A scruffy looking dog gets a make-over.
It's the day before Aunt Cathy's wedding. Father has decided the family dog, Osbert, cannot attend. He's too scruffy looking. The family has had Osbert since he was one month old, and they'd hoped he'd turn into a terrier, but they've had to settle instead for a black poodle with limp fur. The children – Ann, Peter, Jane and Andrew – are terribly upset. They decide to take Osbert to Monsieur Toto, a popular ladies' hairdresser. Monsieur Toto is very busy with appointments, but decides to take on this urgent job. When the children pick Osbert up they are delighted with the transformation. Osbert has had a permanent wave, his fur is shampooed, his legs shaved into cowboy trousers and his head topped off with a spray of orange blossom. He's the hit of the wedding!
Noel Streatfeild, famous for her children's novel Ballet Shoes, first published Osbert in 1950. It fell out of print immediately after and has only now been revived, almost seventy years later. It's a charming, funny, quirky story, with delightful illustrations by Susanne Suba and sure to appeal to children and adults of all ages. A re-discovered gem that shouldn't be missed.
Osbert, by Noel Streatfeild. Published by Scholastic. $24.99
Book review by Chris Saliba
A snappy, fast-paced primer on China's technological rise.
China's pursuit of technology dominance has progressed through three stages, according to business writer and China expert Rebecca A. Fannin. The period between 2003 – 2010 saw the flourishing of internet start-ups, phase two saw a boom in mobile phone-centric start-ups and today China is putting up stiff competition in artificial intelligence, biotech, self-driving cars, robotics, mobile payments and more.
At first China was a quick and effective imitator, but is now pulling ahead in key areas. While there are pitfalls for China's tech titans – a repressive government that could close shop on any business that gets too powerful, a lack of profitability for many emerging start-ups, despite large market share – the overall picture is of an emerging tech dragon to rival the West.
The way Fannin paints it, China could be on the cusp of global tech dominance, leading to economic dominance and a shake-up in the world order. Nothing is assured in this cut-throat world, but the sheer speed with which China has caught up with the West is no doubt ringing alarm bells in government and policy circles.
A fast paced overview of a quickly evolving tech sector with enormous potential for global disruption.
Tech Titans of China: How China's Tech Sector is Challenging the World by Innovating Faster, Working Harder & Going Global, by Rebecca A. Fannin. Published by Nicholas Brealey. $29.99
Book review by Chris Saliba
A harrowing portrait of a young African woman's abduction and abuse by acclaimed Irish novelist Edna O'Brien.
A group of Nigerian girls are abducted from their school by a militant jihadi group. They are taken to a secret camp and undergo all sorts of horrors, including genital mutilation and pack rape. To show the girls their possible fate should they not submit to the militants' authority, they are made to witness a woman's public stoning.
The focus of the novel is Maryam, who narrates her story. She has been through so much trauma and hardship that she is not even sure of her age. Married off to a jihadi soldier, she has a baby girl, but manages to escape the camp. Finally reunited with her mother after much danger, it would seem her ordeal has ended, but it's only really just begun.
Irish novelist Edna O'Brien's new novel is a work of great courage, integrity and artistic risk-taking. Taking on the voice of a young African woman (the story is based on the Boko Haram abductions) is a brave step, but in such skilled hands it pays off. O'Brien's novel has urgency, fire and anger. Written with consummate skill, even grace, it's an unforgettable portrait of the shocking abuses of girls and women.
Girl, by Edna O'Brien. Faber. $29.99
Book review by Chris Saliba
In this deeply pleasurable book, Erling Kagge discusses the magic of walking.
Erling Kagge is a Norwegian explorer and publisher, with a background in the study of philosophy. He's the first person to have travelled to the South Pole, the North Pole and Mount Everest. As can be imagined, he's done a lot of walking in his time.
In Walking: One Step at a Time, Kagge takes us through a series of meditations on walking. It's a short, pleasantly meandering book that is personal in tone. It discusses many of Kagge's journeys by foot through snow and forest, but also odd urban odysseys, such as several days spent walking through pedestrian hostile Los Angeles and a trip through New York's sewer system. The personal is interwoven with references to writers and philosophers - from Dickens and Schopenhauer to James Joyce and Knut Hamsun. There are also discussions of new research into the psychological benefits of walking, giving the text a deeper and more resonant feel.
