Reviewer: Janet Croft
My ranking–0-3 stars. the more stars, the better!
*For the Love of Letters, by John O’Connell. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $24.99
The subtitle of this small volume says it all: The Joy of Slow Communication. We are all very much aware that in 2012, to receive a handwritten letter by snail mail is a rarity, and for some young people, almost unknown. And what is probably worse, for future generations, is that few if any letters which are written on the computer will survive the trash bin for posterity. John O’Connell goes through the kinds of letters we perhaps would or should write if we took the time, and had the skills. Ranging from the letters children had to write home from boarding school, to the perfect thank you letter, to letters of condolence—always the hardest to write! – and of course to love letters. This is an elegant small book which will appeal to people who used to write letters, and will enjoy the nostalgia. People in this computer age do not know what they are missing.
Stolen: Escape from Syria, by Louise Monaghan. PB from Random house. RRP $29.95
This book has been hiding for a few months, without being read or reviewed! The topic is current, given the past couple of years in Syria, and the civil war, but now anyone who escapes is lucky. The author is Irish, but was living in Cyprus, when her Syrian ex-husband abducted their very young daughter May and took her to Syria. Louise followed them to Syria, and put herself through the torture-mental and physical- of pretending that she wanted to live again as a family, so that she might find an opportunity to escape with May. This is not a pleasant story, and the most harrowing part I think is that their final escape, which, to a large extent depended on a lucky break. It is sobering reading.
*The One World Schoolhouse by Salman Khan. PB from Hachette. RRP $29.99
A couple of weeks ago, I had never heard of the Khan Academy; immediately I read it, I looked up the Academy on line, admired a couple of the sessions provided among the 3500videos available free to on line users, and have recommended the site to my older students. Today in the weekend paper, I see that the site is considered one of the four leading free online educational sites. The book tells the story of how the author, a former ex-hedge fund analyst and investor began by tutoring his niece in maths, but then created a wonderful programme. I found the story remarkable, and a credit to this guy whose interest has grown into a passion to provide excellence in maths and science education. This book will be good reading for maths teachers, parents of secondary students, and others interested in the subject.
Puzzles and Words, by David Astle. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $14.99
I have long been a fan of the DA crosswords in the SMH, but do not claim to have solved them all, especially the cryptics. In this small volume there are more than 170 new word puzzles, of many different kinds, and covering many aspects of language, to solve, or ponder. It’s a book for holidays, or long periods of travel, and preferably to share with another brain. A good gift perhaps?
Roger, Sausage and Whippet, by Christopher Moore. HB from Headline. RRP $24.99
This is an extraordinary collection of words and phrases from the trenches of WW1. The author’s great grandfather was a primary source, and it is an amazing miscellany. I love the way in which the British experience in India in the nineteenth and early twentieth century is revealed in the origin of some of the words—like ‘cushy’, which means pleasure. “Ladies from hell” means men in kilts, “gravy’ meant petrol, and “san Fairy Ann” meant it doesn’t matter, and was a garbled form of the French meaning the same thing. (Ca ne fait rien). This phrase was also used as a throw away line, to mean, “It doesn’t matter what happens to me”. This small book will appeal to man and boys of about 12 and over. It is interesting, and at times amusing to browse. I suggest that it will be a good book to have in the history section of a school library, with other WW1 books.
Francis Birtles, Adventurer by Warren Brown. PB from Hachette. RRP $35
A week or so ago I gave a speech to a group of school leavers, and spoke mainly about my travels over the past 50 years. My adventures pale into the ordinary when compared with this guy, and what he did, and where he went. About the only thing I said in my speech which is relevant to this book, was that I told the students ‘don’t tell your parents about scary undertakings until after you have returned”. I doubt that Birtles’ mother would ever have seen him! This book makes wonderful exciting reading as we learn about Birtles the bushman, sailor motorist and cyclist, soldier, photographer and even movie maker. And we can’t even say that he was a Jack-of-all-trades, because his accomplishments are noteworthy in all his undertakings. I think that I am most admiring though, about his journey to Australia overland by car from England. The accompanying photos are necessary to make sure the reader believes the story. A captivating story for men and older boys.
The Joy of X, by Steven Strogatz. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99
This book will hold no appeal to people, for whom the word ‘maths’ is a turn off. However, I have been intrigued to read how various aspects of maths connect with so many areas of daily life. I enjoyed the section on subtraction, which presents an element of that procedure that I had not previously considered—that of negative numbers. I also love the explanations of how Google searches the Internet, and about probability. Again, this is a book for maths buffs and teachers to browse, and enjoy at leisure.
