Category Archives: Non Fiction

Fucking Good Manners

Modern guide to etiquette

Content warning: strong language

Some years ago I reviewed a delightful book on the use of apostrophes. I gave it a very positive review, because it was an enjoyable book on the nuance and inconsistency of English grammar – in particular, the apostrophe. So, some years later, I was equally delighted to see that I was listed, for what I believe to be the first time, in the acknowledgements of the same author’s newest book. Of course I had to get a copy.

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A note from my neighbour Marion who has exemplary manners

“Fucking Good Manners” by Simon Griffin is a guidebook detailing what to do (or, more often, what not to do) in public situations. Griffin covers a range of areas from public transport to the workplace to the all-important British art of queuing and, in prose littered with expletives, presents some extremely strong opinions on what is and is not good manners. Each chapter begins with a perfectly curated classic quote to set the mood.

There are a lot of things that I agree with in this book. Apart from the amusing juxtaposition between Griffin’s own rude language and the book’s topic, Griffin’s overarching point is that we have to exist in this world with lots of other people, and having good manners makes life easier and more pleasant for everyone. Some of his declarations, such as not interrupting, apologising when you’ve made a mistake and saying thank you are things that I fervently wish people would do more often. I think that the chapter on driving will really grind some gears (sorry) because, as Griffin says, everyone likes to think they are good drivers. I really enjoyed some of the anecdotes and examples of people who have behaved extremely poorly in certain situations where manners might have prevented things from escalating to newspaper headlines. I also appreciated the chapter on manners and the environment, and how caring for the environment is really exercising good manners for people who have yet to come.

However, there were a couple of things I didn’t quite agree with. I’ve always found the notion that a country such as the UK that drives on the left but insists people stand on the right on escalators is  a bit inconsistent. Choose a side, sure, but choose the same side as the road and sidewalk conventions of your country (left, obviously, in Australia). I also wasn’t too crash hot on the part about bringing “stinky” food into the office because I think that what is considered smelly food is a question of cultural relativism and judging people based on the food they bring into work, especially if that food is from a culture not your own, could be discriminatory.

This is a great little book that makes etiquette amusing and accessible and would be a fun and enjoyable gift – even if it’s just to yourself.

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How to be a Medieval Woman

Believed by some to be the first autobiography

Content warning: mental health, religion

This book was posted to me by an old friend who has a passion for classic literature in the Western canon. Now, because I was trying to get through my reading goal for 2019, and it was a reasonably short book, I brought it down with a few others over Christmas (yes, I am that far behind in my reviews). Now, a relatively recent by great tradition at my family’s Christmas is Dirty Santa. Basically, everyone wraps a cheap gift, you draw numbers from a hat, and in numerical order choose either to unwrap a gift or steal someone else’s unwrapped gift. Anyway, I had been very poorly prepared, so I decided I would wrap a book. Unfortunately, after a bit of confusion at home, someone kindly wrapped the book I hadn’t finished reading yet, and I had to quickly duck home and make the switch. When I returned, we played the game, and Grandma, who knew that I had been reluctant to wrap a book, had a concocted a devious ploy to make sure she chose it so she could give it to me afterwards. However, she didn’t realise that I had swapped books, so it was pretty hilarious when she unwrapped this one. Anyway, this review is dedicated to you, Grandma, and thank you for taking the photos.

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“How to be a Medieval Woman” or “The Book of Margery Kempe” by Margery Kempe is an autobiography believed to have been dictated to two separate scribes in the 1400s as Kempe was herself illiterate. The book describes Kempe’s life, and begins with her experiencing a significant crisis following the birth of her first child where she experiences depression and visions of demons and Jesus Christ. When she recovers, she starts some businesses and when they don’t succeed, grapples with sexual temptation and her desire to be a devout Christian. As the years go by, Margery grows more and more religious and continues to see visions. After convincing her husband to agree to celibacy, she undertakes a pilgrimage to Jerusalem where she visits sites of spiritual and historical significance.

