Author, Book review, David Whish-Wilson, Newsouth, Non-fiction, Publisher, travel

‘Perth’ by David Whish-Wilson

Non-fiction; paperback; New South Publishing; 352 pages; 2020.

Perth is part of a series of books about Australia’s capital cities, each one written by a local author who can give us an intimate account of the city’s history and character.

This volume, by Fremantle-based writer David Whish-Wilson, is an insider’s look at what it is like to grow up and reside in Perth, the most isolated city in Australia (if not the world), sandwiched as it is between the Indian Ocean and the outback.

As most of you will know, I moved here in mid-2019. I am not from Perth (I grew up on the other side of the country, in Victoria) and had only ever been here on holiday (when I was living in the UK — Perth is a convenient city to break up the journey from Heathrow to Melbourne). But I knew from my handful of visits to Fremantle, a port city at the mouth of the Swan River, about 20 minutes drive from the CBD, that I would love to live here. It was something about the heritage buildings, the coastline, the vibrant arts culture, the pubs (and breweries) and the bright clear light that attracted me.

But more than two years after repatriation, admittedly 80% of that time during a global pandemic, I have come to know the city reasonably well and noticed, but not always understood, its distinctive quirks — the fact, for instance, that most residents are early birds, up and about at 5am, but drive through the suburbs after 7pm and it feels like the whole world has gone to bed (or died), it’s so dark and quiet, with nary a vehicle on the road.

And everyone is obsessed with the water, whether beach or river, and most own a boat (and are snobby about the model, the size and how much it cost) or is into fishing or surfing or kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding (you get the idea).

And most people live in the suburbs — indeed, the suburbs stretch along the coastline for more than 100km so that when you drive anywhere it sometimes feels like you’re out in the countryside when, in actual fact, you are still in metropolitan Perth.

And perhaps because of this quiet, suburban life, people seem to congregate in large packs every weekend to have picnics (by the river or in local parks). I’ve seen people bring their own marquees, fold-up furniture and carry all their food and drink in wheel-a-long carts. It’s fascinating. (I’ve long joked that I’ll know I’ve become fully assimilated when I buy a fold-up picnic chair or one of these.)

The inside track

The book itself isn’t so much a travel guide — it won’t reveal the best places to eat or stay or visit — but is more a journey into the heart and spirit of the city, highlighting its history (good and bad), its politics, it’s natural wonders and its achievements.

It’s divided into four main chapters — The River, The Limestone Coast, The Plain, and The City of Light — between a relatively lengthy Introduction and Postscript. Sadly, there’s no index, which makes it hard to pinpoint facts you might want to reread (for the purposes of writing this review, for instance) and even though it has been updated since the original 2013 edition was published, it still feels slightly dated.

But thanks to the healthy dollop of memoir that Whish-Wilson adds, you get a real feel for what it is like to grow up here under blue skies and constant sunshine, and with little intrusion from the outside world, a sense of perfect isolation.

I love all the literary references he dots throughout — there’s a helpful bibliography at the back of the book — to show how the city has been depicted in both fiction and non-fiction over time.

Unsurprisingly, given his background as a crime writer, the author balances the happy optimism of Perth life with darker elements, including the crime and corruption that has left its mark.

He highlights the eerie Ying and Yang feeling that I had instinctively felt when I first arrived but had not been able to articulate because I didn’t know what it was. Whish-Wilson frames it as people becoming untethered by the “silence and space of the suburbs” so that while all looks quiet and peaceful during the day, it is brimming with menace at night. He describes this as “Perth Gothic”. (It’s true there have been some hideous murders in Perth, not least the Claremont serial killings in 1996-97, the Moorhouse murders in 1986 and the Nedlands monster, who was active between 1958 and 1963, and became the last man hanged in Fremantle Prison.)

All that aside, this is a brilliant little gem of a book. It’s jam-packed full of insights, intriguing facts and personal observation and delivered in an intimate but authoritative voice. It’s like getting the inside track on what this city is like behind the shiny glass skyscrapers and quiet, tree-lined suburban streets, and Whish-Wilson is the perfect guide.

I read this book as part of my #FocusOnWesternAustralianWriters.You can find out more about my ongoing reading project here and see what books I’ve reviewed from this part of the world on my Focus on Western Australian page.

Author, Book review, Joshua Hammer, Non-fiction, Publisher, Simon & Schuster, true crime

‘The Falcon Thief: A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird’ by Joshua Hammer

Non-fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 318 pages; 2021.

For around 18 years (1998-2016), I worked on specialist magazines in the UK covering all kinds of subject matter, from equestrian sport to gamekeeping, in which I had no specialist knowledge — just natural curiosity and a willingness to learn new things and ask a lot of questions.

During 2005-2010, I was deputy editor, later rising to the editor, on a weekly publication about birdkeeping (even though I knew little about birds). We used to run four pages of news every week, the great bulk of it about bird crime — specifically, the theft of birds and or their eggs from the wild — and conservation.

Later, I was freelance sub-editor and then permanent content editor on a weekly country sports magazine that ran a lot of stories about birds of prey being persecuted (allegedly by gamekeepers protecting their gamebirds) or “going missing” in the wild under unexplained circumstances. In fact, in 2015-16 we ran so many stories about hen harriers that I’m surprised we didn’t change our name to Hen Harrier Weekly.

