Book reviews: Trick Mirror and Toxic

Two reviews for the price of one! Well, I guess they’re all free, so that argument probably doesn’t hold much water. Anyway, I recently powered through two books of nonfiction about important issues, so it made sense to whack ’em both in here.

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
My rating: four stars

I picked this one up due to a very strong recommendation from a mate, and though it’s not my usual fare, I’m very glad I did. Trick Mirror is a collection of essays by the outrageously talented New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, who manages to shoehorn both theoretical rigour and author-embarrassing personal detail into the prose without making it seem either too knowing, too dry, or too cringe.

With relation to that nexus between essay, memoir and polemic, this is an exceedingly difficult thing to get right. Many have tried and borked the balance, but not Tolentino: though I am undoubtedly not the target audience for this work, I found it compelling.

The book offers a feminist, critical take on the narratives we’re forced to play out thanks to this eternally-online era. The author is a child of the Internet, and the damaging prism of that network casts a weird light over her self-image, as it has for everyone who’s ever felt bummed out by a friend’s Instagram, even though you know their life is no more glamorous than yours. It engages with weighty topics – religion, sex, racism, assault, reality TV – in a tone that is both moreish and accomplished. Though I’m not particularly up on a lot of theoretical reading, the stuff that’s necessary for Tolentino’s point-making is explained easily, in a way that encourages consideration instead of putting another brick in the academic barrier.

I really enjoyed the honesty the author puts into her work. I envy her turn of phrase and the way portraiture seems to be rendered so easily. And I’m glad I was able to inhale Trick Mirror: it’s the sort of writing that focuses on very small things in order to illuminate much larger issues, and does so in a way that makes you want to change things.

Really, really good.

Toxic: The Rotting Underbelly of the Tasmanian Salmon Industry by Richard Flanagan
My rating: three stars

Something I hadn’t known about Richard Flanagan – you know, the guy who directed the film version of one of his books, and has won assorted literary prizes (including the Man Booker) is that he’s also a pretty good nonfiction writer. Previously, I’d only known him as the kind of shack-dwelling variant of the Aussie Writer Bloke, kind of like a Tim Winton but with less surfing and more pullovers, but this seems to be selling him short. He’s long been a critic of the selling-out of Tasmania, initially by the woodchipping industry, and now by the shadowy fish-farming business.

There’s an excellent excerpt from the book available to read here. I urge you to check it out, particularly if you harbour any illusions about the health or environmental status of fish farmed in Tasmania. It’s pretty revolting stuff: fish grown in an environment where they wouldn’t naturally survive, requiring enormous amounts of food (which explodes in transit unless treated with horrific shit), medication and plastic. It’s a story of encroaching algae, factory ships and communities ground down by political powers in thrall to certain companies. It’s pretty gross, and honestly, you won’t want to eat Tassie salmon for quite a while afterwards.

So why only three stars? I guess because this felt a bit like a letter to the editor that got out of hand. Also, because it felt a lot like some of the NIMBY arguments I’ve read about housing developments. I guess this is largely because the place where Flanagan does his writing has come under siege from the fish-farming industry: it’s impossible for him to not take the incursion of fish shit and ecological death personally as he is a Bruny Island resident, at least for a bunch of the year. But there is a note of the Facebook Local Group Whinge behind the writing, which I suspect is a diminution of the anger the author’s going for.

I absolutely agree that all the points made in the book are compelling, and that it’s a fucking horror show, and that all of the environmental fuckery that’s gone on in the name of pink proteins should be redressed. I agree with him and find it scandalous and an indictment against the political figures who’ve allowed it to happen, and the companies who feel entitled to the world. His arguments about the future (or lack) of the industry are comprehensive, and the reasons things should change are manifold. But I can’t help but shake the feeling – and possibly this is a result of listening to the work as an audiobook – that swimming through the text is the sound of an aggrieved boomer.

(I know that’s petty, and I know the problem is much bigger than that. But I contain multitudes, I guess.)

Don’t worry, the usual stupidity will crank up again soon. Well, not when I’m reviewing the WWI book, but almost certainly when I get around to finishing and reviewing the book about yogic flying and pole shifts and other tinfoil-adjacent stuff.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph.

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