Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction (page 1 of 8)

Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia – Anita Heiss (ed.)

Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia is a 2018 autobiographical anthology, with 52 short essays by Aboriginal people about coming into their own identities. It’s the second in Black Inc’s Growing Up series, a collection that aims to ‘enlighten, inspire, and educate’ (see also: Growing Up Asian In Australia, Growing Up Queer In Australia, and so on). The tagline promises “childhood stories of family, country, and belonging”.

The anthology is edited by Anita Heiss, an Aboriginal Australian author, poet, cultural activist and social commentator. She’s done an excellent job of collating diverse stories from a broad cross-section of Aboriginal people. Contributors to Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia include a handful of writers you might recognise – like Tony Birch, Evelyn Araluen, Tara June Winch – but they are mostly non-writers. For many, it’s the first time they’ve published anything they’ve written. The only requirement Heiss laid out for them is that their stories be true, non-fiction accounts about (as the title suggests) growing up Aboriginal in Australia.

Mostly, the stories are told in a straightforward essay format, though some of the contributors mixed it up, offering conversation transcripts, open letters, and poetry. On the whole, they’re not particularly arty or Literary(TM). That’s good in the sense that it makes these accounts widely accessible. You don’t need to be a “reader” to appreciate and learn from them, nor do you have to be an adult (I’d say Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia is appropriate and accessible to just about any age group with an interest in reading it).

However, if you’re looking for literary masterpieces about First Nations people, this isn’t the collection you’re looking for. You should try reading Melissa Lucashenko, or Alexis Wright. That’s not to say that their Literary(TM) writing is any better than that in Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia, or vice versa – simply that different styles will appeal to and resonate for different readers.

It’s also not a particularly graphic or explicit collection, if anyone’s worried about that. Of course, traumatic events and racism are frequently mentioned throughout Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia, but they’re never exploited or discussed in gratuitous detail.

The feeling of not being “black enough” or “Aboriginal enough”, and lamenting loss of connection to ancestry and culture, is present in almost all of these stories. That’s the most heartbreaking aspect of Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia for me – the impact that colonisation has had, and the damage it has done, in deciding what a “real” Aboriginal person “should” look like, or how they should live.

Each account reveals, to some degree, the impact of invasion and colonisation – on language, on country, on ways of life…

Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia (Anita Heiss, Introduction)

My personal favourites from Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia include Finding ways home (Evelyn Araluen), White bread dreaming (Shannon Foster), A story from my life (William Russell), It’s too hot (Alexis West), and Aboriginemo (Alison Whittaker). Most of the contributions I particularly enjoyed were ones that focused on a single incident, or period in the person’s life – but that’s a purely personal preference. Some of the stories do that, others offer a more sweeping overview of the contributor’s childhood. It seems like Heiss gave them pretty free rein to tell their own stories as they saw fit.

Whichever approach they take, each contributor clearly speaks from the heart in their stories, with a strong desire to humanise their identities and reject the stereotypes they have been subjected to throughout their lives. Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia encourages empathy and demands respect, a wonderful contribution to the canon of First Nations literature in this country.

Bad Blood – John Carreyrou

John Carreyrou is the Pulitzer Prize-winning Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story behind Theranos, the Silicon Valley biotech startup he revealed to be a multi-billion dollar fraud. The story of Theranos, and its charismatic founder Elizabeth Holmes, has reached mythic proportions in popular culture. Bad Blood is the riveting true story told in full, straight from the source, so if you’ve only heard it in snippets and memes, this is the book for you.

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Bad Blood is a true crime book about corporate fraud – an particularly rich untapped vein in that genre, if you ask me. This story has got it all: the gold-rush mentality of Silicon Valley, a brilliant idea, secrets and lies, a house of cards, a cat-and-mouse game with reporters… it all unfolds like a high-octane thriller, but better, for being real.

Holmes started Theranos as a 19-year-old college drop-out. She had incredible vision and admirable goals – making health care accessible and affordable, effecting a shift in the power dynamic between doctors and patients. You know, information is power, and all of that. She imagined a device in people’s homes that would allow them to diagnose dozens – no hundreds – no thousands of diseases with a single finger prick, a far cry from long lines at the pathologist to have vials of blood drawn at a time.

The amounts of money that she was able to attract with this idea are astronomical. Most of the people involved aren’t household names (with the exception of Rupert Murdoch), but the brands that got on board – Walgreens, Safeway – sure are.

Unfortunately for them all, Holmes’s ambition was coupled with complete delusion about her capacity to achieve and deliver on what she promised. She had all the hallmarks of a cult leader: a charismatic recruiter with a peculiar talent for pitting people against each other while keeping them on her side.