Flinders. The Man who mapped Australia. By Rob Mundle. HB from Hachette. RRP $50
Mundle contends, at the end of this book, that Mathew Flinders should be considered, with Cook and Bligh as a founding father of Australia. There is no doubt that the value of Flinders work has been frequently glossed over, or understated, but as this book shows, it has contributed hugely to our knowledge of the country through his detailed and meticulous mapping skill, as well as his skills as a sailor, navigator and artist. Most of us have heard of his cat Trim, and may even have read one of the children’s books about this cat, but few would know how little of Flinders’ married life was spent with his wife—or that Flinders died when only 40 year s old. This is a serious biography; it involves a lot of history, and details of voyages, battles and periods of imprisonment. Not easy reading, but very interesting and a worthwhile addition to the Australian history shelves.
The Man from Coolibah, by Milton Jones and James Knight. PB from Hachette. RRP about $30
This book is a sort of follow up to the TV series “Keeping up with the Jones”. It is the success story of a Territorian character who makes his way through hard work and the ability to judge men, livestock and land. Milton did not have time for much education and generally relied on his wife when reading or writing were required. His upbringing was in the Northern Territory, and he got his start by catching bulls, then bought a rough block and learned to fly a helicopter. He was not frightened by much, and was always ready to seize an opportunity to make money. Milton Jones led a colourful life; he ended up very successful, with a large fleet of helicopters to muster the territory, and with a good family. His property, Coolibah” was the setting for much of Baz Luhrmann’s film “Australia”. If you can’t live the life, dream the dream, and read this book—it is good value as well as entertaining.
**Tales from the Political Trenches. Maxine McKew. PB from Melbourne University Press. RRP $29.99
Often our understanding of the political process is taken from very short daily media glimpses, which contain no background and very little content other that the wish to display problems and dissension, and not progress. Maxine McKew managed to get elected in one of Australia’s most blue ribbon liberal seats, that of Bennelong. In the process she defeated the sitting Prime Minister, John Howard. This was only the second time in over a century that a prime minister had lost his seat. Initially only she and her partner, Bob Hogg thought that she could do it. At one stage Peter Costello sneered at Hogg, calling him “the candidate’s husband”. Hogg’s feeling was that Maxine McKew was the only person to tackle Howard; Costello would not do it. It’s an interesting book, with lots about the background of life as a political candidate and as a member. The work and achievements of individual members are often not recognised or told to the public. McKew admired Keating and was always a Rudd supporter; she believed as did her electors, that it was up to the electorate to change the prime minister, not a few party dealmakers whom she felt stabbed Rudd before the end of his first term. Politics is at a low ebb of popularity in Australia at the moment. The leaders of both major parties have very low polling ratings. Someone who can inspire and lead would be a pleasant change. This is a competent and readable book about a skilled and intelligent woman in a tough position, during a turbulent, and often media led period in Australia’s political life.
**The Boy who wouldn’t Die, by David Nyuol Vincent, with Carol Nader. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99
This is both an inspiring and depressing story. Inspiring because it tells of the love between parent and child, and the stamina and determination of the child to succeed. It also tells of the tribulations and disappointments in the seventeen years it took for David to be accepted to Australia as a refugee—many of these years were spent in Kenya; he was only able to go to school for some of the time, and when he determined to escape, but was caught, it was only because he had become such a good soccer player that he was allowed to return to the camp. In the early days in Ethiopia after their escape across the border from Sudan, had to serve time as a child soldier with the Sudan people Liberation Army; he was beaten, often ill and desperately hungry. I find it great that such determined and intelligent people are now settled in Australia, and making a life for themselves and their families. This is a must read book for anyone who feels that we should refuse to accept more refugees. I am travelling to Ethiopia early in the New Year, and I am sure that this story will be in my mind as I travel north through Kenya.
*I’m your Man, the life of Leonard Cohen, by Sylvie Simmons. PB from Random house. RRP $35
What an amazing man for the twentieth century. I have enjoyed dipping into sections of this book—I will not claim to have read it all, because it is over 500 pages, and much of it is about musical compositions and dealings with agents that do not interest me. However it is his music, and singing, and in particular one song, Hallelujah” that I will always remember about Cohen; the book contains much more—there is much about the breadth of Cohen’s interests and involvement with religion, from his upbringing is a Jewish family, to his ordination as a Buddhist monk, and other aspects of his literary genius and all of this was new to me. Well worth reading, even if you skip the bits where there is a bit too much detail of financial importance.
