Non-Fiction

The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

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This book thoroughly deserved the Stella Prize 2019.
Vicki has been disowned and disinherited but is summoned home to Alberta Canada to look after her elderly father who seems to be in a neglected state.
This memoir reveals a psychologically disturbed but powerful mother whose influence has wreaked havoc in the life of Vicki and the rest of the family. Vicki perseveres but finds little reward for her efforts.
This is a powerful and emotional biography and hard to put down.

- Barb

My Country: Stories Essays & Speeches by David Marr

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What a wonderful book, one that is very hard to stop reading and put down.
Marr shines a bright light on many of the intriguing stories from the recent history of our nation. Often he does it from the vantage point of actually being on the spot as that history unfolded. His stories, essays and speeches are carefully researched and delivered with compassion, insightfulness and frequently with much refreshing and hilarious good humour. Some stories involve Marr’s own personal history played out on the wider Australian story. He tells those stories with great honesty, thoughtfulness and tenderness for those around him. He is an extremely gifted journalist and writer and his book deserves to be widely read.

- John

Dan's Philosophy Picks - Stop Being Reasonable by Eleanor Gordon-Smith

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Since our last few philosophy picks have showcased the views of long-dead, beardy white guys (not exactly an under-represented demographic within philosophy), let's reverse this trend by looking at a much more recent publication, 'Stop Being Reasonable', by the very un-dead, and un-beardy (though still white) philosopher Eleanor Gordon-Smith.
The first thing to note about the book is that it ticks several boxes for a contemporary pop-philosophy/self-help hit straight out of the gate: 1) Intriguingly counter-intuitive title? Check. 2) Garishly-coloured cover? Check. Really, all that's missing is a prominently placed swear word in the title and we would have been dealing with a sure-fire hit. As it stands, we have something far more interesting; namely, a critical reflection on the role of rational argument in our lives. As a former debating champion, Gordon-Smith found herself compelled to reflect on these matters when it became clear that the techniques of rational persuasion that proved so successful in the structured world of debating were far less so when put into use in real world situations. Why, Gordon-Smith asks, is it so hard to convince men who cat-call in public that what they are doing is wrong? How would you respond (in middle age) to the revelation that you were adopted? When the facts change must our feelings change accordingly? What possible evidence could bring us to question our most deeply held views? Gordon-Smith examines these and other questions with her insightful (and thoroughly entertaining) treatments of real life examples, interspersed with moments of sober philosophical reflections about the role played by emotions in our practices of decision-making and opinion-forming. Her conclusions, though perhaps not entirely surprising, amount to a timely criticism of the level to which public debate has lately sunk. More and more it seems, people on different sides of the political and moral divide are unable or unwilling to engage each other. To make things worse, the pervasive nature of social media means that we are exposed only to views that serve to confirm our own.What is required, according to Gordon-Smith, is not so much that we stop being reasonable, but that we enlarge (and thereby complicate) our conception of what reasonbleness is, and what it requires.  

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee

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This powerful memoir looks unflinchingly at how the Australian court system handles cases of sexual assault, laying bare its prejudices, limitations and failings.

What makes this book so compelling is the professional and personal insight brought to the subject by author Bri Lee: first as a law student and judge’s associate, and later as a complainant, pursuing legal action against the man who abused her as a child. We follow Lee's journey on both sides of the legal process, oscillating between disillusionment and empowerment, gripped by her eloquent and perceptive prose.

At once intensely personal and heartbreakingly universal, Eggshell Skull is a remarkable achievement. I couldn’t recommend it more.


- Bec

The Arsonist by Chloe Hooper

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Chloe Hooper is a brilliant author. Her ability to transport you to a precise place and space in time, is unparalleled. In 'The Arsonist', she paints an incredibly terrifying image. You are immediately surrounded by the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, which left 173 people dead.

The stories from surviving residents and emergency service men and women are haunting. As she weaves a timeline of catastrophic events you are left feeling horrified, wounded and furious at the unimaginable loss endured by all those who were effected. However, Hooper has a true gift for objective writing. Through uncovering more about ‘the arson’ himself, it is easy to also find yourself feeling hurt and angered by his painful story.

A book I had to pause from to collect myself many times – as it can be terribly overwhelming, yet remains so important and such a fine piece of non-fiction work.

- Bella

Calypso by David Sedaris

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Calypso is raw, humorous and sometimes heartbreaking all at once. Sedaris invites us to observe his family - their idiosyncrasies, tragedies, and ever shifting connections with one another.
Like all families Sedaris’ family is not without drama and disagreement. His honesty is refreshing, as he allows a view into some deeply personal experiences (his sister’s suicide, his mother’s alcoholism, parent/sibling/partner conflicts, unbreakable family bonds).

However, the book is not all doom and gloom, in fact quite the contrary. His wit will have you laughing at things that will make you question your own sanity, and no tragedy will be outweighed by his ability to make you smile.

It is a wonderful read, and there is a truly hilarious chapter in which he becomes addicted to his FitBit - that alone, made the entire book worth reading.

