Written by Robin de Crespigny
Reviewed by Mandy Nolan
A Case for Mandatory Reading
Like many liberal minded Australians who feel immense compassion for asylum seekers and who oppose mandatory detention and off shore processing of refugees, I have believed that people smugglers were financial opportunists whose sole purpose was to profit on the misery of others. But after reading Robin De Crespigny's powerful book The People Smuggler, the true story of Ali Al Jenabi, the first person to be prosecuted and convicted by the Australian Government under laws introduced by the Howard government as part of the strategy to 'stop the boats' I was reminded that nothing is ever that simple.
In a political climate that continues to vilify People Smugglers as heartless profiteers, and claim the continuation of people seeking asylum entering illegally through Australian waters can be stopped by simply stopping the boats, (you can stop the boats, but these people are still refugees, they're just not here) a book like The People Smuggler should be mandatory reading for all Australians. I would challenge even the most right wing xenophobic reader to maintain their 'get rid of the refugees' attitude after reading De Crespigny's narrative.
Sadly, they'll probably never read it, and they'll never know the truly amazing story of Ali Al Jenabi, a man who was forced to leave his family in Iraq when he fled Saddam Hussein's torture chambers. And yes, Ali Al Jenabi did smuggle asylum seekers via boat from Indonesia to Australia but it was underwritten not by greed, but by compassion and in response to the frustration with the United Nations tokenistic approach to assisting real need and the vulnerability of his fellow country- less men and women. Jenabi's response to the inhumanity and corruption of the people smuggling industry was to do it himself, and to do it fairly and safely. Everyone who went on Jenabi's boats made it to Australia. No one died. Many people never paid. Children went for free. That’s why Jenabi has been called 'The Oskar Schindler of Asia'. Ironic that Schindler who did the same thing as Jenabi was iconised in film and literature, yet Jenabi served time in both prison and detention centres here in Australia. But I shouldn't tell you too much more. This book is a gripping read, which is unusual considering the subject matter is despair, torture, displacement, violence, hopelessness and detention. Yet this is a story of resilience. Not the kind we try and instil in our privileged first world kids to teach them to cope with not getting a prize in a pass the parcel, but the deeper resilience of the human spirit, the resilience that keeps a person going when they have lost family, material possession, career, and country, when they have been tortured and imprisoned, when they have lost everything - and then they still have the capacity to start again. That was the spirit at the heart of this remarkable story told by author Robin De Crespigny.
Written in first person with the author embodying Jenabi's voice, his epic story was told to her over three years in conversations that she would spend hours transcribing. Somehow De Crespigny has performed an impressive authorial feat, piecing together not just the complex narrative of Jenabi's life, but also his life- changing moral choices and the emotional depths of his odyssey. This is one of the most immensely readable and deeply thought provoking books I have read in some time.
I would go so far as to say that The People Smuggler is a reminder of the power of literature in capturing stories that not only change the world, but stories that change the way we think.
Written by Maj-Gen John Cantwell
Review by Russell Eldridge
The ancient Egyptians recorded cases; it was there at Thermopylae; it shadowed the conquering Roman legions, and shivered at Little Big Horn. Call it what you will - battle fatigue, shell shock, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - it's been around as long as men have lifted a hand in anger against each other.
Which begs the question: Why hasn't it always been recognised as the sane reaction of a normal person to horror, particularly the horrors of war? More specifically, we can ask why a high-ranking officer in the modern Australian Army is told he is just 'down in the mouth' and he should 'think of pleasant things before going to sleep' when he first seeks treatment for what is obviously PTSD? Because that is what happened to John Cantwell after a tour of duty in the 1991 Gulf War. He suppressed his trauma and went on to become Deputy Chief of the Army, and Commander of all Australian forces in Afghanistan and the Middle East. He was a Major General and in line for Chief of the Army before the years of anxiety, flashbacks and nightmares brought it all crashing down.
But it's the basic questions that keep bugging a reader throughout this searing, honest and unsettling book. Why does the military culture continue to abhor a normal human reaction, and why the hell do we continue to fight each other, anyway, knowing the appalling results for victor and vanquished alike?
Maj Gen Cantwell finally decided it all wasn't worth it. And this is a man who loved the military life.
There really is no excuse to the unanswered big questions. Wartime PTSD was an acknowledged problem in the first modern conflict, the US Civil War, in which rapid-fire weapons and delayed explosion artillery shells sowed unimaginable havoc. The US lost more men in the Civil War (625,000) than in all the combined conflicts since then (World War I, WWII, Korea, Vietnam etc).
Thousands of gibbering men were simply put on trains with the name of their home town pinned on their uniform and abandoned. At war's peak, there were so many insane soldiers wandering the US countryside that a public outcry led to the first hospital for the military insane.
But no one learnt from it and in the human mincing machine of World War I, soldiers who broke down were sometimes shot for cowardice. Research by the Vietnam Veterans of America association revealed that more US WWI soldiers were lost through psychological disintegration than were killed in combat.
