Books in review

By Colleen Cook

In this issue:

Zombie tits, astronaut fish and other weird animals

Cover illustration of Zombie Tits, Astronaut Fish and Other Weird Animals

Becky Crew
NewSouth Press $24.99

If you ever doubted that nature could throw up some weird creatures, then picture a bug whose penis, which is merely the width of a human hair, gives off the sound level of a symphony orchestra. Try a shrimp that can punch with the acceleration of a .22 calibre bullet, a fish that smothers its prey in slime and eats not with its mouth but with its skin, and a spider which is encouraged to eat its mother before going it alone.

Author Becky Crew’s enthusiasm for science writing was a surprise, considering she hated science at school. Apart from a love of animals as a child, she studied near eastern archaeology at the University of Sydney (BA ’08 GradDipMedPrac ’10) before learning about these animals became her metier. Now, her fascination with this subject and years of research would make her great value at a dinner party.

Her descriptions are meticulously detailed and accurate, butting onto playful scenes where these animals morph into characters that would be right at home in Alice in Wonderland. It’s hard to remember that this is not fiction. Life may be stranger, but it is equally engaging and fanciful beyond belief. These tales go to the top of the ‘best trivia’ list.

Broomstick: Personal reflections of Leonie Kramer

Cover image of Broomstick

Dame Leone Kramer
Australian Scholarly Publishing $49.95

These few chapters Leonie Kramer offers us hardly touch upon a full and controversial public life. Instead they explain how it was that she came to do what she did and make the decisions that she made. Her increasing dementia meant that daughters Jocelyn and Hilary prepared her completed book for publication.

Kramer writes about select experiences like her secure and creative childhood, and her time in Oxford and Harvard. She also offers her side of her tumultuous dismissal as Chancellor of the University of Sydney, and she describes events leading to her controversial appointment as Chairman (her choice of title) of the ABC.

She was sceptical of feminism, yet supported women’s rights. She criticised some of Patrick White’s work, yet Voss would be one of her desert island books. She was not in favour of ‘progressive’ education, but she took her own teaching very seriously and encouraged critical thinking.

Leonie Kramer was not swayed by fads. She valued the humanities and the arts for giving her the disciplines of reasoning and argument and independent thought. Armed with these abilities and vast experience, she spoke her mind.

Patrick White once dubbed her ‘Killer Kramer’, which she points out several times. Broomstick was the name she gave to her book, confronting her reputation head on. Perhaps these reflections are her fearless moment to set things straight.

Preachers, Prophets & Heretics

Cover image of Preachers, Prophets & Heretics

Anglican Women’s Ministry
Edited by Elaine Lindsay
and Janet Scarfe
UNSW Press $59.99

Throughout Australia, excluding the diocese of Sydney, more than 500 women have been ordained as priests, and some have become bishops. These chapters look at the women, and some men, who have worked to bring about this progress.

The book also addresses the issues concerning the many legal, political and religious challenges, and the efforts of those groups which strove for validation and recognition. Less obvious to the public are the chapters on ‘Changing metaphors’, the new language of inclusion in liturgy, and the re-examination of Biblical source material for interpretation of gender.

There have been female church leaders since Governor Macquarie’s time, but the legal and theological struggle of the 1980s and 1990s illustrates just how complicated this journey has become. Courts, tribunals and the media were challenging forces for the many groups working towards ordination of women.

Preachers, Prophets & Heretics is the first book to document and analyse the journey towards the ordination of women into the priesthood. For this alone, it is compulsory reading for anyone interested in female ministry in the church, Anglican or otherwise. It is also a testimony to some strong, intelligent and compassionate women, who, to put it mildly, were tenacious in the face of adversity.


Don't go back to where you came from: Why multiculturalism works

Image of Don

Tim Soutphommasane
NewSouth Press $29.99

It’s refreshing to find a clear and concise analysis of this politically charged subject. Author Tim Soutphommasane is himself the son of refugees who fled Laos and came to Australia via France. His family does not regret coming here and he believes the model of multiculturalism in Australia is a success.

