Thursday, November 8, 2018

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The old website / blog will be retired in the coming weeks.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

North Melbourne Books November Newsletter - featuring Leigh Sales

In the November edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to Leigh Sales about her new book, Any Ordinary Day.

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

North Melbourne Books talks to Leigh Sales

North Melbourne Books: Your new book, Any Ordinary Day, asks the question: how would we cope if some random, catastrophic event befell us?  To find out the answer you interview ordinary Australians who have been put through extraordinary events. People like Walter Mikac, who lost his family to the Port Arthur massacre and Stuart Diver, Thredbo landslide survivor. The book also balances these human voices with the latest scientific literature on how we cope when disaster falls. 

What made you want to delve into such a confronting topic?

Leigh Sales: It was a combination of things.  My job anchoring 7.30 means that every day I see people living the worst days of their lives but I rarely see what happens next.  I wanted to believe that life wasn't as cruel and random and hopeless as the news sometimes makes it look.  In 2014, I also had a very rough year personally suffering a number of big blindsides and I felt really rattled and vulnerable.  I was looking for answers about how to go on when life has knocked you off your feet.

NMB: The interview subjects of the book have faced some horrific ordeals. You describe some of the anxieties you had meeting these people and asking such personal questions. What did you take away from the experience?  

LS: I was scared that maybe I would find it depressing to talk to people who had been through some of the worst things I could ever imagine happening to me or my family.  But it was the opposite - it filled me with hope.  The things that people survive and adapt to are absolutely extraordinary.  It made me see how resilient human beings are.  I know this sounds cliched but the whole process has been so life-affirming.  Writing this book has changed me so much.

NMB: Any Ordinary Day is quite interesting from a journalistic point of view. The book discusses the ethical shortcomings of journalism and you are quite candid about mistakes you have made in the past that you regret. During some of the interviews you describe steeling yourself , trying to hold back the tears. The self-portrait you paint is quite different from that of the confident 7.30 presenter we see on television. Why did you want to show this more human, vulnerable side of a journalist’s working life?

 LS: That's interesting that you say that because I rarely feel as if I'm confident or "together", I always feel like everybody else, just chugging along and doing the best I can.  I put a big premium on authenticity and I felt that I could not write an authentic book, or ask people to tell me about some of the most intimate details of their lives, unless I was honest and authentic myself.

NMB: Any Ordinary Day is a very humane, empathetic and consoling book. Despite the heart wrenching subject matter, the reader is left feeling uplifted and positive. It affirms that there is much kindness and decency in the world, even when things go horribly wrong. When you started writing and researching the book, did you have any idea where the writing process would lead you? 

LS: I was really scared about where it would lead me actually.  I felt at a low point in my own life and I was worried that walking towards things that filled me with fear would perhaps send me into a deep depression or spiraling into hopelessness.  I felt compelled to do it though, I felt that I had to confront what I was afraid of.  I think what I'm afraid of is pain and loss and not knowing what is going to happen to me in the future.   Writing this book made me less afraid.  I still dread the sad things in life, like the inevitable loss of my parents or other forms of grief or setback, but I am less scared of it now because I know that all of us are far more resilient than we can ever imagine.

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

LS: I was a bit late to the party but I recently adored The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose.  I'm also enjoying The Peacock Summer by Hannah Richell.

Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, Resilience and What Happens After the Worst Day of Your Life, by Leigh Sales. Published by Hamish Hamilton.  $34.99

Monday, October 15, 2018

The Lost Man, by Jane Harper

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Jane Harper addresses many contemporary Australian issues in this compelling page-turner. Fans won't be disappointed!

The setting is cattle country, rural Queensland. Three brothers – Nathan, Cameron and the youngest, Bub – all have their inner demons to deal with. Raised by a brutal father, the wounds still linger, even long after he has died. The heat in this part of the country is relentless and unforgiving. It’s also deadly. A few hours exposure without shade or water and you’re a dead man.

