Australia, Author, Book review, food, nature, Non-fiction, Penguin, Publisher, Reading Projects, Richard Flanagan, Setting, TBR 21

‘Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry’ by Richard Flanagan

Non-fiction – paperback; Penguin; 240 pages; 2021.

I have not eaten red meat for 30 years, but I consume a lot of fish. I love salmon, whether fresh, smoked or hot smoked.

I knew that when I picked up this non-fiction expose of the Tasmanian salmon industry I was toying with fire. “This is going to put me off eating salmon for life, isn’t it?” I declared when the bookseller I purchased it from told me this was the sixth copy he’d sold in a matter of hours. He just laughed and said, “Come back and let me know!”

Well, I haven’t been back yet, but the answer is exactly what I knew it would be. It’s doubtful I will eat Tasmanian farmed salmon ever again.

A thorough investigation

Written by Booker prize-winner Richard Flanagan, Toxic is a no holds barred investigation into the dubious practices of farming Atlantic salmon in Tasmania, specifically the D’Entrecasteaux Channel, a body of water that separates Bruny Island from the Tasmanian mainland and which acts as the mouth of the estuaries of the Derwent and Huon Rivers and empties into the Tasman Sea.

Flanagan explains how this channel, once a renowned beauty spot and sleepy backwater, has become environmentally degraded by an industry that puts profit before all else. He also shows how the product, which is marketed as clean and healthy, is anything but. It’s an eye-opening, stomach-churning and anger-inducing read.

I regard myself as an educated person, someone who is interested in the provenance of my food and who cares deeply about nature, but Toxic has exposed the glaring omissions in my knowledge and made me realise how naive I am when it comes to buying — and eating — farmed salmon.

Here’s just a handful of things I did not know — and which greatly alarmed me:

¶  The salmon is dyed so that it appears a healthy-looking pink and is more palatable to the consumer. This dye — synthetic astaxanthin — is made from petrochemicals.

Just as you use colour swatches to choose house paint, the salmon corporations use colour swatches to choose their salmon’s colour.

¶  Farmed salmon is not necessarily good for you. That’s because the fish’s fatty profile has changed as a consequence of the diet they are fed which is plant-based, rather than fish-based, so that the salmon now contain more omega-6 oils, the so-called “bad” fats, rather than omega-3 oils, which are better for you.

¶  Salmon farming is driving deforestation because the fish are fed a plant-based diet. Fishmeal, it turns out, is too expensive to feed, so farmers source protein from other food streams to cut costs. In Tasmania, the majority of this protein is chicken-based (a revolting mix of heads, feet, intestines and so on, mainly sourced from battery hens), but the fish are also fed soy, which comes from South America.

Illegal deforestation to create new soy farms in South America, particularly in the Amazon and Cerrado, is deeply embedded in the rise of the salmon industry globally and throws a long shadow over any attempt by the local industry to present salmon as a green product.

The fish live in horrendous conditions, crammed into “feedlots” where they barely have room to swim. These lots are often stacked one on top of another in towers of up to 20 metres in height, “down which faeces and urine rain”.

The image of thousands of cows slowly suffocating to death in a smog-polluted shed would be unacceptable. The reality of thousands of salmon slowly suffocating to death on a hot day as oxygen levels collapse is less questioned.

Fish farms are noisy. They work around the clock using heavy diesel compressors to oxygenate the water. To avoid salmon stock being killed by amoebic gill disease, the fish also need to be “bathed” in giant freshwater bladders on a monthly, sometimes fortnightly, rotation. They are mechanically vacuumed out of their feedlots into the bladders, then sucked out again. And then there are all the attendant boats and the industrial lighting required to enable workers to see what they are doing, so that residents living onshore are plagued by light and noise pollution 24/7.

I could go on, but it’d be easier for me to tell you to read the book. You might end up underlining the entire thing, which is what I was tempted to do when I wasn’t feeling nauseous by the horrendous facts that pile up on top of one another like bodies in a mass grave (I make no apology for that simile).

An industry mired in secrecy

Knowing all this, the first question you might well ask is how is this legal?

Flanagan painstakingly documents the corruption at the heart of the industry, which claims to be regulated but is really mired in secrecy and cover-ups. He talks to leading scientists and activists and a host of brave people who have spoken out against the industry’s practices. It doesn’t make for pleasant or comfortable reading.

It’s thoroughly researched and completely up-to-date (there are references to things that happened as recently as March 2021), but unfortunately, Toxic doesn’t possess an index, which is infuriating if you wish to look something up afterwards. There is, however, an extensive list of references and sources.

I can’t say I am glad I read this book, because it means I can no longer in all good conscience continue to eat one of my favourite sources of protein, but it’s one of the best, and most chilling, non-fiction reads I’ve consumed in a long while.

