12 of the best Australian books of 2105
A retrospective look by book reviewer Nick Goldie who writes: “twelve of the dozens of books which crossed my desk last year, all from smaller Australian publishers, and all worth reading.”
Wild Boys, Helena Pastor, UQP. First time is learning, the second time is stupid. This useful motto is the theme of Wild Boys: moving, exasperating, and a great yarn.
It’s in three intermingled strands: the story of Helena’s immigrant family, especially her father, as they come to terms with Australia; the story of Helena’s troubled relationship with her teenage son; and the story of a gang of delinquents called the Iron Man Welders and their charismatic mentor, Bernie – not only a youth worker but a dog-whisperer.
There’s a variegated collection of dogs (wagging and panting and having a ball); proud boys with prizes from country shows; and the increasing involvement of the local Aboriginal youngsters and their dogs too.
The Economy is Not a Society, Denis Glover, Black Inc. This is a fine angry book. Economists and management consultants will probably hate it.
Can an economic theory exist in the absence of a moral position? “This is more than just a quantitative change in our economy – it is a new economy without a heart or conscience.”
Productivity, he says, is devoid of all moral content.
The Naked Surgeon, Samer Nashef, Scribe. Other peoples’ shop-talk is often fascinating, and even more so when it is about the consequences – life or death – of heart surgery.
As surgeon Nashef observes, there are two kinds of doctor: those who can count, and those who can’t. He would definitely be among the category of those who can, and he has a deft way with statistics. He has a complex mind, so it’s no surprise to learn that he is also one of the fiendish compilers of cryptic crosswords for The Guardian.
He manages to make himself unpopular, but highly readable, by applying mathematical risk-management to modern surgery. (Avoid having an operation on certain days, such as the dangerous day before the surgeon goes on holiday.)
The Unseen Anzac, Jeff Maynard, Scribe. We’ve all heard of Charles Bean and Frank Hurley – but Sir Hubert Wilkins? He was born in rural South Australia in 1888, ran away to join a vaudeville act, was an early war correspondent, and an Arctic explorer. In 1917 he was employed by Charles Bean, official Australian war correspondent and historian, along with Frank Hurley (himself a polar explorer) as photographer on the Somme.
In the final months of the war, Wilkins worked at a frenetic pace, creating the record that Bean wanted. He was shelled, buried in mud, carried out the wounded, was wounded himself, accepted the surrender of some bewildered Germans, led a group of (equally bewildered) American GIs into combat, and was twice awarded the Military Cross. After the war he moved to America, and was largely forgotten in Australia, though his photographs are held by the War Memorial in Canberra.
Not Just Black and White, Lesley and Tammy Williams, UQP. This takes the form of a conversation between two remarkable indigenous women: mother and daughter.
As a child, writes Lesley, she didn’t see the poverty and overcrowding all around her. Her father was removed for five years to a leper colony, tuberculosis was common, but knowing no better, she did as she was told by the tribal elders and by the white officials who ruled the lives of the community. She was put into domestic service, but her wages were withheld by the authorities.
Meanwhile, her seventeen-year-old daughter Tammy enters an essay competition, and wins a trip to a conference at Michael Jackson’s Neverland Valley Ranch and is selected to report on the ‘Rights of the Child’ to the United Nations. “Have you had media experience?” she was asked. “I spoke to the Gympie Times” says Tammy, and on that basis was offered to the world’s media.
And eventually, after Lesley’s years of campaigning, there’s an out-of-court settlement for $55.4m as the community’s withheld wages, the return of her withheld bank passbook, and an apology from the Queensland Government.
The Dingo Debate, ed Bradley Smith, CSIRO. The dingo is not a dog. Dingoes may look like Indian pariah dogs, or Indonesian Singing Dogs, but modern molecular biology tells a different story. Along with wolves and Siberian breeds, dingo origin is east of the Himalayas. Despite their doggy relatives, the dingo has been isolated for long enough to be, quite simply, a dingo.