When middle brother, Cameron, is found dead by a mysterious old stockman’s grave, it confounds everyone. Cameron knew the land, knew what risks to take and what to avoid. Mysteriously, his car, fully stocked with food and water, is found nearby. What could be going on? Family and friends had noticed he was stressed about something in the days before he died. As Cameron’s past is excavated, dark secrets are revealed, secrets that may have had something to do with his unlikely death.

With Australia experiencing dire drought conditions, Jane Harper’s third novel has an unnerving timeliness about it. The Lost Man paints a picture of a hopelessly barren environment, arid and unproductive, sending those that work it near mad. Many contemporary issues are woven into the novel: mental health, suicide, high levels of farmer debt, isolation, excessive drinking, bad male role models, stress on families. The list goes on. The novel also examines the question of sexual consent in a manner that is sophisticated and nuanced.

As a crime thriller, the story keeps you breathlessly turning the pages. You have to hand it to Jane Harper: she really puts together a virtuoso performance. Nothing is out of place in this pitch perfect novel, with its plot that ticks like clockwork and serious themes of fractured families, brutal fathers and an even more brutal land.

The Lost Man, by Jane Harper. Published by Macmillan. ISBN: 9781743549100  RRP: $32.99.

Release date 23rd October

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Girltopia, by Hilary Rogers

Staff review by Chris Saliba

When a mysterious virus hits Melbourne a group of girls take to the road to sort things out.

One day twelve-year-old Clara Bloom goes to school to find that there are no boys present. The male teachers are absent too. What could be going on? It appears a mysterious illness has afflicted all the men and boys in the city of Melbourne. No one can figure out why. A state of emergency is announced, major roads are blocked and there are up-to-the-minute television reports. Clara’s dad has gone fishing in regional Gippsland, along with friend Pete and his son Jack.

Clara and her teenage friend Izzy worry that the fishing trio may try to return to Melbourne, which would put them at risk of contracting the mysterious virus. Izzy, who has just received her licence, offers to drive to Gippsland. After picking up Clara’s best friend Arabella, the three girls go on a daring road trip.

Girltopia is the first installment of a three part series of novels from local North Melbourne writer Hilary Rogers. With its dystopian flavour and well-timed plotting, Girltopia makes for addictive reading. It has mystery, humour and loads of adventure. The main character, Clara, is easy to relate to, a young girl trying to piece her world together just as it is falling apart. Even though her parents are separating and life is full of confusion, she discovers strengths she never knew she had.

Parents will be happy with the novel's girlpower messages of  independence, resilience and positive self-image. Girltopia will appeal to readers 9+.

Girltopia, by Hilary Rogers. Published by Scholastic. ISBN: 9781742994581 RRP: $14.99

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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

What to Read and Why, by Francine Prose

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A lively and engaging collection of literary essays.

Francine Prose is an American novelist and critic, better known in her home country than in Australia. What to Read and Why is a collection of previously published material, covering a broad range of literature, everything from Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to more contemporary writers such as Jennifer Egan (Manhattan Beach) and Deborah Levy (Swimming Home).

The marvelous thing about Prose, besides her energetic and enlivening writing style, is her sheer enthusiasm for books and reading. She often talks about her “messianic zeal” in spreading the word on some new writer she has discovered, telling friends to drop whatever they doing immediately. While most of this collection discusses  authors and their works, several essays are devoted to the subject of writing and reading, the aesthetic joys and philosophical revelations derived from the printed page. The first piece, "Ten Things That Art Can Do", usefully lists the many different experiences art can give us, such as its ability to teach, produce beauty and shock. Another essay tries to distill what the function of the short story is, as opposed to that of the novel. What, exactly, is its essence? Quoting numerous experts on the subject, both the famous and the academic, Prose discovers there is no single defining feature. The possibilities are as far and wide as the human imagination itself.

