Our recommendations

Super Power: Australia’s low-carbon opportunity by Ross Garnaut (2019)

I’m reading a lot about climate change at the moment as we prepare to launch our new activities around this important science. Ross Garnaut is a highly respected economist and has a very practical view of what Australia’s low carbon future should be focussed on.

The Drover’s Wife by Leah Purcell (2019)

This is a fantastic novel – the Henry Lawson story re-imagined by Leah Purcell. I’m hungry to know more about the early days of white settlement and the impact on First Nation’s people. The narrative is compelling and while it’s a frightening and harrowing read at times, you do emerge with a greater understanding of Aboriginal and pioneer life.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner (2019)

We all need some humour in these difficult times and this novel, a NYTimes best-seller, is lusty and funny and has made me laugh out loud – a lot. I like books set in New York and the north-east of the USA (I lived in Washington DC for a number of years) and this twisted relationship story takes me back there.

Australia Day by Stan Grant (2019)

I read Stan’s previous book, Talking to My Country, and this is a much-needed follow up. He tells a story of reconciliation which can be achieved through debate, dialog and changes in the way we do things and changes to our belief systems along with the will, or maybe even the skill, of “learning to forget”. This book may help all Australians to find a middle-ground.

  1. Unfettered and Alive: A Memoir by Anne Summers

Anne’s influence on my life as a feminist started when I was at uni and Damned Whores and God’s Police was first released. In this memoir she tells the story of her extraordinary life breaking new ground in journalism, as a political advisor, and as a woman forging new paths. I always love reading a good biography and that is made even better when you truly admire the person and what they’ve achieved.

I’m fascinated by the history of how we experience nature and especially the exploration of the natural world in colonial Australia. And, since we are all living together on a fast-changing planet, how do we live now?

Robert Macfarlane, Underland (2019)
I just finished reading this meditation on the relation between humans and the landscapes under our feet. There are some claustrophobic moments in the maze of catacombs under Paris and a truly heart-stopping description of abseiling inside a melting glacier in Greenland.

James Delbourgo, Collecting the World: The life and curiosity of Hans Sloane (2017)
A new biography of the man whose collections founded the British Museum. It doesn’t avoid the dark side of curiosity and collections, a place familiar to Australian museums, too.

Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World (2015)
In the nineteenth century, Humboldt was the most famous man in Europe. And he has a closer connection to Australia than you might realise, through his outsize influence on the important group of German scientific emigrees who arrived in Australia through the 1850s.

Wilhelm Blandowski, Australia in 148 pictures (1848)
Gerard Krefft, one of the Australian Museum’s earliest Curators, accompanied Wilhelm Blandowski on a 9-month trip to the Murray River in 1848. The text and pictures Blandowski tried, unsuccessfully, to publish in Germany based on his Australian journeys are extraordinary for their detailed documentation of Indigenous life and ceremony on the Murray River. Anthropologist Harry Allen has republished the text with commentaries as Australia, William Blandowski’s Illustrated Encyclopedia of Aboriginal Life (2010). This compellingly strange book should be much better known.

Anna Funder, Stasiland (2003)
One for the archivists. Don’t ever underestimate the power of the archive, or the importance of bearing witness to history.

Working in the Australian Museum Research Library means I spend a lot of time helping our scientists with their research needs. For someone that doesn’t have a scientific background, this was daunting at first! I’ve always leaned towards fiction, but recently I’ve found that reading non-fiction is one of my favourite ways to learn about the world around me and get my head around unfamiliar concepts – especially when the facts have an excellent narrative thread driving them. Non-fiction has also provided space for me to further explore into topics I’m already passionate about and find a richer appreciation for them.

Here are four of the best narrative non-fiction books I’ve read in the past year about science, literature, and cultural institutions:

Superior: The Return of Race Science by Angela Saini. Harper Collins, 2019.

As the quote on the front cover says, Angela Saini’s 2019 book ‘roundly debunks racism’s core lie.’ Spanning from deep pre-history through the Enlightenment right up to the modern era, Saini examines the construct of race and the endless attempts to classify it using scientific methodology, the vast majority of which just don’t hold up under close examination. Saini also delves into the historical atrocities committed by white scientists against various ethnic groups under the guise of scholarship, providing a chilling and necessary reminder that the legacy of western science is one rooted in white supremacy.

The Feather Thief: Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century, by Kirk Wallace Johnson. Penguin Books, 2019.

Why would a twenty-year-old flute prodigy break into a natural history museum with a wheeled suitcase and steal hundreds of irreplaceable bird specimens? Kirk Wallace Johnson’s tale of Edwin Rist’s 2009 heist of the Natural History Museum at Tring unfolds like a murder mystery novel. The enduring consequences of his actions – namely the huge loss of scientific knowledge that he caused – is described in devastating detail. Just as compelling is his exploration of the history of the exotic bird trade and the short-sighted greed that destroyed biodiversity around the globe. If you want a story that illustrates the necessity of museums and the importance of safe-keeping their collections into the future, look no further.