Walking is a deeply enjoyable reading experience. With its evocative, impressionistic style and loose organisation – like a series of very short essays – the text can be enjoyed as a light escape or for the more introspective, a journey into the soul.
Walking: One Step at a Time, by Erling Kagge. Published by Viking. $24.99
Book review by Chris Saliba
Brain researcher Shane O'Mara gives a new twist to the literature on walking.
Walking is something we all take for granted, little thinking how this unique ability is actually a complex feat. Author Shane O'Mara is a neuroscientist at Trinity College, Dublin, and the first half of In Praise of Walking concentrates on how the brain and body works together to take those seemingly easy steps.
The second half of O'Mara's book devotes itself to the physical, social, health and even creative aspects of walking. It's no surprise that walking provides health benefits galore, what may surprise are its cognitive benefits. Research has shown that the part of the brain used for memory and learning actually grows extra cells when we exercise. O'Mara also includes research that demonstrates how walking can help with depression and foster creating thinking (he cites famous literary walkers who thought up their greatest ideas while walking).
In Praise of Walking is a convincing primer on all the benefits of walking and will inspire the reader to drop all they are doing, put on some walking shoes and get out the door.
In Praise of Walking, by Shane O'Mara. Published by Jonathan Cape $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Tove Ditlevsen (1917 – 1976) was a Danish poet and author. The Copenhagen Trilogy is a three part memoir Ditlevsen wrote at a time of great personal crisis.
Part one, Childhood, covers the poet’s early teen years. Ditlevsen’s family – parents and brother, Edvin – are shamefully poor, often embarrassed by their reduced circumstances and live in a slum-like area of Copenhagen. Young Tove hangs out with the local kids, especially her friend Ruth, gossiping and exchanging lurid stories.
Tove is a sensitive girl, imaginative and introspective. She only feels truly alive and happy when she writes. Her true passion is poetry, compositions she enters in a private journal. Misunderstood by her parents and teachers, Tove plays dumb and hides her feelings. As a young poet she knows she will be ridiculed should her secret writing life be found out. When Edvin discovers her journal, he laughs out loud while reading her poems. Despite this, Tove will extend some forgiveness to her brother, who works as an apprentice printer, a job he hates.
All in all it’s a lonely and alienating existence for young Tove. She feels no love from her parents, who can only see a traditional and unremarkable career for her as a nanny, minding other people’s children. The mean, gossipy world of her friends is limiting as well. Despite this, Tove dares to dream of one day being published as a poet. She continues to write, no matter how bleak her prospects seem.
At one hundred pages, Childhood is a seductive, intimate self-portrait that ends too soon. How the reader longs for more! (Luckily, there are two more volumes, Youth and Dependency). Ditlevsen captures the essence of a troubled childhood – anxieties over belonging, grim expectations for the future and the indifferent adults who are more absorbed by their own worries. All this contributes to make Childhood a subtle work of existential brilliance. Ditlevsen shows the self stripped back to its vulnerable essence. Some of it is so private and revealing it's possible to feel like a trespasser, having almost stumbled onto a private journal.
A moving self-portrait of the poet as young, damaged soul.
Translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman
Childhood, by Tove Ditlevsen. Penguin $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A young boy experiences exquisite happiness and terrible suffering in this Brazilian classic.
Five-year-old Zezé is going through some trying times. His father is unemployed and barely ekes out a living, while his mother and older sister slog it out at a local factory. Zezé has personal demons, often wondering if he's possessed by a bad spirit. The boy can't help but pull pranks which inevitably turn out worse than intended. When Zezé creates a snake out of an old, black stocking, the effect is so realistic he causes a pregnant woman to go into shock. Another time he thinks it a good idea to light a small fire under his uncle's hammock, with similarly dire results. Despite all this, Zezé's essence is sweet. He is touchingly fond of his younger brother Luis, who he calls King Luis, and when the family moves to a new house, Zezé makes friends with a small orange tree in the backyard, which he calls “Pinkie”. Pinkie is an imaginary friend and the two have many conversations about life and its problems. Zezé also likes to call Pinkie “Sweetie”.
