Things you might learn at our St Kilda non-fiction book club
Putting together an ultimate reading list for our new non-fiction book club at Readings St Kilda was easy but narrowing it down to only three titles for the short-format winter sessions was nearly impossible! Book club convenor and non-fiction enthusiast Gerard Elson (he can tell you everything there is to know about Montaigne’s essays – just ask him!), and I thought about the reasons we love to read and what we get out of it. We both had the same answer – to learn new things about the world.
So before we settled on our choices for the book club, I asked some staff and friends of Readings what they’ve learned about this unusual, perplexing, beautiful and absurd world we live in:
An immensely powerful image from John Hersey’s Hiroshima has stayed with author Jessica Au (Cargo): ‘A young clerk, Toshiko Sasaki, is being transported to the Red Cross Hospital in the aftermath of the bomb. It’s the first time she’s been able to see the city centre and, on the way, she notices something both nightmarish and astounding: great amounts of plants and flowers are growing out of the wreckage of the streets and buildings. Hersey writes, “The bomb had not only left the underground organs of plants intact; it had stimulated them. Everywhere were bluets and Spanish bayonets, goosefoots, morning glories and day lilies, the hairy-fruited bean, purslane and clotbur and sesame seed and panic grass and feverfew”. A terrible dystopian image.’
Bookseller Belle Katavatis now knows a thing or two about being a well-dressed spy after reading Sleeping with the Enemy: Coco Chanels Secret War by Hal Vaughan: ‘Coco Chanel was a numbered Nazi agent working for Germany’s military intelligence agency during the Second World War, and in 1943 carried out operation Modellhut (‘model hat’) for the SS. Chanel was meant to use her contacts to get a message to Winston Churchill from the SS stating that a number of leading Nazis wanted to break with Adolf Hitler and negotiate a separate peace with England… but she didn’t pull it off.’
Tess McCabe of Creative Women’s Circle and The New Normal Podcast learned some chilling facts about the complex task of raising a young human from Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman’s Nurtureshock: ‘The most common strategies parents employ to discourage kids from lying actually tend to encourage it, like praise for doing something good, even if deception was involved. And also, young kids mostly can’t tell the difference between white lies and actual lies, or lies and things that end up not being true through circumstance like saying you’ll go to the park and then not going due to bad weather. So keeping promises is very important – where possible!’
Declan our music buyer here at St Kilda likes music and biographies, so he read Cash by Johnny Cash: ‘Johnny Cash narrowly avoided death in a rather nasty ostrich attack in 1981. We’ve all been there, they’re stone cold killers!’
Adam John Cullen thinks that he reads more non-fiction than the average person: ‘In the last three months alone, I’ve learned some pretty great things. First, how to navigate great distances in a raft floating in the middle of the ocean, armed with my wits alone and some advice gleamed from John Edward Huth’s The Lost Art of Finding our Way (of course I haven’t put this to the test but I’m confident it would be a breeze). Secondly, that North-American water birds lay stunning eggs with beautiful markings – have a flip through Mark E. Hauber’s The Book of Eggs and see for yourself. Speaking of birds, did you know that the male Vogelkop gardener bowerbird is quite average in a lot of ways but it sure can build a nest and decorate it with an amazing amount of flair; you can see what I’m talking about in Animal Architecture by Ingo Arndt. That’s just a fragment of useful (or not particularly useful) facts I’ve learnt while reading non-fiction, and anyway I don’t have time for the lies of fiction writers.’
Finally, our club convenor Gerard has been reading on empathy: “Many of my favourite writers are those exploratory essayists who turn a highly particular eye on the world and themselves: Montaigne, Joan Didion, Geoff Dyer, Jan Morris and Witold Gombrowicz are just a few whose work exerts a voodoo-like hold on me, pulling me back in just about every week. It’s no exaggeration to say that with her essay collection The Empathy Exams, the young American writer Leslie Jamison has entered that club. So much about this generous, probing collection has stayed with me – it will surely be one of the best books I’ll read all year. But it’s Jamison’s parsing of the etymological root of the word ‘empathy’ that has been my favourite take-away: “Empathy comes from the Greek empatheia–em (into) and pathos (feeling)–a penetration, a kind of travel. It suggests you enter another person’s pain as you’d enter another country, through immigration and customs, border crossing by way of query: What grows where you are? What are the laws? What animals graze there?” Words Scott Morrison would do well to contemplate.‘
The three books we’ve selected for our non-fiction book club are Michaela McGuire’s Last Bets, Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity and Helen Garner’s This House of Grief. We’re so excited to snuggle down and get reading.