- Bella

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

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Grann is a master of narrative non-fiction; his work is deeply researched and his prose so personal and engaging it reads like fiction. His latest book reveals the untold history of the Osage Indian nation in Oklahoma who in the early 20th Century were the wealthiest people per capita in the world thanks to the oil deposits beneath their reservation. From at least 1918 on, the members of one particular Osage family began dying in strange circumstances and with increasing frequency. It is this family that Grann centres his story on.

Around the same time these deaths were finally starting to look suspicious, the FBI was being formed and stepped in to investigate. Grann's history moves beyond their official records, however, to delve into the hundreds of unsolved murders of Osage during this time period that the FBI never touched and to speak with the descendants who to this day are trying to uncover the truth behind these murders. A riveting, pertinent story of the kind of horrific injustice and racist violence that is still rife across the globe today.

- Kate

We Are Here by Fiona Harari

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Against all odds, the eighteen survivors Fiona Harari interviews for this book are in their nineties, some have reached 100 (although a couple have since died since its publication). Despite the monumental losses, degradations and harrowing living conditions they had faced these people were able to make new lives, begin new families and become successful Australian citizens.

Harari introduces each survivor with a description of their experiences then wisely allows the survivors to speak in their own voices. They talk about luck, the loneliness of liberation, their grief over the loss of family and the spirit that gave them the courage to carry on. Above all they express their gratitude to Australia – land of sunshine and freedom – that allowed them to start all over again.

- Rita

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell

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In short sharp chapters introduced by 19th century anatomical diagrams (Neck, Bloodstream, Cranium…) Maggie O’Farrell details her sometimes near, occasionally more distant, brushes with death.

Death visits her in many different forms which she brings to life with vivid and visceral prose. At the age of eighteen she encounters a murderer on a remote path; against all odds she survives a childhood illness; with deep sorrow she mourns the IVF babies she lost and she watches her daughter like a hawk constantly alert to the allergies which can cause fatal anaphylaxis. These are just some of the harrowing stories of human vulnerability lived by the author in this memoir – her first non-fiction book after seven highly successful novels.

- Rita

Book Review: Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin

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When I look up the oxford dictionary definition of flaneur it reads “A man who saunters around observing society”, but, when I search for the feminine flaneuse I’m left with “no exact matches.” Elkin, a self-identifying ‘flaneuse’, takes up issue with the lack of recognition for the female-flaneuse, who has seemingly been written out of the history books, and looks to the difficulties and questions of visibility that obstruct the freedom of women desiring simply to ‘saunter’ the streets as their male counterparts are allowed to do. Looking to Virginia Woolf, George Sand, Agnes Varda and Sophie Calle amongst others, Elkin endeavours to carve out a space for the modern-day flaneuse by recognising those that came before her. There are easy parallels to be made between Elkin and Rebecca Solnit as Flaneuse carefully weaves together topics of feminism, art and culture, historical events, and personal anecdotes, with travel writing in an ode to city-dwelling and city-strolling. “Space is not neutral. Space is a feminist issue.” 

- Alex

No Place to Lay One’s Head by Francoise Frenkel

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This remarkable memoir was first published in Geneva in 1945 and quickly fell into obscurity until a copy was found in a second-hand bookshop. Major French publishing house, Gallimard, republished it in 2015 to much acclaim and this edition has been sensitively translated by Australian Stephanie Smee with a moving preface by Nobel Prize Winner Patrick Modiano.

In 1921 Frenkel, a Polish born Jewish Francophile, opened a French Language bookshop in Berlin, an enterprise that was very successful until the onset of the Nazi regime. She was required to close the shop and flee to France where she roamed from town to town seeking refuge. In a gentle but firm tone, Frenkel describes the people who helped her, her disdain for the collaborators and the desperation which surrounded her and many others in the same plight. Her husband was deported to Auschwitz but Frenkel eventually managed to make it to the Swiss border and safety. There is little documentation available about what happened to her afterwards but this memoir firmly places Frenkel in the upper echelons of autobiographers.

- Rita

Barbarian Days : A Surfing Life by William Finnegan

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 Before reading "Barbarian Days" (William Finnegan's Pulitzer prize-winning surfing memoir), I thought surfers were a bit of a strange bunch. It didn't help that many of the depictions of surfers that have permeated pop culture over the years (whether in films, on television or in fiction) have tended to portray surfers as lovable clowns -  as either harmless stoners or long-haired zen monks. This is what makes Finnegan's book such a welcome arrival. Simply put, "Barbarian Days" is the best written portrayal of the sport of surfing and its practitioners since Tim Winton's "Breath". Combining an anthropologist's eye for detail, a novelist's insight into human psychology and plenty of exotic locations, all within a thrilling narrative, Finnegan's memoir is more than simply a celebration of its subject. It is a refreshingly clear-eyed, and yet deeply nuanced account of what seems from a distance like such a simple activity. It turns out surfers are a bit of a strange bunch. Reading this book might just leave you wanting a little more strangeness in your life.

- Dan

​Rosetta: A Scandalous True story by Alexandra Joel

Alexandra Joel has written the astonishing true story of her great-grandmother Rosetta, a woman from an upright middle class Melbourne Jewish family, who, in 1905, not only abandons her very young daughter but does so in the company of a half Chinese fortune teller called Zeno the Magnificent.

