Can a dog that smells like sardines and looks like a doormat ever find an owner to look after and love him? Find out in this comic canine caper.
Dumpster Dog – a homeless canine without a family or owner – lives rough on the streets. He’s smelly and messy and completely unkempt, although we shouldn’t hold that against him as he’s a dog down on his luck. Dumpster Dog has a friend, Flat Cat, a luckless feline that was run over and flattened. He tells Flat Cat he’s going to try and find himself an owner. His friend doesn’t like his chances.
Things don’t go according to plan. Dumpster Dog meets a potential owner, a well dressed man with a car, but the man turns out to be a rascal. Soon Dumpster Dog is on his own again, and in more trouble. He’s abducted by a group of bandits and put into a cage with a lot of other hapless animals. Their fate looks grim. Can Dumpster Dog be a hero to the other animals and escape? Can he ever find the company he craves, despite smelling like sardines and looking like an old doormat?
The first in a series of short chapter books by French writer Colas Gutman and illustrator Marc Boutavant, Dumpster Dog is an hilarious romp through the city streets of France. The story has a wonderfully comic cast of human villains and ill-fated animals. Who doesn’t like an adventure story with the requisite group of archetypal baddies, not to mention the young girl who works for them, administering tranquilizer drugs? Colas Gutman hits all the right notes with this goofy caper, balancing the cruelty of Dumpster Dog’s predicament against his sweet, innocent nature. This is a vibrantly told story full of invention and pleasant surprises. A real entertainment. Marc Boutavant’s illustrations are utterly gorgeous, little works of art in themselves, making this a very special book indeed.
Dumpster Dog is sure to win you over.
Dumpster Dog, by Colas Gutman. Illustrated by Marc Boutavant. Published by Enchanted Lion Books. RRP: $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A young Mexican man takes a dangerous journey on top of a train to the US border.
Manuel lives a traditional life farming corn with his family in Mexico. His older brother, Tono, has left Mexico for America. He lives in Los Angeles and does menial work to scratch out a living. Being witness to a tragic event prompts young Manuel (he is twelve-years-old) to ride on top of a freight train to the US border. These freight trains are colloquially known as The Beast. It's an extremely dangerous way to get to the border as murderous gangs patrol the train tops. The travel is also dirty and uncomfortable, with access to water and food limited.
It takes Manuel several years to re-unite with his brother Tono in Los Angeles. By the time he arrives he is fifteen-years-old and his hair has gone white from the stress of travel. He finds life in America isolating and exploitative. In one memorable passage, Manuel finds a laboring job, but is treated abominably. This is the lot of undocumented Mexican migrants, as they have no legal protections.
As life in Los Angeles becomes lonelier, and his prospects wither, Manuel makes a surprising decision.
Tony Johnston and María Elena Fontanot de Rhoads have created a gritty yet heartfelt story of a young man out on his own, making a terrifying trip. The story has a nicely rhythmic prose, liberally peppered with Spanish words, giving it a unique feel. In theme, if not in style, the book is reminiscent of John Steinbeck classics such as The Grapes of Wrath and Of Mice and Men, as it deals with indigent workers trying to survive in a harsh American labour market that is stacked against them. Realistic touches, such as the depiction of the notorious gangs, the kindness of strangers and the grim camaraderie of the beast riders, make for a refreshing authenticity.
Young readers here get a window onto a very different world, exposing them to a current political and moral dilemma of how to respond to the US border problem. An adventure story tempered with much sadness.
Beast Rider, by Tony Johnston and Maria Elena Fontanot de Rhoads. Published by Abrams. RRP: $24.99
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.
Elizabeth Gilbert sets her new novel in New York's theatre world of the 1940s, creating a sparkling, cocktail fizz of a book.
It’s 1940. Nineteen-year-old Vivian Morris has left home after a lacklustre performance at Vassar College to live with her flamboyant Aunt Peg in New York. Peg runs a down-at-heel theatre called the Lily Playhouse, home to some rather cheesy musicals. The theatre's troops – dancers, musicians, writers, actors, theatre managers – live on site, making for a cosy, bohemian ambience.
Vivian throws herself into theatre life and soon makes friends with actress Celia Ray. The two enjoy New York’s night life and have various sexual adventures, not to mention the odd misadventure. When Aunt Peg’s estranged husband turns up on the scene, he comes up with the idea for a show that is eventually called City of Girls. The theatre imports the posh British actress Edna Parker Watson and the show ends up being a hit, lifting the flailing Lily Playhouse out of trouble and putting it on a good financial footing.