A dingo’s brain, says Smith, is sharper than its teeth, and he has no doubt that Australia’s native canid deserves to be protected and conserved. However, he says, their presence evokes “a most entrenched form of vilification.” There are no easy answers, especially on the sheep-breeding Monaro. We’ve probably all seen the “dog-trees” where corpses of marauding hybrid dogs are hung as a grim warning, especially in the vicinity of the National Parks.
Dingoes, says Smith, have their own essential role in the natural environment. It’s time we learned to live with them.
My Year without Matches, Claire Dunn, Black Inc. In 2010, Claire joined five other young people for a year-long survival course on a bush block near Grafton. Participants fanned out into the bush, selected a spot, and built a humpy.
They learned the skills that every country dweller should at least acknowledge: which plants are edible, which make fibre for string, how to light a fire, and – despite the prevailing New Age ethic – the problems associated with the killing of wild animals. It’s a gory triumph when Claire succeeds in killing, cooking, and eating a wallaby. Could you do it?
Secrets of the ANZACs, Raden Dunbar, Scribe. It really was a secret in 1916. Australian soldiers with venereal disease were being quietly shipped home from Egypt, hoping that they would be disembarked anywhere but in their home town.
Nobody expected the VD scourge to happen. The AIF was in training in Egypt, and it seemed not to have occurred to the authorities that Cairo and Alexandria had flourishing brothel quarters, and that Our Boys would be heading there just as soon as they were off duty.
It was a secret that was shared, ultimately, by some 60,000 men of the AIF, almost the same number as the diggers who were killed during the war.
Mateship: a very Australian History, Nick Dyrenfurth, Scribe. The concept of mateship has been adopted and adapted by one party after another. A nineteenth century right wing (and extremely racist) magazine celebrated the mateship of the bush, in mostly rosy colours, though Henry Lawson did once note that one thing stronger than mateship was liquor.
Earlier, apostles of the union movement asserted that unionism and mateship were the bedrock of Australianism, and one couldn’t exist without the other.
To be a patriotic Australian, said the newly-formed Labor Party in the early twentieth century, was to hold to the values of mateship. (Notably, this excluded half the population – women – and most of the world labour movement.) Inevitably, the disasters and heroism of the First World War were taken up by politicians and writers and made part of the Australian myth, along with mateship.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman, Jill Lepore, Scribe. In February 1941 psychologist William Marston wrote the first episode of Wonder Woman. The comic book editor, who was also responsible for Superman, thought the new super-heroine was rubbish, but within a year, Wonder Woman was the third best-selling comic after Superman and Batman.
Not everyone agreed. Wonder Woman hit the news-stands just in time for a robust attack from Christian moralists on all comics, especially Batman and Robin (were they gay?). Wonder Woman did not wear enough clothing, it was claimed, and she had a nasty penchant for bondage, which she shared with her creator Marston. Wonder Woman didn’t survive WWII, but was resurrected, first by the 1960s feminist movement, and then in the person of Lucy Carter, ironically a former beauty star, on TV.
Earth Dances, Andrew Ford, Black Inc. At first I thought this book by Andrew Ford, the presenter of the Music Program on ABC Radio National was too difficult, too abstruse, too highbrow. But the more I read, the more I enjoyed.
Even though there were sections about the finer points of modern composing which I simply didn’t understand, there was enough which was vitally interesting.
It is one for the music lover, certainly. But that means anyone who enjoys real music, from Dylan and the Beatles, to Stockhausen and Boulez. It just leaves out lovers of muzak and teenie-pop.
Following Burke and Wills across Australia, Dave Phoenix, CSIRO. When they left Melbourne in 1860, the members of the Victorian Exploring Expedition were heroes, alive and well and there to be cheered on their way. Not very much later, Burke and Wills were tragic heroes, doomed but indomitable. More recently, they have come to be seen as failures.
Dave Phoenix traces the 3500 km which they covered, and invites us to follow their steps.
A note at the beginning says: “You and your vehicle need to be properly prepared for such conditions. This is a journey that should only be made in a well-maintained 4WD vehicle with high clearance. If you have limited experience driving in the outback, handling and recovering a 4WD, you are advised to seek advice on how to equip your vehicle and prepare for your journey.”