In London they revel in the company of top aristocrats and famous writers such as Conan Doyle. Ably assisted by Rosetta, Zeno make a fine living as a hypnotist, masseur and counsellor.

It’s a story hard to imagine but it is based on the impeccable research of the writer’s father Asher Joel, a prominent eastern suburbs politician, journalist and public relations. Although the author recreates conversations and internal monologues she does so in a thoroughly plausible manner fully supported within the trellis of the factual.

esmerising!

- Rita

One of Us by Åsne Seierstad

A non-fiction novel in the tradition of Capote’s In Cold Blood, One of Us paints a picture of Anders Breivik, and his massacre of seventy-seven fellow Norwegians.
 
Anders Breivik was a friendless, isolated and angry man, and after many attempts at wealth and control including an internet start-up peddling fake diplomas, and a failed bid for candidacy in a right-wing political party, Breivik began writing a hate filled right-wing manifesto to save western civilisation from cultural Marxism, multiculturalism and Islamisation. 
 
Horrifically these were not just words for Breivik, and despite having absolutely no accomplices or followers, he appointed himself The Knight Commander of the self-imagined crusading army the Knights Templar and proceeded to meticulously plan and execute the most atrocious lone gunman bombing and massacre in living memory.
 
Reading about a real life massacre is about as harrowing as you would expect but Seierstad's astounding level of research and intimate style knit together the story of Breivik with some beautiful and tragic portraits of young Norwegians and their families whose hope and ambition to help their country put them in stark contrast to their killer. 
 
Highly Recommended.
 
- Cam

Red Notice by Bill Browder

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Bill Browder, founder of Hermitage Capital Management was the largest foreign investor in Russia until 2005.  

His story “Red Notice” is an account which reads like a political thriller.  From his hugely exciting success as the head of a hedge fund Browder transforms to crusader in pursuit of justice and human rights.  When he exposed the corruption of the oligarchs he drew the unrelenting and pervasive attention of Vladimir Putin. Browder lives frighteningly on the edge in fear for his life. 

It is an exciting compelling read.

- Barb

The Simplest Words by Alex Miller

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Alex Miller is a prolific writer who has won numerous awards including the Miles Franklin twice and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize - deservedly so. This is a treasury of rich, wistful memoir, excerpts from his novels, some poetry and is peopled with many who have inspired his writing. It is a fascinating insight into the experience of writing and the way his craft has developed over many years. His early years in England were to form the foundation for his writing life which was slowly honed after his arrival in Australia. Not only is Miller prolific but the subjects of this novels are so various and different from each other – the aboriginal experience, the migrant’s journey, the artistic life – that one wonders how he taps into these lives. And this book provides some answers.

- Rita

Bouts of Mania by Richard Hoffer

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Perhaps the first thing to be said about this brief but highly entertaining book is that one needn't have any more than a passing interest in boxing in order to enjoy it. This is not a book about boxing, or even really about sport. Rather, this is pop cultural journalism in the exuberant vein of Tom Wolfe at his best. In lively prose tinged with ironic humour, Sports Illustrated journalist Richard Hoffer playfully dissects a tumultuous period in American history (a period that saw continued debate over US involvement in Vietnam, as well as the scandal of the Watergate tapes, and the Kent State shootings, among other events).

Covering the five titanic bouts fought between Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier and George Foreman between the years 1971 and 1975, Hoffer documents the political and cultural upheaval that would affect both sides of America's racial and economic divide. And what better subject than boxing to unite all of these perspectives - a sport that can see a character such as Joe Frazier rise from dirt-poor beginnings amongst a share-cropper family to ultimately take part in some of the most lucrative and widely-viewed cultural events in world history?

Through clear-eyed but affectionate portrayals of its larger than life protagonists (of course the star is Muhammad Ali), Hoffer thrills and informs us in equal measure. Highly recommended.

- Dan

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

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When Helen Macdonald’s father died, she felt a pull towards the wild. Having romanticised falconry since a child, she decided to finally buy and train her own goshawk, a bird notorious amongst centuries of falconers for being sulky and unpredictable. Helen has a very different experience with her goshawk, Mabel, and discovers that far from being the ‘hysterical, irrational’ bird depicted in falconry books, Mabel hunts with a blood-lusty vigour, but also likes to play catch with a small paper ball, and responds to patient, gentle human interaction.

Woven between fragments of Helen’s memoir is the story of T.H. White (author of The Sword in the Stone) and his failed attempts to train his own goshawk in the 1930s. Part critical reading, part biography of a man struggling to come to terms with his repressed homosexual desires, White’s story helps Helen, and her readers, understand the impulse behind wanting to capture and train a wild animal, and the exchange that takes place between human and bird, bird and human, in the process.

Macdonald is a poet and it shows in her prose. Her landscapes are smelly, brittle, and vivid. Her lyrical turn of phrase enables a deft navigation of grief without ever collapsing into self-indulgence. 

H is for Hawk is the perfect book to snuggle up with when wild weather is lashing against your bedroom windows.

- Pip