All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque

‘For me, the front is as sinister as a whirlpool.’

As I read this book about the horrors of war, I thought about my family members who fought on the Western Front. My maternal grandfather, who lived to be 80, and his younger brother who died because of his war injuries in 1920 aged 30. My grandfather never spoke of the war, of being gassed, or of suffering his first heart attack in his twenties. Another relative, on my father’s side, had several sons in the conflict. Two of them were killed in France.

From the dioramas at the Australian War Memorial, I gain some idea of the conditions, from other reading I gain some idea of the horror.

‘Albert puts it into words. ‘The war has ruined us for everything.’’

This book may be fictional, but I can imagine hundreds of thousands of young men, like the fictional Paul Bäumer, enlisting. My grandfather travelled from Queensland where he was cutting cane, home to Tasmania to enlist. He was too short to enlist in Queensland, tall enough to enlist in Tasmania. Fate. You see, I read this fiction and try to imagine where my own family members were and how they coped.

I read this fiction and the characters become proxies for those other young men, from so many different countries who became caught up in this dreadful conflict. And the only thing that has changed in the last one hundred or so years is that men have constructed ever more awful ways of killing.

‘The horror of the front fades away when you turn your back on it, so we can attack it with coarse or black humour.’ Indeed.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway

‘He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.’

In fewer than one hundred and ten pages, Ernest Hemingway takes us on an heroic journey with Santiago, an ageing Cuban fisherman. The family of his apprentice, Manolin, has forced the boy to leave him because of his bad luck, but Manolin still supports him by supplying food and bait.
Santiago, convinced that his luck will change, takes his skiff far out into the Gulf Stream. Here, in the deep water, he hooks a giant marlin. He fights the marlin for three days, admiring its strength and eventually prevails.

But by the time he returns to port, the sharks have eaten most of the fish. Discouraged, he goes home to sleep. Other villagers, seeing the remains of the fish lashed to Santiago’s skiff, are amazed.
To fully appreciate Santiago’s journey, this is a book to read in one sitting. From the routines of life in the fishing village, to Santiago’s courage and strength as he struggles against the fish and the sea. The fish does not go easily, Santiago does not give up. As I read this novel, I could picture the sea and appreciate the exhaustion of both man and fish. The ebb and flow of life.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Idea of Australia by Julianne Schulz

‘Culture is the real barometer of change. Politics often follows.’

After reading enthusiastic reviews of this book by those whose opinions I value, I bought a copy for myself. I read slowly, to think about some of the important albeit uncomfortable questions Professor Shultz raises.

I agree with at least some of Professor Schultz’s conclusions, especially with this: ‘the idea of Australia is a contest between those who are imaginative, hopeful, altruistic and ambitious, and those who are defensive and inward-looking.’

Perhaps, now that we have had a change of government, there is reason for optimism. Perhaps. I agree that we need to acknowledge and better understand our past so that we can make sense of the present and build a positive and inclusive future. But I worry that the current economic climate and the ongoing pandemic will make this even more difficult.

We need to consider the long-term underlying issues while at the same time reacting to urgent emerging needs. We need to plan as well as react.

I would recommend this book to every Australian.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

‘The day that turns a life upside down usually starts like any other.’

In this book, which is part investigation and part reflection, Leigh Sales looks both how ‘ordinary’ people face unexpected and often horrific twists and turns in their lives. And, in looking at her role as a journalist, Leigh Sales reflects on her own actions including how she interviews these people.

‘What prompted me to begin writing this book was the thought of what might happen if I walked towards what I most feared, rather than in the opposite direction.’

The interviews in this book are different from those we have seen on the ABC 7.30 Report. Here we have some insight into Ms Sales’s preparation and presentation. Her interviewees include those who have lost family members, those who came close to death themselves, as well as a police officer, a coroner, a priest, a social worker and former prime minister, John Howard. Ms Sales also writes of her own brush with death involving herself and her unborn child.

Ms Sales writes, too, of how we perceive risk. How, for example, we might be more concerned about the danger of an amusement park ride, or a plane flight (both rare) than being in a car (unfortunately common).

‘To live life, we have to take risks, most of which we will never even know we’re taking.’

When writing about the roles and responsibilities of journalists, Ms Sales acknowledges that she has made mistakes. She refers to her interview of a grandmother following Hurricane Katrina, and how the woman’s grandson intervened.

