Wednesday, 31 December 2014

Review: Only the Animals, by Ceridwen Dovey

There's a quote by Robin Williams' character in the movie August Rush which is, 'You know what music is? God's little reminder that there's something else besides us in the universe; harmonic connection between all living beings, everywhere, even the stars.' I came across this quote accidentally after reading Dovey's Only the Animals, and when I read it I thought it encapsulated how I felt about the book perfectly: it's a beautiful reminder that there is a connection between all things in this world which should be celebrated more.

Only the Animals is written from the perspective of animals who have been killed as a result of human conflict throughout the twentieth century; ranging from World Wars I and II to the Cold War to the 2006 bombing of Beirut. The animals, who each have a chapter devoted to them, also pay tribute to writers who wrote about animals in their career; from Leo Tolstoy to Virginia Wolf to Sylvia Plath. The result is an intricately woven collection of stories which are part imaginative mastery and part a timely reminder that humans have much to learn from animals.

It's this latter point that has pleasantly surprised me the more I read stories centred around animals (Martel's Life of Pi and Beatrice and Virgil are others). And the reason for this, which Dovey cleverly includes in her own book, is that there is sometimes 'no way [for humans] to say what...[should be said]...except by making that animal speak for them.' 

Thus on a number of occasions while reading this book, I was awed by the sheer power of the perspective an animal  provided. And while a human could just as easily have said these words, there's something curious and enigmatic about why they were particularly powerful because they were uttered by an animal. It's these sorts thoughts which Only the Animals spurred for me that I really loved.

I'll indulge myself now and add in my favourite quote from the book, which, once you've read it, may ironically not resonate with you at all. This quote is spoken by a turtle who grows up living with the Tolstoy family in Russia, is shipped to the UK to live with Viriginia Wolf, and finally ends up involved in the Space Race in the USA. Here the turtle is reflecting on the time he has spent discussing books with Tolstoy's daughter:

'I am aware that one person's insights and epiphanies from unique reading journeys are not always interesting to another, just as other people's tales about their travels mostly inspire boredom. I've wondered why this is for humans, and I've decided it has something to do with the perceived alchemical magic of the discoveries that books (or travel) enable: they are utterly private and idiosyncratic, and, to the person undergoing them, feel ordained, auspicious, designed especially for them at that particular moment in their lives. In a century during which many people have lost the religious framework of fatalism, it seems books have become signs to interpret and follow - this book has come into my life for a reason, the author is speaking to me and to me alone. And this, in a strange way, leads to people becoming evangelical about books. You must read this, they preach, forgetting that it was the way they stumbled serendipitously upon the book - finding it abandoned on the seat of a couch, or dusty in the attic, or neglected in a dark stack in the library - that was partially responsible for its powers.'

As I've already alluded to, this quote may not resonate with you at all, and I can appreciate the irony of it being used in a book review; after all the latter is a forum used to recommend books to you, which the turtle suggests is meaningless to everyone but the reader. Nevertheless, for me it captures the philosophical nature of the book and how well Dovey writes. And, fortunately for the reader, there's many more such thought-provoking quotes within her book.

Regardless of how you feel about book reviews, Only the Animals is an absolute treasure of a book to read and it will undoubtedly take you on an incredibly unique and enchanting reading journey.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Review: One More Thing, by B.J. Novak

Sometimes I have bizarre dreams. Like the one where a guinea pig came to my workplace and started rollerskating down our corridor (don't worry, he was safe because he wore a helmet and elbow pads). Or the one where I was an astronaut being shot into outer space, though I was so scared during lift off that I passed out for most of the trip and only came to when I returned to Earth, only remembering the part where I got to push the big red 'take-off' button (that bit was thrilling). Or the one where Brad Pitt sat next to me at a show we were both at and when I accidentally bumped his knee I casually said 'excuse me' as if he was just a normal person even though I was totally excited that I was sitting next to Brad Pitt and had just brushed his knee (I played it so cool).

Well, One More Thing is kind of like these dreams of mine in that their content is quite random and will catch you off-guard, except it'll probably entertain you more. It's a collection of short stories written by B.J. Novak, the American actor, stand-up comedian, screenwriter, author, and director, who is most widely known for writing, co-executive producing and acting in The Office. The stories range from the re-telling of well-known tales (such as the story of a re-match between the tortoise and the hare) to original Novak-ian stories.

