Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Gratitude’ by Oliver Sacks


2015, 45 p.

There is something that makes you slow down your reading when you realize that the author whose work you hold in your hand has little time left to live. When the author is as much published as Oliver Sacks is, you read with the hollow knowledge that you will not hear this narrative voice, or be drawn into this same narrative world again.

This small, beautifully produced hardback, contains four essays written in the last years of his life – and indeed, the final essay, ‘Sabbath’ was written within weeks of his death from metastasized liver cancer, stemming from a rare melanoma in his eye.  The essays are only about 8 to 10 pages in length, and you could read all four in one sitting if you wanted to. But to read them in a rush would feel somehow irreverent, and lacking in grace.

In ‘Mercury’, he reflects on reaching his 80th year – Mercury being 80 on the Periodic Table, a way of seeing the world that he explained (in rather too much detail, I thought) in ‘Uncle Tungsten’. His regrets at 80? That he had wasted, and continued to waste, so much time; that he spoke only his mother tongue and that he had not travelled and experienced other cultures as widely as he should have. He cited his own father, who lived to 94, who had said that his 80s were the most enjoyable decades of his life. This reminded me of my own father, who died quietly of heart failure two years ago in January.  My father, like Oliver Sack’s father, (and probably Oliver Sacks himself too), had seen it all before and could see the patterns:

One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s life, but others’ too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At eighty, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. (p. 10)

‘My Own Life’ was written in haste after learning that the cancer had metastasized, and after some hesitation, it was published in the New York Times as he entered the surgery that was to give him a few extra healthy months to live. He took the title of his essay from philosopher David Hume, who wrote the original ‘My Own Life’ as he lay mortally ill at 65 years of age. He was particularly struck by Hume’s statement “It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present”. Sacks writes that he too feels detached, but not indifferent: instead he feels focussed and that the big problems of the world are now in the hands of another generation. After listing the things he feels gratitude for – for loving and being loved; for received and given in return; for having read, travelled, thought and written, he writes:

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure. (p. 20)

‘My Periodic Table’ is almost a continuation of the opening essay, and his return to his childhood habit of surrounding himself with metals and minerals, “little emblems of eternity” when he felt under stress.

The final essay ‘Sabbath’ is the most ’rounded’ of the essays which, to be honest, feel a little tentative and unfinished. Recalling the Sabbaths of his Orthodox childhood, and the feeling of being embraced by family after finally visiting Israel on a family visit (something he swore he would never do), he found himself “drenched with a wistfulness” for the peace of the Sabbath.  His closing words refer to the Sabbath, not so much as a spiritual or religious practice, but as a sense of completeness and rest. It’s beautiful.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life- achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest. (p. 45)

Rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: An op shop somewhere.  I wonder if the person who bought it, or for whom it was bought, ever read it?

‘Body Tourists’ by Jane Rogers


2019, 240 p.

I don’t read a lot of science fiction, and when I do I prefer that it is ‘human’ science fiction. It was the blurbs on the front of the book from Hilary Mantel and Helen Garner – two writers who do ‘human’ so well – that attracted me to this book, as well as a positive review that I read somewhere.

It is set in 2045, which seems a little too close (or at least, I hope that it’s a little too close: I could well still be alive in 2045, albeit as an old, old woman).  Following the Margaret Atwood dictum in writing The Handmaid’s Tale that her dystopias only include policies and events that had been carried out somewhere in the world at some time, there is much in this 2045 world that is recognizable. Video phones are completely unremarkable; electric cars are likewise;  virtual reality headsets become an addictive past-time;  universal basic income has been introduced but its recipients exiled to large high-rise housing estates. At the same time, there are echoes of other science fiction programs, like the omnipresent deployment of ‘synths’, the same term and function as in the excellent BBC series ‘Humans‘, with one of them even called Gemma (which evoked memories of actress Gemma Chan, who played Anita/Mia).