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This is a strange story that has two primary interpretations: one is that Margery is a mystic, a woman who receives messages from god, and the other is that Margery had some type of mental illness. Now although I am certainly not a psychologist, but Margery appears to experience a mental health episode after she gives birth the first time, and throughout the book refers to voices and visions which could well be hallucinations. Margery also appears to have difficulty maintaining relationships, observing that people around her tend to grow to dislike her, and to have difficulty regulating her emotions, though she sees her tears as a divine sign. Regardless of the interpretation, or the general likeability of Margery, it was nevertheless very impressive that she took herself on a pilgrimage to see a part of the world that intrigued her given the times. Maybe there is a third interpretation: that she was sick of being a wife and mother and wanted to go explore the world on her own terms.

I have to say, despite it being such an unusual story, it wasn’t a particularly easy one to read. It is told in the third person, and Margery is herself referred to as “the creature”. I think the tension in reading the book – whether Margery’s experiences are legitimate religious experiences or symptoms of a mental illness – is mirrored in Margery’s own experiences. Everywhere she goes, people doubt the legitimacy of her visions and experiences in the same way the reader does. In fact, a lot of the story is taken up with Margery crying, being abandoned by companions, annoying the locals and being asked to leave or threatened with legal action. Ultimately Margery speaks convincingly enough about her faith and she is allowed to move on.

Not necessarily gripping read, and perplexing and frustrating at many points, but certainly an insightful snapshot into the life of a medieval woman.

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Beauty (Guest Review)

Guest review of memoir about eating disorder

If you spend any time on Twitter, or on the news, you might have come across the #AuthorsforFireys campaign where authors in Australia and around the world ran mini-auctions of great prizes to raise money for the areas affected by bush fires this summer. I offered two auction items, and one lot was the first ever guest post on this blog. The winner was Sydney writer and reviewer Julia Clark who generously donated to the NSW Rural Fire Service, and this is her review. 

Content warning: eating disorders, sexual assault

After the success of her first book “Eggshell Skull“, which saw Bri Lee take on the Queensland justice system for its treatment of sexual assault survivors while she also pursued her own justice, the author returns with another traumatic subject in “Beauty”. Lee takes the opportunity in this extended personal essay to explore her experience of disordered eating, especially as it materialised during promotion for “Eggshell Skull” in 2018. Lee’s representation of her illness is honest, laying her obsessive and circular thought patterns out on the page, but her story never strays into grotesquery in her refusal to make her illness a spectacle.

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Photo by Julia Clark

This second release again demonstrates Lee’s strong and balanced approach to memoir and trauma writing particularly in her invocation of Aurelias and rumination on the concept of “self-control”. As an intelligent and highly educated woman, Lee must navigate the age-old dichotomy of mind and body as made paradoxically difficult by society’s patriarchal expectations of what a woman “should” be. For Lee, the push and pull of demands to be pretty but not too pretty and smart but not too smart manifested in a desire to transcend her body entirely, to shed her womanly form in order to free herself. When explaining the impulse behind her disordered eating Lee says, “I wanted to be full without food, to transcend it.” Then later, when embarrassed by her appearance, “It transported me back to the newsagent’s and the longing for invisibility—or, more accurately, really, for people to see past my body.” The need to live as and nourish this body, which is the marker of a “failure” to meet societal expectations, remains as the unreconcilable question on which hinges Lee’s self-loathing in “Beauty”.

Second Picture

Photo by Julia Clark

While Lee’s writing shines in its candidness and vulnerability, the book falls down in its attempt to extrapolate and speak to women’s experience of beauty more generally. Two key touchstones of the essay remain largely uninterrogated: 1. Repeatedly beauty is equated with thinness without examination and with little mention of the alternates of ugliness and fatness. 2. Lee easily slips between “I” and “we” in her analysis of beauty standards but does no work to acknowledge the many different ways in which “we” (i.e. women) experience the world and the standards impressed upon us (i.e. through differences in race, gender, age, ability, size, etc). When lamenting how the beauty industry sells images of happiness as much as skincare, Lee writes, “When all our images of happiness and success are also skinny, young, and hairless, it becomes a never-fulfilling prophecy.” Never mind the fact that these images are also almost always white, able-bodied, cisgender, without any kind of facial difference, or without any of the other visual markers of deviance from the beauty standard that Lee leaves unnamed. The assumption held throughout “Beauty” is that the reader is approaching the world of beauty from the same place as Lee, which immediately erases the possibility of other experiences or interpretations outside of Lee’s privileged social position.