Books on writers can often inspire the reader to cast her net wider afield and try something unknown. The pieces on writers Mavis Gallant, Roberto Bolano and Isaac Babel will have you hunting through bookshops and libraries in search of their work. For those who found Karl Ove Knausgaard’s cycle of autobiographical novels My Struggle too daunting to contemplate, Prose writes a tempting appreciation.

Witty, sharp and perceptive, Francine Prose acts as both fan and critic, constantly reminding throughout these compelling essays what a joy it is to read.

What to Read and Why, by Francine Prose. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780062397867 RRP: $39.99

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Saturday, September 29, 2018

Speaking Up, by Gillian Triggs

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Gillian Triggs examines Australia's human rights record. 

Gillian Triggs, former President of the Human Rights commission, uses her years of experience and learning to discuss at length a range of human rights issues that she cares deeply about, everything from the treatment of asylum seekers right through to the marriage equality vote.

The main concern of Speaking Up is how Australian parliaments are encroaching upon the liberties that we have inherited over the centuries as part of the common law. For example, the federal parliament has laws that allows asylum seekers to be detained indefinitely and yet the Magna Carta (drafted in 1215 to put a check on the executive power of kings) prohibits imprisonment without charge. Writes Triggs, “The common law has become an insubstantial spectre with little capacity to restrain parliamentary excesses.”

Speaking Up puts its case calmly and confidently. It provides a thorough and reasoned  survey of Australia's human rights record, finding that further vigilance is required to meet the country's obligations.

Whether you agree with Triggs's analysis or not, this is a formidable book that can't be ignored. Important and timely, Speaking Up is mandatory reading for those interested in the law, democracy and human rights.

Speaking Up, by Gillian Triggs. Published by Melbourne University Press. ISBN: 9780522873511  RRP: $45

Friday, September 28, 2018

Any Ordinary Day: Blindsides, Resilience and What Happens After the Worst Day in Your Life, Leigh Sales

Staff review by Chris Saliba

Leigh Sales has written a deeply humane book about loss and suffering. 

How do people cope when a sudden disaster hits? It’s like any ordinary day, nothing could go wrong, but out of nowhere a freak accident happens and you’re plunged into the most extraordinary circumstances. Tragedy strikes, a loved one is killed and your world is turned upside down. ABC journalist and 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales has often pondered the question of how people cope when random events tap them on the shoulder. In 2014, Sales herself came close to death when she was hospitalised with complications from her second pregnancy. Such a major life changing experience prompted her to face one of her major fears: the fact that we are not in control of life and cannot protect ourselves from random events.

Any Ordinary Day is Sales’s quest to find out how we cope when tragedy suddenly claims the lives of those we love. It is also the author’s attempt to confront her personal fears about life’s terrifying uncertainty.  The book mainly focuses on interviewing famous survivors of Australian disasters, events we have all watched horrified on our television sets. People like Stuart Diver, Thredbo landslide survivor; Walter Mikac, who lost his family at the Port Arthur massacre; and Louisa Hope, who was held hostage by Man Horin Monis at the Lindt Cafe siege. There is also plenty of interesting interview material with first responders, priests, police and other professionals who provide help and assistance to the bereaved.

What the interviews mostly reveal is that, despite thinking we could never cope with extreme and unexpected tragedy, cope we do. Not only that, but with suffering often comes growth. Those who have been through so much learn the value of kindness and try to enjoy every day for its own sake. Long term planning can be futile, as we will all have to face the death of a loved one at some stage.

Leigh Sales has written a wise, gentle, insightful and humane book. It’s a book of great honesty, as Sales confesses to journalistic mistakes she’s made in the past and reveals her own biases during the interview process. This mixture of thoughtfulness, vulnerability and a striving to be earnest, makes for an unexpectedly transformative read. Any Ordinary Day takes for its subject grief and suffering, yet its major revelation is that people are kind, we are more resilient than we think and that the sun continues to shine despite so much darkness. Leigh Sales confronts the hardest challenges that we all face in life, yet leaves the reader feeling light and at peace.