So what did military cultures around the world do about it? They treated it as a character defect and tried in advance to weed out the 'weak'. The US rejected 5 million men in WWII, but still lost half a million to PTSD.
I guess we have to wonder why John Cantwell signed up to this madness. But that question encompasses every man and woman in uniform and is unfathomable. By his own admission, Cantwell was itching to prove himself in combat and went to extreme lengths to get involved in the First Gulf War, even getting a secondment to the British Army. His combat experiences weren't extreme, but he saw enough to rock his inner core.
He sat on his anxiety for 13 years before going back to Iraq for another go. He hoped he could 'purge the demons', but they really came alive this time as sectarian violence and Iraqi political machinations made his job near impossible.
But still he ploughed on, ending up in charge of things in Afghanistan. And to his troubles he added guilt over soldier deaths.
It is now on record that Major General Cantwell unravelled on returning to Australia, where, under the peculiar arrangements in the Army, the higher you go the less certain your job: And if you can't snare the one or two top positions available, it's hand your badge in and cheerio.
Cantwell left, hit the bottom, contemplated suicide and was kept going by a loving family and medical help. Now, like an alcoholic clawing his way back, he takes it one day at a time.
He believes the loss of Australian lives in Afghanistan is not worth it and he rails against the political power plays and national self-interest that drag us into foreign wars.
And yet the reader may come full circle to those unanswerable big questions again about men, war and military cultures.
For Cantwell's oldest son is a soldier.
And so it continues.
Written By: Libby Gleeson
Reviewed By: Azura Crawford 3M – Year 5
Who are you, when you haven’t even got a name?
12 year old ‘Red’ is diagnosed with a terrible case of amnesia when lost, left behind and possibly orphaned by a roof ripping cyclone that hits Sydney. A giant wave leaves a path of destruction.
‘Red’ is found by a ‘street boy’ name Peri who announces “I am independent, I don’t need anyone!” When Red turns up, things change, and Peri starts to accept the fact that friends and family are important…. they do love you, no matter what.
When Red decides to go looking for her family and friends, Peri is against it. He argues with Red until he is convinced that she does need her family. However he is still reluctant to trust the people that want to help them. Red knows that it is too big a job for only two people, so she posts a picture of Peri and herself on a lost and found board. Luckily an old friend of Red’s, named Jazz, leaves her phone number and details so that she can get in touch with Red.
Red is an emotional story about identity, friendship and trust. This adventure is full of twists, turns, laughs and tears.
I loved this story and thought it was a great read. However, the catastrophic theme and some imagery used may worry younger children and as such I would recommend this book to readers 11+
Author: Leigh Hobbs
Reviewed by: Arabella Ferreira 2L – Year 4
Have you ever felt like a queen? Well, Horrible Harriet always feels like a queen. She brims with confidence and exerts power over her friends. She is aptly named ‘Horrible Harriet’ because she is absolutely disgusting!
Horrible Harriet is always baking disgusting pies for her teachers, Miss Plume and Mr Scruffy. I absolutely love the way it was written, as if Harriet was writing it.
All the way through the book Harriet dreams of herself as a queen and when she finds a letter addressed to H.R.H Horrible Harriet, she thinks her dream has just come true.
My imagination is constantly captured by Leigh Hobbs’s descriptions. It is a very quirky book. My favourite part would be when Harriet wanders off into the museum and starts seeing herself.
I would recommend this book for younger readers aged 5-9 years especially those that love a laugh.
Author: Libby Gleeson
Book Reviewed by Josie Huntsman 3D – Year 5
“Do your homework. Attend all classes. Answer politely. Clean your room. Make your bed. Clean your nails. Clean your shoes. Clean your teeth. Grow up. Do as we say THINK LIKE US! BE LIKE US!” All poor Thomas wants is to be accepted for who he is. But how can you be yourself when everyone around you keeps telling you what to do?
I am Thomas is a deep, meaningful picture book about a boy named Thomas who is not like anyone else. However, nobody seems to accept him that way, not even his parents. The teachers at school aren’t impressed with him and neither are the people that walk along the streets. Thomas is faced with a dilemma. People want him to be a politician, a soldier, or lawyer, but Thomas doesn’t want to be any of these things. What decision will he make and will the people around him be pleased with it?
The phrases “think like us!” and “Be like us”, are repeated throughout the book. I found this a very effective device. I could imagine what it was like, with the voices of others constantly interrupting and that one phrase drumming against my conscience, trying to creep its way in.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this picture book and would recommend it to mature readers who understand that acceptance and individuality are strong feelings that many young people can relate to. I am Thomas is one of those books that you want to read over and over again. A terrific read!
Reviewed by: Lisa Walker
Romantic comedy with a twist
The Rosie Project is Graeme Simsion’s first novel and it has taken off with a bang, already selling into thirty countries. Simsion has previously written two non-fiction books as well as short stories, plays and screenplays. The Rosie Project, which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award in 2012, was originally a screenplay, written as part of Simsion’s studies at RMIT.