With all of that said, “Beauty” is not completely insubstantial as Lee provides a reference and recommended reading list with titles from writers with long careers of interrogating beauty from mainstream and marginalised positions. In this way, Beauty operates as a starting point, a door cracked open for anyone who is searching for the vocabulary to discuss their experience of feeling inferior in the face of the monolith Western beauty industry.

Julia Clark is a PhD student, poet, and theatre reviewer in Sydney. She’s interested in the intersection of aesthetics, objects, and bodies. If she’s not reading or writing, she’s at the theatre. You can read more of her work at juliaclarkwrites.com.

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Saga Land

Co-authored non-fiction novel about Icelandic cultural identity

I got this beautiful book from last year’s Jólabókaflóð and I have been waiting for the perfect time to read it. When is a better time than visiting Iceland? The cover is stunning with silver detailing on a turquoise cover, and despite the fact that it was pretty heavy, I absolutely did not regret lugging it with me around Scandinavia so I could enjoy it on location.

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Photo taken at the Blue Lagoon

“Saga Land” by Richard Fidler and Kári Gíslason is a non-fiction book that combines a number of forms of storytelling: retellings of some of the great Icelandic sagas, the history of one of Iceland’s most revered authors, the history of Iceland generally, Gíslason’s own experience growing up in Iceland and Fidler and Gíslason’s journey together through the indescribable landscapes of this starkly beautiful country.

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If ever there was a book to read while travelling through Iceland, this is it. I had such a fantastic time wandering the streets of Reykjavik, drinking coffee and beer in cafes and seeing the incredible scenery and history for myself. I was thrilled when I read about the Laundromat Cafe which I stopped in myself.

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We actually had an incredible tour guide doing the Golden Circle tour, a former physics teacher who had a deep wealth of knowledge about the geological features of the landscape. However, this book really augmented my experience by teaching me much more about the history and culture of this country, especially the literary history. The stop at Þingvellir National Park was particularly incredible because if I had just read the book, I don’t think I could have appreciated how overwhelming the place in between two tectonic plates is in person, and had I just visited without the book, I don’t think I would have appreciated the cultural significance of the former home of the world’s oldest surviving parliament.

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I absolutely loved Gíslason’s recollections of Reykjavik as a young boy, and his observations about how it had changed over the years. Reading about Gíslason’s interactions with Icelandic people constantly asking him when he is coming back to live were utterly heartwarming. I can completely understand how being born in Iceland would tie you there forever.

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I can see why this book was co-authored. Fidler brings a sharpness, a discerning perspective to the book that critically examines Iceland’s history through objective eyes. However, Gíslason is such a beautiful writer in his own right, I would have been satisfied with a book that was just his story and his Iceland alone. I think the nature of the book means that there is a lot of time spent peeking behind the curtain, and while I can see the value in Fidler and Gíslason’s observations of each other, I think there were times where I wished the magic had been preserved a little more.

A fantastic book that is perfectly suited to anyone visiting Iceland. I learned so much reading this book, and it added such a layer of cultural understanding during my trip.

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The Water Will Come

Non-fiction book about the impact of ocean levels rising

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Harry Hartog.

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“The Water Will Come: Rising Seas, Sinking Cities and the Remaking of the Civilized World” by Jeff Goodell is a non-fiction book about various coastal cities and towns and the impact he predicts rising sea levels will have. Goodell has a particular interest in property, and a lot of his research, analysis and interviews centre on wealthy investors, politicians and property-owners. Goodell visits a number of places around the world to explore how rising sea levels are already impacting the enormous number of people who live on the coast.

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When I read the opening chapter of this book, I thought it was a dystopian novel about a world underwater. However, Goodell only writes the first chapter about that, and the rest of the book is a non-fiction account of high profile interviews primarily about housing. Unfortunately, as a narrative, this book was not particularly compelling. This book is very America-focused, and Goodell spent two chapters talking about Miami and another talking about Alaska. Yes, he did write a bit about Nigeria and the Marshall Islands but this is primarily a Western-centric book about an issue that will disproportionately affect non-Western countries. Island nations like Indonesia, the Maldives and the many Pacific Island countries were just throwaway lines while the reader was left instead to sympathise with the fact that the insanely lucrative practice of flipping houses in Florida may not always be so lucrative.