Then disaster strikes. Vivian unwittingly becomes involved in a scandal and must get her disapproving brother to bail her out. She experiences shame and humiliation, and is sent packing home.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s follow-up to The Signature of All Things is a light, frothy affair, almost a feel good story. The bulk of the novel is full of humour, with a well rounded cast: chancers, rogues, bright-young-things, frumpy lesbians and street wise, cocksure young men. Gilbert writes with a joy and elan which is infectious. The theme of the novel is how we deal with shame and the inevitable mistakes we all make. Vivian learns, with the painful passage of time, that everyone of us carries a dark, secret history, and that we must forgive ourselves, grow, and ultimately become better people.
A small caveat: the story is perhaps a bit long, with narrator Vivian speeding through three decades in the last hundred or so pages, giving the novel a bit of a lopsided feel. Otherwise, a highly enjoyable, cocktail fizz of a book that Gilbert fans will lap up.
City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert. Published by Bloomsbury. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A typical English family turns out to be not so typical after all.
The Mennyms are a neat, respectable little English family living quite peacefully in their modest home. They have lived there for many years – forty in fact – without much to bother them. Out of the blue comes a letter from Australia. A certain Albert Pond has inherited the house and is their new landlord. He's a likeable enough chap, going by his letters, and wants to meet the Mennym family. He plans on making a trip to England. When would the family be free to meet him?
The prospect throws the Mennym household into absolute chaos. The problem? The Mennyms are not human. They are actually a family of rag dolls, made by the house's original owner, Kate. The exquisitely made rag dolls she left behind came to life and now reside in the house, functioning as a perfectly normal family. The family keeps a low profile in the neighborhood, wearing thick glasses to cover their button eyes and hats so they are not so conspicuous. Errands to the local shops are made quietly and with a minimum of fuss, so as not to draw attention.
There are three generations of Mennyms. Magnus and Tulip are the grandparents, Vinetta and Joshua the parents, Soobie and Appleby are the teen children, Poopey and Wimpey the twins and lastly is Googles, the baby. Not to be forgotten is Miss Quigley, who lives in the hallway cupboard. She likes to keep up appearances, knocking at the front door and pretending she has come from her house for a visit. Later she will officially farewell the family, but secretly slip in the back door and back to her cupboard. In fact, the Mennyms do a lot of pretending. Can they keep up a good enough pretence to make Albert Pond think they are real?
Sylvia Waugh's first book in The Mennyms series (she wrote five in all) is both charming and hilarious. They are a blameless family who simply want to get on with life undisturbed. The endearing comedy comes from the Mennyms trying to keep up appearances and seem normal. The family often devise ludicrous strategies to “pass” for human. Their cloth bodies often gets them into scrapes, like when Joshua, a night time security guard, finds that a rat has eaten the stuffing in one leg. He suffers enormous embarrassment when he tries to walk home with a leg that won't support him properly. Or there is the time when Soobie “scandalises” the family by blurting out in front of Miss Quigley that she lives in the hallway cupboard. The Mennyms' dignity and that of their lodger depends on a series of “pretends” and artifices. This is perhaps what makes The Mennyms so enduring, as one of its major themes is the fragility of our place in the world, and how our well being depends on the little kindnesses of others.
Highly readable and intimately human, The Mennyms is sure to captivate.
The Mennyms, by Sylvia Waugh. Published by Puffin. $14.99
Review by Chris Saliba
British journalist Oliver Bullough explains how the rich hide their money - from regulators and tax authorities - and why we should care.
Moneyland is the story of how the world’s super rich – whether they derived their wealth by fair means or foul – secretly stash away their money, hiding it from tax authorities and regulators. British journalist Oliver Bullough begins the story with the Bretton Woods Agreement, established in 1944. The whole idea of this agreement was to limit destabilising, speculative money from travelling across borders. The rich and big business would have to keep their loot in the one place. This system lasted for a while, but would soon be subverted by the cleverness of financiers and their even smarter lawyers. With the ingenious use of shell companies, trusts, secret bank accounts, bearer instruments and a whole host of other tricks that bent but not entirely broke the law, the ridiculously wealthy could avoid tax. Not only that, they could remain anonymous, especially handy if you’re a dictator looting your own country.
Money at this scale is powerful enough to make the rules. The complexity of the paper trails hiding so much money, created by an army of extremely well resourced lawyers, means bringing cheats and scammers to book has become increasingly difficult. More worryingly, the pile of this secret money buried in complex trust funds and Byzantine shell company arrangements is now in the trillions. The wealthy – a lot of them corrupt, or dodgy at the very least – are only getting stronger, able to buy their own immunity.
There’s no denying Moneyland can make for disheartening reading. The pointless greed and waste is staggering. We read of corrupt politicians and their specially designed toilets featuring a television set at eye level, so one can defecate and watch a favourite show; or the rich woman who wears a nappy on her plane trips because she can’t be bothered going to the toilet. Nevertheless, Oliver Bullough has done us a service by explaining in a lively and easy to follow manner how this complex global trade is effected, and the deleterious impact it has on democracy and equality. While so much financial sleaze and chicanery is hard to swallow, as citizens it’s better to be informed than in the dark. A lack of public outrage – due to the arcane manner of these transactions – only allows this murky underworld to keep on flourishing.