The jump ahead comes in the scientific experiment of ‘body tourism’. Funded by wealthy benefactor Gudrun this experimental procedure implants the digitally stored memories of people who have been cryogenically frozen immediately on death into young ‘hosts’ who are paid $10,000 to ‘go to sleep’ and vacate their bodies for a fortnight. During that fortnight, the ‘dead’ people can inhabit that body, and revisit their life that has gone on without them.  Fortunately, Jane Rogers doesn’t go into too much detail about how this actually works, because her interest is more in the experience of the people who undertake the experiment, either as ‘body’ or ‘tourist’, rather than the technicalities of the scenario.

The book has chapters told from a range of characters: Paula, who lives on one of the estates and is paid as a ‘body’ along with her boyfriend Ryan; Richard K., an aging rock star who decides to bring his father back; Lindy and Elsa, whose relationship is shattered by an accusation of criminal activity prior to the death; Mary, a highly-religious Ugandan immigrant whose son agrees to ‘loan’ his body. The narrative voice of each character is different enough that they are instantly recognizable: the indifferently-educated voice of Paul from the estates; the ‘Even me’ phrase of Ugandan Mary; the entitled and world weary voice of Richard K. and the educated voice of Elsa, a school principal.  Each of the scenarios throws up its own quandaries; perhaps a few too many for a small book.

This is a grim world, where the rich are able to transcend the dreary lives of the many. Food is manufactured; children are taught by bots who monitor them and provide screen-based information as required; synths take over the mundane jobs. Virtual reality is an inane, addictive escape. Given all this grittiness, the resolution of the book was too neat for me.

This book started off as a radio play on the BBC Dangerous Visions program, which looks quite interesting. With its rotating chapter structure, it would lend itself well to a radio series, and perhaps the need to ‘finish it off’ prompted what was for me an overly optimistic, unsatisfactory ending.

It was only when I looked at the author’s other works that I remembered that I had read and enjoyed Jane Rogers’ Mr Wroe’s Virgins, before I started this blog. The two books, separated by 28 years (!) are quite similar, in that there is a rotating narrative that is shared between people who are victims in an exploitative scheme.  However, where Mr Wroe’s Virgins was based on a real-life historical event, Body Tourists takes us into a future that is rather too recognizable and, fortunately, in the realm of a science-fiction dystopia- for now.

My rating:  8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.



‘The Man in the Red Coat’ by Julian Barnes


2019, 266 p.

Within one page of opening this book, I relaxed into the arms of a master story-teller. There’s that distinctive Julian Barnes voice – intelligent, urbane, confident – and he sustains it the whole way through this rather strange book.

What is it? The publisher’s designation on the back of the book is ‘Biography’, but it’s certainly not a cradle-to-grave biography. It starts with three men travelling to London for some ‘intellectual and decorative shopping’. One was Dr Pozzi, surgeon and gynaecologist, who was the eponymous ‘man in the red coat’ depicted gloriously and yet headless on the beautiful front cover.  The other two men were both homosexual: aesthete Count Robert de Montesquiou who was fictionalized in Huysman’s A Rebours, (Against Nature) and as Baron de Charlus by Marcel Proust; the other Prince Polignac who thinly disguised his homosexuality with a convenient marriage to an American lesbian. From these three men, Barnes spins off into a network of observations and anecdotes about the men and women of the Belle Epoque- that decadent, glorious, gilded period from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I. It is not just a French story: instead there are connections with Oscar Wilde, the American painter John Singer Sargant, the pre-Raphaelites, and that divisive event the Dreyfus Affair.  It is a time of travel, duelling, art and gossip, and Barnes skips from one to the other lightly, gathering up the threads of connection and coincidence with an omniscient chuckle.