The author’s examination of multiculturalism avoids the usual lifestyle approach. Instead, his book covers perceptions of patriotism, Anzac Day, empathy, refugees, immigration, media perceptions and nation-building, and differentiates our multicultural experience from other countries. After all, there were 700 languages spoken here even before white people arrived, and the first white settlement already contained a mix of cultural backgrounds.

Extolled by none other than Robert Manne, George Megalogenis, Penny Wong, Malcolm Fraser and Shaun Carney, these chapters offer a much needed perspective and optimism for Australia’s future direction.

The China breakthrough: Whitlam in the Middle Kingdom, 1971

Image of The China Breakthrough cover

Billy Griffiths
Monash University Publishing $24.95

When Gough Whitlam was still in opposition in July 1971, he took a delegation of nine journalists to China. One member of the delegation, Graham Freudenberg, said that earlier that year such a visit would have been more improbable than a trip to the moon.

Author Billy Griffiths (BA Adv Hons ‘11) recounts the journey as vividly as if it had just happened. The visit was politically risky for Whitlam. It was also bold and unexpected in the context of the Vietnam War, the Cold War, and the ANZUS treaty. Even more surprising was that while Whitlam was still in China, Henry Kissinger came to China in a breakthrough secret US diplomatic mission.

Forty years on, this book brings into focus the real beginning of Australia’s relationship with China, and how that event would change forever the way we deal with Asia and the US.

Eleven bloody days: The Battle for Milne Bay

Image of Eleven bloody days cover

Brian Boettcher

Brian Boettcher is a forensic psychiatrist whose lifetime interest in World War II, in particular the Pacific battles, has led him to formally recognise what he describes as the most significant battle for Australia against the Japanese and one of six battles that stopped the Japanese from invading Australia.

The enormity of the Pacific fighting which followed overshadowed the battle of Milne Bay. The author found little documentation and no films on the subject, which makes his very detailed account of events in this book all the more extraordinary. He uses images and diagrams which add a valuable dimension to this story (despite technically inferior reproduction).

The book has been thoroughly researched by a man who clearly has a passion for his subject and the generosity to share it with others.

Emergencies in the Merambas

Image of Emergencies in the Merambas cover

G F J Moir

John Hathaway is a lover of language who speaks Latin. He’s not your typical hero. Mid-degree at Cambridge in 1960, he is lured by work in the Merambas, an idyllic island paradise whose language closely resembles Latin. English is also spoken but French is banned. John’s project of learning about the old language is interrupted when his expertise is called upon for a secret government project. He becomes the centre of a plot which involves an attempted murder, seismic activity, romance, religion and politics.

G F J Moir has created a world of intricate detail, where its inhabitants are infectiously friendly, the food and wine excites the senses, and the island lifestyle is heady. However, in spite of the excitement of the intrigue and mystery, it’s Moir’s study of language, fictional and real, which is the star.

Mine-field: The dark side of Australia’s resources rush

Image of Mine-field cover

Paul Cleary
Black Inc $24.99

A sequel of sorts to his 2011 book Too Much Luck, this book continues the author’s scrutiny of our mining boom, and how Australian mining companies have managed to make such huge profits, and why the public has been left out of the royalties that have been realised.

101 best Australian beaches

Cover image of 101 best Australian beaches

Andy Short and Brad Farmer
Newsouth $39.99

This handsome production combines candid and blunt appraisals of our beaches and coastline with lush photos and coffee table appeal. The authors have packed a lot of information, with attitude, with sharp detail about beaches, erosion, wave and surfing culture. A great present for the educated beach-lover.

A chronological history of Australian composers and their compositions

Cover image of A chronological history of Australian composers and their compositions

(Volume I: 1901-1954)
Stephen Pleskun

The author, who has lectured in Australian music for many years a various institutions and colleges, has produced an exhaustive dictionary, full of riveting and often arcane information which will provide hours of compelling grazing for the aficionado. More casual lovers will also find much to divert them.