This is a long-winded way of saying that I was immediately intrigued by Joshua Hammer’s non-fiction book, The Falcon Thief, when I saw it on the shelf because it covered a topic with which I was relatively familiar.

Subtitled A True Tale of Adventure, Treachery and the Hunt for the Perfect Bird, it charts the life, times and crimes of a convicted wildlife thief who worked across three continents as well as telling the story of the British policeman who was instrumental in securing a conviction. It’s part police procedural, natural history treatise and true crime tale, and it reads like a well-crafted, page-turning novel. It is narrative non-fiction at its very best.

Airport arrest

The story begins with the apprehension of Irishman Jeffrey Lendrum at Birmingham International Airport, in the UK, on 3 May 2010. He was headed to Dubai but never got on the flight because a security guard noticed him behaving suspiciously. He was apprehended by officers from the Counter Terrorism Unit, but he didn’t have a bomb strapped to his body —  he had 14 fragile peregrine falcon eggs taped to his abdomen.

Lendrum claimed he was suffering from spinal trouble and that he was carrying eggs — which he claimed were from ducks — because they “force him to keep his stomach muscles taut […] and strengthen his lower back”.

(Isn’t that the most ludicrous thing you have ever heard? As the book reveals, Lendrum is notorious for making up ludicrous stories and this is not the worst of it.)

Investigations revealed the eggs had been stolen from a remote cliffside in Wales, most likely “on order” for wealthy clients in the Middle East, specifically Dubai, where rich sheiks pay huge money — up to $40,000 for a single bird — to secure the very best birds for falconry racing. This is an exclusive sport offering millions of dollars in prize money (the Abu Dhabi Falconers Club’s annual President Cup, for instance, offers a purse of $11 million) and prestige.

A lengthy investigation

Lendrum’s arrest made headlines because nobody had been caught smuggling rare raptor eggs in the UK for decades. This is where Detective Andy McWilliam, of the UK’s National Wildlife Crime Unit, steps in. The unit struggles for money and credibility (few people see wildlife crime as “real” crime), so the case is a chance to prove its worth.

A headline-making conviction of a notorious wildlife criminal could protect the unit from closure — or even, if McWilliam, was very, very lucky, get his budget significantly raised for the next year.

The book weaves together these dual narratives — of the crime and the investigation — and highlights how both men develop an almost symbiotic relationship that spans years and continents because Lendrum didn’t just do this once, he did it multiple times.

As well as being an epic police procedural cum adventure tale, The Falcon Thief is also a brilliant history of the illicit trade in birds and their eggs, the multiple reasons for it, why it is such a vital issue to address and how authorities across the world are working together to end it.

It shows how Dubai, in particular, has fuelled the black market for endangered birds of prey because of the belief that  “falcons stolen from nests are innately superior to those bred in captivity”.

Two brilliant characters

The author describes this as a “shadowy world”, one that draws in Lendrum, who, it turns out is a well-travelled, fearless character almost too fantastical to be true. He’s an intelligent ornithologist, an obsessive egg collector, a skilled climber, a brave adventurer, a clever businessman, an imaginative liar and a master manipulator. His crimes stretch back decades, from his early life in South Africa, where he made a name for himself as a well-respected wildlife enthusiast volunteering on research projects, to a businessman in the UK using his shopfront as a cover for illicit activities.

His foe — McWilliam — is equally intriguing. A policeman with decades of experience, who shunned promotion because he liked walking the beat, and then used his skills in a newly emerging field of investigation, he’s the resilient, hard-working, never-give-up type of bloke you want on your side.

This is a hugely enjoyable book, well-paced and filled with enough natural drama and tension to make it a page-turner. Will he or won’t he get convicted? What daredevil feats will Lendrum commit to feed his obsession? Will McWilliam’s unit get closed down and will he have to give up the chase? You will have to read it to find out…

I read this for Non-Fiction November (#NonFicNov) hosted by various bloggers of which you can find out more here. (Note, there’s a whole bunch of prompts for the month, but reading by schedule doesn’t really work for me, so I hope the hosts don’t mind me reading and reviewing non-fiction on a whim. )

Austria, Author, Book review, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, John Leake, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Cold a Long Time: An Alpine Mystery’ by John Leake

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform; 240 pages; 2012.

More than a decade ago I read a riveting true crime book by John Leake called The Vienna Woods Killer: A Writer’s Double Life, about a murderer in jail who convinced Austria’s literary elite that he was rehabilitated — though he was anything but.

Until recently (when I recommended this book in a  6 Degrees of Separation post), it had never occurred to me to see what else this talented journalist might have written.

A quick perusal of the internet revealed that Leake had written another true crime book, also set in Austria, which he had self-published in 2012 because it was too niche for any mainstream publisher to pick up.

I purchased it on Kindle and found myself immersed in a strange and mysterious story about an enormous cover-up that seemed too unbelievable to be true.

Mystery in the alps

The book focuses on the mysterious disappearance in 1989 of a young Canadian man on holiday in Austria and the subsequent 20-year search his parents conducted in a bid to find out what happened to him.

Duncan MacPherson was a talented professional ice hockey player who had accepted a player-coaching role in Scotland. En route to his new employment, he visited Continental Europe to catch up with friends and do some solo travelling, but after being spotted snowboarding on a beginner slope he was never seen again.

