Books in review

Reviews by Colleen Cook

In this issue:

Under the Microscope

Under the Microscope

Professor Earl Owen
Vintage $34.99

Radiotherapy was brand new in Sydney in 1933 when Earl Owen was given an excessive dose for a birth defect. He spent months of his childhood undergoing operations and recovering alone in a dark hospital ward. From this experience he knew he would one day become a surgeon with compassion and the skills to make a difference to the lives of newborns.

Owen, who passed away in May, devoted his life to medicine and medical research. During an astonishing career he has pioneered work in microsurgery, vasectomy reversal and the first hand transplants, and trained doctors worldwide in the skills he perfected. Amazingly, he has also met with some surprising obstruction and opposition.

Owen’s sharp mind and creative skills have made him a great innovator and inventor. A gifted pianist, table tennis champion and golfer, Owen also designed replacement seats for the Sydney Opera House. He invented the prototypes for microsurgical instruments and the microscopes which, hands free, allowed the most delicate surgical operations to be performed on newborn babies.

Now retired, Owen will continue to inspire others through this book, skilfully compressing his full and remarkable life so that the pace of this autobiography is gripping from start to finish.

ANZAC's Long Shadow

ANZAC

James Brown
Redback $19.99

This frank investigation of Australia’s obsession with the Anzac legend is timely. With the centenary of Gallipoli around the corner, James Brown fearlessly challenges our nation’s long-held values and myths about soldiers and officers, along with their portrayal in the media.

A former army officer and now defence analyst, Brown questions our ability to address future military challenges when we have learnt little from past wars and even recent operations. It’s sobering to discover that while we are obsessed with the Anzac soldier, it was experts at US Marine Corps Base Quantico who analysed the military errors at Gallipoli.

The business of keeping the Anzac spirit alive may also contribute to a widening gap between civil and military worlds and explain why many soldiers returning from Afghanistan feel shame rather than pride. Brown says that in this new kind of war the best days are the uneventful ones. The enemy is no longer in front but all around and ill-defined. Death is more likely to be accidental than from bravery in combat.

This book questions how we, as a nation, can learn to be proud of our military forces in a relevant, modern way removed from the shadow of the Anzac myth.

On Cringila Hill

On Cringila Hill

Noel Beddoe
University of Queensland Press $29.95

It begins abruptly. This is going to be a crime novel, present tense, disjointed. As the novel unfolds it becomes a beautifully composed synthesis of places, cultures and characters consumed by the daily challenges of simply existing in the poor migrant suburbs near the Port Kembla steelworks. The beach and the water become a refuge from Cringila Hill, a place where small-time criminals started to face the dangers of the drug trade. The descriptions of the landscape are poetic, the characters hover between hope and despair.

Noel Beddoe has first-hand knowledge of the community. For 12 years he was principal of Warrawong High School, whose student population spoke more than 63 languages in their homes. He understands the family and racial complexities of this society all too well.

Beddoe witnessed the emergence of gun crime in the area and this novel tells the important story of what it’s like to live in the intensely multicultural satellite suburbs of Wollongong. Teenagers are caught up in this crime evolution and the police face difficult moral decisions. Do they toe the line or turn a blind eye and lend a helping hand? It’s impossible to second-guess these characters, and this makes for a compelling narrative.