For over a decade, as Carreyrou depicts in Bad Blood, Holmes systematically drove away dozens of people who could have actually helped her, tarring them as nay-sayers and small-minded critics. The extreme lengths that Holmes and her lawyers and devotees went to prevent their fraud being made public brings to mind Harvey Weinstein and the story that unfolded in She Said (Holmes and Weinstein even used the same lawyer).

Holmes channeled [the] fake-it-until-you-make-it culture, and she went to extreme lengths to hide the fakery.

Bad blood (page 296)

Carreyrou himself doesn’t appear in the story until Chapter 19. He conducted hundreds of interviews investigating the story of Theranos and preparing it for the public – first for the Wall Street Journal, and then for Bad Blood. He managed to track down no fewer than sixty former Theranos employees, convincing them to set aside their fears of retaliation and legal ramifications. Holmes herself declined to participate (hard to imagine why…).

It all allowed him to paint a completely convincing picture of what life inside Holmes’s web was like, but it also led to him becoming personally invested in the story and a target of Holmes’s wrath. He does come off as slightly defensive towards the very end of Bad Blood (did we really need to know about the ‘fuck you, Carreyrou’ chant the Theranos employees did at a gathering?), but I suppose it’s understandable, given what they put him through.

Bill Gates said that “Bad Blood tackles some serious ethical questions, but it is ultimately a thriller with a tragic ending. It’s a fun read full of bizarre details that will make you gasp out loud,”. It also serves as a testament to the power and importance of unbiased investigative journalism. Bad Blood had my jaw dropping and my tongue wagging for days, and I highly recommend it to anyone who wants a true crime read without blood.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Bad Blood:

  • “Bought the book for several of my employees.” – buy amazon buy
  • “Bought Bad Blood while I was watching The Dropout on Hulu. Here’s the thing: my copy of Bad Blood is a total dropout in that the pages drop out and the binding is unbound! I’m trying to get through but seriously…My copy is like the subject of L’il Wayne’s “How to Love.” For a second the pages of my copy are over here. Now they are over there.” – Karen
  • “This book is interesting, don’t get me wrong, but it’s nothing more than a recount of an entitled brat, her evil spouse, and hundreds of people getting screwed over in the process. Honestly, I’m not sure why I listened as long as I did. With the rave reviews, I was expecting something better, but the book just seems so repetitive. The overarching theme of the book is 1) Make crappy product that doesn’t work. 2) Scam person into thinking it does. 3) Rinse and repeat” – Austin

Strangers Drowning – Larissa MacFarquhar

The subtitle of Strangers Drowning is “Grappling with impossible idealism, drastic choices, and the overpowering urge to help”. You might be picturing firefighters rescuing kids from wells or kittens from trees, but that’s not what Larissa MacFarquhar is talking about in this philosophy book. Rather, she’s looking at a less sexy type of altruism, people who dedicate their whole entire lives to bettering the lives of others, even at great personal cost.

Strangers Drowning - Larissa MacFarquhar - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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So, what does a life of extreme ethical commitment look like? These aren’t one-off heroes doing something spectacular, like raising a floppity-gillion dollars for a cause with a rock’n’roll concert. These are people whose commitment to the cause overtakes their entire lives, often very quietly and with little public acknowledgement. They’re the ones who make us think “huh, maybe I should be giving more to charity”.

I started writing this book because I was troubled by something I didn’t understand: why don’t most of us give more than we do?

Strangers Drowning (Page xiii)

These “do gooders” (MacFarquhar’s moniker, not mine) offer up kidneys for complete strangers, live on scraps so they can donate all of their income, adopt dozens of children. They’re the kind of people who, on paper, do completely incredible things but, in real life, they kind of freak us out.

That’s the other aspect of Strangers Drowning. MacFarquhar doesn’t just present case studies, “look at how great these people are” – she also interrogates our society’s deep-seated suspicion of do-gooders and why exactly they make us feel so uncomfortable.

It’s a series of confronting questions that we don’t often have cause to think about consciously. How much should we give? How do we decide who deserves it? If we give away all of our money, or risk life and limb to help others on a daily basis, does that mean we value the lives of strangers more than our own? Or the well-being of our families? Is it right to value strangers more (or, at least, as much) as our flesh and blood?

This is the trolley problem played out in real life. A primer for those of us who haven’t seen The Good Place: the trolley problem is an ethical dilemma used in intro-to-philosophy courses to make us think about whether it’s ‘good’ to sacrifice one to save the many. Do the ends justify the means, etc. Everyone that MacFarquhar writes about in Strangers Drowning has decided, definitively, that it is.