His parents, Lynda and Bob, who were worried about the lack of communication, alerted authorities. Help was not particularly forthcoming. The pair flew to Europe to see what they could unearth themselves, but police and consular staff were unhelpful and dismissive.

When they eventually found Duncan’s car six weeks later at the Stubai Glacier, a popular ski resort near Innsbruck, it was difficult to understand why no one had noticed it; there were no other vehicles around and it stuck out like a sore thumb.

Unfortunately, as Leake’s detailed book reveals, this was the first of many “clues” that were ignored by authorities, which included the ski resort, police, search-and-rescue staff and forensic specialists. Over the next 20 years, Duncan’s parents logged a never-ending succession of blunders, mistakes and concealments that suggested not everyone was being honest with them, which begged the question: what were people trying to hide?

Painstaking detail

Cold A Long Time covers the entire case in painstaking detail. In true detective style, Leake does an enormous amount of investigative research, interviews experts, local law enforcement and almost everyone he can who is connected with the case, to suggest what happened to Duncan and to explain why his disappearance was covered up — and by whom.

It is a compelling read. It’s shocking in places, not least the appalling ways in which the MacPhersons are treated by almost everyone they meet; their concerns dismissed, played down or simply ignored, their pursuit of justice thwarted at every turn. The one forensic doctor who befriends them and earns their trust turns out to have an agenda that did not have their best interests at heart.

If nothing else, this story, with all its twists and turns and its series of appalling mistakes and concealments, is testament to a mother’s love for her son and her enduring patience, tenacity and courage to uncover the truth about his disappearance. There is heartbreak and frustration and anger and disbelief on almost every page. It’s a book full of emotion and yet it’s written in a clear, detached voice, albeit one that is eloquent and compassionate, one that actually moved me to tears by the time I got to the end.

Cold A Long Time won a Bronze Medal in the True Crime category of the 2012 Independent Publisher Awards. It is an excellent read and one that will stay with me for a long time.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2020, Book lists, Book review, Books in translation, Cho Nam-Joo, Fiction, Hachette Australia, literary fiction, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Simon & Schuster, South Korea, Tanya Bretherton, true crime, Viking

Three Quick Reviews: Tanya Bretherton, Cho Nam-ju & Imbi Neeme

Good things come in threes, they say.

Here are three eclectic stories, all focused on women characters and written by women writers, that I have read this year. All are highly recommended.

They include a narrative non-fiction book by Australia’s queen of historical true crime, a best-selling novel from Korea and an award-winning new release set in Western Australia.

They have been reviewed in alphabetical order by author’s surname.

‘The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s first serial murderer’  by Tanya Bretherton
Fiction – paperback; Hachette Australia; 352 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Tanya Bretherton has made a name for herself in Australia as a writer of historical true crime. I have previously read The Suitcase Baby and have The Suicide Bride in my TBR. The Killing Streets is her latest.

It examines, in painstaking detail, a series of violent murders against women in Sydney in the early 1930s. It took a while for the police to cotton on, but eventually, the cases, in which the women’s bodies were found dumped in public places, were linked together and suddenly the hunt was on for Australia’s first serial killer.

Unfortunately, in their rush to convict someone, the police made many mistakes and got the wrong man: the killings continued regardless.

As well as being a fascinating account of (unreliable) police investigative techniques at the time, this book is also an eye-opening portrait of a misogynistic society in which women were merely the playthings of men and if they went missing or were killed it was their fault for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the “wrong” kinds of clothing, pursuing the “wrong” kind of career or simply belonging to the “wrong” class. This is very much a story of a society in which victim-blaming was king,  where the police were quick to rush to judgement and where media coverage and hearsay had an entire city gripped by fear.

The Killing Streets  is a thoroughly researched and highly readable example of narrative non-fiction that puts a series of Depression-era crimes into a social, historical and economic context. It gets a bit bogged down by detail in places and sometimes the creative elements of the narrative felt overdone, taking away from the reportage of the story, but on the whole this is a good one for true crime fans.

‘Kim Ji-young, Born 1982’  by Cho Nam-ju
Fiction – paperback; Simon & Schuster; 176 pages; 2020. Translated from the Korean by Jamie Chang. 

This international bestseller from Korea, first published in 2016 but recently reissued, is a damning portrait of a contemporary society that favours men over women in almost every facet of life.

It tells the story of Kim Ji-Young, who grows up in South Korea and slowly comes to realise that she is at a disadvantage in almost everything she does simply because she was born female. Her younger brother gets special treatment by her parents (extra food and his own room), she’s sexually harassed at school by her male classmates (but is expected to put up with it because that’s just what boys do), she gets overlooked for promotion at work despite being a dedicated and conscientious employee, she’s expected to give up everything for her husband when she marries — you get the idea.

The easy-to-read narrative is dotted with footnotes relating to gender inequality in Korea — for instance, statistical information on the sex ratio imbalance at birth (116.5 boys born to 100 girls in 1990), and the ways in which women do odd jobs on the side to make money as well as raising children, running households and looking after elderly family members — which lends the story real authenticity.

I found Kim Ji-young, Born 1982 a gripping story, easily read in a day, but I’m not sure it told me anything I didn’t already know. For many teenage girls and young women, however, this novel would be the perfect introduction to feminism. It’s an important and powerful read.

