Monthly Archives: June 2012

And nothing but the truth…

Truth can be stranger than fiction, as we’ve proved in our selection of non-fiction titles this month.  (Who would believe in disappearing teaspoons or an organization that set out to collect people’s underwear for “smell samples“?)

To finish on a high note, let’s take a look at some of the real-life stories and strange truths uncovered in three non-fiction books recommended to me this week.

Would you believe that an eighteenth-century French woman disguised herself as a boy and sailed around the world for two years on a famous botanical expedition?  Can you accept that a cult leader was so charismatic that he was able to convince over 900 people to abandon their homes, move with him to the jungles of Guiana, and then poison themselves with cyanide? And lastly, who would believe that a man would willingly abandon his family, move to the other side of the world with another woman and her children, and pass his second daughter off as his first child, Susan, in a deception that lasted more than twenty years?

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British Library 19th Century Collection

This wonderful collection of 19th century books is one of my favourite apps. What’s not to love?  The British Library is one of the world’s great libraries, and they’ve digitized thousands of books and made them available ‘online’ for free. At the touch of a button and the tap of a finger, a reader can have the book that they want to read up on the screen –  in its entirety (no ‘selected pages only’  here) and as a facsimile (no bland, boring eBook pages that make every book look the same.) Continue reading

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The Disappearing Spoon (Book Review)

The Disappearing Spoon is a wonderful book about “madness, love and the history of the world from the periodic table of elements”. The title refers to a trick teaspoon made of gallium, a metal with a low melting point, which disappears as it stirs a hot cup of tea.

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A Tale of Love and Fallout (Book Review)

Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a tale of love and fallout begins with a quote from Marie Curie: “There is no connection between my scientific work and the facts of private life”. Lauren Redniss, the author, apologises. Because in fact Radioactive is all about connections, drawing fascinating parallels between the Curie’s personal lives and their laboratory work. Each of the book’s nine chapters is a double entendre; titled for a scientific effect with an equally applicable colloquial meaning. For example, in Magnetism she addresses both the Curie’s work on electromagnetic properties and their blossoming, passionate romance; in Isolation she addresses the application of nuclear research, the horror of Chernobyl, Pierre’s death, and the experience of abandonment.

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Bold Palates (Book Review)

Five reasons to read Barbara Santich’s new book Bold Palates:Australia’s Gastronomic Heritage (Wakefield Press, 2012)

  • For the insights: this is a fascinating look into Australia’s food culture and how it affects our identity, ‘from picnics and barbecues to lamb chops and lamingtons … this book contributes to a deeper understanding of Australian identity and its expression through the way we eat.’
  • For the food: you name it, it’s here. Pumpkin scones, barbecued prawns, spag bol, tzatziki, beer… If you want to see an 1890s’ recipe for roast scrub turkey, a menu featuring quandong pie with wattleseed cream or wartime advertisements exhorting  housewives to cook with lamb (‘the body building food’), you’ll find them here.
  • For the photos: there are some gems, drawn from archives and libraries  and family collections. Look out for the nuns around the barbecue, the nineteenth-century bush picnics with men wearing suits and ties,  the  CWA ladies ‘unpacking cakes for a cookery competition.’
  • For the nostalgia: I loved the ’70s photos (Summer Wine, flares, eskies), but there’s something for everyone, from the Diamantina cocktail to iSnack 2.0
  • For the breadth and depth of the research:  this is a book that celebrates  ‘all the librarians and all the libraries throughout Australia – without them this book would not have been possible.’

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Stasiland

‘Truth can be stranger – and more fascinating – than fiction.’  (1)  Anna Funder’s Stasiland repeatedly invoked comments like this when it was  published in 2002 – understandably, since this gifted Australian writer made the strange world of post-war East Germany the subject of her research. Behind the Berlin Wall was an enclosed world where the state sponsored a system to spy on its own citizens. The Stasi spies used fake wigs and moustaches, ‘women’s handbags with built-in microphones disguised as flower petals’, electronic bugs hidden in pot plants and light fittings and, most bizarrely of all, ‘smell sampling’. If you were a suspected dissident, your (unwashed) underwear could be stolen and placed in a labelled jar. Then, if trained sniffer dogs detected your ‘essence’ at a suspected illegal meeting place, you could be found and taken in for ‘questioning’.

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Library of the Month (Johannesburg)

How long is it since you heard a library praised for its true value?

“One test of a democracy, they say, is whether it grants equal access to the tools that make knowledge possible. The Freedom Charter certainly understood the significance of access to knowledge – and information – to a democracy. All the cultural treasures of mankind shall be open to all, by free exchange of books, ideas and contact with other lands.” (1)

I can’t remember the last time I heard the words ‘democracy’, ‘knowledge’ or ‘culture’ used in relation to Australian public libraries; the biggest issue seems to be their ‘relevance’ to the community (services like cafés,  dog registration, parking permit clearance and speed dating.) (2)

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