At the same time, he speaks to us as a biographer and writer.  Montesquiou’s nemesis Jean Lorrain, for example, is “someone you half want to keep out of your book, for fear he might take over too much of it” (p.71). Huysman’s A Rebours, which featured in Oscar Wilde’s trial as a ‘somdomite’ [sic] is an “exotic and wandering text” (p. 96), a description which equally applies to Barnes’ own book.

He writes about the biographer’s craft. He tells us how he came across the Sargent portrait of Pozzi (p. 166); he observes that novelists never ‘study’ a real-life person “with any deliberate attempt to copy and paste them into a novel. The whole process is usually much more passive, sponge-like and haphazard than that” (p. 229).  Sexual gossip is the ultimate unknowable. Why does it fascinate us so much?

What is it about the present that makes it so eager to judge the past? There is always a neuroticism to the present, which believes itself superior to the past but can’t quite get over a nagging anxiety that it might be. And behind this is a further question: what is our authority for judging? We are the present, it is the past: that is usually enough for most of us. And the further the past recedes, the more attractive it becomes to simplify it. However gross our accusation, it never replies, it stays silent. (p. 168)

This might make the book sound very theoretical, but it’s not.  These are just digressions, where Julian Barnes comes on stage. There is a narrative arc to the book, introduced in the opening paragraphs and fulfilled in the closing pages, like the final resolution of a piece of music where the penultimate note has been left hanging.

It is a thing of narrative beauty, and the book itself is of beauty itself too. Its cover is striking, and throughout the text are black and white cards, which were issued as an advertising gimmick and given away with chocolate bars, like cigarette cards or chewing-gum cards. There are full colour plates throughout the text, located right where they belong.  The paper is thick; there is a bookmark sewn in.  It feels like a luxurious coffee-table book, but of course it is far more than that. (It is, however, quite a bargain at less than $40.00 Australian for a hardcover). But -oh- I yearned for an index. I wonder why it doesn’t have one.

In the author’s note at the back, Julian Barnes comes before the curtain, so to speak, to make a political speech about Brexit. That might seem jarring, but it is not.  We have spent over 250 pages reading about a rich culture, where England and France are interwoven, with people shifting effortlessly across the Channel and back again. ‘Chauvinism is one of the forms of ignorance’ went Dr Pozzi’s maxim, and this whole book is a full-throated rejection of the ignorance that impelled the Leave campaign.  As it happened, I read it in the wake of the eulogies and TV specials on Clive James. I’m reading his Cultural Amnesia, one chapter at a time, as an act of posthumous homage, I suppose.  The two books are very similar: intelligent, irreverent, show-offy and a defence of reading, thinking and talking across cultures.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

‘It Would be Night in Caracas’ by Karina Sainz Borgo


2019, 223 p. Translated from Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer

Now that the rest of South America seems to be blowing itself up politically, Venezuela has fallen out of the world news a bit. However, given that Nicolás Maduro is still in power and Juan Guaido isn’t, the situation in Venezuela probably remains much as it has been for the last couple of years. Millions of Venezuelans have left their country, driven out by hyperinflation and shortages.

This novel is set in current-day Caracas. A young journalist Adelaida Falcón has just buried her mother, who has died of cancer despite Adelaida spending the last of their money on what turned out to be useless drugs. Adelaida was the only child of a single mother, and the two women were close. As Adelaida packs up her mother’s belongings, her world becomes increasingly small, focussed just on her own apartment building.

However, it is not just the loss of her mother than is driving Adelaida’s isolation within her apartment.  Out on the streets, vigilante gangs, often under the protection of the government, are roaming and shooting. One day she returns home to find that her apartment has been taken over by one of these gangs, headed by the intimidating female gang leader La Mariscala. When she turns to her next door neighbour for help, she finds her neighbour is lying dead in her apartment, presumably through natural causes. Her neighbour’s death provides a way of escaping her increasingly claustrophobic situation. Meanwhile, she is joined by the brother of a university friend, who had been scooped up into the government’s paramilitary scheme to turn protestors into henchmen. His presence is both comforting and dangerous.