‘The Spillby Imbi Neeme
Fiction – paperback; Viking; 336 pages; 2020. Review copy courtesy of the publisher

Before The Spill was published, Imbi Neeme’s manuscript won the Penguin Literary Prize — and it’s easy to see why. This is a gripping tale of two sisters, Nicole and Samantha, whose lives go separate ways following an incident in their childhood (a car accident on a remote road in Western Australia) and who later struggle to reconcile their differences — in temperament, in outlook and the ways in which they see their divorced parents — as adults.

The story, which is largely set in Perth, is told in such an original and ambitious way — vignettes from the past interweaved with the present day, told in alternate chapters from each sister’s perspective — that it’s hard to believe this is the work of a debut novelist. The writing is assured and the characters flesh-and-blood real.

In its portrayal of alcoholism, Neeme shies away from stereotypes or cliches, presenting the disease and its impact on others in all its messy, complicated detail. She does much the same for the relationship between sisters, for Nicole and Samantha are tied together forever but love and loathe each other in myriad different ways. There is jealousy and anger, hurt and regret, misunderstanding and confusion on almost every page. Yet this is not a maudlin story. There are many laughs and witty asides — often at the expense of stepmothers that come into their lives at various times —  dotted throughout.

I thoroughly enjoyed being in the company of this tricky and tangled family. It will be very interesting to see what Imbi Neeme comes up with next…

I read ‘The Killing Streets’ and ‘The Spill’ as part of the 2020 Australian Women Writers Challenge. They form my 10th & 11th books for #AWW2020.
Australia, Author, Book review, Dan Box, Non-fiction, Penguin Australia, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, true crime

‘Bowraville’ by Dan Box

Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin Australia; 336 pages; 2019.

Bowraville is a small country town inland from the mid-north coast of New South Wales. Around 15 per cent of the population is Aboriginal. In a five-month period, from late 1990 to early 1991, three children were murdered. All were indigenous Australians. All had disappeared after parties in the town. All were linked to a white man suspected of the crime, but no one was ever convicted.

This book, Bowraville by Dan Box, charts what happened when a homicide detective who had been working on the case contacted Dan to suggest he pursue the murders. It was more than two decades after the fact and the victims had seemingly been forgotten by law enforcement and the justice system. Their families still mourned for them and were desperate for the perpetrator, whom they believed to live among them, to be held to account.

In May 2016, Box, a crime reporter with The Australian newspaper, hosted a five-part podcast about the Bowraville murders. I have not listened to that podcast (you can find it on Apple podcasts here) but my understanding is that the book builds on his examination of the crimes and brings the case up to date. The serial killing remains unsolved after 25 years.

Three missing children

The victims, all living in houses about 100m apart, were:

  • Colleen Walker-Craig, 16, who disappeared on 13 September 1990. Her body has never been found, but articles of her clothing were discovered weighed down by rocks in the Nambucca River.
  • Evelyn Greenup, four, who went missing three weeks later, on 4 October. Her skeletal remains were found in bushland in April 1991.
  • Clinton Speedy-Duroux, 16, who was last seen on the morning of 1 February 1991. His remains were found in bushland on 18 February.

Dan spends times with the victims’ families to determine the circumstances of their disappearances. He speaks to police and lawyers and finds many glaring omissions in the criminal investigation. Police initially claimed that the missing children had just “gone walkabout” and didn’t follow up leads until bodies were found.

As part of his investigation, Dan also secures an interview with the main suspect, a labourer living in Bowraville, who was arrested for the murder of Speedy-Duroux but later acquitted by a Supreme Court jury in 1994. The same suspect was also charged with the murder of Greenup at a later date but, again, he was acquitted in a separate court case in 2006. No one has ever been charged or convicted of all three crimes together.

Dan’s tenacious reporting and investigation did result in changes being made to double jeopardy legislation — the principle that no one should face trial for the same crime twice — in NSW. This opened the way for the man acquitted of Speedy-Duroux and Greenup’s murder to go on retrial if “fresh and compelling evidence” was uncovered.

It’s not a plot spoiler to say a retrial was not granted, even though Dan’s interview with the suspect unveiled evidence that had never been admitted in court before.

Fight for justice

Reading Bowraville was an eye-opening experience. It covers a lot of ground and occasionally gets bogged down in soporific detail, but it is a confronting portrait of a deeply divided society, a town where black people are pitted against white, where racial prejudice has infused generations and left a legacy of hate and violence.

The book’s major achievement is the way in which it clearly demonstrates that black justice and white justice in modern Australia are two different things. Three children living in the same street were murdered in a short space of time, but no one in authority seemed to take the crimes seriously and few Australians have even heard about the murders. The suggestion is that if the children were white, it would be all over the media. Having read this compelling book, it is hard to argue otherwise.

As well as an illuminating examination of the tenacity required to seek and fight for justice, Bowraville is also an interesting look at what happens when a journalist becomes part of the story. “I have changed from being a reporter about this case to being a campaigner, joining with the police and childrens’ families in calling for the murders to go back to court,” Dan writes. Later he adds: “That’s what I am now. Not a reporter, not a campaigner. A witness.”

Bowraville is a gripping true-crime tale, but it’s also a disturbing look at the failings of the Australian justice system and Australian society as a whole.

This is my 16th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought this book when it was first published last July and began reading it in December but put it aside, with only half of it read, when things at work got a bit hectic. I picked it up again earlier this month to finish the last 150+ pages.