Strangers Drowning is not, however, a glowing recommendation of lives of boundless optimism. MacFarquhar highlights the downsides and disappointments of these extremely ethical lives. There’s ostracism from community, estrangement from family, destitution, desolation – not to mention frequent personal endangerment. And there’s the kind-of obvious point that she skirts around, that ultimately these people might not make much of a difference (in fact, some of them might inadvertently do more harm than good).

Interestingly, MacFarquhar doesn’t really present an opinion of her own, at least not in explicit terms. She’s an entirely objective observer in Strangers Drowning, describing the good and the bad without proffering any judgement. She never reveals whether she donates to a charity or how much, or whether she’s ever been the recipient of charity of the kind she describes.

It’s a confronting and challenging read, especially if you’re prone to philosophical debates in your own mind. It’s important to allow time to read Strangers Drowning gradually, and take breaks to think over what you’ve read before continuing.

Ultimately, the question(s) MacFarquhar keeps coming back around to is this: how much can we help, and how much should we help? Of course, there is no satisfactory answer (so, if that’s what you’re after, move along), but the various examples of people doing more than most give a lot of food for thought. Fans of The Good Place, and anyone ever crippled by indecision when faced with a ‘please donate now’ email or door-knock, should definitely give this one a read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Strangers Drowning:

  • “As a Gen-Xer, this really came across to me more like a millennial hipster diatribe against Older People and their Outdated Ethics. The author tries to maintain a neutral tone, but every one of her conclusions seem to say that altruism is at best pointless, and at worst, intentionally offensive. The book ends with her saying that do-gooders are a strange, incomprehensible lot, and that we should leave them alone and let them be crazy. And of course, that people should just do what feels good to them to do.” – Emily Mac
  • “This is just a fascinating guilt trip where you can compare your worries about buying a new sofa to saving babies from malaria.” – Jupiter Reader

Hidden Figures – Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures is one of those (true!) stories that you immediately want to know more about. As per the blurb, it’s “the phenomenal true story of the black female mathematicians at NASA whose calculations helped fuel some of America’s greatest achievements in space,”. Margot Lee Shetterly spent years learning about the ‘human computers’ who worked with paper and pencil to put man on the moon, and shared all she had learned about them in her 2016 non-fiction best-seller.

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Of course, by examining the roles these women played at NASA, Shetterly incidentally traces American history through WWII, the Cold War, and the space race. Hidden Figures highlights the particular barriers for black women in the sciences as well as society at large, from the late 1930s through to the 1960s. She offers a kind note at the beginning of the book about being faithful to that period, with regard to the use of epithets and pejoratives – it was nice to have a heads up, but honestly, that note made it sound worse than the actual text bore out.

The first surprise of Hidden Figures was just how many black women worked as mathematicians and scientists at NASA. There weren’t just a handful of them – there were dozens and dozens.

Many numbers of black women have participated as protagonists in the epic of America.

Hidden Figures (Page 248)

What’s more, Shetterly herself knew many of these women. Her father worked with them so she grew up around them, and she took for granted their roles at NASA, the way children do. “Growing up in Hampton [Virginia], the face of science was brown like mine,” she says (page xiii). This is ‘see it to be it’ in action.

As Shetterly describes it, when these women took jobs as ‘computers’ during WWII labour shortages, workplaces in Virginia were still segregated and the women – especially the black women – were kept at arm’s length. Still, most of them were grateful to have meaningful work (with the dark days of the Depression not so far behind them, and many of them supporting themselves and their children), and NASA paid handsomely for the time.

Gradually, the utility of the women began to outweigh the entrenched (at times, government-mandated) racism and sexism, and by the time Apollo 11 was preparing for launch, they were working in essential roles at the highest levels.

This is all fascinating, of course. Unfortunately, Hidden Figures itself is hard to penetrate. The story is told largely in the historical abstract, with a lot of unnecessary “context” (i.e., extraneous detail). The voice is very detached from the women supposedly at the heart of the story. The rare glimpses Shetterly offers into their personalities and private lives are the most engaging and interesting parts of Hidden Figures. On the whole, though, it’s a disappointingly dry read.

Don’t get me wrong: it should be a good story! It’s just not told in a compelling or engaging way in this particular book. Perhaps more dialogue – interviews with the women themselves, conversations with their co-workers or children – might have made the story more moving, or at least tangible. As it stands, I feel like I just read a Wikipedia entry about them. I think Shetterly was more committed to stating facts for the record than telling a story. That works fine in some formats (see above, Wikipedia entry), but not in Hidden Figures.