Any Ordinary Day, by Leigh Sales. Published by Hamish Hamilton. ISBN: 9780143789963  RRP: $34.99

Release date 1st October

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Sunday, September 23, 2018

We Begin Our Ascent, by John Mango Reed

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A novel about the peculiar side effects of ambition.

We Begin Our Ascent’s narrator, Sol, is a competitor in the Tour de France. He rides as part of a peloton – a team of riders that alternate positions to maximise their performance. His wife, Liz, is a research biologist. Both are very competitive; Liz perhaps more so. When the team’s sinister coach, Rafael, suggests to Sol that he start doping to improve his performance, he is horrified, but soon succumbs. As difficulties arise with the drug’s supply chain, Liz readily agrees to help. Can their relationship survive such elaborate deception and its attendent risks?

Joe Mungo Reed’s debut novel about the peculiar side effects of ambition is tautly written and skilfully plotted. The many scenes involving racing, manoeuvring as part of a peloton and the physical sensations of high-performance riding are compelling. The novel’s portrait of the manipulative and slimey coach Raphael is so well done it makes the skin crawl while the dithering, vacillating, hand-wringing Sol and his go-getter wife Liz are the Macbeth and Lady Macbeth of the cycling world. A cautionary, but also existential tale about the emptiness often found at the centre of our desires.

We Begin Our Ascent, by John Mango Reed. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780008298166  RRP: $27.99

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Friday, September 21, 2018

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A powerful autobiographical novel about growing up a black lesbian woman in 1950s America.

Audre Lorde was an American writer and feminist, self-described as “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior poet.” Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, professes to be autobiographical fiction, or a “biomythography”, a mixture of myth, history and biography, but it really reads as a pretty straight forward autobiography, but with a poet’s unique sensibility.

Lorde was born in New York City to Caribbean parents, who migrated to the United States. The book describes growing up in America in the 1930s and 1940s, experiencing racism (even from school teachers) and feeling very caught between cultures. This turns out to be a major theme: how do you live, how do you define yourself, when you don’t fit in anywhere? How do you create yourself? Being lesbian, black and gay meant you were on the very fringes, never understood.

The psychic core of the Zami is Lorde’s sexuality, which is discussed in frank detail: the lovers, friendships, the painful betrayals and sexual experiments. The second half of the narrative concentrates on the 1950s, Lorde’s formative years, and is fascinating for its evocation of New York’s lesbian subculture, the bars, the cliques, the sexual politics and role playing.

Often while reading this memoir of survival as a black lesbian in 50s America, you do a double take. There are pages and pages of seedy, backstreet gay clubs, suicides and rough living, then suddenly Doris Day appears with her huge hit Que Sera Sera and you realise idyllic 50s America was just a fiction. Lorde sums the times up:

"The Rosenbergs had been executed, the transistor radio had been invented, and frontal lobotomy was the standard solution for persistent deviation."

Audre Lorde’s Zami is an intimate and often moving portrait of a generation of brave gay women and their struggles to simply exist, let alone figure out where they belonged in society. This was a generation of women ahead of their times. Being out of the closet and alone had its consequences. Grimly, Lorde writes, “Many of us ended up dead or demented, and many of us were distorted by the many fronts we had to fight on.” Being black and gay was even more isolating: “The Black gay girls in the village gay bars of the fifties knew each other’s names, but we seldom looked into each other’s black eyes, lest we see our own aloneness and our blunted power…”

An eloquent testament from a pioneering poet and activist.

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, by Audre Lorde. Published by Penguin Modern Classics. ISBN: 9780241351086  RRP: $22.99

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Saturday, September 15, 2018

The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A young girl goes missing in a palace created out of ice. 

In rural Norway eleven-year-old Siss is on the way to meet Unn, a new girl at her school. Unn is a bit mysterious, with no father and a mother who died recently. The girls go to Unn’s Auntie’s house, where they try to get to know each other. They are by turns friendly and shy. Unn says she has a secret, the details of which aren’t revealed. The girls then part ways for the day, feeling a little awkward after their first meeting.