I didn’t particularly care for the way that Goodell wrote about people of colour either. He uses colonial and outdated terminology, and refers to the “dying languages of Australian aborigines”, “a nearly extinct Aboriginal language” and the Calusa people as being “wiped out”. Even the title of the book is divisive, indicating that Goodell is only interested in the “civilized world”.

A rather one-dimensional take on a global environmental issue, I really wish it had been a dystopian novel. Perhaps a good companion book for “The Mosquito“?

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The Mosquito

History of the impact of mosquito-borne disease on war

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

“The Mosquito: A human history of our deadliest predator” by Timothy C. Winegard is a non-fiction history of the influence mosquitoes and the diseases that they carry have had on humanity. The book encompasses ancient and modern history, and explores the devastating impact of diseases such as malaria on pivotal historical moments. To make sure you don’t think it’s a book about something else (like I did), this is at heart a military history.

I was really excited to read this book, and I loved the opening. Winegard connects with the reader through the universal experience of being annoyed with a mosquito, and provides a play by play of just exactly how the mosquito’s bite is so irritating. Winegard is certainly very knowledgeable about history, especially military history, and provides a thorough overview of some of the most well-discussed parts of Western history.

Although Winegard’s enthusiasm doesn’t wane as the book progresses, mine certainly did. I was expecting a lot more social and scientific history, and was hoping to read how mosquitoes had shaped our culture and progress. Every time Winegard touched on an area of scientific significance like the decision not to drain the swamps outside Rome until a ridiculously late time and how the mystery of mosquito-borne disease was finally solved, he glossed over the detail. Perhaps it was a question of confidence in the subject-matter, but I really wanted to know how these brilliant scientific minds figured out mosquitoes were the vector for malaria! I reread over that part thinking I’d missed something, but no – it just wasn’t of as much significance to Winegard, who was far more interested in how casualties from disease influenced the outcome of particular wars.

There were also some questionable and likely controversial parts in the book. Probably the most striking was the suggestion that the reason (or at least part of the reason) that African people were sold into slavery was because of genetic blood disorders like sickle cell disease made them more robust against malaria and therefore better workers in the Americas. I think that this would likely not stand up to academic scrutiny, and seems to minimise the reality of racism, greed and racist greed. Margaret Kwateng puts it succinctly in her 2014 paper on race and sickle cell disease: “studies today that try and attribute disparities between the races to genetic differences may be similarly searching for a way to explain inequity in a way that does not selfimplicate”.

A well-written book with some interesting and some challenging ideas by an author whose interests are fundamentally different to mine.

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The Dark Fantastic

Non-fiction book about black women in fantasy

Content warning: racism

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

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“The Dark Fantastic” by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas is a non-fiction book about the representation of black women in fantasy. Thomas focuses on four examples of popular fantasy books and television series that feature a black female character. Thomas presents her theory of the Dark Other as a lens through which to understand how black women are marginalised, even in magical worlds. Exploring the themes of spectacle, hesitation, violence, haunting and emancipation, Thomas analyses “The Hunger Games”, “The Vampire Diaries”, “Merlin” and “Harry Potter” in depth while making mention of many other examples of afrofuturism and black fantastic stories.

This is a meticulous and thoughtful book that gives characters like Rue, Bonnie Bennett, Gwen and Angelina Johnson the attention and analysis that they often did not receive in their own stories. There were some very compelling arguments in this book, particularly Thomas’ discussion of hesitation and the rationale behind why readers, writers and publishers find black characters so disconcerting – even in fantasy worlds. I thought that the idea of waking dreams and the hypocrisy of how the idea of magic doesn’t break the illusion but an empowered black woman does was particularly piercing. Thomas is very frank about her experiences in fantasy fandom, and this first-hand knowledge and response enriches this structured and well-researched book.

I think the main question I have after reading this is who is the intended audience? Although softened y the autoethnography parts of the book, as well as the appealing subject matter, Thomas nevertheless has a very scholarly writing style that indicates her significant academic experience and qualifications. While I highly doubt anyone could fault her theories, research or conclusions, part of the advantage of writing non-fiction books is to bring complex yet important concepts to a broad audience and I think that some parts of Thomas’ book could be a little too intellectual for the average reader.

A fascinating and academic work about a phenomenon that any pop culture consumer has been exposed to but most probably haven’t even noticed.

 

 

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