If you want to be highly amused and simultaneously have your appropriateness boundaries tested, then this is the perfect book for you. Take, for example, the story of the lady who goes on a date with a warlord. In it, the lady casually asks the warlord what's involved with being a warlord, and the warlord casually discusses how his job entails the occasional rape and murder of innocent civilians. While I'm open to hearing different perspectives of people offered in books, the casual off-handed way these serious topics are handled in this particular story really shocked me. But not in a way that made me want to stop reading the book (though I did consider it); rather I was impressed with Novak's gutsiness at writing about such taboo topics in the ways he does.

But it's not all 'let's push the boundaries and see how far I can test readers' reading; there are some really heartwarming stories in it too. Like the story of a man who dies and is reunited with his already deceased wife in heaven. The reunited couple fall in love all over again and go on some amazing adventures together, all of which take place in heaven. How lovely is that!?

One More Thing a great book for that friend who likes weird, twisted things, and/or the friend who likes to be challenged with the types of stories they read. The stories are not only entertaining because of their content, but also because of the way Novak has told them, with plenty of clever wordplay in it too.

It's bizarre, it's strange, it's very entertaining and it's definitely worth a read if anything I've just mentioned has intrigued you. DO IT.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

My favourite books of 2014

Wow 2014 was big year for reading. It was a year that I intentionally decided to read more books written by women, and a year that I unintentionally read more non-fiction books than I have ever before. It was a year of reading lots of very top-notch books, which made narrowing this list down quite tough (technically I didn't need to narrow it down because there're no rules that say I have to have 5 books on this list; after all, I get to make up the rules. But 5 seems like the right number for this sort of thing, so I'm going to honour that feeling by only listing that number of books). So here's my list, this time in no particular order:

Only the Animals by Ceridwen Dovey

This is a book which I haven't fully reviewed on my blog yet, but I will be in the very near future because it was just so magical (I have since reviewed it here). I liken it to Yann Martel's Life of Pi not only because animals feature very heavily in it, but also because it's philosophical, highly imaginative and so beautifully told that it'll just take your breath away. It's a collection of short stories told from the perspective of deceased animals who have had some sort of connection with major historical events in the 20th century. It won the inaugural Readings New Australian Writing award this year and for very good reason. If you think that stories told from animal perspectives aren't for you then think again; this book deserves a chance.

Night Games by Anna Krien 

Another award winner, this time being the 2014 William Hill Sports Book of the Year award, Night Games carefully and intelligently follows the rape trial of a young AFL footballer and the politics and issues associated and raised with the trial. It provided me with a new insight to football culture, and while it didn't necessarily make me respect the culture of the game any more than I did previously, it helped me gain a broader perspective of the world that people heavily involved in the AFL come from. This book is a must read for anyone interested in the AFL and how women fit (or more often don't fit) into its culture.

Ducks on the Pond by Anne Summers

While this book's a bit of an oldie, it's definitely a goodie and by far my favourite autobiography I read this year. Reading Summers' autobiography felt like time-travelling to me: back to an Australia that was both full of hope and optimism following the second world war, but one that was also oppressive and sceptical of change. And Summers was right there in the middle of it all, protesting the Vietnam War, opening women's refuges with friends (funds which were raised by selling marijuana mind you - so badass) and fighting for women's rights. It's a captivating Australian story that should be known by many more Australians, so I suggest you go read it now.

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimar McBride 

One of the most powerful and challenging fiction books I've read in a long time, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is the compelling story of a sister and brother's relationship and the fractured lives that they lead. Their fractured lives are cleverly reflected in the fragmented and stilted language which McBride uses throughout the story, making it an incredibly unique and remarkable reading experience. This book has won a couple of awards, the inaugural Goldsmiths Prize in 2013 and the 2014 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction.

Bewitched and Bedevilled edited by Samantha Trenoweth

This collection of essays critiques and reflects on Julia Gillard's term as Australia's first female Prime Minister and her treatment by the public, her colleagues and the media. The contributors range from politicians (Tanya Plibersek) to journalists (Tracy Spicer) to some of Australia's finest writers (Clementine Ford, Emma Maguire). When I went to pick it up just now, I couldn't believe how light it was because it has made such a huge and lasting impression on me, thus I was expecting it to be much heavier than it was. It's a must read for anyone interested in current Australian politics and how feminist issues relate to them.

Special mentions

Ok I couldn't quite leave this post without mentioning the following books, if only it's just their titles. After all I don't want a repeat of last year where I didn't mention a book and ended up thinking about adding it to My Favourite Books of 2013 post for a whole year. That was exhausting. So even though these books didn't quite make my top 5, they deserve a special mention because they were particularly great:

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Oh Christmas tree, oh christmas tree: 10 of the best book Christmas trees

I love Christmas and I love books. So what better way to celebrate the glory of the two than to bring them together to create...wait for Christmas trees! Who knew they were a thing?