The next day Unn decides to skip school and visit an ice palace that has been created at a nearby waterfall. The ice palace, created by the freezing temperatures working on the  splashing water, has many different cave-like rooms. Unn becomes transfixed by the beauty of the ice palace and its many strange natural forms. She steps into one of the rooms and never emerges again.

When the people of the town find out that Unn hasn’t returned, a search is instigated. Some suspicion falls on Siss, however, as everyone knows that Unn confided in her some type of secret.

Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas’s The Ice Palace (1963) is essentially a mystery about an unusual, secretive young girl who goes missing. (Her disappearance has similarities to Australian novelist Joan Lindsay’s Picnic At Hanging Rock.) The other main character, besides the girls, is of course the ice palace itself. The novel describes its evolution from gushing torrents of water into a beautiful palace; the first fissures as the warmer weather comes and the palace cracks apart; and finally, its disintegration, sweeping all that came with it into the river system. Vesaas's descriptions of the natural wonders of a Norwegian winter form some of the novel's aesthetic highlights.

A gripping mood piece and a haunting ode to some of nature’s more mysterious work.

The Ice Palace, by Tarjei Vesaas. Published by Penguin Modern Classics. ISBN: 9780241321218  RRP: $22.99

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Sunday, September 9, 2018

Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A computer scientist brings a humanistic approach to the problem of social media.

Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, musician and writer. He offers a unique perspective on issues to do with technology and society by way of his long history with the tech community. Both an insider and outsider, he has voiced concerns in books such as You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future about how the open internet culture of Facebook and Google has reduced human expression and potential, while taking our data and monetizing it for huge profits.

In the short and snappy Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Lanier explains how social media is degrading language, spreading misinformation, exploiting cheap labour, alienating people from reality, distorting how they see the world and also making us angry, lonely and irritable.  Quite a list!

Social media is designed to be addictive. Lanier sees it as a form of hypnosis, but a dangerous one.

“Hypnosis might be therapeutic so long as you trust your hypnotist, but who would trust a hypnotist who is working for unknown third parties? Who? Apparently billions of people.”

Lanier coins an acronym to describe the algorithmic machines that track everything we do online in order to create customised feeds: “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent. BUMMER.” In humourous tones reminscent of science fiction writers Kurt Vonnegut and Stanislaw Lem, the reader is warned of how the BUMMER machine is undermining just about every aspect of our lives, from democracy and public discourse to how we see and think about ourselves. BUMMER technology is causing mass isolation. One of the most depressing points that the book raises is how hard it is to know other people now because we don’t know the customised feeds that individuals – billions of individuals – are exposed to. Once upon a time we were all roughly on the same page, but now no one is on the same page.

Ten Arguments is for the most part cheerful and optimistic, firm in its belief that we can keep the internet and smart phones, we simply need to get rid of the BUMMER machine. Beneath the jollity and jokes, Lanier is an erudite and philosophical writer with a gentle, poetic nature. He’s a rare, humanist voice on the subject of computer technology and its impact on us. The book’s final argument for deleting your social media accounts is one of self-knowledge and awareness. “Whatever a person might be,” writes Lanier, “if you want to be one, delete your accounts.”

If you want to gain insights into how invidious social media really is, read Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier. Published by Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9781847925398  RRP: $24.99

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Friday, August 31, 2018

North Melbourne Books Newsletter - featuring Hilary Rogers

In the September edition of the North Melbourne Books newsletter we talk to local North Melbourne writer and publisher Hilary Rogers about her new children's book Girltopia.

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

North Melbourne Books talks to Hilary Rogers

One day twelve-year-old Clara Bloom turns up to school only to find that there are no boys present. The male teachers are absent too. What could be going on? It appears a mysterious illness has afflicted all the men and boys in the city of Melbourne. No one can figure out why. When Clara realises that her father, who has gone on a fishing trip to regional Victoria, is at risk of catching the mysterious virus, she takes to the road with some girl friends to sort things out. How did you come up with the idea for the story?