This is a very female-driven book. The two women form a family unit, and the now-deceased woman next door is crucial to the plot. Interestingly, the Spanish title of the book translates to “The daughter of the Spanish Woman”, a title which makes more sense once you have read the book. While the male gangs outside are intimidating, it is the women led by La Mariscala who are occupying and violating Adelaida’s home next door, who are the most terrifying. Meanwhile, we have the whole idea of ‘motherland’ and exile.

There are a lot of coincidences in the plot of this book, and it doesn’t do to think about them too much lest the whole scenario fall apart. Instead, I more enjoyed the tension of not knowing whether she was going to escape, especially in the closing pages of the book. Even more, I was interested in (‘enjoyed’ is not the word) the exploration of a society which is breaking down completely, leaving individuals to fend for themselves.  I suspect that the author hasn’t had to imagine too much here, and that she is drawing on her knowledge of current events in Venezuela.  It is poignant and frightening to see a formerly-wealthy country spiralling into collapse and lawlessness. It has made me read the news even more carefully.

I read this book in translation from the Spanish. While reading the book in English, I stopped at the sentence “Only a small difference in sound separates ‘leave’ from ‘live’“. That’s true in English, I thought, but I wondered what the original sentence was, because it doesn’t work in Spanish.  As if she had been reading my thoughts, the translator Elizabeth Bryer wrote a note at the end, explaining that sentence, and how hard she had had to work on it.  The original was “Tan solo una letra separa ‘partir’ de ‘parir'” ( translation: Just a single letter separates “to leave” from “to give birth”) . I think that she did a damned good job finding two English words that evoke the same idea, while having a similar sound – although the connection with motherhood doesn’t come through. Nonetheless, well done that translator!! I bet there were shouts of “Yes!” and high-fives all round when she worked it out.

My rating: 7/10

Source: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

Read because: I read a review somewhere (can’t remember where) and I like reading books from Latin America.

‘The Shelf Life of Zora Cross’ by Cathy Perkins


2019, 243 p & notes.

“Twenty pounds and you shall have her” and thus were the publishing rights for Songs of Love and Life transferred from a small self-publishing bookshop to that of the publishing behemoth, Angus and Robertson in 1917.  This book of sixty erotic love-sonnets was to become a literary sensation, going through three reprints and selling a respectable 4000 copies. Its author,  27 year old Zora Cross, wrote about love and sensuality from a woman’s perspective – something shocking in 1917.  Norman Lindsay, the artist whose own work abounds with nudes,  refused to illustrate the book, saying that women couldn’t write erotic poetry because their ‘spinal column’ was not connected to their ‘productive apparatus’. He did, however, condescend to provide a mythologized front cover which, to my eye, has nothing like the impact of an alternative cover design of  a bedroom scene with a present-day man talking off his coat, with his lover covering him with kisses.

But the sale of the publishing rights, and the choice of front cover and illustrator were not in the hands of this young, barely-published author. This book, which is a biography of the now-forgotten Zora Cross, is also an exploration of the Australian writing and publishing scene of the first half of the twentieth century, particularly in Sydney and Melbourne. I had flutters of half-formed recognition of many of the names in this book, and the author has used them as anchors in each of the chapters that move roughly chronologically through Zora Cross’ life.  As Cathy Perkins writes:

I set out to write a conventional biography, but I was drawn to an idea of a life that was made of up relationships. Each of Zora’s relationships shows a different side of her personality and each has its own tensions. (p. xii)

The opening chapter, then, is subtitled Ethel Turner, who as well as the author of the much-loved (by me!) Seven Little Australians, also wrote the children’s page in The Australian Town and Country Journal. Children would send in their contributions and letters (I remember doing the same to ‘Corinella’ in the Sun during the 1960s) and ‘Zora Cross of Pie Creek Road Gympie’ was a frequent contributor. When she grew too old for the children’s page, she finally met her mentor in person.

