Around the world, the vast majority of people believe things are getting worse. But in Humankind: A Hopeful History, Rutger Bregman shows us that “The reality is exactly the opposite. Over the last several decades, extreme poverty, victims of war, child mortality, crime, famine, child labour, deaths in natural disasters and the number of plane crashes have all plummeted. We’re living in the richest, safest, healthiest era ever. So why don’t we realise this? It’s simple. Because the news is about the exceptional.”
I raved about Bregman in episode 42 of James and Ashley Stay at Home, and I’m not done. Here are a few of the passages that resonated most with me, though every chapter was vital and fascinating and I can’t recommend it highly enough.
I. “In times when immigration or violence declines, newspapers give them more coverage … There seems to be none, or even a negative, relationship between news and reality.”
II. “When it comes down to it, the presence of bystanders has precisely the opposite effect of what science has long insisted. We’re not alone in the big city, on the subway, on the crowded streets. We have each other.”
III. The 1964 murder of 28-year-old Kitty Genovese became infamous after The New York Times erroneously claimed that none of the 38 witnesses who saw or heard the attack outside their apartment building in Queens called the police or came to her aid. In fact, she died in the arms of a friend. Her story “teaches us three things. One: how out of whack our view of human nature often is. Two: how deftly journalists push those buttons to sell sensational stories. And last but not least: how it’s precisely in emergencies that we can count on one another.”
IV. “A realistic view of human nature can’t help but have major implications for how you interact with other people.”
V. “Cynicism is a theory of everything. The cynic is always right.”
VI. Because Wunsiedel, a town in southern Germany, is home to the grave of Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess, Neo-Nazis gathered every year to march on the anniversary of his death, “hoping to incite riots and violence.” Anti-fascists would come along to clash with the Nazis, which only reinforces their adherents – “it validates them in their worldview, and makes it that much easier to attract new recruits.” So in 2014, the town of Wunsiedel turned the march for Rudolph Hess into a charity walk. “For every metre the Neo-Nazis walked, the townspeople pledged to donate to an NGO that helps people get out of far-right groups.” So the townspeople secretly marked off start and finish lines, and they made banners to say thanks to the marchers. The Neo-Nazis had no idea this was going to happen. They showed up expecting protest and violence, and instead received loud cheers, and they were showered with confetti when they crossed the finish line. The event raised more than 20 thousand euros.”
Mark your calendars! This year Australian Reading Hour is Tuesday 14 September. This is a chance to not only make some extra time in your schedule for reading, but also to celebrate reading and all its benefits and joys.
Australia Reads exists to ‘champion reading, promote the many mental health and lifestyle benefits of reading books, and encourage the next generation of avid book readers to significantly increase book reading by all Australians – no matter the format they read.’
As they say,
‘We believe reading is the key to a smarter, healthier, happier nation.’
And I completely agree! I wouldn’t be the person I am without all the books I’ve benefited from reading in my life time: I have a much deeper and broader understanding of the world around me and the complex and unique lives of the people in my community and my country, and around the globe.
Reading also gives me a chance to get off my devices and allow my attention to focus on one thing (it’s basically a type of meditation, in my experience). I generally sleep better on days when I get more reading in.
I also love listening to audiobooks when I’m walking, driving, doing chores and lying down. This keeps me engaged in the world of the book, which stops my mind from ruminating about my own anxieties. (And unlike podcasts, audiobooks don’t have ad breaks!)
And reading has connected to me to all kinds of wonderful people, and brought me joy through memorable stories, beloved characters, and fascinating insights into human life and history.
So there you go – that’s at least one person who’s smarter, healthier and happier. Imagine that to the power of 25 million!
If you’re looking to try new books and authors, check out my Great Reads, where you’ll find write-ups about many of my favourite books.
In a book club? I love talking to readers, and I’m happy to make a virtual appearance at any book club meeting.
We can do this via Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or whatever technology suits you. If you’re in Sydney, I may even be able to make an in-person visit. Contact me about booking a free online author event for your book club, bookstore or library group.
As a bonus, you can jazz up your book club event with these cocktail pairings, created especially for the book!
1. In the opening pages of How to Be Australian, we step into a minus 40 winter day in Winnipeg. How does this set up Ashley’s experiences throughout the book?
2. Ashley and Steve arrive in Australia on a one-year visa, and Ashley expects this will be her only opportunity to live abroad with Steve. How does this expectation shape her first year in Australia?
3. On her arrival in Australia, Ashley notes, ‘I had the dizzying sensation that this was the start of my adult life.’ But by the time she and Steve are applying for PR, she says, ‘I’d transitioned from onset adulthood into what was, apparently, the rest of my life.’ How is the theme of adulthood explored throughout the book?