I’ve not yet seen the film adaptation, but I’d imagine it would be a much better format for telling this story. Allowing us to engage with the women – even just a few of them – on a human level, ‘put faces to names’, will make the story of Hidden Figures sparkle the way that it should.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Hidden Figures:

  • “Thank God the producers of the movie eliminated over two thirds of the book.” – Amazon Customer
  • “This book was like reading a dry tortuous math textbook. Too many unnecessary characters, too many unnecessary details, and the book jumps all over the place. When I get a book like this I just go the the epilogue, even that was torturous!” – N. Ross
  • “This is the kind of novel a science or history teacher would require you to read.” – Trisha K
  • “This book reminds me of when I was lilttle and my mother would mention some Obit from the village we lived in and then my Dad would follow with his brother’s name and then my Mom would recall their Mother amd then my Father would recall how he worked with his Dad and then my mother would recall them going to school together and then my Dad would talk about the car they drove blah, blah, blah I was ready to take the gaspipe.
    All I can say is the screenwriter who took this pile of crap and made a great movie out of it deserves an Academy Award.” – Amazon Customer

Any Ordinary Day – Leigh Sales

I’ve admired Leigh Sales for a long time, and not just for her Walkley Award-winning journalism. Her arts podcast, Chat 10 Looks 3, with Annabel Crabb, is where I get a lot of my book recommendations. So, inevitably, I had to check out Sales’s own book, Any Ordinary Day (tagline: “Blindsides, resilience, and what happens after the worst day of your life”).

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In Any Ordinary Day, Sales examines our vulnerability to life-changing events, and how we process the grief and fear that come with them. She was prompted to think about this subject after two widely covered, deeply traumatic events that occurred in rapid succession in 2014 (the death of cricketer Phillip Hughes, and the Lindt Cafe siege in Sydney).

In her work as a journalist, she has realised that the worst days, where the unthinkable happens, “start with the day’s deceptive ordinariness” – which is how she landed on the book’s title. Ask someone about a devastating experience, and they’ll almost always start with ‘it was any ordinary day…’.

Sales talks to people who’ve faced unimaginable traumas, from acts of terrorism to natural disasters. Her interviewees have lost children and spouses, and/or come horrifyingly close to death themselves. In between chats, she describes what the science says about how our brains respond to shock, and grief. In case it’s not already clear, Any Ordinary Day isn’t a self-help book or a survivor’s guide – it’s more like a wider consideration of how and why we respond to tragedy.

Sales shares enough of her feelings and experiences to be transparent with the reader (e.g., she acknowledges her bias as an atheist when speaking to a Jesuit priest), but not so much that she overshadows the experiences of her interviewees. It’s a very delicate balance, and Sales has clearly had a lot of experience walking that particular tightrope.

What surprised me (though it probably shouldn’t have, given Sales’s line of work) was her brilliant interrogation of the role of journalism and the public interest in freak tragedies. Sales gives quite a lot of time to the role that the news plays in not only our awareness of these events, but also the reaction and recovery of their victims. The public is undeniably curious when terrible things happen, but what right do we have to the inside story of the worst day of someone’s life? It’s the journalist’s difficult job to play the gatekeeper, usually under enormous pressure to get clicks and views.

Another thing I didn’t expect: Any Ordinary Day is a good book to read if you’re awkward around grief and tragedy. If you find yourself shying away from people in awful circumstances, because you’re unsure of what to say or scared of “making things worse”, Sales offers answers about the “right” thing to do and you’ll feel much more equipped.

It’s worth noting that Any Ordinary Day is a (mostly) straight, white book. I think we can give Sales some leeway, given the universality of grief and shock in the wake of tragedy, but we should be aware of it all the same. Any Ordinary Day isn’t going to tell you anything about how these experiences are compounded by institutional bias and systemic oppression – though, of course, that’s a whole other book’s worth of information.

I did wonder whether, in the wake of The Terrible No Good Very Bad Year 2020, an updated edition might be in order. Where most of the tragedies Sales examines in Any Ordinary Day mostly affect a handful of people (in the case of natural disasters, thousands at most), COVID-19 caused near-universal upheaval and distress. I’d be curious to hear her take, specifically, on what the pandemic has done to us and our fear of tragedy, given what she learned putting this book together before it happened.

In sum, Any Ordinary Day is an interesting and reflective book, very well paced and highly readable. Next time you see a news story about a terrible event and find yourself thinking “I could never survive something like that”, you’ll want to be able to turn to this book for proof that ordinary people survive the unthinkable every day, and most of us have buried reserves of resilience.

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