Ethel Turner suggested that she try her luck with the Lone Hand, the sister publication to the Bulletin, and thus Cross started up a rather fervent correspondence with the editor, Bertram Stevens, who features in Chapter 2. In this chapter we learn of Cross’s employment as a school teacher and her strange, short marriage to fellow-student Stuart Smith, with whom she had a child who died soon after birth.  Pregnant again to an unnamed father in 1913, Cross travelled northern Queensland with a theatre company, and became editor to the small Bohemian newspaper of arts and social news.

She also wrote poetry for the Bulletin, and it was through this connection that Norman Lindsay, for whom Chapter 3 is titled, was asked to provide the artwork for Songs of Love and Life.  It was published by George Robertson, who features in Chapter 4, who carefully oversaw the sales and  reviews of the books under his imprint.  She wrote copious letters to him, too, and on the walls of his office he had a copy of the beautiful portrait that graces the front cover of this book. However, despite his success with Songs of Love and Life, he declined to publish other manuscripts of Cross’, along with the manuscripts of many other women writers who were to go to fame including Katherine Susannah Prichard, M. Barnard Eldershaw and Christina Stead.

She achieved success writing about the losses incurred in WWI, in Elegy on an Australian Schoolboy written in tribute to her brother John Skyring Cross (Jack), who is explored in Chapter 5. He died of illness after being injured on the Western Front.  In 1919, George Robertson asked his assistant, Rebecca Wiley, to go on a month’s holiday with Zora, who was feeling run-down. Chapter 6, named for Rebecca Wiley, explores the often tense relationship between these two women, especially once Zora had shifted to Glenbrook in the Blue Mountains with her partner, Bulletin editor David McKee Wright, who features in Chapter 7. They never married because David was still married to his previous wife, and she was pregnant to another man when they partnered. They had two daughters together, and David legally adopted her son. He died suddenly in 1928.

Now widowed, Cross continued to write, especially for the Australian Woman’s Mirror, an offshoot of the Bulletin which predated the still-extant Australian Women’s Weekly. Chapter 8, subtitled ‘Bernice May’ refers to her pen-name in much of the writing she did for ‘women’s pages’ . After falling out with George Robertson, she embarked on a series of interviews with fellow women poets and novelists for the Mirror, including Jean Devanny, Eleanor Dark, Dulcie Deamer, and Mary Gilmore.  A long-standing presence in Cross’s life was John Le Gay Brereton, Chapter 9, a friend of Henry Lawson, chief librarian and later professor of literature at the University of Sydney. His access to resources assisted her to write a series of books about Classical Rome, which were not well received (and sound pretty dire). As president of the Fellowship of Australian Writers, Brereton was a constant source of support when Cross made frequent, and generally successful applications, for Commonwealth Literary Fund pensions and grants.   Another longstanding friend was Mary Gilmore (Chapter 10) who was punctilious in overseeing her bequest of papers to the Mitchell Library. She died in 1963 and a year later, Zora Cross died of a heart attack.

This is a very skillfully written biography, maintaining its chronological trajectory while using various friends and colleagues as a prism through which to explore Zora Cross’s personality and writing.  Cathy Perkins, the author,  who is the editor of SL magazine and other publications at the State Library of NSW inserts herself several times into the narrative, in her research and  advocacy for Zora Cross.  As well as a biography, the book explores the literary industry and the whole issue of literary presence after death. Perkins’ decision to use relationships as an organizing device emphasizes the interconnections between writers and publishers, something that is often invisible to the reader.

She captures well the breadth of Cross’ writing, and quotes generously from her unpublished works, without necessarily championing its sometimes rather dubious quality, leaving it instead up to the reader to decide.  She portrays Cross as a fully rounded character: unconventional mother and partner, hard-working, flirtatious, sometimes needy, mother, grandmother and community member. But most importantly, as a prolific and life-long writer, even if she has been -until this biography- completely unknown today.