Please note, Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry doesn’t appear to be published outside of Australia, but you can order it from or try to source a used copy.

This is my 19h book for #TBR21 in which I’m planning to read 21 books from my TBR between 1 January and 31 May 2021. I purchased it from my local independent book store last month.

Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Paul Kalanithi, Publisher, Vintage

‘When Breath Becomes Air’ by Paul Kalanithi

When breath becomes air

Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 228 pages; 2017.

What makes life worth living in the face of death? That’s the subtitle of When Breath Becomes Air, a life-affirming memoir — published posthumously — by Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the age of 36.

By all accounts, Kalanithi was an extraordinary man. He held several degrees — in English literature, human biology, and the history and philoso­phy of science and medicine — and spent a decade training to be a neurosurgeon. He also had a successful writing career and had pieces published in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Paris Review Daily.  On top of this, he still managed to find the time to get married and have a child.

His driving force? The quest to answer questions that had plagued him for most of his adult life: what makes human life meaningful? If the unexamined life was not worth living, was the unlived life worth examining?

I felt literature provided the best account of the life of the mind, while neuroscience laid down the most elegant rules of the brain. Meaning, while a slippery concept, seemed inextricable from human relationships and moral values. […] Literature not only illuminated another’s experience, it provided, I believed, the richest material for moral reflection.

The book largely charts Kalanithi’s search for those answers over the course of his short life. It charts his American childhood in small town Arizona, the middle son of Indian immigrants who encouraged him to work hard. It follows his transformation from arts student to medical student, and the joy and meaning he found in his decade-long training as a neurosurgeon.

Later, we see how he rescues a troubled marriage in order to fulfil a long-term plan to become a father. And then, finally, we learn about his difficult switch from doctor to patient when his severe chest pain, back spasms, night sweats and weight loss is diagnosed as terminal cancer.

But through all this hard work, upheaval and illness there is one constant in Kalanithi’s life: books and reading. (The text is dotted with so many references to classics, poetry and modern fiction I felt entirely inadequate, because I haven’t come close to reading a quarter of the titles mentioned and I think I read quite a lot of novels.)

When Breath Becomes Air is written in an engaging, self-aware style. Kalanithi is at much at home explaining complicated medical procedures as he is writing about his own personal life and the things that make him tick. It’s intimate, moving, honest and profound.

As well as an in-depth reflection on mortality and death, it is very much a call to arms about living the best life you can and of making your life meaningful in whatever way makes you happy. It’s a testimony to hard work and dedication, of being curious and committed, of forging your own path when societal norms might suggest another. It’s the kind of memoir you don’t forget in a hurry.

Australia, Book review, Cal Flyn, History, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Scotland, Setting, travel, William Collins

‘Thicker Than Water: History, Secrets and Guilt: A Memoir’ by Cal Flyn

Thicker than water by Cal Flyn

Non-fiction – hardcover; William Collins; 224 pages; 2016. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

Cal Flyn’s Thicker Than Water is a remarkable — and readable — travelogue-cum-historical-biography about her great-great-great uncle, Angus McMillan, a Scotsman who fled the Highland Clearances and emigrated to Australia in 1837.

McMillan, a proud and pious man, was regarded as the “Father of Gippsland’, having opened up the rugged south-east of what is now the state of Victoria — and where, I must point out, I am from, hence my interest in the book.

Up until quite recently, history has been kind to McMillan. He has plaques and cairns recording his achievements, streets are named after him, the rural education centre in my home town is called the McMillan campus. His entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography describes him as “courageous, strong and generous, with a great love for his adopted country”, a man who “took a sympathetic interest in the welfare of the Aborigines”.

But McMillan lead another less honourable life that history has failed to record. He was a murderer — a mass murderer — responsible for the deaths of hundreds of aboriginals massacred at places now largely known by horrible names, such as Slaughterhouse Gully, Butchers Creek and Skull Creek. Unsurprisingly, he has also come to be known as the “Butcher of Gippsland”.

A journey into the heart of darkness

Thicker Than Water  is not a standard biography of a historical figure. Flyn writes in an engaging way by taking us on her journey — both figuratively and literally — to discover the story behind her ancestor and his achievements. To her credit, she does not shy away from the harsh realities of what she unearths along the way.

Indeed, her initial pride in McMillan’s discovery of Gippsland is soon usurped by a growing sense of unease when she stumbles upon a 2005 news story:

A Scottish pioneer revered as one of Australia’s foremost explorers faces being erased from maps amid accusations that he was responsible for the cold-blooded murder of hundreds of aborigines.

She later learns that the Gunai people, who had inhabited Gippsland for 20,000 years, were decimated by McMillan and his “Highland Brigade”. At the end of a decade-long “war of attrition”, there were just 126 Gunai left, down from about 1,800.

