What We're Reading / October 2019

How many books have you read this year? Hunting for some book recommendations to  finish 2019 off strong? Our staff recommend the best books they read in October, including The Last Snake Man by John Cann, The Strays by Emily Bitto, Prison Industrial Complex Explodes by Mercedes Eng and Educated by Tara Westover.

Ashley Kalagian Blunt, Senior Program Officer

The Last Snake Man by John Cann

The Last Snake Man by John Cann

The Last Snake Man is John Cann’s autobiography of his life as a snakey. It also charts the evolution of snake shows in Australia, dating back to the early 20th century, when his father took over the weekly show at La Perouse snake show. There’s nothing brilliant in the writing: it reads like a bloke chatting with you over beers. Put that aside, because this is one of the most fantastically entertaining pieces of Australiana I’ve encountered. Cann is full of incredible anecdotes, like the time a black snake bit Cann’s father on the tongue. He also dishes out quippy snake advice, such as this gem: ‘Some snake handlers think they’re too smart for snakes – they’re the ones who usually find out the hard way that if a snake wants you, he’ll get you.’


Sarah Mott, Project and Communications Officer

The Strays by Emily Bitto

the strays by Emily BittoThere is something so complex and beautiful about female friendships, particularly those during that stealthy evolution of puberty. As we change, so do our interactions with other women, buckling under the patriarchal pressure of treating other women as a threat. Our friendships, if they survive or the new ones we make, become fiercer in the face of this, but fraught with the hormones and secrecy. It’s exhausting. In The Strays, Emily Bitto perfectly documents this through the central character, Lily and her relationship from pre-to late-teens with Eva, her best friend.

The story is loosely-based on the Heide artists circle, which in itself is fascinating to read. Lily is an outsider narrating the bohemian life of the Trentham family, through her friendship with the three daughters, particularly Eva Trentham. Through her eyes we watch the utopia of the artists commune begin, thrive and ultimately crumble, with the most irrevocable damage seeming to be inflicted on the Trentham daughters.

That Lily is remembering this period from her middle-age means the story is cooly retold with hindsight and less emotion, which works well for a situation that is rife with teen rebellion and familial tension. We are still drawn into the excruciating sensations and vitality of living in the commune as a teenage girl. Refreshingly, though, this isn’t a morality tale that tut-tuts the demise of the nuclear family. Bitto’s view is impassive, focusing more on the strength and resilience of the female characters.

Lou Garcia-Dolnik, Membership and Administration Officer

Prison Industrial Complex Explodes by Mercedes Eng

Prison Industrial Complex Explodes, Mercedes Eng

There’s something about explicit referentiality/procedure in poetry that draws attention to the modes of its construction, the scaffolding, repetitions and formal choices that comprise structure. Procedural poetry is, then, an exercise in ‘putting-together’, folding, copying and pasting to make something Other out of the already-there, or so common sense would have you believe. Mercedes Eng’s Prison Industrial Complex Explodes is one-part precisely that. Eng weaves together whole paragraphs taken verbatim from documentation regarding her father’s threatened deportation in the 80s, government tracts about Indigenous and POC overrepresentation in prison and vis-à-vis the imposition of mining and oil companies on First Nations land. Eng builds slowly her indictment against the Canadian prison system, inflected by her own personal brand of damning verse, at once sharp and clinical as the writings from which it makes its departure. There is also the distinctly poetic: Eng’s own father is reproduced and given life again in text, along with other incarcerated spirits whose voices sing loud from the page. This is one long poem as court case. A fresh and heartbreaking take on documentary poetics, which I devoured.

Claire Thompson, Program Officer

Educated by Tara Westover

educated tara westover

I just finished the best book I’ve read all year. Educated by Tara Westover. It is an outstanding memoir which manages to be frightening, shocking, beautiful and inspiring all at once.

Educated narrates Westover’s experience of growing up in a Mormon family in Idaho. However, while they were Mormon, many of her father’s rules were not informed by the Mormon religion, but rather by his many conspiracy theories including his belief that the government was brainwashing society. He stopped his children from going to school or to the doctor or hospital (even when they suffered serious burns, head injuries and broken bones). They were not given a home school alternative, as he needed his kids to assist him working in the junkyard. Tara repeatedly compares her family with other Mormon families, noticing how their kids could go to school and the doctor. She of course believes her father, so she looks down on these other Mormons as not being true to the faith.

It wasn’t until her older brother rebelled against their father’s rules and went to high school to get his GED, then later went to college, that Tara was inspired to do the same. It took serious strength of will for Tara to go against the influence of her father. It was only once she got an education that she was liberated from her father’s conspiracy theories and lies, and able to form her own mind. I finished Educated feeling impressed by the lengths Tara goes to to gain an education, and how much she values it. Tara also has such a powerful command of language, with unique descriptions and her ability to seamlessly slip between past and present making it an enjoyable reading experience, despite the often confronting content.

For more book recommendations from the Writing NSW staff, have a look at our other What We’re Reading blog posts below or here. 

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