Phosphorescence: On Awe, wonder, and things that sustain you when the world goes dark, by Julia baird
Journalist and writer Julia Baird mixes self-help with memoir in this attractive and very readable guide to life.
Phosphorescence aims to make us appreciate what we have in life and offers strategies to cope with grief, disappointment and tragedy. The book opens with a piece on one of Julia Baird’s favourite hobbies, swimming in the ocean and looking with awe and wonder on the varieties of marine life. This opening sets the scene for a series of essays that discusses subjects such as silence, nature, self-worth, friendship and resilience. A lot of the early pieces in Phosphorescence mix commentary with scientific research and, while pleasant to read, can be a bit uninspired. The book, however, gains strength as it goes along and by the end, when Baird writes very personally about issues of faith and acceptance, it's hard not to be moved by her honesty and vulnerability.
I came away quite humbled by Phosphorescence. In many of the book’s pieces Baird discusses the hard times she’s endured, notably multiple surgeries for a recurring cancer, and what has got her through, how illness has changed her perspective and helped to prioritise what’s important. For anyone who grumbles about life and needs a reality check, Phosphorescence is a gentle reminder of how fragile and amazing life is.
Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder, and the Things That Sustain You When the World Goes Dark, by Julia Baird. Published by 4th Estate. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Feminist Leslie Kern asks us to rethink the city.
In Feminist City, author Leslie Kern asks us to imagine what urban spaces might look like if they were designed by women, not men. All forms of urban planning, we learn, are based around assumptions of the typical citizen. “Shockingly,” Kern writes, “this citizen is a man.” Using a mixture of personal anecdote, pop culture references and the latest in feminist research, the reader learns the multitude of ways women use and relate to the city. The first chapter addresses motherhood in the city. As a young mother, Kern felt keenly how cities could be unwelcoming – sometimes downright hostile – to the needs of women caring for children. Other chapters examine female friendships in the city, negotiating the city on your own, the city as a site for protest and women's safety fears in public places.
Feminist City doesn't look in any detail at planning issues and how to make cities more female friendly, but rather works as a series of thought provoking riffs on politics, issues of equity and the place of minorities in the urban landscape. While the book doesn't answer the question of how to create a city for women, it helps us imagine how such a place might come into being.
Feminist City: Claiming Space in a Man-Made World, by Leslie Kern. Published by Verso. $29.99
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
A compelling and heartfelt collection from some of Australia's best writers.
Author and editor Lee Kofman sent out a request for personal essays about breaking up. It could be about any kind of separation or split: with people, objects, whatever. Split: True Stories of Leaving, Loss and New Beginnings is the result. A roster of well-known authors – Alice Pung, Graeme Simsion, A.S. Patric, Romona Koval, to name but a few – tackle all kinds of painful separation stories: marriage break-ups, difficult parents, coping with Alzheimer’s disease, coming out journeys, struggles with autism, scars left by childhood, sudden job losses and estrangement from one’s own country of birth.
Each story in this collection is intensely personal and compelling, almost confessional. The emotional range, honesty and deep introspection make Split read like a map of the human heart. While the subject matter is separation and loss, an equally strong theme that emerges is one of transition. Suffering leads to personal transformation.
A thoroughly bracing and enjoyable collection, pooling the wisdom of an impressive range of Australian writers. Split will appeal to fans of Leigh Sales’ Any Ordinary Day, her searching book about loss and grief. Honest and entertaining, with a cathartic effect, it would do well to fall into the hands of any troubled soul.
Split: True Stories of Leaving, Loss and New Beginnings, edited by Lee Kofman. Published by Ventura. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
This review first published at Books + Publishing. Click here.
Following on from Stan Grant’s 2016 memoir Talking to My Country comes Australia Day, an eloquent and neatly organised series of essays that examine how two centuries of British cultural and political hegemony have impacted Australia’s First Nations People.
Stan Grant, a Wirdadjuri and Kamilaroi man, tries to weave into a harmonious whole the differing parts of his identity: First Nation, personal and Australian citizen. A lover of European thinkers such as Hegel and Kant, some of whom he admits were terrible racists, Grant nonetheless admires their philosophical brilliance. The question remains: how to appreciate the triumphs of European culture, law and politics when your people’s history is one of dispossession and loss? The First Fleet didn’t bring European Enlightenment, but dispossession, disease and death.
It is this unresolvable tension that is at the centre of Australia Day, making it a work of acute personal struggle. Grant stretches his intellect and compassion in order to reconcile his admiration for Australia’s law, political culture and good citizens with its treatment of First Nations People. In the end, the attempt can’t proceed much beyond being an act of cognitive dissonance. The pain and suffering Grant feels, for his family, his ancestors, his people, is a wound that can’t heal. Many pages are spent weighing emotional and philosophical strategies for dealing with the legacy of dispossession, but none will work. What makes the pain so much greater is the blithe attitude of the non-Indigenous. There is a critical lack of understanding of what it means to be a First Nations Australian.
Grant provides many personal stories that highlight ongoing humiliation. Family members being arrested on the most spurious of reasons, Grant’s experiences at school, where he was asked why his skin colour was so dark. And then the trauma of the Don Dale detention scandal, a tragedy that hits home as the victims were the same age as his sons.
The book’s arguments are made all the more potent by Grant’s luminous prose and clear thinking. He has thought and read deeply on race, history, trauma and nationhood, providing thought provoking discussion while referencing an impressive array of other writers. Australia Day is both erudite and passionate.