Moneyland: Why Thieves & Crooks Now Rule the World & How To Take it Back, by Oliver Bullough. Profile Books. $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
New historical material coupled with biographer Troy Bramston's meticulous research makes for a worthy re-appraisal of Robert Menzies, Australia's longest serving prime minister.
Journalist and former political advisor Troy Bramston’s new biography of Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving prime minister, aims to refocus the historical lens. Too often Menzies is written off as an antediluvian character, hopelessly devoted to Queen and Empire, while his ardent supporters keep him on an unrealistic pedestal. Using newly released material and a broad range of author interviews with friends, family and colleagues, a portrait emerges of a brilliant yet flawed man.
Menzies’ best qualities were his ability for personal reflection and change. After the crushing failure of his first prime ministership (1939-1941) he managed to re-invent himself and create a new political force, the Australian Liberal Party. Philosophically gifted, he fashioned an appealing narrative of progressive values based on the rights of the individual. There were also serious missteps: his support, in 1938, for Hitler’s Germany; his attitudes towards race; the testing of nuclear bombs on Australian soil; a lax attitude towards apartheid; volunteering our troops for the Vietnam war.
Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics is always judicious and balanced, providing a multifaceted portrait of a key figure of Australian history. Essential reading for students of politics and history, or anyone interested in the Liberal Party and its deep national influence.
Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics, by Troy Bramston. Published by Scribe. RRP: $49.99
Review by Chris Saliba
This review was first published at Books + Publishing. The original article can be seen 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
Energy expert Matthew Warren explains the politics, economics and science of our power grid. Non-partisan, accessible and illuminating, Blackout is a breath of fresh air.
Who can make sense of Australia's energy policy over the past decade? It's been a time of time of hot, often over-the-top political debate. In such a noisy atmosphere the average punter has little hope of sorting fact from fiction. Into this breach steps Matthew Warren, an energy insider with fifteen years experience.
As Warren explains in Blackout, his guide for the perplexed, in the past none of us had to pay much attention to how energy was produced, transmitted and marketed. The grid was run (mostly) on coal, and that was that. Then came climate change, a scientific theory we are reminded, not a proven fact, and everything started to change. Insurance companies, who were key stakeholders when it came to climate variation, started to price in climate change. While politicians on the right and left bickered, business started moving, accepting that climate change was most likely real and entering it into their decision making. Soon enough it was no longer viable to invest in new coal generation. As coal plants have continued to close, with more slated to wind down in the coming years, Australia's electricity grid has become more fragile.
On top of this there has been a mammoth uptake of rooftop solar, the result of a shambolic series of government policies giving subsidies to middle-class home owners. Prices for solar have dropped, making it a cheaper source of power generation than coal. The problem now for the grid is to integrate intermittent renewable power with traditional thermal power, such as coal and gas. This is not as easy as it seems, there being many technical problems that need to be overcome. The process is not helped by the ad hoc policy making of politicians, most of whom don't understand energy or climate change.
Matthew Warren has done us all a service by writing this lucid explainer on how Australia's energy grid works. It's a complex, sometimes messy story where science, technology and politics clash. Despite this, Blackout offers a clear narrative that is often fascinating. Read this non-partisan book and feel better informed.
Blackout: How Is Energy Rich Australia Running out of Electricity, by Mattew Warren. Published by Affirm Press. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
How to manage stress in a busy world.
Stan Rodski is a cognitive neuroscientist based in Melbourne. He created the colouring book stress management technique that, for a period, took the publishing world by storm. (Yes, he’s responsible for that craze.)
The Neuroscience of Mindfulness is a multi-faceted book. It explains in very simple language the basic principles of neuroscience, with updates of the latest findings on how the brain works. Research has revealed that basic, repetitive tasks have a powerfully calming effect. The brain is most relaxed when it experiences pattern, repetition and control. Happily, we learn that mindfulness can be incorporated into our everyday activities: walking, driving, brushing your hair. The book includes useful sidebars and practical exercises, guiding the reader through the thought processes required to live mindfully.
Some of the more fascinating research Rodski discusses concerns what is known as the mind-body connection, or MBC. Science has discovered that when we experience stress, a harmful protein known as amyloid protein builds up in the brain, affecting the immune system. Negative thoughts can physically damage the body.
Part practical workbook, part scientific digest, The Neuroscience of Mindfulness offers real help in managing stress in our busy modern world.
The Neuroscience of Mindfulness, by Stan Rodski. HarperCollins. $34.99
Staff review by Chris Saliba