Author, Book review, essays, Janet Malcolm, Non-fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, Setting, TBR2020, Text, USA

‘Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays’ by Janet Malcolm

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Text Publishing; 304 pages; 2019.

Janet Malcolm is a respected American journalist who writes in a narrative non-fiction style. I regard her most notable work, The Journalist and The Murderer, first published in 1990, as one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read. It’s the quintessential work by which I measure all other narrative non-fiction work.

Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays, which was published by Text last year, brings together a variety of her shorter essays, which were originally published in the New Yorker and the New York Review of Books. As such they are fairly divergent in theme, if not style, and they cover everything from detailed profile pieces to long-form book reviews. (The title comes from her profile of American fashion designer Eileen Fisher, whose Catholic mother often said to her “nobody’s looking at you” as a way of stamping out any tendency towards self-absorption.)

This eclectic collection is divided into three parts: long-form journalistic profiles of famous people; shorter pieces on topics ranging from pop culture to politics; and articles about books and literature. Admittedly, I found the first part much better than the second and third, perhaps because the pieces were long enough to give Malcolm’s writing the chance to breathe — and to showcase what she really does best, bringing people to life with a simple flourish of her pen.

Profile pieces

In Part I of Nobody’s Looking at You: Essays there are several standout features, but the one that made the biggest impression on me was about Yuja Wang, a Chinese classical pianist who is renowned for wearing stilettos and outrageous little dresses on stage. I had never heard of her before, but reading Malcolm’s essay “Performance Artist” really made me feel as if I knew her personally. I found myself feeling quite defensive of her!

In this piece, Malcolm shows how Yuga’s preference for “extremely short and tight dresses that ride up as she plays” has almost eclipsed the music, as journalists and critics get sidetracked by her fashion sense.

The New Criterion critic Jay Nordlinger characterized the “shorter-than-short red dress, barely covering her rear” that Yuja wore for a Carnegie Hall recital as “stripper-wear.” Never has the relationship between what we see at a concert and what we hear come under such perplexing scrutiny.

Spending time with the young musician, Malcolm finds herself wondering if it might not just be easier for Yuja to ditch the risque outfits for something more sombre.

In 2014, when an interviewer from the London Telegraph asked Yuja about “her fondness for riskily short, clingy dresses,” she gave a flippant reply: “I am 26 years old, so I dress for 26. I can dress in long skirts when I am 40.” But in fact Yuja’s penchant for the riskily short and clingy has less to do with allegiance to the dress code of her generation than with an awareness of her own “super-smallness,” as she calls it. She knows that small, tight clothes bring out her beauty and large, loose garments don’t. But she is not just a woman who knows how to dress. She is a woman who is constantly experimenting with how to dress when she is playing on a concert stage. She is keenly aware—as many soloists affect not to be—that she is being looked at as well as listened to.

Malcolm gains further insight into her subject when the pair get ready to attend a meeting. Yuja spends an inordinate amount of time deciding whether to wear a flamboyant dress or stay in her casual attire:

Should she wear one of them or stay in the shorts? I asked what the issue was—was she interested in comfort or in how she looked? She stared at me as if I were crazy. What weird world was I living in where comfort could even be thought of? She wiggled into one of the bandage dresses, added her high heels, and we walked the three blocks to Lincoln Center at a brisk clip.

It’s these kinds of observations that distinguishes Malcolm’s work from the usual run-of-the-mill magazine features we might normally read. She spends a lot of time with her subjects on multiple occasions, which allows her to get a feel for the person she’s profiling.

Putting in the hours

In her essay “Three Sisters”, which is about three sisters in their 70s who run Argosy Bookshop on East Fifty-Ninth Street in New York, she actually works behind the till to allow her to understand how the business works.

“One day,” she writes, “I sat with Adina at the cash register as spurts of arriving customers alternated with lulls when the shop was almost empty.” She then charts every exchange, every customer’s weird and wonderful requests, and in doing so shows the inner-most working of a secondhand bookstore via the clientele it attracts. It’s this kind of journalistic research that can only be done face-to-face, by putting the hours in, as it were, that makes the pieces come alive.

That said, I found her essays on politics a little wearisome, perhaps because they were outdated — “The Art of Testifying”, for instance, is about the Senate Judiciary Committee’s machinations in 1990 and everything she states about the process has been somewhat eclipsed by Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination last year. Her essay “Special Needs”, on Sarah Palin’s nine-part documentary series, which was published in the New York Review of Books in 2011 seems similarly irrelevant.

Perhaps these old essays might have benefited from a short introduction putting things into context —  or at least the initial date of publication could have been listed at the top of the essay (instead of at the end) to act as a helpful signpost for the reader.

All up, I really only liked a third of this essay collection. I hazard to say it is probably one for completists only.

This is my 5th book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR between 1 January and 30 June. I bought it on Kindle late last year.

 

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Bri Lee, long form essay, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Beauty’ by Bri Lee

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 150 pages; 2019.

Earlier this year I read Bri Lee’s memoir Eggshell Skull, which was long- and shortlisted for many literary awards and was named Biography of the Year at the 2019 Australian Book Industry Awards. It is one of the best books I’ve read this year and will undoubtedly make my top 10 when I compile it in a few days’ time.