Kafka’s Last Trial: The Case of a Literary Legacy by Benjamin Balint. W.W. Norton, 2018.

On their deathbed, your best friend asks you to burn their papers. Instead, you edit and publish them, an act that turns them into one of the greatest and most beloved authors of the twentieth century. Upon your death, you will your literary estate to a close friend of yours. Who owns your friend’s papers? Should their legacy as a writer be based on their nationality, their ethnicity, or the language they wrote in? What is the moral balance of your decision? These legal, philosophical and ethical dilemmas are all explored in Benjamin Balint’s fascinating account of the legal battle between the Israeli government and the family who inherited Franz Kafka’s personal papers through the estate of his friend Max Brod.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. Broadway Books, 2011 (paperback edition).

Although a little older than the other books on this list, Rebecca Skloot’s account of the unknown woman whose “immortal” cells are grown and sold in labs all around the world is no less gripping or important today. Henrietta Lacks was 31 years old when she died from aggressive cervical cancer in 1951. Without her or her family’s knowledge, cells were taken from her during a biopsy, cultured, and eventually reproduced in the billions to be used in scientific research. Skloot explores the ethical issues surrounding the creation of the “HeLa” cell line, how race and class affected Lacks’ treatment by the medical community, and the personal toll this legacy has taken on her surviving family.

I’m a beetle expert, originally from the UK, with interests in most things (except food) and these days more inclined to read facts than fiction. The latest book I’ve read from cover to cover is Arabs, Tim Mackintosh-Smith (2019). At 630pp this is a good read for self-isolation, some more are:

The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Jonathan Stroud (2003-2005). 'Teenage fiction' and my son's favourite reading which I’ve also really enjoyed. Clever and funny. Never trust politicians.

A Rum Affair, Karl Sabbagh (1999). A true story of botanical and zoological fraud perpetuated by the former head of the university department where I did my first degree. What happens when the need to be right overtakes ethics.

Citizen Labillardiere, Edward Duyker (2003). The life of one of the first biologists to visit Australia.

From the Holy Mountain, William Dalrymple (1998). A weave of religion, exploration, architecture and history.

Field Guide to the Native Plants of Sydney, Les Robinson (3rd ed, 2003). The best book for identifying our impressive local flora, an invaluable reference for all local walks.

The Thing Around Your Neck, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2009). Contemporary short stories from Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora.

Early Kingdoms of the Indonesian Archipelago and the Malay Peninsula, Paul Munoz (2006). The history of the Indonesian Archipelago before European visitors. While anglo-saxons and vikings were hurling lumps of mud at each other, a la Monty Python, our neighbours to the north had royal courts trading elephants and princesses.

Window, Jeannie Baker (1991). A children’s book with a very adult theme - a visual poem about our relentless gobbling of land for housing.

The Minke Quartet (a trilogy in English: Awakenings, Footsteps, The Glass House), Pramoedya Ananda Toer, translated by Max Lane (1990-1992). A huge rambling novel on the difficult beginnings of Indonesia.

Climate Fiction (Cli-Fi)

Bradley, James, Clade, Hamilton, 2015.
Particularly relevant to our current pandemic predicament.

Itaranta, Emmi, Memory of Water, Harper Voyager, 2014.
Mesmerising, beautiful, set in a world beyond the water wars.

Kingsolver, Barbara, Flight Behaviour, Harper Collins, 2012.
Classic cli-fi exploring domestic and ecological trouble.

Rawson, Jane, Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Transit Lounge, 2013.
Set in a hotter, collapsing Melbourne, the protagonists take us on surprising leaps elsewhere.

Solutions to Climate Change

Project Drawdown 2020
he most complete set of climate solutions, researched and explained by international experts. An important site for learning and restoring hope!

See also the book of the project:
Hawken, Paul (ed.), Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, Penguin, 2017.

What’s Your 2040 – the web resource supporting the 2040 film, by Damon Gameau.

See also the book of the project:
Gamaeu, Damon, 2040: A Handbook for Regeneration Based on the documentary 2040, Pan Macmillan Australia, 2019.
A rich and inspiring exploration of all that we can mobilise that is already around us, to create the kind of future you would want to live in. Full of ideas, advice, beautiful images, and even recipes.

Flannery, Tim. Sunlight and Seaweed: An Argument for how to Feed, Power and Clean Up the World. Text Publishing, 2017.
A captivating (and quick!) read, introducing revolutionary approaches that are already available to us.

Understanding Climate Change

NASA ClimateKids

Marshall, George. Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015. Find in the Library

Climate Transparency: an accessible, visually captivating site providing scorecards for G20 countries, discussion, and webinars about how countries are performing on climate action, finance and progress towards global targets.

Understanding Climate Change in Australia

Altman, Jon and Seán Kerins, People on Country: Vital Landscapes, Indigenous Futures, The Federation Press, Leichardt, NSW, 2012.

Bureau of Meteorology, Climate Change in Australia.
A well-designed, up-to-date web resource explaining climate impacts, news and predictions for Australia as well as providing regional reports, a ‘climate campus’ for further learning, publications library, and more.