As troubles mount at home, Zezé makes friends with an older Portuguese man, Manuel Valadares. The two met in strained circumstances, when Zezé was secretly taking a lift on the bumper bar of his car, but have now developed a special closeness. Manuel almost becomes a father figure, giving Zezé solace and relief from his difficult family life. Zezé achieves great happiness and contentment in his friendship with Manuel, or the “Portuga”, as he calls him, but tragedy soon turns his world upside down.
First published in 1968 by Brazilian author José Mauro De Vasconcelos, My Sweet Orange Tree is an autobiographical, coming-of-age story, set in Rio de Janeiro. Narrated by Zezé, its tone is both tender and endearing. The reader thrills at Zezé's cheeky and boyish adventures, but feels deeply for his hard life at home, where he is often the victim of domestic violence. Zezé's vulnerability and longing to be loved make for a unique story, deeply sad but also full of joy.
Translated by Alison Entrekin
My Sweet Orange Tree, by, José Mauro De Vasconcelos. Pushkin Children's $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Alix Kates Shulman's black feminist comedy Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen still has the power to shock, fifty years after it was first published.
It's 1950s America. Sasha Davis is beautiful, smart and not short on boyfriends. Despite having it all, she's on an anxiety spiral. Twenty-four years of age, it won't be long until she's thirty when she's sure she will have lost her looks. As a woman, she knows all the cards are stacked against her. It's either marry, have children, play second fiddle to a second-rate husband, or face economic ruin and social ostracism. Sasha marries Frank, an academic, and agrees to work mundane jobs to support his burgeoning career. Eventually she can stand it no longer, travels through Europe, has an affair and decides to leave Frank, only to end up in more financial, romantic and reproductive jeopardy.
First published in 1972, the blackly comic Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen was a runaway hit, clearly hitting a nerve with readers. The story is told in a convoluted way, the novel opening with Sasha leaving her husband, then describing her childhood, growing up and finally becoming prom queen, with all its resultant problems with boys. Sasha does hit the dreaded age of 30 and finds life doesn't get easier, especially if you're a woman.
Alix Kates Shulman doesn't hold back in describing all the inequities and horrors facing women and young girls. (One memorable scene has a group of young boys virtually abduct a young Sasha and pull her underwear off in a ritual humiliation). For women in the 1950s and 60s, there are limited job opportunities, sexual harassment, the drudgery of bringing up children and financial insecurity. Women's reproductive issues are brought up in some of the novel's most confronting scenes, with language so coarse (and funny) it can't be repeated here. The depiction of an abortion, and its aftermath, is a true horror, with images that will stay in the mind forever.
Both rancid comedy and feminist call-to-arms, Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen may not be to everyone's taste. It's dark, brutal, caustic and funny. It's also a rollicking ride of a book, a take-no-prisoners account of 1950s womanhood and still reads as remarkably modern. An important document of the times and a marker of how much progress still needs to be made.
Memoirs of an Ex-Prom Queen, by Alix Kates Shulman. Published by Serpent's Tail. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Marg Piercy's feminist classic A Woman on the Edge of Time critiques our dominant capitalist, patriarchal model, and offers the reader an alternative future.
It's the 1970s. Consuelo (Connie) Ramos, a Mexican-American woman in her mid-thirties, has been unfairly incarcerated at a New York mental institution. She has had some drug use issues in her past, some domestic problems, but nothing warranting this extreme treatment. In hospital, she is subjected to all sorts of cruelties and indignities. Bureaucracy and form filling permeate everything; the doctors and nurses are self-centred career professionals, interested only in self-promotion and moving up the hierarchy. As mental health care experts they may profess to be governed by the principles of rationality and best practice, but in reality they're highly unstable themselves, plagued with a litany of personal problems.