Beauty is Lee’s latest work of narrative non-fiction. It’s essentially a long-form essay, which was initially written as part of the author’s MPhil in Creative Writing at the University of Queensland, and has since been published by Allen & Unwin in an attractive small-format book with a striking cover image (the painting is by artist Loribelle Spirovski) and French flaps.

It focuses primarily on body image and the ways in which young women are conditioned to think that being thin is the only route to happiness and acceptance. It charts Lee’s own struggles with body dysmorphia and eating disorders (topics she also addressed in Eggshell Skull) and examines how her own obsession with thinness has eaten away (no pun intended) at her self-esteem and self-worth.

These issues may not be new, but Lee’s book is the first I’ve read that focuses on how the obsession with thinness as a beauty ideal has worsened in recent times thanks to the influence of social media. She talks about the need to be “photo-ready” at every minute of the day because camera phones are so prevalent.

Until the proliferation of smartphones around 2010, we would only feel conscious of being observed in scenarios that were laden with photo opportunities, but now, with social media being the omnipresent mass-reaching norm, we self-police in perpetuity.

She goes on to explain why young women now spend extraordinary amounts of money on make-up and take forever to “put their face on” and highlights how this peer pressure can cripple everyday decisions such as what to wear at work and play.

Admittedly, as compelling and as readable as I found this highly personalised essay to be, it did make me feel about 40 million years old. It’s clear from Lee’s experience that Millennials feel enormous pressure to be thin and that they associate this (wrongly) with being successful, beautiful and sexually desirable.

I grew up in the 1980s. Yes, there was pressure to be thin — mainly conveyed via airbrushed magazine covers — but our pop stars weren’t sexualised (Kim Wilde, my hero at the time, was always covered up in a white t-shirt, and Banarama often wore overalls/dungarees as if they’d just done a shift on a building site). Nor were we under the constant surveillance of social media where our peers could judge us instantaneously and so unkindly. We weren’t living under the weight of having everything we did (or said) validated by a “like” or “share” button.

Nowadays (how old does that make me sound, starting a sentence with that word), it seems that young women feel so little in control of any aspect of their life that the only thing they can attempt to wage war on is their weight and the way they look on Instagram. It just makes me feel desperately sad.

Beauty isn’t pitched at women of my age, but I think it is probably required reading for teenage girls if only to make them aware of the social constructs that can make their lives so miserable and competitive and psychologically damaging. Lee’s experience should serve as a warning that appearances are not everything…

This is my 25th book for #AWW2019.

Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Chloe Hooper, Hamish Hamilton, Non-fiction, Publisher

‘The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire’ by Chloe Hooper

The Australian edition

Non-fiction – paperback; Hamish Hamilton; 272 pages; 2018.

Ten years ago, on 7 February 2009, in unprecedented hot weather conditions, a series of bushfires — 400 separate fires giving off the heat equivalent of 500 atomic bombs! — raged across the state of Victoria, wiping out everything in their path, including whole townships and hundreds and thousands of hectares of farmland and bushland. One-hundred and eighty people lost their lives, making them the deadliest fires in Australian history.

On that particular Saturday — which later became known as Black Saturday — the Central Gippsland fires in and around the Latrobe Valley (just a 45 minute drive from where I grew up) burnt 32,860 hectares and killed 11 people. It later transpired that the Churchill fire, which started in a pine plantation, was deliberately lit and a 39-year-old Churchill man was arrested on suspicion of arson.

That man, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison three years later, is the subject of Chloe Hooper’s extraordinary new book, The Arsonist: A Mind on Fire, which was longlisted for the 2019 Stella Prize.

The UK edition

A true crime story

The book, which is essentially a true crime tale, is divided into three parts covering the police investigation into the fire, the defence lawyers’ case and the court proceedings.

It’s written in a clear but lyrical style with a journalist’s eye for detail. Hooper’s descriptions of the fire, taken from witness statements, are particularly powerful.

One man saw his beehives combust from the sheer heat. ‘Trees ignited from the ground up in one blast, like they were self-exploding.’ Burning birds fell from trees, igniting the ground where they landed. ‘Everything was on fire, plants, fence posts, tree stumps, wood chip mulch, the inflatable pool. I put water on it, but it melted slowly to nothing.’ The aluminium tray of a ute [pick-up truck] ‘ran in rivulets on the ground’.

Likewise, her “picture” of the arsonist, Brendan Sokaluk, is even-handed and compassionate. She unearths his back story to find out how this single, unemployed man living on a disability pension had become a social outcast long before he lit the fire.

He was bullied at school and ostracised at work (he was a groundsman for 18 years, took stress leave and never went back). His odd behaviour as an adult, including the inability to make eye contact, poor interpersonal skills and his penchant for watching Thomas the Tank Engine and Bob the Builder, marked him as “different”, never more so than on the afternoon of Black Saturday, when:

Brendan climbed onto his roof in Sheoke Grove and sat watching the inferno in the hills. His neighbours saw him and noticed that his face was streaked with dirt. He was wearing a camouflage-print outfit and a beanie. One hand shaded his eyes. All around, the sky was dark with smoke. Ash was falling. Tiny cinders burnt the throat on inhaling. Brendan glared down at the neighbours, then went back to watching his mother earth burn.

Firestarter motives

As per the book’s title, Hooper examines what makes an arsonist, in general, and why they do it. (Across Australia it is thought that 37 per cent of all vegetation fires are suspicious and that those that light them deliberately are usually “male; they are commonly unemployed; or had a complicated work history; they were likely to have disadvantaged social backgrounds, often with a family history of pathology, addiction and physical abuse; and many exhibited poor social or interpersonal skills”.)