Flyn, shocked and ashamed by these appalling acts (it is believed there were more than a dozen massacres all up), feels the need to atone for her ancestor’s sins. And so she packs in her newspaper job, bids farewell to her boyfriend, and heads Down Under to meet with local historians and Gunai elders in a bid to put things right.

Atoning for past sins

The narrative follows Flyn’s travels from the Highlands to Australia, weaving in excerpts from McMillan’s own diaries and including facts and snippets about him that she unearths along the way. Through this deftly woven narrative that mixes personal reflection with detective-like journalistic research, she’s able to build up a fascinating portrait of a man — hardworking and civic-minded, but also prone to bitterness and jealousy, especially with his rival, the Polish explorer Pawel Strzelecki, who, from my own childhood was always held in higher regard than McMillan.

What results is a highly entertaining narrative that feels more like a novel than a dull biography. (Some of the passages describing her travels into the Gippsland bush are full of beautiful, descriptive language about the plants and landscapes she encounters; I’d like to see Flyn tackle a nature book next, I think it’d be brilliant.)

But Thicker Than Water also feels like a deeply personal story, for on almost every page you can feel Flyn’s own moral compass going slightly haywire: how on earth can she ever come to terms with McMillan’s horrendous deeds knowing that she’s related to him? Her shame and anguish over this is palpable. The book does present an interesting dilemma, for at what point do you atone for the sins of your ancestors? And what happens if they committed something so atrocious and so appalling that it turns your stomach to think about? Is it really your responsibility to apologise?

I’m not sure Flyn found any answers — perhaps because there aren’t any. Apologies are fleeting acts; they do not address the ongoing inequality that so many indigenous people face on a day-to-day basis. But in giving voice to McMillan’s extraordinary history, she has at least helped to paint a more truthful picture of the man that history has for so long lauded. And in telling that story the door opens to allow similar ones to be recorded that have not yet been told.

And finally…

Unfortunately, I can’t include Thicker Than Water in my #ReadingAustralia2016 project because the author is Scottish. But the story is so focused on Australian history and so revealing of an aspect that has, for too long, been ignored or rarely spoken about that I couldn’t resist reading it.

Please note it hasn’t been published in the US or Canada, but secondhand copies are widely available.

Australia, Author, Book review, Finch Publishing, Lisa Nops, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Setting, Sri Lanka, travel, UAE

‘My Life in a Pea Soup’ by Lisa Nops


Non-fiction – Kindle edition; Finch Publishing; 240 pages; 2013. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

I have to confess that true stories about motherhood and raising children aren’t normally my cup of tea, so it may come as some surprise that I chose to read and review Lisa Nops’ My Life in a Pea Soup when the publisher pitched it to me. However, I quite like memoirs written by ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances, and I also like tales about expats, and this book ticked both those boxes.

Planned parenthood

The memoir is written by Lisa Nops, an Australian teacher who married Michael, an English civil engineer, in 1989. Michael’s job often involved working in exotic locations, so at various times the couple have lived in Australia, New Zealand, France, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Bahrain.

When they decided to start a family Lisa was unable to fall pregnant, so four rounds of IVF treatment ensued, with no success. Then, in November 1997, she fell pregnant naturally and their daughter, Sally, was born in 1998.

Initially, Sally appeared to be a normal baby, albeit with an extremely quiet disposition, “inclined to sleep over and above doing anything else, not just at night but during the day as well”. But as time progressed Sally failed to meet ordinary developmental milestones, such as crawling, walking and speaking, was plagued by various illnesses, including ear infections, was prone to “staring intensely at objects and shadows” and began to flap her hands uncontrollably when excited.

When she was three, she was diagnosed with an unknown “neurological problem” that would require intensive speech, language and occupational therapy. There was the very real possibility that she would never learn to speak in sentences. Eventually she was diagnosed as autistic.

Search for a diagnosis

The book charts Lisa’s struggle to find out what was wrong with Sally, a journey that spanned several years — and continents. It was complicated by two factors: Lisa’s inability to fully accept that Sally’s slow development was anything other than her just being slow, and the family’s constant moving from one country to another.

Even when Lisa moved back to her home town of Canberra, Australia, to give Sally a better chance of medical care, things weren’t always straightforward. It certainly didn’t help that Michael remained behind in Sri Lanka to continue working, leaving Lisa to grapple with raising a child with special needs alone.

Once a proper diagnosis was made, it allowed the couple to become more focused on getting the right care and attention for Sally. But this was only half the battle. It did not alter the fact that they were “stuck” in a life they had never planned when they had decided to become parents. Lisa uses the analogy of planning a dream trip to Italy only to end up in Holland by accident:

It’s a different county to the one they had expected, where the countryside is flat and the people speak with guttural inflections. For a while they resent their holiday there; it wasn’t what they had planned and everyone in Italy is having a great time. But, little by little, day by day, they start to enjoy the country’s level plains, the windmills and tulips. They surprise themselves by eventually liking this holiday.