Cavanagh, Vanessa, ‘This grandmother tree connects me to country; I cried when I saw her burned’, The Conversation, January 2020.

Cumpston, Zena, ‘To address the ecological crisis, Aboriginal peoples must be restored as custodians of Country’, The Conversation, 31 January 2020.

Gergis, Joëlle. Sunburnt Country: The History and Future of Climate Change in Australia. Carlton, Victoria: Melbourne University Press, 2018. Find in the Library

Lunney, Daniel, Pat Hutchings and Harry F. Recher (editors). Grumpy Scientists: The Ecological Conscience of a Nation. Mosman, N.S.W.: Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, 2013. Find in the Library

SEED, “Water is Life” film about fracking in Australia on Indigenous land, 2018 https://vimeo.com/261023308 – produced by SEED: Australia’s first Indigenous youth climate network https://www.seedmob.org.au/

Museums and Climate Change

Curating Tomorrow Museums and the Sustainable Development Goals
An easy-to-follow guide for museums wanting to join the UN’s global initiative to reach targets of social and environmental wellbeing and justice by 2030.

Newell, Jennifer, Libby Robin and Kirsten Wehner (editors). Curating the Future: Museums, Communities and Climate Change. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon and New York, N.Y.: Routledge Environmental Humanities, 2016. Find in the Library

Cultural dynamics of Climate Change

Birch, Tony, Climate Change: Recognition and Caring for Country (online version), Sydney Review of Books

Birch, Tony. ‘It’s Been, It’s Here: Tony Birch on Climate Change’s Past and Present Wheeler Centre, 2015.

Crook, Tony and Peter Rudiak-Gould (editors). Pacific Climate Cultures: Living Climate Change in Oceania. Warsaw/Berlin: De Gruyter, 2018. Find in the Library

Cumpston, Zena, ‘To address the ecological crisis, Aboriginal peoples must be restored as custodians of Country’, The Conversation, 31 January 2020.

De Santolo, Jason, ‘Speaking out: Warburdar Bununu: Water Shield’, ABC Radio, 15 September 2019.

de Santolo, Jason (dir.), Warburdar Bununu/Water Shield (2019)
Explores water contamination from mining in his homelands and Borroloola, Northern Territory; so the water is unfit to drink, fish, or swim in.

Artist Sebastiao Salgado and his book/exhibition 'Workers'

Sebastiao Salgado’s workers is an exceptional photography series and book thanks to its detail in men at work in the lowest levels and harshest conditions. His work shows solidarity with the world’s most poor societies. He seeks to recognize and appreciate the isolated peasants and refugees who represent a large portion of humankind. Salgado focuses on oppressed workers of South America comprising men and women who are overworked and underpaid. The book is a journey into activities that define the real labor force responsible for changing the world with major constructions. It also depicts the transformation from stone-age to the present industrialized levels.

Vanda Shiva - podcast

Vandana Shiva is an internationally renowned voice for sustainable development and social justice. She’s a physicist, scholar, social activist, and feminist. She is Director of the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Natural Resource Policy in New Delhi. She’s the recipient of the Sydney Peace Prize and of the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel Prize. She is the author of many books, including Water Wars, Earth Democracy, Soil Not Oil and Making Peace with the Earth. She is the editor of the book Seed Sovereignty, Food Security.

As an ancient Egyptian enthusiast, here are one or two of my top picks to hopefully energise your brain, pique your curiosity and transport you back to an age of exotic landscapes, divine interactions and…cats.

The Egyptian Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends, Garry J. Shaw (2015)
This is a nifty little book that’s brilliantly written and suitable for anyone interested in ancient Egypt thanks to its easy-to-follow and insightful narrative married with some artistic storytelling and imagery.

Horrible Histories: Awful Egyptians, Terry Deary
If you find it difficult to get your kids interested in “boring” ancient history then I recommend giving them this book to ignite their imagination and, most importantly, appeal to their love of all things disgusting and gross.

The History of Egypt – podcasts
With a wide range of podcasts to choose from, listeners can navigate their way across ancient Egypt, either chronologically or through mini episodes covering off different subjects from notable figures and marvellous discoveries through to ancient myths and the link between alcohol and economics with Ancient History scholar, Dominic Perry.

‘Immortal Egypt’ with Joann Fletcher (4 episodes) Timeline – World History Documentaries
British Egyptologist, Dr Joann Fletcher is a much-loved scholar, TV personality and author thanks to her down-to-earth presence interwoven with an incredible knowledge of ancient Egyptian history, so if you can find the series on YouTube then I suggest you sit back, relax and enjoy the ride with one of the best tour guides there is.

The Cat in Ancient Egypt, Jaromir Malek (1993) British Museum Press
There is something quite mystical about cats – like dogs, they seem to have always been travelling by our side (or strutting with tail pointed high in the air two steps in front of us), so this book is for any curious cat lover wishing to travel back in time to when cats were not only kept as pets, but also worshipped as gods and often treated with more respect than some people. Nothing changes.

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