And then she turns her focus on Sokaluk, who claims he accidentally lit the fire by throwing cigarette ash, wrapped in a serviette, out the window of his car when he was driving past the plantation. (The evidence suggests the fire was most likely started by a match or a cigarette lighter. It does not explain why there were two fires, one of either side of the road, which the police believe were both started by Sokaluk.)

This extraordinary case is brought to life by Hooper’s interviews with Selena McCrickard, Sokaluk’s Legal Aid lawyer, who comes across as being kind and compassionate but who is frequently frustrated by her client’s behaviour. When she has him mentally assessed, Sokaluk is diagnosed with autism, a condition that was practically unheard of in the 1970s when he was a kid and which goes some way to explaining his difficulties growing up and fitting into society.

Interviews with Sokaluk’s parents also help paint a much fuller picture of his childhood and day-to-day life and how they had always been worried about him but were unable to do much more than check up on him, take him on outings and ensure he paid his bills on time.

Fine reportage

The Arsonist is a fine example of true crime reportage. As well as examining this particular shocking crime in forensic detail, Hooper puts it in a much larger context — how common arson is in Australia, why it occurs, who commits it, the difficulties associated with investigating it and the hatred such a crime generates in the public — to provide a well-rounded picture of pyromania.

The book does not come up with any clear-cut answers as to how to prevent people becoming firebugs. “If arson is an expression of a particular psychology, there will always be arsonists,” Hooper writes.

But it’s clear that just like social outcast Martin Bryant, who shot dead 35 people in Port Arthur, Tasmania in 1996 (see my reviews of Born or Bred? Martin Bryant: The Making of a Mass Murderer by Robert Wainwright & Paola Totaro, and The Media and the Massacre by Sonya Voumard, two books about this case), we ignore children’s mental impairments and interpersonal difficulties at our peril.

The message I took from this book was the sooner children can be diagnosed and given appropriate support the better, not just for society as a whole but for those children who might otherwise be bullied and ostracised as Brendan Sokaluk was for his entire life.

Added extras

Other Australian bloggers have reviewed this book including Lisa at ANZ Litlovers and Kate at Booksaremyfavouriteandbest.

The UK edition of The Arsonist will be published in paperback by Scribner UK on 30 May.

To find out more about this case, including an interview with Chloe Hooper and footage of Brendan Sokaluk’s police interview, please check out this edition of Australian Story:

 

Note, I have also read and reviewed Chloe Hooper’s The Tall Man: Life and Death on Palm Island and highly recommend it.

This is my 9th book for #AWW2019  

Allen & Unwin, Australia, Australian Women Writers Challenge, Author, AWW2019, Book review, Maryrose Cuskelly, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, true crime

‘Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust’ by Maryrose Cuskelly

Non-fiction – paperback; Allen & Unwin; 304 pages; 2018.

Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust by Maryrose Cuskelly is a deeply contemplative and gripping analysis of a small-town murder in Australia written very much in the vein of Helen Garner’s true-crime style (think Joe Cinque’s Consolation and This House of Grief).

It focuses on the brutal killing of Peter Lockhart, 78, his second wife Mary, 75, and her son Greg Holmes, 48, at the hands of their neighbour, 64-year-old Ian Jamieson, in rural Wedderburn, in Central Victoria, 215km north-west of Melbourne in October 2014.

Holmes was stabbed more than 25 times on his rural property, which bordered Jamieson’s, while the Lockharts, who lived across the road, were shot multiple times, at close range.

When Jamieson called the emergency services to report his deeds, he told the operator that it was too late for an ambulance because all three were dead. He then phoned a friend, Wally Meddings, and asked him to look after his wife, Janice, “because the police are coming to take me in and I’ll never see the light of day again”. He then phoned his friend Anna McMerrin, telling her:

I’m just ringing to let you know [that I’ve killed my neighbours] and I want you to look after Janice for me. Five years I’ve been putting up with shit from those bastards and I just snapped.

What does it take to provoke a murder?

Cuskelly considers what might have driven Jamieson to carry out such an act. She interviews friends, from both sides of the story, nearby residents and other locals to get a feel, not only for what Jamieson was like as a person, but to find out the impact of the murders on such a small and close-knit community.

What could be behind the rumours I heard that at least some of those living in the community viewed the killings, in particular the murder of Peter Lockhart, as an understandable reaction to extreme provocation? How could anyone, apart from the most callous individual, describe the killing of another person as a favour?

One theory posited that there was a feud involving the use of a track between the properties. Jamieson claimed whenever Lockhart or Holmes drove along the track it kicked up dust that settled in his rainwater tanks and soiled his clean washing on the line. He asked them not to do it, but they ignored him. He suggested that they did it deliberately to get a rise out of  him.

But over the two-and-a-half years that it took Cuskelly to research this book she learned that it wasn’t quite as cut and dried as that.

As she charts the court proceedings in which Jamieson kept changing his mind as to whether to plead guilty or not, sacking his legal representatives in the process and acting petulantly in front of the judge, Cuskelly befriends the victim’s families and discovers there’s always two sides to every story.

