In Praise of the New with Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee 

Louise Pfanner and Sonia Lee share their latest discoveries.

May 2017

Gleebooks Bookshop - Wednesday, May 10, 2017


Trust me, if you only read one book in 2017, make sure that it’s Lab Girl: a Story of Trees, Science and Love by Hope Jahren ($23). She’s a professor of geobiology at the University of Hawaii, and has written a memoir interspersed with exquisite small essays on things she loves—especially leaves, seeds and trees. Jahren grew up in a Norwegian household in rural Minnesota. Her father, a science teacher in a community college, taught her the way round a laboratory from an early age, while her mother gave her the love of literature which helped develop her clear prose style. She has boundless energy and doesn’t need much sleep, so financed her way through college by doing the night shift in a hospital pharmacy. On a field trip in California she met Bill Hagopian, and the two became scientific collaborators at first sight. Bill is now her lab manager and has followed her to all her labs—at first with not enough money, sleeping in his car and scrounging equipment. In the USA, as here, ‘blue sky’ aka ‘interest only’ science, since it doesn’t immediately come up with pills or other goodies with ready commercial payoffs, doesn’t attract too many grants. Jahren’s research, however, is all about things like fossilised plants, ancient ecosystems and the conditions in which trees do best and are likely to survive in the future. With the arrival of global warming her work has been shown to have a direct relevance to plant survival, and she has won three Fulbright scholarships and many other prizes. Happily married to spouse Clint and with a young son, she has overcome not only manic depression, but also an entrenched prejudice against women working in her field of science. Her work ethic is admirable and her love of science infectious. Early in her career she worked out that hackberry pits are made of opal (hydrated silica) and woke Bill in the middle of the night to share this eureka moment. I liked her description of the gigantic monkeypod tree which grows where Manoa Road crosses Oahu Road in Honolulu. Wild orchids sit in this famous tree’s branches, it is always in bloom and parrots chatter in its eight-thousand-square-foot canopy, while pink and yellow flowers rain on tourists who stop to take its picture. The nicest memory I take from this book is of her trip with Bill to Axel Heiburg Island in the Nunavut territory of Canada. They had followed a hare to a high-up point, and here Bill disclosed that he had always been teased and bullied at school, and had never had a date or gone to a prom. Jahren replied that now was the time, in the long and endless daylight, for him to dance. Much to her surprise he started to stomp and twirl while she looked on. ‘Today’, she told him, ‘was the day for watching a great man dance in the snow.’Frank Bongiorno has given us a very good read with The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia ($30).Many of us now think of the Eighties as a golden age, but for some who lived through those years they weren’t all that bright. This decade saw the rise of economic rationalism, with many prospering but also with many losing their jobs and never working again. Women started flexing their muscles and nurses agitated for a living wage. Hospitals were to find that they could no longer rely on cheap labour. It seems generally acknowledged that what we had then in Australia was sensible political leadership, a commodity now sadly lacking, with the kids taking over the nursery in so many countries, not excluding our own. The decade may well have been notable for greed and excess, but what was distinctive and laudable about the Hawke-Keating approach was that it sought to combine a shift towards the market with a commitment to social spending on the disadvantaged, a basic level of government support for all, and a continuing role for trade unionism. This, to a large extent, was what set Australia apart from the UK and the USA at the time. Bongiorno takes us on an exhilarating dash through much of the decade, beginning his tour with the terrible Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 just before Bob Hawke became our PM, then on to the Accord, Native land rights, the ‘Joh for PM’ movement, a new type of concern for the environment, and lastly, the follies of the many entrepreneurs taking a punt on the prosperity wave. The reader might well begin with the many memorable illustrations and take it from there. Who could forget the Russell Goward saga, the titillating details of which dripped ever so slowly onto the business pages, or the rise, Icarus-like, of Alan Bond in his America’s Cup days, or the Gygean banquets of the Skases? All in all, a bitter time for the losers, a great time for journalists, and a tumultuous decade—full of incident and larger-than-life characters. Thank you, Frank Bongiorno. Sonia

In Praise of the New -Louise Pfanner

I’d like to take this opportunity to apologise to my favourite dog in print—Emma Chichester Clark’s Plumdog. Despite reviewing all of her previous books and referring to her correctly as a girl, I carelessly referred to her as ‘he’ in the April Gleaner’s children’s books page. Plum, I’m sorry. Plumdog has been the central character in an excellent book of comic strips, and two beautiful children’s picture books, and she has her own hilarious blog (‘Plumdog Blog’). So I’m very happy to say that Plum has another new book—The Plumdog Path to Perfection—a handy guide to life, full of wisdom from well known sages, and lots of unknown ones as well ($23, HB). If you have ever had a dog, you’ll recognise a lot of the sentiments, and if not, you’ll enjoy it anyway. Emma Chichester Clark’s illustrations are a joy, perfectly matched with each guiding phrase. With advice on perfect friendship, perfect character, perfect love and even a small section called ‘Not absolutely perfect’, this little book will happily lead you onto the path of perfection.
Speaking of perfection, Mimi Thorisson’s new cookbook, French Country Cooking ($50), would be almost impossible to believe in, such is the level of beauty and perfection in her life, if it weren’t for the very down to earth way she writes, and her fabulous recipes. The author and her photographer husband, Oddur Thorisson, live with their many children and many dogs, in a beautiful old house in a small village in the Médoc region of France—surrounded by vineyards and gardens. The house, the family, and the region are all extremely picturesque, and the recipes all beautifully styled and photographed. Each detailed recipe has an excellent introduction, cleverly making the reader feel ‘I can do that’. There’s a very informative section on wine, and a chapter about the restaurant the family run in the house.
M. E. McGuire’s Cynthia Nolan: A Biography ($30) is both greatly lacking in detail, and admirably lacking gossip. Most of the book is about Cynthia Reed’s younger life—she was born in 1908 in Evandale, Tasmania, the youngest child of a large, establishment family, with strict, straight laced parents. For someone from that background, at that time, Cynthia followed a really unconventional path. She was part of the Melbourne art scene, and opened an interior design shop in Little Collins Street. She studied dance and acting and became an actress in Hollywood, and she studied psychiatric nursing as well. She was also a single parent, and wrote several books. So why is this book not more interesting? I think the author has assumed her readers know the story of the extraordinary Cynthia Reed, her complex relationship with her brother and sister in law (John and Sunday Reed), and her marriage to Sidney Nolan. I did not know many of these facts, nor did I know that she was perceived as a ‘difficult woman’, and I still don’t really understand why. As a book, it’s admirably brief, and accessible, with clear footnotes at the end of each chapter, but it’s a very uneven look at a whole life. Louise

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