When I was working as a publisher, I found myself tiring of the dystopian manuscripts that were streaming across my desk. Dystopian fiction can be utterly compelling and a fantastic way to explore issues that are relevant to young teenagers, but reading one existentially depressing idea after another does get you down after a while.

I hated scary books and films when I was a kid (frankly, I still do) – and I know lots of kids who are the same. I started to wonder what utopian fiction might look like. What would the perfect world for a kid be like? And where would the drama come from in such a world? There are countless stories where the adults are absent or killed off, so I didn’t feel drawn to rehashing that scenario. But, I wondered, what if we got rid of the boys and men? It made me think of all the amazing things women had done in times of crises, particularly when men were all off at war. Of course, a world without boys and men isn’t actually a utopia – nor is it a viable or sustainable idea! – but that’s what is so interesting about it. As soon as I started thinking about it, I was hooked.

Clara has an interesting backstory. Her parents are breaking up and – while she loves them both - she’s also quite angry about it. How did you create her character, or is she based on anyone you know?

Clara isn’t based on anyone I know, but she has a smattering of many people I know – including myself. I have vivid memories of being a kid. I’m not anxious like Clara, but I know a lot of highly anxious kids and I well remember the classic childhood feeling of having no control over your world.

In terms of Clara’s parents splitting up, this is something many kids experience, and I like it because it means Clara is going through a mini-version of what the whole city will go through: her dad is suddenly not there. Just as she is struggling to come to terms with him leaving, the virus hits Melbourne and every woman and girl has to get used to life without the boys and men. Every mother is suddenly a single mum. Every girl loses her dad or her brother.

There’s lot of adventure and laughs as the girls try to evade the police and break through road blockades. It’s a real page-turner of a story. What was the writing process like?

Fingers crossed kids agree with you! For me the writing process is a fabulous shambles. I have days when everything falls into place, the words tumble out and time flies – there’s nothing as good as a good day of writing. But I also have days when nothing seems to work and I’m suddenly enthused about the washing or googling what to do with celeriac. The saving grace for me is that I am always
working on a few projects at a time – including books I’m co-writing with my writing partner Josh Lefers. This means I rarely have time to get too weird or worried about how the writing is going.

Girltopia is your first novel, although you’ve worked in publishing for many years. Has it long been an ambition to write a book yourself?

Strangely, no. I’ve always loved my work as editor and publisher, and I’ve never felt that was less interesting or less creative than writing. But I do think working in-house in publishing has given me invaluable insight into the whole crazy business of book-making. A successful book is so much more than just a great story, and the team required is so much bigger than an author and editor. It needs just the right cover, title, text design, price, marketing material, distribution – and mystifyingly, it also needs a generous sprinkle of pixie dust. But of course, no-one knows where to get the pixie dust. It can’t be bought! Sometimes a project just has a certain magic to it; others have all the right parts but somehow fall flat. I think knowing all this probably helps and hinders in equal parts!

What books are you enjoying reading at the moment? 

I recently read Less (Andrew Sean Greer) and The Female Persuasion (Meg Wolitzer) – both of which I loved. And I’ve just started the new Barbara Kingsolver, Unsheltered – it’s off to a fairly traumatic start, and is too early to call.

Girltopia, by Hilary Rogers. Published by Scholastic. RRP: $14.99

Thursday, August 30, 2018

Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, by David Sornig

Staff review by Chris Saliba

David Sornig’s history of West Melbourne’s Dudley Flats provides an absorbing and evocative portrait.

Residents of North and West Melbourne would be well familiar with Dudley Street. The busy roadway passes by the Flagstaff Gardens, the iconic Festival Hall and down into the Docklands area. What is less known is the Depression era shanty town, the Dudley Flats, that was once located at the end of Dudley Street, south of Footscray Road, roughly on the area where the Melbourne Star Observation Wheel and Harbour Town shopping centre now sit.