I found this book thought-provoking and informative. It both explores the different ways in which we approach grief and offers insights into how we can help those grieving. It reminds us to consider the consequences of our own actions.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

School: The ups and downs of one year in the classroom by Brendan James Murray

‘School feels like the whole world when you’re in it.’

Reading this book took me back almost fifty years, to my own experience of what is now called Year 12. The pressure (mostly self-imposed) was inexorable, the stakes were high, and most of the teachers were terrific. But this was in Tasmania, at a time when the high school retention rate was low and very few of us ventured beyond Year 10. Those of us who stayed to complete Year 12 were focussed on university. Some of our teachers were very recent graduates and only a handful of years older than we were.

See, I have already digressed. A bit. This book is about teaching and learning, about the challenges and experiences of teaching, about navigating learning and life. Mr Murray writes of a single school year, of the journey through four terms. He focusses on the journey of some of his students, as well as reflecting on his own experiences as student and teacher.

In parallel with Mr Murray’s year of teaching I was remembering my own six years of secondary education: the first four years at a public high school, the last two years at (what was then called) Launceston Matriculation College. I remembered the teachers who inspired me, including the one who made maths exciting, sadly followed by those who killed my interest entirely. I remember teachers who made economics, English and history fascinating. Their enthusiasm, knowledge and interest encouraged many of us to want to learn more. By contrast, those who recited facts and figures without context quickly extinguished enthusiasm.

The best teachers combine enthusiasm and knowledge and encourage their students to think and question. Mr Murray reminds me of some of the teachers I had all those years ago. A terrific read
And, yes, while I do enjoy (most of) Peter Carey’s work, I prefer to read Richard Flanagan and Steven Carroll.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

To Lie With Lions (The House of Niccolo #6) by Dorothy Dunnett

‘Sometimes, in the stream of such thoughts, he wondered why he was doing what he was doing.’

Summer, 1471. The War of the Roses is part of the background, Lorenzo the Magnificent is de facto ruler of the Florentine Republic and Sixtus IV is elected pope. The sixth book in The House of Niccolò series opens with Nicholas firmly in possession of his son Jordan. While Nicholas and his wife Gelis persist with the war that has occupied them (and us) since the end of the fourth book, they come together (sort of) in Scotland. Nicholas, finally returning to Scotland after an absence of two years, has plans. After staging a Nativity Play for King James at huge expense, Nicholas heads off to Iceland in search of fish. He is not alone. The Vatachino company are also there, as are his rivals, the Adornes.

There is plenty of action and more than a little danger. Katelijne Sersanders and Robin of Berecrofts are part of this adventure as well. Iceland can be beautiful, but she is also very dangerous.

I have read the House of Niccolò series a few times, and each time by this stage I become impatient. While Dunnett’s writing never fails to entrance me, and I am fascinated by the trade, I am tired of the war between Nicholas and Gelis. But there’s a twist at the end which sets up the next part of Nicholas’s journey.

If you enjoy intricately plotted historical fiction, and you have not yet read Dorothy Dunnett’s two series (the eight book House of Niccolò and six book Lymond Chronicles), I can recommend them both. These books are some of the very few that I find even more rewarding on reread.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

What I Wish People Knew About Dementia by Wendy Mitchell

‘When you’ve met one person with dementia, you’ve simply met one person with dementia. We’re as different as we all we before dementia.’

A chance conversation led me to Wendy Mitchell’s first book (thanks, Jill) and to Wendy’s blog https://whichmeamitoday.wordpress.com/ . I follow Wendy’s blog partly to read about her work as an advocate for dementia sufferers and partly to enjoy the magnificent photographs she takes on her (almost) daily trundles around the village where she lives in Yorkshire, UK. I find Wendy inspirational and have been eagerly awaiting the publication of this book. Wendy was diagnosed with dementia in 2014.

Why? Because so much of what we read about dementia is written by observers not those living with it. And understanding what dementia might be (there are many different forms) and how it might manifest (not the same for everyone) is not the same as reading about how it impacts on the individuals living with it.

‘I hope this book will at least give people a start.’