I do not have children, but what this book confirmed to me is the very real challenge that parents of autistic children face on a day to day basis. It’s not a grim read — indeed, there are many chinks of light in it, especially when Lisa and Michael discover (and then adopt) a program called Son-Rise, which helps Sally enormously.

It’s written in a straightforward style, free of sentiment and self-pity, and I suspect readers with autistic children, friends or relatives will learn a lot from it.

Nops also has a lovely way of describing life as an expat, especially the excitement (and apprehension) of moving to a new country, discovering new cultures and adjusting to their customs, and she skilfully interleaves this detail into her story with a lightness of touch. I liked the way the author explores this sense of “otherness”, not only as an expat but as a parent of a child with special needs.

My Life in a Pea Soup won the Finch Memoir Prize in 2012.


Author, Book review, memoir, Non-fiction, Publisher, Stephen Grosz, Vintage

‘The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves’ by Stephen Grosz


Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 225 pages; 2014. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

In a bid to read more non-fiction this year, I picked up Stephen Grosz’s The Examined Life: How We Lose and Find Ourselves, part of Vintage Publishing’s “shelf help” promotion.

It first came to my attention when Victoria, who blogs at Tales from the Reading Room, chose it as one of her books of the year in my Book Bloggers’ Advent Calendar last December. In her review, Victoria said: “Everyone should read this book and feel it chip away any ice around their hearts, to let our admirable human capacity for love and compassion flow through.”

And I concur: this book puts paid to the notion that non-fiction is boring or dull. I was entirely captivated by it and ate it up as quickly as I could.

A series of case histories

Written by Stephen Grosz, an American-born psychoanalyst who has a practice in London, it reads like a collection of short stories structured around five key themes — beginnings, telling lies, loving, changing and leaving. These, in turn, are broken into short chapters, some of which are are only a few pages long. Each chapter is a case history of one of Grosz’s patients — adults in psychoanalysis whom he has met four or five times a week for 50-minute sessions over several years.

As he explains in his preface, “all tales are drawn from day-to-day practice. These stories are true, but I’ve altered all identifying details in the interests of confidentiality”.

The book shows how Grosz is able to help people who feel trapped — whether by circumstance, poor decision making, foolishness, fear or past history, among other reasons — to change their lives and their behaviour for the better. It’s important to stress that these people are as ordinary as you and I. In fact, you will probably recognise friends, colleagues, family — perhaps even yourself — in these pages. For that reason alone, it makes for a riveting read, full of “light bulb moments”. It shines a light on the human condition and the terrible muddles we sometimes get ourselves into without even realising we are doing it.

Stories that resonate

There are several stories that have stuck with me. The first was about a boring man called Graham whose girlfriend broke up with him after she told him he bored everyone he talked to: “Can’t you tell when someone goes dead behind the eyes?” she asked.

Grosz explains that there are many psychological (and often unconscious) reasons why people are boring — to avoid talking about a particular subject or because they are envious and do not want to hear a helpful idea coming from someone else. But in Graham’s case it was a form of aggression, “a way of controlling, and excluding, others” because it protected him from having to live in the present, which he didn’t know how to do.

The second story that resonated was from the chapter entitled “How praise can cause a lack of confidence”. Here, Grosz explains that today’s parents lavish too much praise on their children, which devalues it.

Often a child will react to praise by quitting: why make a new drawing if you have already made “the best”? Or a child may simply repeat the same work: why draw something new, or in a new way, if the old way gets applause?

He adds that it is far better to simply spend quality time with children, to interact with them and pay attention to them instead of doling out “false” platitudes. “Being present builds a child’s confidence because it lets the child know that she is worth thinking about,” he writes.

Indeed, that seems to be the overriding message of The Examined Life: each of us wants the people in our lives to be present — to listen to us, to communicate with us, to be there for us — as opposed to being absent, whether physically or psychologically. Many adult problems stem from this sense of absence in childhood, but not everyone recognises it.

Sheer readability

The best thing about this book — aside from the astonishing amount of insight it provides into human psychology — is its sheer readability. It is totally jargon-free and written in clear, simple language. And because Grosz personalises it — he writes almost as much about himself as his patients — you can identify with the problems discussed even if you’ve never experienced any of them yourself.

It’s very moving in places, occasionally shocking, sometimes funny. It’s all done with such a lightness of touch despite the fact each case history delivers a powerful message — or makes you think about things, and people, in a new light.

I started The Examined Life thinking I’d just read two or three chapters. Before I knew it, I’d read the whole thing (in two sittings) and as soon as I’d finished I wanted to turn back to the start to begin again. Truth, it seems, is sometimes more intriguing that fiction.