Daughter of Empire. Life as a Mountbatten, by Pamela Hicks. PB from W&N, released by Orion. RRP $35
What an amazing and privileged, yet interesting life Pamela Hicks led, during the period covered by this book, which ends with her marriage to David Hicks in the 1960’s. Connected by birth to the British royal family, the family changed their name from the German Battenberg to Mountbatten during the First World War. Pamela was brought up largely by nannies and governesses, as was customary for children of noble birth. Having spent then much of her early childhood alone, reading and playing with her pets, for Pamela the best time was when the family moved to India, and her parents became the equivalent of the governor general and his wife, to the Indians until independence in 1947. The other aspect of this story which makes interesting reading tis the guest list of people who visited the family house—from film stars to politicians and every one in between. This is easy reading, and I enjoyed it.
Hell’s Battlefield. The Australians in New Guinea in WW2. By Phillip Bradley. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $50
Phillip Bradley is a scientist who has always been interested in military history. This is a detailed account of the events leading up to the war in New Guinea, and the role played there by Australian troops. The best part, from a non-military reader’s point of view, is that Bradley was interested in the men, not just facts and figures and details of battles. All of these details are there, but there is a story as well. I have just read the part of this book which deals with the battle to retake the Kokoda track, with a year nine student. He was fascinated and I think the chapter really made the war real for this student in a way which other materials have not been successful. A comprehensive, readable book, and an important one for descendants for those who fought in New Guinea.
Murdoch’s Pirates, by Neil Chenoweth. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $45
Rupert Murdoch has long been a target for investigative journalists. In building his business he has expected people to produce results. The recent British phone hacking scandal appears to be the result of staff going rogue to get a story. Murdoch’s Pirates is the story of an undercover secret division of News Ltd, based in Jerusalem, and staffed by ex-police and secret service agents. It’s a book for people with knowledge of the newspaper business, hacking and for those who want to know how it all began. It is heavy going and there are lots of names and detail.
Mastery, by Robert Greene. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $29.99
This is an intense book—as is its subject matter. The author discusses mastery- the concept that when a person is ultra competent, and confident in particular skills, there is another element, of vitality and direction which gives further impetus to the delivery of the skills. Various famous world figures are presented, their talents discussed, their creativity and achievements. Some of those discussed include Charles Darwin, together with a comparison of what he achieved, compared with his cousin, Francis Galton, who was just as intelligent, but failed to reach the same heights of achievement. Da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford, Temple Grandin—these are just a few of those whose lives and careers are analysed to support the authors beliefs and definitions about mastery. I also liked the short comments written by these people about various aspects of their thinking and work. It is a thick book, and the content quite discursive, but for browsing, with particular people in mind, it has been very interesting and thought provoking.
On the Map, or why the World Looks the way it does, by Simon Garfield. HB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $$30
Yet another book to keep next to the bed and browse at leisure, because the extent and nature of the information in this book is considerable. Garfield has looked at the history and development of maps, and how map making is tied in with the development of human knowledge, experience and exploration. I thought the story would be dry, but the tone is quite conversational, and there are plenty of illustrations, plus snippets of trivia to spice it all up. I found the most interesting snippet to be that, towards the end of the book where Garfield discusses the hypothesis of the Australian couple Barbara and Allen Pease wrote a book stating that women can’t read maps. Research shows that there may be a little truth in the assertion, but that men and women view maps and giving directions differently. For the detail, you will have to read the book! Good value.
**And Man Created God, by Selina O’Grady. PB from Allen and Unwin. RRP $35
Religious belief comes in many forms and is a balance between faith and power. It is used both to govern and to control. Selina O’Grady looks at the period from Jesus’ birth- a time when Rome and China were huge empires, each with quite different faiths and rulers. In Sudan the warrior Queen used her army’s belief of her God like status to fight the Romans. The section on India provides the clearest descriptions of their religions-Buddhism, Jainism and Brahmanism–in their original forms. They give a view that man, by his actions, determines the fate of his soul and rebirth. If you are interested in how the world works and connects, and accept that the world’s religions have more in common with each other than differences, this is a really interesting book, but written from the perspective of history, not faith.