4. Ashley describes herself as ‘generations dislocated’ and without a homeland. The theme of dislocation and belonging is raised throughout the book, not only for Ashley, but among diasporan Armenians and for her classmate Noelle and Kamilaroi performer Matty Shields. What insights about home does Ashley’s journey offer?
5. Ashley summaries John O’Grady’s advice from They’re a Weird Mob: ‘Return all shouts. Don’t be a bludger. Don’t lose your temper when your workmates ridicule you – and if they’re Aussies, they will. If someone does you a favour, return it, but don’t overdo generosity. Abuse your friends to their face, but not in private.’ Do you agree with this advice? What would you add?
6. Ashley struggles with the concepts of tall poppy syndrome and cultural cringe. What does she conclude about them?
7. ‘I felt most at home in myself when I was travelling. Perhaps because as a traveller, there was no expectation of feeling at home.’ How does Ashley’s relationship with travel affect other aspects of her life?
8. Although Ashley suffered bouts of depression in Winnipeg, she arrives in Sydney believing that, for her, ‘“Australia” was practically a synonym for happiness.’ Her anxiety builds up gradually. When she does take steps to address it, her recovery is likewise gradual. Why do you think it took so long for her to recognise her mental health struggles?
9. ‘I was afraid. I was inadequate. I was failing at something, even if I couldn’t say precisely what.’ How is Ashley’s anxiety influenced by her perspectives on her marriage, career, and sense of home?
10. Ashley and Steve have very different worldviews. Whose did you relate to more?
11. ‘Life, I’d come to learn, was never resolved. My marriage, my mental health, and my identity were ongoing processes, not moments frozen in time.’ How does this insight apply to your own life?
12. Other than a visit to South Australia, what aspects of Australiana did you feel were missing from the book?
13. ‘As Canada’s Commonwealth sibling, Australia felt distinct yet familiar.’ What assumptions did you have about Canada before reading this book? How were they challenged or upheld?
14. What questions would you expect to be on the Australian citizenship test? What questions would you want to include?
I can finally share some exciting news with you. My second book will be out this June from Affirm Press. It’s called How to Be Australian, and it’s a memoir of moving from Canada.
In a lot of ways, the book is a love letter to Australia, this charming, vast, baffling country that has been my home for almost a decade now.
When my husband and I moved here, we thought it would be like Canada, but hot. Australia is completely unique, and I dedicated myself to learning about it, to travelling widely and to the ongoing journey of discovery that is being Australian. It’s a memoir of anxiety and becoming an adult and struggling with marriage, but mostly it’s a book about loving Australia.
This summer’s fires have been devastating across the country. It’s heartbreaking. To offer a tiny bit of help, I’m taking part in Authors for Fireys, which means you can get:
YOUR NAME in the acknowledgements of How to Be Australian, plus one of the very first signed copies
In 2019, I continued to support Australian authors, women authors and debut authors (being all three of those things myself this year).
I also aimed to read more Indigenous authors, and followed through on that (instead of reading a stack of zombie fiction, like I did in 2018).
2019 reading breakdown
70% Australian authors
77% women authors
47% debut authors
7% Indigenous authors
2019 reading highlights
Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (NF)
In this revelatory survey of early European accounts of Australia, Aboriginal author Bruce Pascoe reveals how complex Indigenous agriculture, architecture and society truly was, and so urges us to reconsider our understanding of Aboriginal civilisation. As he concludes, ‘To deny Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander agricultural and spiritual achievement is the single greatest impediment to intercultural understanding and, perhaps, to Australian moral wellbeing and economic prosperity.’
In the Clearing by JP Pomare Pomare’s new psychological thriller is a compelling and startling exploration of family, control and violence. The story takes its inspiration from The Family, an Australian cult. Led by Anne Hamilton-Byrne in the 1970s and 80s, The Family was accused of imprisoning children and brainwashing them through the use of drugs and physical punishment, as well as forcing them to dress alike and dye their hair blond to better resemble its leader. The novel’s triumph is its surprising climax, and the way Pomare turns the tables on the reader, raising the question of what any one of us would do to protect our own families – however we define them. Read the full review here.
One of the few positives of putting most of my life on hiatus due to illness is that I’ve actually had more time for reading.
I’ve always loved reading. I used to walk home from school with an open book, looking up only before crossing the street, and even then only if I wasn’t at a really good part.
When my chronic fatigue was at its worst in 2017, I wasn’t able to read. I’d start a sentence, and by the time I finished, I’d forgotten how it began. I’d re-read the same sentence over and over, but my brain was too tired to both decipher the writing and hold onto the meaning.
I still have days where I’m too tired to read, but they’re becoming less frequent. And because I have spent so much time home on the couch, I actually read more this year.