Here are a few of my favourites that I stumbled across recently - I still can't believe it took me so long to find them!

Which of these is your favourite? Which of these will you be re-creating at home? Or do you have your own unique version you'll be making?

Monday, 1 December 2014

Review: Sweet Poison, by David Gillespie

Sweet Poison: Why Sugar Makes Us Fat is an investigation into why societies in Australia, the USA and the UK have become as unhealthy as they have. After all, our bodies have been designed after millions of years of evolution to control our energy intake so that we can function optimally. Yet, more and more people are becoming and remaining overweight and unhealthy, with their bodies no longer able to function as optimally as they once could. What has caused this obesity epidemic?

This is the question David Gillespie explores in Sweet Poison, which was inspired by his own personal experience of finding himself 40kg overweight despite having tried, and failed, many diets. After much research, Gillespie's answer to this question lies with sugar; specifically fructose which is a component of sugar. Gillespie's conclusion is that we are simply consuming far too much fructose, which is converted to circulating fat, causing many of the cardio-vascular diseases (CVDs) which people are becoming more and more diagnosed with.

How has this happened? Gillespie explains by saying,
'[F]ructose bypasses all of our appetite-control systems and jumps a critical step in our metabolism that would ordinarily stop our arteries from filling up with circulating fat. Eating fat still puts fat in our arteries, but we have a built-in control to stop us eating too much fat. No such control exists for fructose.'
Sounds too simple to be true? Well, admittedly I'm not a biology or digestion expert, but Gillespie's preceding chapters detail how fructose molecules end up bypassing the controls which tell our brain that we have had enough to eat.

The exception to this rule is when fructose is present in forms which contain fibre, such as whole pieces of fruit. Fibre lets our brains know that we are eating food, so you usually don't end up eating the food containing it in excess. Therefore it's important for fruit to be eaten in the forms it comes in, rather than in juiced versions, so that we don't consume it in excess. Otherwise it just ends up bypassing our controls which tell us we are full.

For example, while most people feel satisfied after eating one apple, they can easily drink one glass of juice (or more) since the latter contains much less fibre than what the former does. One glass of apple juice is the equivalent of four apples, thus containing four times the amount of fructose your body should consume at the one time. The excess fructose ends up being converted to circulating fat, making our blood more sticky and hence our bodies more susceptible to CVDs if such habits are continually repeated over time. So while you may feel healthy by drinking a glass of fruit juice, the reality is that you are probably consuming more fructose than your body needs, making it a less healthy alternative than what you may have originally thought.

This last point is also important as Gillespie emphasises that your body can't actually tell the difference between fructose that comes from fruit and fructose that comes in other forms (such as food containing table sugar). So, even if you do manage to eat four whole apples in a day, your body won't necessarily benefit from it as that excess sugar will simply be converted to circulating fat anyway. Therefore there really is no such thing as good sugar. Unfortunately there are no requirements for food labels to specify the amount of fructose contained in items of food, making it even more difficult for people to know how much they are consuming to better control their intake. Fortunately Gillespie provides some handy advice to help with this.

Gillespie also goes into the history of sugar production and the subsequent diet-related diseases that have evolved in the past 60-odd years. He delves into the dangers of consuming artificial sweeteners, many of which may be legal in some countries (like the US) but illegal in others (like the UK). He also points out the irony of governments investing millions of dollars in managing the effects of over-consuming fructose, instead of investing in the causes of the health issues in the first place. As Gillespie mentions, CVD prevention isn't particularly sexy for marketers to get onto the bandwagon of. But hey, if more awareness was able to be made about the dangers of smoking, then maybe there's hope for us yet with fructose.

Much of this may sound like doom and gloom, but I found it all fascinating. While many of the bio-chemical reactions Gillespie goes through went over my head, his discussion is still engaging and intriguing enough to sustain even the most biology-phobic of people.

At the same time I think it's important not to consider the messages of this book in isolation from other good nutritional information we are already aware of. Particularly as Gillespie pretty much promises that if you give up fructose then you will be guaranteed to lose weight. In fact, that was one of my biggest criticisms of the book - Gillespie's overemphasis on losing weight, rather than placing more focus on an overall healthy diet so that your body is healthy and so that you can live a good quality of life. Thus Gillespie's denunciation of exercise and lack of emphasis on other healthy eating habits really bothered me.

Nevertheless, if you take Gillespie's advice as less of a prescriptive diet guaranteed to make you lose weight, and more of an interesting perspective into an area of your diet you may have been neglecting then I think you'll get a lot out of it. Happy healthier eating!

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