My rating: 9/10 A really accomplished biography

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.


This is my first read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2020


2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge Completed

In January 2019, I undertook to read twenty books for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  I also challenged myself to read 60 books on Goodreads (which I achieved just yesterday) and to finish Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone in Spanish. I did somewhat better than that with my Spanish reading because I also read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, a collection of short stories and La Distancia Entre Nosotros in Spanish. Looking through my Goodreads, I read 23 fiction and 37 non-fiction, 37 Australian and 23 non-Australian books.

The proportions are somewhat different for the books that I have read as part of the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019, alphabetically by surname.  Lots of History, Memoir and Biography here (nineteen!), but I’m rather deflated by how little fiction I read- only four! Perhaps improving on that should be my New Year’s Resolution.


de Saint Phalle  Poum and Alexandre: A Paris Memoir

Kate Morton The Lake House

Alice Robinson  The Glad Shout

Carrie Tiffany  Exploded View

Non Fiction

Robyn Annear  Nothing New: A History of Second Hand

Judith Brett  From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage

Margaret Cook A River with a City Problem

Joy Damousi The Labour of Loss

Kirsten Drysdale  I Built No Schools in Kenya

Jill Giese  The Maddest Place on Earth

Jenny Hocking The Dismissal Dossier

Rebecca Huntley  Quarterly Essay 73: Australia Fair Listening to the Nation

Jane Lydon and Lyndall Ryan (eds) Remembering the Myall Creek Massacre

Cathy McLennan  Saltwater

Lee Kofman Imperfect

Doris Pilkington (Nugi Garmirara) Follow the Rabbit Proof Fence

Lesley Potter  Mistress of her Profession: Colonial Midwives of Sydney 1788-1901

Shirley Roberts  Charles Hotham: A Biography

Jill Roe  Beyond Belief: Theosophy in Australia 1879-1939

Myra Scott  How Australia Led the Way: Dora Meeson Coates and British Suffrage

Leigh Straw  Angel of Death Dulcie Markham: Australia’s most beautiful bad woman

Michelle Scott Tucker Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World

Nadia Wheatley Her Mother’s Daughter


‘Nothing New: A History of Second-Hand’ by Robyn Annear


2019, 273 p.

In Australia at the moment, as in other economies in the world, Treasurers and bankers are wringing their hands at consumers’ “failure to spend”. Different causes are attributed: low wage growth, underemployment, the China/U.S. trade war. I wonder, though, if there’s something else going on. Perhaps, as Greta Thunberg suggested, people are beginning to see that the obsession with continual growth blinds us to the changes needed to keep our planet habitable. Perhaps we are tiring of poor-quality tat that is purchased with the intention of throwing it away. Perhaps we are yearning for a Marie Kondo make-over and just to have less stuff.  For what-ever reason, we’re just not buying new merchandise in the way that we used to.

Historian Robyn Annear is a long-time afficionado of second-hand.  Right up front she admits that “Other people’s detritus calls to me. And from that siren song this book was born.” (3). Her opening chapter is titled ‘Nothing New’ and her closing chapter is titled ‘…Under the Sun’. In the intervening chapters, she embarks on a digressive history of second-hand, told with her trade-mark giggle in the narrative voice.  The book is roughly chronological from 1700s to the present day, and it jumps around the Anglosphere, with Australia considered quite naturally and unselfconsciously among Britain and America, with occasional additional reference to France and Africa.

As she explains, before the 1700s, clothes had long lives, passed on from class to class, generation to generation, mended and remade. During the late 18th century, increased consumerism and the influx of Jewish immigrants led to a commercial market in old clothes, collected by the Ol’ Clo’ man, and ending up in markets where they were revived and remodelled. An international market existed as old clothes were circulated between different countries. In this regard, Australia during the 1850s stood out, as people tended to buy new clothes on arrival in the colony, and there was a post-convict sensitivity over Australia being seen as a dumping-ground for old clothes, as well as old lags.