The story behind the headlines

This is a book that looks behind the headlines to discover how violence and masculinity and small town rivalries can collide with horrendous and long-term consequences. It takes what appears on the surface to be a simple story about a man “snapping” and shows how it is far more complex than that.

Written in elegant prose, free from sensation and sentiment, Wedderburn: A True Tale of Blood and Dust takes the reader on an astonishing, often emotional, journey that shows the full sweep of human qualities, both good and bad, and highlights how we all have the potential inside of us to carry out brutal acts for which there is no going back.

It’s also an illuminating examination of the convoluted judicial process and how brave and determined the victims of crime (or, in this case, the families of the murder victims) must be to seek justice.

This is a fascinating book, one that has left an impact as I suspect it does on anyone who chooses to read it.

You can read more detail about the actual crime in this piece published in WHO magazine last year.

This is my 1st book for #AWW2019 — I plan to read a minimum of ten books by Australian women this year as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge (note, you don’t need to be Australian to take part; everyone is welcome to participate). Please note ‘Wedderburn’ doesn’t seem to be published outside of Australia (I bought mine in Melbourne during my recent trip), though the audio book is available on Audible and you can order the paperback direct from Australia via Book Depository if you can stomach the expense.

20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Book review, China, Hyeonseo Lee, memoir, Non-fiction, North Korea, Publisher, Setting, William Collins

‘The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea’ by Hyeonseo Lee (with David John)

Non-fiction – Kindle edition; William Collins; 320 pages; 2016.

Leaving North Korea is not like leaving any other country. It is more like leaving another universe. I will never truly be free of its gravity, no matter how far I journey.

The Girl with Seven Names: Escape from North Korea by Hyeonseo Lee is an inspiring and harrowing true life story about escaping a brutal regime and then having the courage to get your family out too.

Hyeonseo Lee was born in North Korea. She came from a relatively comfortable family. Her father was in the military and her mother smuggled goods from across the Chinese border and made a living selling them, so there was always food on the table — even during the Great Famine, where one million North Koreans died of starvation — and new clothes to wear.

But not long after Hyeonseo’s father died, she made a fateful — and terribly naive — decision: to cross the border and visit relatives in China for a few days, thinking she could return without any consequences. She was just 17. Sadly, she was never able to go back.

A perilous search for freedom

The book charts Hyeonseo’s journey to freedom. It follows her life as an illegal immigrant in China, where she spent 10 years working low-level jobs, until she was able to get herself to South Korea, where she claimed asylum.

But throughout this time, always looking over her shoulder, changing her name (yes, seven times), learning Mandarin to fit in, buying a fake ID and keeping one step ahead of the authorities, she was constantly aware that she had left her mother and younger brother behind, whom she missed terribly. She vowed to get her mother out (her brother was engaged to be married, so it was more complicated to help him), but through a bizarre set of circumstances managed to smuggle both of them out.

Their perilous 2,000 mile journey from North Korea to Vietnam, where they planned to claim asylum in the South Korean embassy, was supposed to take around a week: it took more than six months and involved all kinds of dangers, including immersion in the shady world of people smugglers, brokers and corrupt officials.

It didn’t help that Vietnam had supposedly turned hostile to helping North Koreans and a last-minute diversion to Laos put the whole escape plan at risk. There was the ever-present threat of deportation back to North Korea, where imprisonment or public execution awaited.

A fabulous adventure story

The Girl with Seven Names is a truly gripping read. It has the air of a fabulous adventure story; sometimes it’s hard to believe it’s true because so many horrendous things happen along the way. But Hyeonseo’s unwavering faith in herself, in helping her mother and of forging a new life in a new culture is inspiring.

And while her story highlights the worst of humanity — the repressive and truly cruel nature of the North Korean state, the immorality of the people smugglers and the gangs determined to make a buck out of other people’s misery — it also presents a refreshing look at the kindness of others, for it is only through the random act of one man — a Westerner in Laos — that Hyeonseo was able to get her family to South Korea because he gave her the money she needed exactly when she needed it.

My most basic assumptions about human nature were being overturned. In North Korea I’d learned from my mother that to trust anyone outside the family was risky and dangerous. In China I’d lived by cunning since I was a teenager, lying to hide the truth of my identity in order to survive. On the only occasion I’d trusted people I’d got into a world of trouble with the Shenyang police. Not only did I believe that humans were selfish and base, I also knew that plenty of them were actually bad – content to destroy lives for their own gain. I’d seen Korean-Chinese expose North Korean escapees to the police in return for money. I’d known people who’d been trafficked by other humans as if they were livestock. That world was familiar to me. All my life, random acts of kindness had been so rare that they’d stick in my memory, and I’d think: how strange. What Dick had done changed my life. He showed me that there was another world where strangers helped strangers for no other reason than that it is good to do so, and where callousness was unusual, not the norm. Dick had treated me as if I were his family, or an old friend. Even now, I do not fully grasp his motivation. But from the day I met him the world was a less cynical place. I started feeling warmth for other people. This seemed so natural, and yet I’d never felt it before.

Hyesonseo now campaigns for North Korean human rights and refugee issues. You can see a TED talk she gave in 2013 about her story:

If you liked this, you might also like:

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick:  an award-winning book, probably the best about what it is like to live in North Korea, that tells the individual stories of six people living in Chongjin, the nation’s third largest city.

This is my 10th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it last year after reading this piece by Hyeonseo Lee on the Five Books website.