The Dudley Flats had its heyday, if it could be called that, between the 1920s and 50s. When the land belonged to its indigenous people, a beautiful blue lake occupied a large part of the area. The lake was surrounded by a magenta coloured pigface flower, which grew in wild profusion. But along with European incursions into the land came intense industry, and rendering factories caused the blue lake to be polluted. By the 1920s it was the site of several council and railway tips. It was the tips that formed the backbone of the Dudley Flats economy. Residents foraged in the tips, sold scrap metal and other finds, and built their shacks with reclaimed materials.

The population of the “tin town” at its height was around forty people. It had a notorious reputation. Many of its residents drank, committed petty crime and got involved in fights. Despite this, authorities thought the Dudley Flats were no worse than many of Melbourne’s slums. Authorities who visited saw the makeshift homes were quite well put together and opined that the residents showed considerable resourcefulness.

Novelist and historian David Sornig grew up in Sunshine and well remembers the regular train journey from Footscray to North Melbourne  station, a journey that roughly covered the area that once held the Dudley Flats. It’s a stretch of land that has always haunted the author, with its eerie, no man’s land quality.

In Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp
, Sornig concentrates on three characters who lived in the Dudley Flats: Elsie Williams, a singer and alcoholic, born in Bendigo to Afro-Caribbean parents; Lauder Rogge, a German man who lived on a boat moored on the Yarra; and Jack Peacock, a trader who made a decent living scavenging off the garbage tips. In telling the stories of these three characters, Sornig also tells the strange and wild history of the landmass along Footscray Road, a West Melbourne badlands if ever there was one.

Elsie Williams would walk the streets of North Melbourne, drunk and singing, picking fights, experiencing the racism that went along with the White Australia policy. Lauder Rogge had the misfortune of being German when Australia was frequently at war with that country. He experienced the humiliation of being interned as an enemy alien during the First World War. And finally Jack Peacock, who the authorities spent years trying to remove from Dudley Flats. An outsider, he preferred the lifestyle at the shanty town and never wanted to leave.

David Sornig has written a haunting and humane history of Melbourne’s Depression era, with its focus on the often lawless Dudley Flats, the down and out people who made a life there and the eerie, hostile zone of land that to this day still refuses to be gentrified. Blue Lake employs a novelist’s prose and imagination, bringing to life a seedy part of our city’s history, but done with a great sympathy and sensitivity. A book of superb imagination and scholarship that will transport you to a strange yet familiar land.

Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp, by David Sornig. Published by Scribe. ISBN: 9781925322743 RRP: $35

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No Place Like Home, by Peter Mares

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A book on Australia's housing crisis is well overdue. Former ABC journalist Peter Mares takes up the task.

There are several competing stories for why Australia has such off-the-charts housing prices. One popular argument is that there is a great shortage of supply and we need to build more; another claims that the tax system (negative gearing and a general discount on capital gains tax) is the culprit. No Place Like Home gives a lucid overview of a complex problem, also putting a very human face on it, with chapters devoted to forgotten people, such as the homeless.

The major issue, as Peter Mares sees it, is a cultural one. We have learnt to think of housing primarily as a financial product, rather than as a home. Such thinking has led to some perverse outcomes. Across Melbourne, for example, some 82,000 dwellings lay empty. Apparently, it's deemed economically rational for owners to keep properties empty, rather than rent them out. The benefit is to be able to sell quickly and not be hampered by a 12 months lease. In Australia, we don't see investment in housing as a source of steady rental returns, but rather as a way to make quick capital gains.

Another problem is the creation of outer suburbs wholly dependent on cars. While these houses may be cheap, they are often energy inefficient and demand lots of travel time. They end up being very costly to live in. Mares argues that our middle ring suburbs could easily be further developed and it would be better to domicile people there, closer to public transport, schools and hospitals.

The book makes some interesting suggestions, the main one being a property tax that would divert funds into more public housing. Tenancy laws should also be changed to favour renters. Mares rightly points out that Australia's high housing prices are causing increasing inequality, which in turn is bad for social cohesion and the economy. We need to make changes, but this will be difficult and will take time to turn around.