2018 reading breakdown
64% Australian authors
57% women authors
24% debut authors, of which 22% (11 books) were debut Australian women authors
6% zombie fiction
2018 reading highlights
Vodka & Apple Juice by Jay Martin (NF) Having left a successful career in Canberra, Martin is both excited and nervous to spend three years in Poland accompanying her husband on a diplomatic posting. Her narrative traces her efforts to learn the Polish language and the unwritten rules of Polish life, as well as the challenges of making meaningful friendships and helping her marriage survive the long, grey winters. Her writing is personable, peppered with gentle humour and introspection.*
Traumata by Meera Atkinson (NF)
Traumata is a sense-making project, or rather the summary of Atkinson’s lifelong effort at sense-making. Interspersing research into trauma, memory and psychology with explorations of her personal traumata – the plural of trauma – she presents an incisive case study of trauma’s effects, how it can compound at an individual level, and how it operates in society. (First published in The Australian)
Don’t Sleep There Are Snakes by Daniel Everett (NF)
Everett spent 30 years in the Brazilian jungle, living among the Pirahã tribe. His book recounts his experiences in the jungle, and his efforts to translate the language of this still-isolated tribe. Through his cultural immersion, his life and religious views change dramatically, as does his understanding of foundational concepts of linguistics, and more profoundly, how and if people from diverse cultural contexts can truly understand one another. Inevitably he learns far more from the Pirahãs than they take from him. The prologue frames his experiences by describing the morning an entire village of Pirahãs woke early to observe a visiting spirit on the beach. They insist the spirit is as present before them as Everett is. ‘Over the more than two decades since that summer morning, I have tried to come to grips with the significance of how two cultures, my European-based culture and the Pirahãs’ culture, could see reality so differently,’ Everett writes. ‘I could never have proved to the Pirahãs that the beach was empty. Nor could they have convinced me there was anything, much less a spirit, on it.’*
Always Another Country by Sisonke Msimang (NF)
Msimang grew up in exile from South Africa, the daughter of a freedom fighter and follower of Nelson Mandela. Her eloquent memoir of home, belonging and race politics traces her childhood in Zambia, Kenya and Canada, her university years in America, and her return to a South Africa that is free but not just. (First published in The Big Issue)
Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee (NF)
Lee’s experiences, both professionally and personally, make clear the human fallibility and biases of the justice system, and how it is stacked against women. Women and children are often victims of crime in their own homes, and the perpetrators are people they know. But juries are unlikely to believe any woman who isn’t the ‘perfect victim’, a woman who appears chaste, is not on birth control, and is preferably attacked by a shady-looking stranger in public, not an average-looking bloke she happens to know, even casually. And if a complainant is inconsistent in her reports, if she becomes too emotional, she is less believable, even though these are normal responses to trauma. Read the full review here.
Being Shot by Gail Bell (NF)
Blending memoir with journalism, Bell examines her own experiences, alongside those of a number of other shooting victims, to consider both the physical and psychological aftermath. She also interviews recreational gun owners, war veterans, and police and RSPCA officers who use weapons in their work. In an effort to understand the appeal of guns, she considers their 500-year history and current prevalence in pop culture. Read the full review here.
How I Rescued My Brain by David Roland (NF)
Roland was a psychologist who developed post-traumatic stress after working with violent offenders in the prison system, as well as traumatised patients. This and other stressors, including financial ruin and the breakdown of his marriage, likely played a role in the stroke that reduced his cognitive capabilities. His gentle narrative explores both the devastating effects of his conditions and the steps he took toward wellbeing, including mindfulness meditation. Having suffered frustrating cognitive limitations myself since the onset of my illness, I appreciated Roland’s direct, clear descriptions of his cognitive symptoms. He separates these into three categories: the general confusion of fog brain; rubber brain, the inability to take things in; and sore brain, the physical hurt that cognitive strain would cause, even for a task as simple as making lunch for his children.*
The Friendship Cure by Kate Leaver (NF)
Just as loneliness causes us harm, friendship can dramatically affect our physical health, as new research shows. Having a caring social network of close friends may lower your risk of Alzheimer’s, obesity, heart problems and high blood pressure, and improve your chances of staying fit. Likewise, having a close friend at work can improve attention span, mood and even productivity. And while friendship can’t cure depression, spending time with friends and cultivating strong friendships can be part of good mental healthcare practices, alongside healthy eating and exercise. Combining scientific research, interviews and memoir, The Friendship Cure explores the many benefits of friendship, along with a few of the perils, through pop-culture references and anecdotes of both successful and failed friendships. Read the full review here.
Claiming Noah by Amanda Ortlepp
Under the umbrella of contemporary women’s fiction, this novel is part of the emotional thriller genre. Set in Sydney, it centres around two mothers and the realities of IVF and postpartum psychosis. With a quickly paced plot and blurred lines between protagonists and antagonists, it’s an engaging read.