hari goes on a remarkable journey to discover the causes for his long term depression. 

At the age of eighteen Johann Hari was prescribed antidepressants and spent the next thirteen years on them. As a teenager he often found himself breaking down and crying for no good reason. Life was miserable. Then he had an epiphany of sorts: the problem simply must be an imbalance with the  chemicals in his brain. All he needed to do was correct the imbalance with drugs. Simple. At first the drugs worked, then after a time their effectiveness would wane. No problem. Simply get higher doses. There were side effects, however. Hari put on a lot of weight, but he figured to be depression free was worth it. Or was it?

Lost Connections is Hari’s attempt to look for the reasons why there is such an epidemic of depression and anxiety in Western societies. The early chapters of the book look at the science behind the effectiveness of antidepressants and finds, amazingly, that their efficacy is actually marginal. They act more as a placebo. Yet doctors unthinkingly keep prescribing them.

The book then outlines in individual chapters seven reasons why people develop depression and anxiety, such as a lack of meaningful work, disconnection from nature, lack of community etc. There is another chapter after these seven which addresses how our genes and changes in the brain can cause depression and anxiety as well, but Hari finds that even if you have a disposition towards depression, the seven factors outlined will greatly exacerbate it.

The rest of the book looks at ways of gaining re-connection to meaningful work, values, nature and other people. The most compelling passages describe Hari working with a protest group in a dingy housing project in Kotti, Berlin. Rents were going through the roof and so the residents, a disparate group of people, came together and found strength to help each other and make positive change. Hari found that concentrating on helping others, and belonging to a group, greatly helped as an effective antidepressant. Meditation is another tool which is investigated as a way of combating depression and is found to be a powerful way to build empathy with others, and hence reconnection to the world.

Lost Connections mixes a personal narrative of suffering and trauma with journalistic research and investigation. If you are depressed or anxious, this book perhaps won’t address all your problems or offer an instant cure, but it will give hope that there is a way out. The basic take-away it that our society is making us very sick, focusing too much on status, money and individual achievement, leaving us disconnected from each other and ourselves.

Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression - and the Unexpected Solutions, by Johann Hari. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN: 9781408878699  RRP: $27.99

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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson

Staff review by Chris Saliba

There is both much to agree with and much to be challenged by in Jordan B. Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life.

It’s always interesting to read a book around which there is so much hype or controversy. Jordon B. Peterson is the current bete noire of feminists and leftists. His book, 12 Rules for Life, grew out of some writing he had been doing for the Quora website, where anyone can ask a question and anyone can answer it. His other book, Maps of Meaning, by his own admission is a rather dense, academic work. 12 Rules is for the general reader.

Despite all the controvery swirling around Peterson, there’s not much you could object to in his 12 rules for living a good life. Most of it is fairly basic stuff: don’t be resentful, maintain your dignity, learn what you can from others, don’t let your ego get out of control, don’t tell lies and above all, don’t lie to yourself. Some of it is quite humane and forgiving of the human condition. Each rule is backed up with interesting (sometimes debateable) analysis of some of the world’s best literature: the Bible, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Dostoyevksy, Nietzsche, Freud, Jung, Orwell etc. There is also quite a bit of pop culture analysis, from Disney films to the Simpsons.

Where some readers may take umbrage is the second last chapter, which discusses gender roles and what the author sees as the dangers of forcing men to be too feminine. Peterson has some good points to make about innate male and female characteristics, and how ridiculous it is to try and homogenise the genders and pretend there are no real differences. The book very much argues we can’t escape our evolutionary heritage: violence and aggression is how we got here. But some of his arguments are a bit hair raising. In one part of the book he pretty much condones male workplace bullying; in another he blames the rise of  fascist ideology on men being pushed too hard to feminise. The rise of Trump can also be blamed on this process of feminisation.

The grim, hard tone of the book, with its leaden prose, gives 12 Rules for Life a feel of ominous dread. It’s like conversing with a person who likes to stand too much in your personal space. Peterson perhaps put it best in the acknowledgements to the book, where he thanked the illustrator who provides a drawing that starts every chapter. Without these illustrations, Peterson muses, his book “might otherwise have been a too-dark and dramatic tome”. Dark and dramatic sums the text up pretty well.

A book sure to challenge and test your pre-conceived ideas about the world.

12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, by Jordan B. Peterson. Published by Allen Lane. ISBN: 9780241351642  RRP: $35

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