The book is divided into six sections: Senses; Relationships; Communication; Environment; Emotion and Attitude. Each of those sections has subdivisions on different aspects. Wendy writes about what works for her including writing things down, setting alarms as reminders, substituting no-tie shoelaces when she was unable to tie her own. Wendy also writes about visual and olfactory hallucinations. As Wendy explains, dementia plays tricks on her brain. One of her tips with visual hallucinations is to take a photograph of what you think you can see ‘and it it’s in the picture, it’s most likely there in real life.’ Another tip is to walk away for thirty minutes and returning to see if what she saw is still there. One of the instances Wendy recounts is of seeing her father on the lawn. He had been dead for twenty years, but the vision returned some fond memories to Wendy.

This is an uplifting and inspiring book. Wendy lives with her dementia (she lives alone) and can find joy in small things, as well as tackling some big adventures. I loved her recounting of her skydiving adventure (which I first read on her blog).

‘Up here, there is no dementia… I am flying, free from all that binds me to the earth.’

Wendy also writes of others she knows who live with dementia, of devices that can help, of finding joy in the present. Dementia may be an irreversible neurological condition, of relentless decline but there can still be enjoyment in life. Wendy is proof of that.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Maid by Nita Prose

‘My uniform is my freedom. It is the ultimate invisibility cloak.’

Meet the Maid, twenty-five-year-old Molly Gray. Molly enjoys her work as a hotel maid at the Regency Grand Hotel, cleaning to return hotel rooms to a state of perfection. Molly is different: she struggles with social skills, takes things literally and often misreads the intentions of others. Which, now that her gran is no longer able to give her guidance, leads Molly into a difficult situation.

Molly’s life is turned upside down on from the day she enters the suite of Charles Black and finds him dead in his bed Molly becomes caught up in a conspiracy, involving some people she thought were friends and her responses to questioning by the police make her a suspect. There are quite a few twists and turns as the mystery unfolds: who killed Mr Black, and why? And who will help Molly?

This is a wonderful story. It is a mixture of mystery and life lessons for Molly, leavened with humour (at times). Because we are taking the journey with Molly, most of us will be aware of the hazards before she is. Molly is a delightful character, and this is a sensational debut novel.

‘We’re all the same in different ways.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Complete Maus (Maus #1-2) by Art Spiegelman

Remember.

After hearing that a Tennessee School Board banned this book, I knew that I had to read it to try to understand why. It is hard for me to reconcile book banning in the USA with a gun culture that enables children to be shot dead in schools (another school shooting in Texas today, as I write this). Is the pen mightier than the gun?

I do not usually read graphic novels, but I was quickly caught up by this one. In ‘The Complete Maus’, Mr Spiegelman tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of World War II, and of his son Art, a cartoonist. The Jews are mice in this story, the Nazis are cats, the Poles are pigs, and the Americans are dogs. Somehow, this both increases the impact of the story and decreases our ability to distance ourselves from these horrors. There are two stories here: Mr Spiegelman’s story of survival and his son’s recounting of a difficult relationship with his father. The horrors of war, echoing through the survivors and their children.

Let us hope in this case that those who forget the past (or want to ignore it) do not repeat it. Should this book have been banned? Absolutely not. It should be read and discussed so that children are aware of history, of the tragedy that can occur when difference leads to mass murder.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Nazis Knew My Name by Magda Hellinger

‘A remarkable story of survival and courage in Auschwitz.’

In March 1942, twenty-five-year-old Magda Hellinger was deported from Michalovce, Slovakia to Auschwitz. She, together with almost one thousand other young women, were some of the first Jewish people to be sent to Auschwitz. She survived and helped many others to survive as well. This memoir was written by Magda’s daughter, Maya Lee, with David Brewer, after Magda’s death in 2006 at the age of 89.

‘Very few can understand what it was like to be a prisoner at Auschwitz-Birkenau – really only those who were there. Fewer still can understand what it was like to be forced into the role of ‘prisoner functionary’ within the concentration camp.’

Magda was one of the prisoners put in a position of power as a Blockälteste – a block leader responsible for the day-to day organisation of an accommodation block. By focussing on hygiene, she was able to keep some of the prisoners safe. Sometimes, Magda asked for (and received) some of the items the women needed. As this account shows, she was a very brave woman.

Magda had put parts of her story in writing before her death, but as Maya discovered there was much that was missing. This remarkable memoir reminds us of both the horrors of the Holocaust and the courage shown by many.

We must not forget the Holocaust.

‘Magda was resilient, courageous, fearless and daring. She was always hopeful and optimistic.’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith