Category Archives: Non Fiction

The Trauma Cleaner

Content warning: gender identity, trauma, suicide, neglect, abuse, mental illness

The author of this book came to speak at an event in Canberra earlier this year, and although I unfortunately couldn’t make it – I did manage to meet the author later on in the evening. Having heard the premise of this book, I knew it was one I was going to have to read. Then I had the absolute pleasure of seeing her speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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“The Trauma Cleaner” by Sarah Krasnostein is a biography of transgender Melbourne woman Sandra Pankhurst. A trauma cleaner whose business is in cleaning up humanity’s worst messes from suicides to hoarding situations, Krasnostein’s book explores how Sandra went from a neglected little boy to a successful and resilient woman. Interspersed throughout Sandra’s story are the stories of her clients: sad and lonely people who are being suffocated by their traumas.

Krasnostein writes with a piercing depth that is difficult to encapsulate. She applies an academic rigour to the story, but also manages to reach multiple layers of humanity both in sharing Sandra’s story as well as the story of her clients.  This story is so thoroughly researched yet so honest about where the limits of verifiable fact lie. Sandra is a fascinating person and Krasnostein explores each of her many lives with an exacting sensitivity that demands empathy from the reader. Krasnostein maintains her sense of candour when describing Sandra’s sad upbringing, exiled to the shed by her neglectful and occasionally violent family; her brief stint as a father and husband; the shocking grief of losing her girlfriend; her years working as a sex worker; her years as the wife of a businessman; and, finally, her life as a successful businesswoman.

Having worked in the mental health sector, I thought that Krasnostein did an excellent job navigating the stories of Sandra’s clients. Hoarding is a particularly insidious mental health issue and although it is actually relatively common, it can be difficult for others to relate to. I think one of my favourite parts of the book was when Krasnostein captured Sandra’s finesse and compassion in speaking to these people and asking them to help her help them.

I think the only thing that felt a little jarring was that on a few occasions, Krasnostein goes to some lengths defend Sandra and her choices. However, I think that Sandra’s story really speaks for itself. Sandra’s kindness radiates off the page and the occasions where she made mistakes just make her feel even more relatable.

Anyway, there is absolutely no question why this book won two prizes at the Victorian Premier’s literary awards. It is excellently written and excellently researched, and it tells the story of someone whose story would otherwise never have been told.

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The Anti-Cool Girl

Content warning: mental illness, addiction, suicide ideation. 

My experience of this book was a bit different to my usual reviews because I didn’t read it, I didn’t listen to it as an audiobook per se, but I listened to it as a podcast called “Mum Says My Memoir is a Lie“.

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“The Anti-Cool Girl” by Rosie Waterland is deeply personal memoir about Waterland’s experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family plagued by mental illness, addiction and poverty. Waterland chronicles her sometimes hilarious and sometimes deeply painful memories from birth up until just before publication. Although Waterland’s mother Lisa’s alcoholism had prevented her from reading the book when it first came out, Lisa has since sobered up and is ready to challenge Waterland on some of the things depicted in the book. On the podcast, each episode begins with Waterland narrating a chapter from the book and then Waterland and her mother Lisa spend the rest of the episode discussing the events of the chapter, especially around whether Waterland’s recollections are correct.

I think it’s difficult to separate out the book from the podcast because so much of podcast is the book, so this is going to be a kind of combined review. Waterland is a very funny writer, and has a exaggerated, self-depreciating sense of humour that balances out the more serious parts of the book. Waterland is also unflinchingly honest about her feelings and experiences, sometimes in quite shocking (and refreshing) detail. This book is overall an incredibly telling insight into Australia’s care and protection system, the public housing system and the mental health system. Rosie also shares her personal experiences with depression, suicide attempts, bullying and weight gain and then her remarkable success in her writing.

When I first started listening to this podcast, hearing Waterland read a chapter of her book, my initial judgment was that her mother Lisa was a terrible mother whose alcoholism traumatised her children. I think that if I had read the book by itself, that would have remained my judgment the entire way through. However, having Lisa participating in the podcast and responding to each chapter did lead me to think that Waterland was perhaps not always the most reliable narrator, especially in the chapters about her younger years. It also gave me a lot more empathy for Lisa and a better appreciation of her own struggles. However, where the facts aren’t completely clear or when some of the subject-matter gets a bit dark, you can count on Waterland to bring the mood back up with a joke or an embarrassing story about herself, even if it’s a bit embellished.

This is a powerful, hilarious and insightful book that is given a whole new layer of depth through this unconventional storytelling platform. I think the book is good, but the podcast is excellent and it is a very rare opportunity to listen to frank conversations between an author and her subject-matter: her mum.

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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Non Fiction

Joe Cinque’s Consolation

Content warning: death, mental illness, murder

I’ve been listening to the podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3” which is hosted by Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb for a while now, and they are both enormous fans of Helen Garner. I have actually never read anything by Helen Garner before, and so I was inspired to try one of her books. I wasn’t quite sure where to start, but there was one story (as someone who lives in Canberra and went to the Australian National University) that I have always wanted to know more about.

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“Joe Cinque’s Consolation” by Helen Garner is a non-fiction book about the killing of engineer Joe Cinque by his girlfriend Anu Singh with a lethal injection of heroin in Canberra in 1997, and the subsequent trials in the ACT Supreme Court. Although not present for the aborted joint trial by jury, writer Helen Garner attended the trials of Anu Singh and her friend Madhavi Rao and interviewed friends and family of the accused as well as Joe Singh to try to understand why this death happened.

This was a really difficult book to read. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the surroundings to me – parts of Canberra, the ACT Supreme Court, even the street where Singh and Cinque lived. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the mental health system to me. Maybe this book just felt a bit too close to home.

Also, maybe it was Garner’s writing style. She had a compelling but really terse tone that seemed quite at odds with her descriptions of her own emotional reactions to the events around her. I read the book and didn’t feel like I found much empathy or even information but instead found a lot of judgment. There was something about this book that reminded me of a Louis Theroux documentary I saw once. Unable to get an interview with Michael Jackson, Louis Theroux instead spends his time interviewing everyone he can who is as close as possible to the pop star, trying to find out the real story. I felt like Helen Garner in this book was a smarter version of Louis Theroux. She tried to get to the heart of the story, but in the end, without being able to speak to Anu Singh directly (which was hardly Garner’s fault) the book felt unfinished somehow. I also felt like despite trying to instead shift the focus on Joe Cinque, and having access to his family, the picture of Joe Cinque was incomplete as well.

There were two other things that got under my skin as well as made me think. The first was that despite all the focus on Anu Singh and her actions, you simply cannot tell this story without shining a spotlight on the inaction of the people closest to her. I think this was a source of tension in the story because although the temptation is to think of Anu Singh as some demonic succubus, the reality is that she did what she did because the people around her didn’t stop her. It was a completely preventable crime, yet nobody prevented it – despite Singh’s clearly deteriorating mental state. I felt like this was a concept that Garner herself struggled with, because I felt like Garner’s gut reaction was to dislike Anu Singh.

This leads me to the second point – Anu Singh through a feminist lens. I think Anu Singh herself was problematic because although everyone who knew her was attracted (or repelled by) her beauty, histrionics, fragility and body image obsession – apparent paragons of femininity – she then rejected that femininity by becoming a criminal of the worst kind. Suddenly she wasn’t a thin, pretty and melodramatic young woman anymore. She was a sinister she-devil who used sex to commit an abhorrent crime. I think perhaps Garner struggled to find an objective medium when it came to Singh’s character, especially one that encompassed mental illness, and particularly a personality disorder. Garner focuses a lot on femininity and female relationships in this book, but despite being drawn to the women she meets while researching this book, she never quite seems to be comfortable in that kind of discourse or those kinds of relationships. The lingering of the book over what Singh and Rao are wearing, how they were sitting, how they were reacting during the trial irked me. Perhaps these superficial observations would have been less prominent if the book had been written today. Perhaps today there would have been more of a focus on Singh’s deteriorating mental health and the inability of society to prevent her from hurting herself and others.

The entire time I was reading this book, I kept misremembering the title as “Joe Cinque’s Desolation”. I was looking for the consolation, as I think Helen Garner was as well, and I honestly don’t think in the end either of us found it. I think this is a powerful, insightful and well-researched book (given the circumstances) but I don’t think that it contained any revelations larger than the fact that Australia’s mental health system needs some significant improvement and people need to take threats their friends make seriously.

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On Doubt

About a year ago, my friend suggested that I check out a podcast called “Chat 10 Looks 3“. It’s a conversational show with media heavyweights and real life BFFs Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales and I quickly became hooked. The fanbase of the show, who call themselves Chatters, have swelled in numbers and Crabb and Sales have started doing special live events around the country. My friend wangled me a ticket to one such event in Sydney and we drove up from Canberra to see the pair speak a few weeks ago. Both Sales and Crabb are published authors, and they had a number of books for sale (theirs and books by their own favourite authors) after the show. I bought one book by Sales, and one by Crabb, then lined up to get mine signed. Sales’ book is very small and very short, so it didn’t take long for me at all to get to reading it.

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Disclaimer: I would never actually throw a book in the bin (I would either donate it or, at the very least, recycle it). Leigh Sales, however, has no sentimentality or qualms about getting rid of books once read and Annabel Crabb has taken to inscribing gift books to Sales with her personal address and mobile number just to make sure she doesn’t ditch them!

“On Doubt” by Leigh Sales is a short non-fiction personal essay about Sales’ observations on truth in politics and media as an Australian journalist. Originally published in 2009, this 2017 reprint includes a postscript about changes in media and politics in the past 8 years.

It is a quick read, and this is going to be a quick review because really there’s no excuse not to read this book yourself. It cost me $12.99 and you can buy the eBook version even cheaper. Sales investigates politicians who frequently make decisions based on gut feelings and instincts and the stigma and perception of weakness that is associated with those who doubt or are uncertain. For example, Victorian Premiere Daniel Andrews’ public admission that he changed his opinion about euthanasia was headline news because it is so unusual.

Opinions are increasingly being substituted for facts and the although the rise of the internet was expected to mean more information, it has in fact meant more platforms for people to voice mere opinions without being challenged. This book champions the courage it takes to tell the truth and the courage it takes for politicians and media magnates to admit when they are wrong, have made mistakes or have changed their mind. Sales has a clean, honest and matter-of-fact style of writing and makes her points both eloquently and succinctly.

In a world poisoned by fake news, alternative facts and baseless mantras like “everyone is entitled to their own opinion”, this book is the antidote we all desperately need right now.

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A Smile in One Eye, a Tear in the Other

I received a copy of this book from the author.

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“A Smile in One Eye, a Tear in the Other” by Ralph Webster is a biography/autobiography about his father Jerry Webster, originally named Gerhard Wobser. The book is divided into two parts: Jerry’s recollections about the rise of Nazis during his childhood in what was then East Prussia, and his son Ralph’s observations about Jerry at the end of his life. Jerry was born in what is now Poland in 1922 to a reasonably well-to-do family. He had three much older sisters and was the treasured son of aging parents who at times felt isolated from his siblings due to the age difference. As anti-Jewish sentiment grows in the region, the Wobsers, who are all baptised Lutherans, find themselves targeted for a heritage mostly forgotten.

This book was written after Webster’s travels through Europe, witnessing first-hand the “refugee crisis“. Although I have been reading quite a few stories about the children of Holocaust survivors this year, one story that I did not know much about was the story of those who tried to leave early. Although in the early days of Nazi Germany, many Jews were permitted and even encouraged to leave, lots of countries (including Australia) were reluctant to take them. With dwindling resources due to increasingly discriminatory laws, the Wobser family had to make do and send Jerry unaccompanied to England and eventually flee to China. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the reluctance of countries to take on refugees that took place then and is taking place now.

This story is written clearly with great detail, and I think captures the how slowly rights can be eroded perfectly. I liked the balance of past and present, and I think that Ralph’s own insights about his father worked well to provide a good sense of ending to a long life that had begun just before World War II. The only thing that is a bit difficult with this book is some of the earlier chapters about Jerry’s upbringing are a little repetitive, and he explains his family’s situation and structure several times over. While this helps to reiterate their situation in the beginning, it did slow the progress of the story at times.

A well-researched and well-considered book, this story is very relevant to our society today and shows that lessons can and should always be learnt from the past.

 

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H is for Hawk

I bought a copy of this book a few years ago as a gift for my partner while I was on holidays in England. The cover is really striking, and being about falconry I thought my partner would really enjoy it. After he read it, I asked him what he thought. He agreed it was partly about falconry, but it seemed to also have a lot to do with the author’s own mental state. He thought maybe I might get a bit more out of it, but it sat on my bookshelf for absolute ages before I got a chance to get around to it.

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“H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald is a non-fiction book about falconry. In her grief after her father’s sudden death, Macdonald rekindles an old hobby and buys herself a young goshawk. Part memoir, part biography, Macdonald juxtaposes her own experiences training a goshawk against those of English author T H White, whose own attempts over 60 years earlier were ultimately disastrous.

Macdonald is a wonderful nature writer who excels in finding beauty in the minutiae of the English countryside. Her depiction of the raw vigour of a bird of prey on the hunt throws Macdonald’s sorrow in stark relief. Macdonald marries the intensely personal with crisp academia and the result is an incredibly rich book.

One thing I found particularly interesting was the history of falconry. Macdonald explains that for centuries, the study of training birds of prey has relied completely on building trust and positive reinforcement. It’s amazing to me that this kind of thinking has only crossed over to the training of other animals such as dogs and horses in the past few decades. People still talk about “breaking” horses. This year I enrolled my dog into (desperately needed) obedience classes, and my local dog club is trialing new techniques with a very heavy focus on positive reinforcement. I really enjoyed drawing parallels between Macdonald’s work with her hawk and my work with my dog. The other thing I found really interesting is Macdonald’s quiet subversion as a female austringer in what was typically very much a man’s sport.

I could go on, but this is a fascinating, challenging and deeply personal read and I walked away from this book much more knowledgeable about goshawks, English literature and mental health.

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Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

Content warning: sexual assault. 

If you follow this blog with any kind of regularity, you may have noticed that it’s been a little quiet on here lately. The reason for that is because I have been in America for five weeks! For that five weeks I set myself a challenge: to spend five weeks reading only American literature. I asked around for recommendations, but I had a clear idea of some books that I was going to read and this one was on top of the list. This wasn’t the first Roxane Gay book I had planned to read, but after the controversy earlier this year, I knew that it had to be. I cracked it out on my eReader as soon as the plane took off.

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“Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body” by Roxane Gay is a memoir of her life primarily about her experiences being a woman of size. After being gang raped as a teenager, Gay turned to food not only as a comfort but as a means to make herself bigger and therefore more invulnerable. However, the more weight she gained, the more her body was scrutinised, criticised, dehumanised and even ridiculed by those around her; including those who loved her the most.

This book starts off very strong. Gay has a clear, unequivocal tone in her writing that demands to be listened to. The book oscillates between her experiences of sexual assault and being subject to her parents’ efforts to control her weight gain as a child, and her experiences moving through the world as an adult black woman of size. Gay’s book is divided into 6 parts. The first 3 parts chronicle her life from child to adult with a focus on the lack of autonomy she had over her own body. I think these are the strongest because they have such a clear narrative structure and move chronologically through Gay’s trauma, her difficult years as a young adult and eventually finding her voice through writing. The remaining chapters are more general commentary on broader social issues, such as the depiction of size in media, and Gay’s own experiences with doctors, sexuality and race. I think however the second half of the book might have benefited from a more rigorous structure. It does get a little meandering and I think the later chapters, while powerful individually, could have been linked more strongly thematically.

Nevertheless, Gay’s observations are ones that would resonate with most readers. In a time when our media is saturated with phrases such as “obesity epidemic”, fatphobia is a real thing and I think it’s critically important to remember that regardless of size or shape, people are still people and still deserve respect and compassion.

 

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