Connie is in serious trouble. The doctors want to perform an operation on her brain that will allow them to control her moods. She's seen the results on other patients – one committed suicide and another was left but a shell of her former self – and has determined she must escape the hospital. But how?
During her tumultuous detention, Connie has been visited by a being from the future. Luciente, an androgynous woman from the year 2137, makes contact and persuades Connie to visit the future, a better place by far. They time travel to Mattapoisett, an agrarian community that has eliminated most forms of oppressive hierarchy, patriarchy and big government. This future civilisation is gender-neutral, classless and racially diverse. Technology is used conservatively, decision making is consultative and democratic, in a grass roots kind of way, and society is by and large much more feminised. The same old human problems remain – jealousy, impatience, violent impulses – but they are dealt with in a more open and honest manner. Neither has war been eliminated. The people of Mattapoisett are involved in a conflict with an ultra-capitalist, environmentally rapacious enemy – the last remnants of our own society.
Connie learns much from Luciente and her people. The biggest lesson is that, in her own time, in a New York mental hospital, she's involved in a war herself. A war against terrible social and economic forces that keep women like her locked up and tortured. She decides to fight back – to at least try to resist – with devastating results.
First published in 1976, Marg Piercy's feminist, sci-fi classic is a mind bending novel of utopian possibilities. The sections that deal with the mental hospital – its grim wards, defeated patients and sadistic doctors – are rivetting for their sense of realism. Piercy makes a compelling critique of our rational, expert dominated world, which can lack empathy and common sense. (Interestingly, the future world of Mattapoisett has no time for big titled professionals, seeing house work as just as important as neurosurgery.)
Readers may find the utopian world of Mattapoisett a bit of a throwback to the seventies, with its hippie-like eschewal of property, its nature cult and gender fluidity. Nevertheless, Piercy does write a philosophically detailed alternate future, one that provides an illuminating contrast to the mad world of 70s New York. Mattapoisett is a breath of fresh air, an idealistic alternative to our current brutal capitalist model.
A Woman on the Edge of Time will challenge and shock. The world looks different having read it.
A Woman on the Edge of Time, by Marg Piercy. Published by Penguin. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
When a young girl is sent to work at a sea admiral's house, she discovers a bizarre boy-monster hiding under the bed in a secret room.
Young Emilia (affectionately known as Lampie) lives with her father Augustus in a lighthouse. It is part of her job to light the lamp in the lighthouse to warn ships, but one night she forgets the matches and disaster strikes. A ship crashes and all hell breaks loose. Lampie's father, who is also a drunk, strikes her on the cheek and she is sent away to work at Black House. Black House belongs to the often absent Admiral and Lampie must labour under the orders of Martha, the housekeeper. Lampie starts to hear rumours about a horrible monster that lives in a mysterious room at the top of the house. Curiosity drives her on, despite the possible dangers, and what she discovers is both amazing and shocking. A boy, the Admiral's son, is hiding under the bed. His name is Edward, although Lampie calls him fish because of certain physical attributes he has. Edward has difficulty walking due to what he describes as his “deformity” and would dearly like to walk like a normal boy, not so much for himself but to impress his distant father.
Lampie and the Children of the Sea, a first novel from Dutch illustrator and writer Annet Schaap, reads in many ways like a seafaring version of Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden. The novel's central struggle centres around an orphaned girl trying to help a crippled boy regain his sense of self and belonging, and hence curing him. Whereas The Secret Garden is more realistic and psychological, Lampie and the Children of the Sea is an out and out fantasy, whimsical and otherworldly. There are some great set pieces – especially Lampie's visit to the fair and meeting with the "phenomenal freaks". Annet Schaap's visceral description of the freakshow mermaid, sitting in her dirty tub of water, is genuinely hair raising. It is this mixture of constant invention and playfulness, along with the novel's undertow of melancholy, its themes of displacement and abandonment, that makes Lampie and the Children of the Sea emotionally resonant but also an unabashed entertainment.
A thrilling, soaring adventure with a cast of idiosyncratic, if not bizarre, characters that captures the imagination.
9+ years old
Lampie and the Children of the Sea, by Annet Schaap. Published by Pushkin Children's. $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books