Don Tillman is a professor of genetics. He has some unusual habits – his life is timed to the last minute, he eats exactly the same meals at the same time every week, he is a master of Aikido but has trouble with social situations. While the author never says as much, the reader deduces that Don may have Asperger’s syndrome. Don himself doesn’t recognise this, however. When he gives a lecture on Asperger’s, a friend asks him if the symptoms remind him of anyone he knows and they do – one of the other professors.
When Don decides that he needs a wife, he approaches this task as he does the rest of his life, with efficiency. A questionnaire is what he needs, he decides, ‘to filter out the time wasters, the disorganised, the ice-cream discriminators, the visual-harassment complainers…’ Don’s questionnaire for ‘The Wife Project’ is both extensive and discriminating. But then along comes Rosie – a smoker, a barmaid, a vegetarian. She is totally unsuitable, but yet Don can’t seem to stop himself from spending time with her.
Don is a wonderful character, who maintains his consistently original persona throughout. There are many delightful one-liners and a couple of laugh out loud moments due to the gap between Don’s view of the world and that of others. When a woman who is clearly interested in him asks him out for a chat he quizzes her on how he should prepare, ‘What specific topics are you interested in?’ When Rosie says, ‘You want to share a taxi?’ Don reflects that it seemed a sensible use of fossil fuel. And when asked if he has ever had sex, Don confirms that he has, on his doctor’s orders, but then ponders that it might become more complicated when there are two people involved.
Simsion acknowledges the inspiration he has gained from classic romantic comedy movies. ‘Cary Grant would have made a perfect Don,’ he says. This book is funny, witty and intelligent – I finished it with a smile on my face.
Book Review by Pip Morrissey
If I had to describe Mullumbimby in one word it would be ‘gutsy’. The main character is full of courage, determination and spirit and so are many of her counterparts, but the story too revolves around these traits. It’s written from an Indigenous Australian perspective and these are the very characteristics that have enabled Indigenous Australians to survive and continue fighting for their rights despite the enormous challenges they still face, in a town near you. If you’re a local and you think you know Mullumbimby well, I would challenge you to read this book and I feel confident that you will see the town from a very different perspective.
At the heart of Mullumbimby is Jo, a young Goorie woman who decides to take back and restore a little bit of Bundjalung country just outside town. She’s a single working mum trying to make ends meet with all the usual difficulties of bills and mortgage to pay and a teenager to raise and doing it on her own is hard work. Jo is physically and mentally strong, independent and determined to make a stable home environment, despite the misgivings of friends and family, who support her nevertheless. She’s typical of a lot of young Indigenous people, caught between ancestral heritage and modern Australia, uncertain of how to fit in, wanting to move forward and achieve things on her own terms but often thwarted by insidious prejudice and ignorance by white society of Indigenous world views. She feels strong spiritual connection to country, gets angry about the way it is being abused and struggles to come to terms with the way things are and the path she must weave to get where she wants to be.
Jo has experienced a failed marriage and sees men as ‘trouble’ that she can do without, but when she meets the charismatic Twoboy, her resolve gradually weakens. He and his brother are making a native title claim on an extensive area of land nearby and they are working through the exhaustive process requiring claimants to prove their connection to country. In this Twoboy is challenged by another local Indigenous family group, led by a domineering bully who ultimately gets his just desserts. Without giving too much more away about the plot, the issues of police brutality, colonisation and its consequences, humbugging and the familial connections between Indigenous locals, are all canvassed. The disconnect between divergent groups and their attitudes to each other in a small community and other highly relevant issues are ultimately resolved in some unexpected and surprising turns of events. Throughout the book, Bundjalung language is mixed with English, to give added meaning and authenticity and the author has helpfully given us a glossary of words and definitions so that we get the added benefit of experiencing the resonance of a very rhythmic almost musical language as well.
If you’ve never had any connections with Indigenous people or taken the time to read or hear what they have to say about the effects of invasion, colonisation, dispossession, dispersal, institutionalisation, assimilation, integration and the general historiography of their marginalisation in Australian society, Mullumbimby will give you some insight into where this history has taken them, how they have come to terms with it and where they intend to go from here. This is a narrative about the latest generation of Bundjalung people, their heritage, pride and perseverance, despite the odds, to take a stance for the sake of their children and their future by regaining a part of what is rightfully theirs. In doing so, they are also honouring their forebears, showing respect for their ancient culture and at the same time, forcing belated reparation for the treatment of their ancestors and the overwhelming loss they suffered through colonial settlement of their lands. It’s an issue that is not just about land but also the deeply felt spirituality that is intrinsically connected with it, a strong emotional bond and sense of belonging. As the few remaining Elders pass away, it’s up to these young Goories to keep their culture and language alive. Mullumbimby is a book that helps to close the gap caused by the chronic lack of connection that persists in country towns throughout Australia between black and white, particularly in the south and east where Indigenous residents are low in numbers.
If Mullumbimby or a place like it is your home town, read this book, even if for no other reason than because it’s about people with strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears, legacies and aspirations, not dissimilar from yours and mine.