No Place Like Home is highly recommended. It's humane, sympathetic and contains much common sense. Houses should be primarily for living in, with a secondary use as an investment. In Australia we seem to have gotten things back the front.

Release date 17th September

No Place Like Home, by Peter Mares. Published by Text. ISBN: 9781925603873  RRP: $32.99

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Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Fiasco, by Stanislaw Lem

Staff review by Chris Saliba

A challenging masterpiece from an indisputable genius.

Fiasco opens describing events that have taken place one hundred years before the main story. A young pilot named Parvis is sent to Saturn’s moon, Titan, to find another pilot, named Pirx, who was lost there. Parvis experiences a fatal accident during the search and before he dies, manages to activate a device that cryogenically freezes him. One hundred years later Parvis and Pirx’s bodies are exhumed. Scientists manage to bring one of the bodies back to life, using organs from the two, but don’t know whether it is Parvis or Pirx. When the reanimated body is brought back to life, it has no memory and goes under the new name of Mark Tempe.

Tempe is asked to take part in a new voyage, to the planet Quinta, which it is believed harbours an intelligent life form on a par with earth’s humans. The huge mothership  Eurydice is dispatched to a black hole near Beta Harpiae, where it sends off a smaller spaceship, the Hermes, which contains a full crew of scientists, astrophysists and even a Dominican priest.

Once the Hermes approaches Quinta, strange, unanticipated things are noticed. The planet is covered with an extremely high volume of radioactivity, a baffling blanket of white noise. The planet is also surrounded by a ring of ice, the result of all the surface water – the oceans - being somehow forced up into the atmosphere. How or why the Quintans have done this is a mystery.

The crew tries to communicate with Quinta, sending out messages over a sustained period, almost like a bombardment. There is no response. More messages requesting contact with the Quintans are sent, but an eerie silence remains. As a show of strength, the crew decides to create a massive cavity on their moon’s surface, but when the missiles are sent they are intercepted by Quinta’s defense system which sends the missiles off course, only to create catastrophic damage as huge chunks of the moon fall to the planet’s surface.

As a final attempt at contact, the crew decides to project a “cartoon” onto Quinta’s clouds. This works, and the Quintans agree to meet a human ambassador. Mark Tempe is sent to the planet’s surface, but when he arrives, and discovers the strange form the Quintans take, he is horrified by their banal, ugly, incomprehensible forms. The whole expedition has been a bizarre – and tragic - waste of time.

Stanislaw Lem’s 1986 novel is an intellectual, philosophical and aesthetic tour de force. It’s a fully realised alien world set in deep space. Like his other first contact novel, Solaris, it is enveloped in a haunting, eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere. The sense of existential dread is palpable. The crew, slowly going insane, are deluded that powerful computers and probability theory can predict life on an unknown planet. Yet all their superior systems continually fail them. The Quintans refuse to communicate. The crew tries to anticipate every possible reason for Quinta’s unfathomable behaviour, but their only response to the maddening silence is the use of violence. In the end this violence turns out to be a show of weakness and impotence.

The basic theme of Fiasco is the limit of human technology and science. Trying to overreach only leads to madness. It could be argued that Lem is saying the human race is a diabolically mad race (Lem was writing in the middle of the Cold War, when nuclear weapons threatened to blow the globe up.) This is a novel that is deeply pessimistic (even cynical) about the kind of hubris that results from too much faith in technology, mathematics and science.

Fiasco is a difficult novel to read and it demands some attention. There are some flaws: the opening chapter, set one hundred years in the past, is perhaps too long; the text can be dense at times, laden with scientific language; and the plot could perhaps move more swiftly. Having said that, Fiasco is a novel that can have few peers for its astonishing range and depth of ideas, written by a man who is an indisputable genius.  

Fiasco, by Stanislaw Lem. Published by Penguin Modern Classics. ISBN: 9780241334355 RRP: $22.99

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