Stan Grant lays down the challenge for non-Indigenous Australians. We need to learn to walk in someone else’s shoes. Our ignorance alone is the cause of so much suffering. To heal the divide calls for listening and an open heart. Australia Day offers an opportunity that must be grasped.
Australia Day, by Stan Grant. Published by HarperCollins. RRP: $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
David Sedaris’s new collection will thrill fans and non-fans alike.
Open any David Sedaris book and you know what you’re going to get: off beat observations, wacky overheard dialogue, briskly drawn portraits and plenty of Sedaris’s trademark wit. So with a new David Sedaris book, there’s minimal chance of disappointment.
In this new collection of sketches and essays, Sedaris concentrates mostly on his family – especially his sisters, with whom he seems to get along best. His father, now approaching his mid-nineties, also makes plenty of appearances. Deceased family members - his mother, who died thirty years ago, and his youngest sister, Tiffany, who committed suicide - also preoccupy a lot of Sedaris’s writing. Besides the family portraits, there are essays on politics, the mangling of the English language and the favourite expressions of angry car drivers.
Overall, the tone of the book is a kind of meditation on middle age, mixed with a gallows humour on the looming indignities of old age. There’s not a whole lot to look forward to, so you may as well laugh.
I finished Calypso in two days. It was so addictive I couldn’t stop reading. And I laughed out loud several times. Sedaris holds a mirror up to his life, warts and all, and it’s still a cathartic experience to live vicariously through his joys, anxieties and day-to-day struggles.
Calypso, by David Sedaris. Published by Little, Brown. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A lively and engaging collection of literary essays.
Francine Prose is an American novelist and critic, better known in her home country than in Australia. What to Read and Why is a collection of previously published material, covering a broad range of literature, everything from Jane Austen and Charles Dickens to more contemporary writers such as Jennifer Egan (Manhattan Beach) and Deborah Levy (Swimming Home).
The marvelous thing about Prose, besides her energetic and enlivening writing style, is her sheer enthusiasm for books and reading. She often talks about her “messianic zeal” in spreading the word on some new writer she has discovered, telling friends to drop whatever they doing immediately. While most of this collection discusses authors and their works, several essays are devoted to the subject of writing and reading, the aesthetic joys and philosophical revelations derived from the printed page. The first piece, "Ten Things That Art Can Do", usefully lists the many different experiences art can give us, such as its ability to teach, produce beauty and shock. Another essay tries to distill what the function of the short story is, as opposed to that of the novel. What, exactly, is its essence? Quoting numerous experts on the subject, both the famous and the academic, Prose discovers there is no single defining feature. The possibilities are as far and wide as the human imagination itself.
Books on writers can often inspire the reader to cast her net wider afield and try something unknown. The pieces on writers Mavis Gallant, Roberto Bolano and Isaac Babel will have you hunting through bookshops and libraries in search of their work. For those who found Karl Ove Knausgaard’s cycle of autobiographical novels My Struggle too daunting to contemplate, Prose writes a tempting appreciation.
Witty, sharp and perceptive, Francine Prose acts as both fan and critic, constantly reminding throughout these compelling essays what a joy it is to read.
What to Read and Why, by Francine Prose. Published by HarperCollins. ISBN: 9780062397867 RRP: $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A computer scientist brings a humanistic approach to the problem of social media.
Jaron Lanier is a computer scientist, musician and writer. He offers a unique perspective on issues to do with technology and society by way of his long history with the tech community. Both an insider and outsider, he has voiced concerns in books such as You Are Not a Gadget and Who Owns the Future about how the open internet culture of Facebook and Google has reduced human expression and potential, while taking our data and monetizing it for huge profits.
In the short and snappy Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, Lanier explains how social media is degrading language, spreading misinformation, exploiting cheap labour, alienating people from reality, distorting how they see the world and also making us angry, lonely and irritable. Quite a list!
Social media is designed to be addictive. Lanier sees it as a form of hypnosis, but a dangerous one.
“Hypnosis might be therapeutic so long as you trust your hypnotist, but who would trust a hypnotist who is working for unknown third parties? Who? Apparently billions of people.”
Lanier coins an acronym to describe the algorithmic machines that track everything we do online in order to create customised feeds: “Behaviors of Users Modified, and Made into an Empire for Rent. BUMMER.” In humourous tones reminscent of science fiction writers Kurt Vonnegut and Stanislaw Lem, the reader is warned of how the BUMMER machine is undermining just about every aspect of our lives, from democracy and public discourse to how we see and think about ourselves. BUMMER technology is causing mass isolation. One of the most depressing points that the book raises is how hard it is to know other people now because we don’t know the customised feeds that individuals – billions of individuals – are exposed to. Once upon a time we were all roughly on the same page, but now no one is on the same page.
Ten Arguments is for the most part cheerful and optimistic, firm in its belief that we can keep the internet and smart phones, we simply need to get rid of the BUMMER machine. Beneath the jollity and jokes, Lanier is an erudite and philosophical writer with a gentle, poetic nature. He’s a rare, humanist voice on the subject of computer technology and its impact on us. The book’s final argument for deleting your social media accounts is one of self-knowledge and awareness. “Whatever a person might be,” writes Lanier, “if you want to be one, delete your accounts.”
If you want to gain insights into how invidious social media really is, read Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now.
Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, by Jaron Lanier. Published by Jonathan Cape. ISBN: 9781847925398 RRP: $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books