Once clothes really had got beyond the point of being remodelled, there were other markets for rags.  Before paper was made from wood products, rags were used for paper, with old linen kept aside intentionally to make up-market linen weave paper. Rags could be shredded to make ‘shoddy’, a reconstituted fabric which could then be resewn for new, cheap garments. They could be melted down and mixed with horses hooves and horse blood, ashes and scrap iron to make Prussian Blue dye.  The dust created in the manufacture of shoddy could be used to make ‘flock’ wall paper, and rags could be used to stuff mattresses.

However, by the 1850s there was a change, when direct donation of clothes came to be seen as “charity”, rather than as a market. As is often the case “charity” existed side-by-side with a fear of being ripped-off, so only dirty clothes, beyond repair tended to be donated for distribution to only the “deserving” poor.

With the rise of ‘rummage sales’ in America in the 1850s, and their gradual extension to London in the 1890s, the stigma of “charity” was assuaged by the charging of a cheap price for goods that were given free.  The Salvation Army created its Household Salvage Brigade, which provided a waste collection service, with the collected goods sorted into sale items, and unsellable material directed towards recycling. When the Household Salvage Brigade went into recess during WW I, St Vinnies (St Vincent de Paul) started up the Waste Collection Bureau.

In Melbourne, the first “Opportunity” shop was located in the Cyclorama in Victoria Street in 1925, near the present St Vincents Hospital. Named by Lady Millie Tallis, who had witnessed the success of second-hand shops runs on charitable lines overseas, it was intended to raise money for St Vincent’s Hospital (unrelated to St Vinnies). The Cyclorama had been built in 1889 to house a 360 degree panorama of events like the Battle of Waterloo, the Eureka Stockade or the Siege of Paris, but by 1925 it had been rendered obsolete by the new craze for moving pictures. What better use to put a clapped out, round building?


Creator: Allan C. Green, State Library of Victoria

The ‘opportunity shop’ spread to other suburbs, but it died out during the Depression, only to reappear after World War II when the years of “mend and make do” were past, and consumer spending – and, as a result, disposal of  no-longer-wanted goods-  sprinted ahead.

Second hand came to be distributed through a variety of forms: Lost Property Auctions (as Annear points out, why isn’t it Found Property Auctions?), Exchange and Marts in newspapers, antiquarian collections, charity shops as a business, the Trading Post, garage sales, Trash and Treasure markets, hard rubbish collections on the footpath, and e-bay.

Finally, there’s a whole market that is invisible to us in First World countries, whereby second-quality, secondhand goods are baled up and sent to Africa. I visited Toi market in Nairobi, the largest second-hand market, which burnt to the ground this year after being slated for demolition (hmmmmm…)  If you’re not prone to sea-sickness, this rather jerky video takes you on a bus to Toi Market- it really captures what you see in Nairobi well.

When I visited Rwanda, I was horrified to learn that Donald Trump had pressured Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda into dropping their plans to ban the import of second-hand clothes from America, in order to protect their own clothing industries.Only Rwanda persevered. However, as Annear points out, the Chinese government has stepped into the gap, and is now importing second-hand, and  increasingly, new cheap clothing from China into Rwanda.

Written in a quirky conversational tone, ‘Nothing New’ wears its scholarship lightly, but the references at the back reveal the research that has gone into the book. Where footnotes appear at the bottom of the page, they are jokes and comments, rather than references. Robyn Annear also has a podcast called Nothing on TV,  based on her Trove research, which deals with similar material and the very Australian delivery is similar to the narrative voice of the book. It’s a quick, fascinating read that will have you looking up and saying to anyone listening “Hey, did you know?…….)

My rating: 8, based largely on its enjoyment factor

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.


This will almost certainly be the final book that I add to the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge!