Category Archives: Non Fiction

The Porcelain Thief

Family memoir about lost wealth and retracing history

I can’t quite remember where I found this book, but I certainly bought it secondhand. Although I often struggle with memoir as a genre, there is a very niche subset of memoir that blends personal history with actual history like “H is for Hawk” and “The Hare with Amber Eyes“. When I picked this up, I remember being intrigued by the premise. As I draw to the end of 2020 and the Year of the Asian Reading Challenge, I thought it would be a really good time to read this book.

Image is of “The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu, a hardcover edition pictured on a wooden table next to a Chinese style white and blue bowl, a ceramic spoon and a chopstick rest

“The Porcelain Thief” by Huan Hsu is a memoir about American journalist Huan who decides to finally take up his uncle’s offer to work in his Shanghai company. However, Huan’s decision is not fuelled by a desire to carry on the family legacy but rather a desire to trace his family’s history and the stories of his great-great-grandfather’s buried porcelain collection. However, once he arrives in Shanghai, things are not so straightforward. Stymied by his patchy Mandarin, close-lipped relatives, family hierarchies and a culture that, after growing up in America, is indecipherable to him, Hsu will have to take some real risks if he is ever going to find out whether the stories about the buried porcelain are true, and whether or not he has a shot at finding it himself.

This is a complex and challenging book. Through Huan, we see that navigating family history is indistinguishable from navigating family. Despite Hsu’s excellent research skills honed through his career as a journalist, this book is at heart about relationships and identity. Hsu is unflinchingly honest in his writing, especially about himself, the criticism levelled at him by his relatives, and the mistakes he makes in his quest to return to his ancestral home. Some of the most powerful parts in the book were the clashes Hsu has with local Chinese people in which American-born Hsu is certain of his cultural and moral superiority. It was interesting seeing this approach mellow as the book progresses and Hsu realises that if he wants to succeed, he will need to befriend more locals and defer to their cultural expertise. Another powerful part of the book is the rift that forms between Hsu and his very elderly grandmother over her reluctance to discuss what happened after the family fled their home, and the way it mirrors the rift that formed between his grandmother and her own grandfather, the patriarch of the family, so many years earlier. I really enjoyed reading about how his grandmother and her sisters and cousins got an education, and the generally good-natured feuds between his uncles and between himself and his own cousin.

This is a well-researched book and Hsu weaves family history with China’s history. Understandably, among the relatives and old neighbours that Hsu interviews there are significantly differing accounts of the family history, the character of his great-great-grandfather and the stories of the lost porcelain. To try to make sense of the different histories, Hsu traces each relative’s story from the source: his great-great-grandfather. While this structure had logic behind it, it made for difficult reading. It felt like Hsu was rehashing the same experiences over and over from slightly different perspectives, muddling the central narrative which I think should have been his own experience. I completely understand the desire to show off all the research that he did, but I think a book like this needs to be really carefully curated. I was hoping that everything would come together in the end, but the ending itself was a bit disappointing as well.

A fascinating, touching and at time frustrating book that I think could have benefited from a structural reshuffle.

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Seduced into Darkness

Memoir about abuse of power by a psychiatrist

Content warning: sexual abuse, mental health, suicide attempts

I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.

Seduced Into Darkness, Transcending My Psychiatrist's Sexual Abuse by Carrie  Ishee | 9781948749480 | Booktopia

“Seduced into Darkness” by Carrie T. Ishee is a memoir about being sexually abused by a psychiatrist. After becoming depressed following a break up with a boyfriend while at university, normally outgoing and studious Carrie is referred to psychiatrist Dr Anthony Romano for treatment. Soon after she begins seeing him, Dr Romano begins to push the doctor-patient boundaries, asking Carrie questions about her sexuality and inviting her to “sessions” outside the practice. Before long, Dr Romano has distanced Carrie from her otherwise tight-knit family and started a sexual relationship with her with questionable consent. When Carrie finally finds the strength to cut emotional and professional ties with him, she spirals into depression again. She is finally hospitalised after two suicide attempts and it is there, under the care of other doctors, that she is finally able to confront what happened to her and find a way forward.

This is a disturbing story about the imbalance of power between doctor and patient and how that power can be abused. I initially agreed to review this book because the subject matter is of considerable professional interest to me, but it is a very compelling story in its own right. Ishee’s personal, academic and professional experience in mental health make her a very well-rounded storyteller and she sheds light on both the strengths and weaknesses of mental health support. I was really interested in the legal proceedings that arose as a result of Ishee’s experience and the disconnect between civil law outcomes and regulation of the medical profession. Even though Carrie was able to sue Dr Romano for the harm he caused her, he did not receive significant professional sanctions and was able to continue commencing relationships with other vulnerable patients.

Throughout this book, Ishee seeks to find meaning in her experiences and the strength to start a new life following her passions: art and mental health. Ishee is clearly a very spiritual person who, throughout her life, has turned to higher powers for guidance and support. Given this, I completely understand the desire to find a framework or metaphor to encapsulate the trauma she went through. However, from a narrative point of view, I’m not sure that the Greek myth of Persephone added much to Ishee’s story which was already powerful in its own right.

An impactful first-person account of the damage that can be done through inappropriate and abusive relationships with medical practitioners.

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Singapore, very old tree

A collection of photographs and stories about the trees of Singapore

I first came across this project on Tumblr (remember Tumblr?) where I followed this great Singaporean bookshop called BooksActually that sadly this year transitioned to a fully online store. I spent a lot of time in Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore growing up, and this celebration of South-East Asian trees and history really resonated with me. I ordered this beautiful pack that included a book, postcards and a poster back in 2016 but, like many of my books, it sat on my shelf waiting for the right time. After chatting to a friend online recently about banyan trees and thinking about how long it will likely be before I can go back to South-East Asia again, I figured now was the right time to read this book.

This photo was taken at the National Arboretum’s National Bonsai and Penjing Collection, and this particular Bonsai is a fig

“Singapore, very old tree” curated by Zhao Renhui is a collection of stories and photographs about trees in Singapore. The collection is inspired by a postcard dated 1904 and titled “Singapore. (very old tree)” with an enormous tree towering over a small figure. The photographs and accompanying stories highlight the relationship between individual Singaporeans and individual trees, and weave in themes of history, urban planning, environmentalism and horticulture. The contributors are represent a diverse cross-section of genders, race, age and class in Singaporean society united by a love for the trees that have given them shade, fruit, peace and comfort.

This is a beautiful project and book that I am so, so glad that I supported. It features 30 different trees, and the photographs are edited in a way inspired by the techniques used in the original postcard. The introduction to this project was really helpful to provide some political context for this project and Singapore’s own identity as a Garden City. However, this project also includes the real tension between maintaining this arboreal identity and the pressures of development, and the times where protests have saved trees through compromise. Many of the trees featured in this book are banyan trees, a species of fig that is great not only in size but in spiritual significance.

This is a beautiful collaboration and while the first edition of this project is now sold out, you can now order the second edition online. If you are looking for something incredibly soothing and beautiful to take your time over, I cannot recommend this project enough.

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The Good Girl of Chinatown

Memoir about burlesque dancing in Shanghai

Content warning: racism, drug use, family violence

Three years ago I went to an event at Muse Bookstore where I saw this author speak about her new memoir. Even though it was a great talk and I was interested enough to buy a copy of the book for the author to sign, for one reason or another, this book has waited very patiently on my bookshelf since then for its turn. This year I have been making a bit more of an effort to get through my to-read shelves, and it was high time I read this book.

“The Good Girl of Chinatown” by Jenevieve Chang is a memoir about her experiences as a burlesque dancer in Shanghai, China in the late 2000s. After moving to the UK from Sydney to study dance, Jenevieve marries a man of Nigerian heritage called Femi. Although she envies his close-knit family, living with three generations under the one roof eventually becomes too much, and the couple jump at a job opportunity for Femi as a yoga teacher in Shanghai. Despite her family being from China, Jenevieve struggles to find a place in the performing arts scene in a city looking for Western faces. She mixes instead with an eclectic mix of “expats“. Her marriage slowly unravelling, when an opportunity comes up to star as a showgirl in a vaudeville, Jenevieve jumps at the chance. Cecil’s dreams of a club called Chinatown are intoxicating, and it’s easy to overlook some of the issues with payment, venues and transparency in the beginning. However, when things begin to really fall apart, Jenevieve is forced to face up to who she is beneath the costumes and performance and the traumas that ripple through generations of her family.

As I have mentioned many times on this blog, memoir is a genre that I often struggle with. However, this was an excellent memoir. Chang is a natural storyteller blending hard truths and entertainment on every page. The structure of this book was very effective using three key perspectives: Chang in the first person, Jenevieve as a child in the third person and fictionalised accounts of family history. I think it is a really courageous thing to write about your family, and although Chang provides plenty of empathy and cultural and historical context, she does not shy away from writing about the impact of corporal punishment on her family. One of the most powerful parts of this book, after having learned as a reader about Chang’s grandparents being exiled to Taiwan after the fall of Kuomintang in 1949 and Chang’s own estrangement from her parents, was her connection with family who still live in China.

However, Chang’s experience as a burlesque dancer and “Chinatown Girl” was also riveting reading. Cecil is the classic charming con artist, winning supporters over with his plans for Chinatown as the next great thing while quickly succumbing to greed and siphoning invested money instead of paying staff and contractors. Despite little to no pay, the performers are whisked along on a journey of late nights, flowing champagne and many creative differences. There was a particularly striking part of the book where many of the performers are taking an experimental drug that just seems to be available all the time, and it is strongly suggested that whoever is providing it is using the performers as guinea pigs. A big turning point in the book is Chang’s realisation that the Chinatown concept is a nostalgic colonial fiction that bares no resemblance to her family’s experience of 20th century China.

This is a captivating memoir and a testimony to Chang’s flexibility as an artist. In a time where the possibility of Australians travelling to and living in Shanghai in the near future is extremely low, and anti-Asian racism is on the rise, this is an important book as well as a great read.

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Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism

Non-fiction book about the invisibility and dominance of whiteness in feminism

During National Reconciliation Week this year, while sharing recommendations of books by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander authors, I came across this tweet:

I hadn’t even read this book let alone included it on my list, so I immediately bought a copy.

“Talkin’ Up to the White Woman: Indigenous women and feminism” by Aileen Moreton-Robinson is a thesis on the whiteness of Australian feminism. Across six chapters, the book explores:

  • Indigenous women’s own life writings,
  • the representation (and invisibility as the “norm”) of white women in feminist theory,
  • representations of Indigenous women in white women’s ethnographic writings,
  • representations of Indigenous women in white Australian feminism,
  • white women’s self-presentation in white feminist academia, and
  • Indigenous women’s self-presentation within white Australian feminism.

Moreton-Robinson argues that because of feminism’s inherent but insufficiently examined white perspective, Indigenous women are excluded, minimised or merely tolerated conditionally. She argues that because race is considered to be something that is “other”, white feminists are unable to acknowledge their own race and associated privilege, their own role in perpetuating racial discrimination and are therefore unwilling to relinquish some of that power. Moreton-Robinson stresses that because of this, white women are unable to recognise that for Indigenous women, sexism is inextricably linked to racism, and that until racial oppression is addressed, sexism cannot be adequately dealt with.

This is a complex and well-researched book that highlights an enormous barrier to intersectionality in feminism: a lack of self-awareness among white feminists. Moreton-Robinson combined literature reviews, oral history, writing by Indigenous women and other women of colour and interviews with white feminist academics to produce this work. This is an original and critical text and even though Moreton-Robinson wrote this book 20 years ago, the messages are just as relevant today as they were then. The University of Queensland Press has just released a 20th Anniversary Edition which came out a month or so after I bought my copy, which I understand includes additional commentary by Moreton-Robinson that reflects on the book’s reception by white feminists. I’m tempted to buy a copy of that as well!

Although the book is not very long, it is not an easy read. Moreton-Robinson uses an appropriately academic tone to explore complex and challenging concepts, and asks the audience – predominantly white feminists – to critically examine their own assumptions, privilege and complicity in continuing to centre whiteness in feminism. For readers new to feminist theory, this book is a great starting point because Moreton-Robinson provides an excellent historical overview of feminism. However, although Moreton-Robinson is a succinct writer, it is a lot of information to take in and this book unearths some uncomfortable truths about the role white women have played in facilitating racial oppression in Australia, especially in relation to the removal of children and stolen wages. I think the most challenging parts for me were considering mistakes I had made in the past, the diversity of perspectives I surround myself in and roles played by myself and my ancestors in perpetuating racial oppression.

This is an extremely important book that is just as relevant (if not more so) today as it was at publication 20 years ago. I recommend white women reading this book with an open mind, an open heart and a willingness to commit to taking on board the lessons the book has to offer to improve feminist practice starting with acknowledging whiteness and its associated privilege.

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Troll Hunting

Non-fiction book about the motivations and impact of online trolling

Content warning: sexist and racist slurs

I have seen this Canberra journalist and writer speak at quite a few author events over the years, including with Carly Findlay, Margaret Atwood and Miriam Sved. However, despite being familiar with her work in cyberhate and online trolling, I had not actually read her book. Just when COVID-19 lockdown started to kick off, I saw that she had some signed copies available so after a contactless swap, I finally received a copy. After very recently being trolled for the first time (though certainly not harassed online for the first time), I thought it was high time I read it.

Troll Hunting

“Troll Hunting” by Ginger Gorman is a non-fiction book about the phenomenon of online trolling.  The book is divided into three sections: Trolls, Targets and Troll Hunting. Against the background of her own experience on the receiving end of trolling, Gorman walks the reader through what trolling is, who the perpetrators are, who the victims are, the emotional and financial impact of trolling and how effective different mechanisms are in trying to prevent, curb and prosecute trolling.

This is a fascinating and insightful book that lifts the veil a little on something that is almost always hidden by the anonymity of the internet. Gorman uses her investigative journalism skills to connect with numerous and, in some cases, infamous trolls to unpack the motivations behind trolling. As she develops relationships bordering on friendship with her sources, Gorman finds herself asking ethical questions not only of them, but of herself. However, it is Gorman’s ability to empathise with and relate to these (mostly) young men that draws out why they spend their time trolling.

Gorman’s chapter “Deep in the grey” was one of the strongest and most unsettling in the whole book, and we learn that while online trolling has IRL (in real life) impacts on victims, the victims themselves are not always perfect either. The sources themselves are incredibly interesting characters, and by the end of the book, some of the trolls start asking themselves the questions that Gorman asks them about why they participate in trolling. Particularly unnerving is how much trolling is underpinned by sexist and racist beliefs, how organised some trolling is and how far it has to go before legal action is taken. I also really liked the Notes in the margins where Gorman provides a frank overview of how being a victim of trolling and writing a book about trolling starts to take a toll on her.

In terms of solutions to trolling, Gorman explores the pros and cons of stronger legislation, complaints-handling agencies, better training of police and even removing the anonymity of the internet. These are all systemic solutions, however following Gorman online, she clearly has developed ideas and strategies about how to target trolling as an individual. I think the only thing I would have liked to have seen in this book is a bit more about what we as individuals can do to tackle trolling. I had reasonable success with just being more annoying and inane than my troll, but I think in a future edition I would love to see an additional chapter on what strategies Gorman has since found that work well.

This is a book is full of nuance and depth that explores an issue that almost everyone is aware of but almost nobody truly understands. An important read for internet enthusiasts and policy-makers alike.

 

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The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever

Self-help book about how to declutter your home

I first heard about this author a couple of years ago after there was some controversy in the bookish world about applying her methods to books. I had meant to read her book for some time but, like tackling decluttering generally, there always seemed to be something else to do instead. When she landed her own Netflix TV series, again, I thought I should have a go at reading her book, but again, I didn’t get around to it. Then, she found herself in the middle of another controversy. As with the previous controversy, I felt that again people were not properly taking the time to understand the author or her method. During self-isolating, I had been doing a significant amount of decluttering anyway, so although I tend not to go for self-help books as a general rule, I decided to finally buy a copy of her book (an eBook, of course) and see for myself.

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“The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying: A Simple, Effective Way to Banish Clutter Forever” by Marie Kondo and translated by Cathy Hirano (though, she is not credited in the eBook edition) is a self-help book about how to correctly declutter your home in a way that is effective, achievable and lasting. Through the KonMari method, Kondo explains that decluttering should happen in a particular order:

  • clothing,
  • books,
  • papers,
  • komono (miscellaneous things), and
  • things of sentimental value.

Kondo also explains that we must first discard all our things that don’t spark joy – everything – before next contemplating where to store the things that we have kept.

This is an interesting (and, very happily, a brief) book with a very simple goal: to assist people to feel better about their lives by helping them tidy their homes. There were quite a few things in this book that really stuck with me. First was Kondo’s message that one of the biggest reasons that people struggle to keep things tidy is not that they are inherently lazy, but rather that they have never been taught to tidy properly. Kondo explains that tidying is a skill, and it is one that she has spent basically her own life fine-tuning. This really resonated with me, because there are so many things that people are expected to be able to do as adults like manage money and write job applications, but that we don’t receive any kind of formal training for. Thinking about tidying as a skill to develop rather than an action that you either do or not do was really helpful for me.

Another thing that I’ve found really helpful is Kondo’s insistence that belongings must be sorted by category and then stored by category. She encourages the reader to find all things of a particular type (e.g. clothing) from around the entire house, sort it all at once, then store it all in one place. She applies this principle to other things like cleaning products, coins, pens that certainly I tend to have scattered around the house with no one clear home. This has also been really useful for getting a realistic idea of exactly how much stuff you really have. I certainly don’t need a pack of ibuprofen and a cache of coins in every single room!

I do want to make a quick point on books. One of the things Kondo has been criticised most about is that she tells people to throw away all their books and suggests that we only keep 30 books in total. Of course, if you take the time to read her book (which I now have) Kondo never says either of these things. In fact, what she says about books is far more interesting. She asks the reader, “[d]o you feel joy when surrounded by piles of unread books that don’t touch your heart?” She then asks the reader to “[i]magine what it would be like to have a bookshelf filled only with books that you really love. Isn’t that image spellbinding? For someone who loves books, what greater happiness could there be?” She is certainly pragmatic enough to acknowledge that her book, too, is an object and encourages the reader to keep “only those books that will make you happy just to see them on your shelves, the ones you really love. That includes this book too. If you don’t feel joy when you hold it in your hand, I would rather you threw it away”.

I’m still on the clothing part (which includes scarves, hats, bags and jewellery), but books are next on my list. I already give a lot of books away to either the Lifeline Book Fair or my street library, but I collect a lot of books and receive a lot of review copies, and my to-read piles are numerous. If anything, hopefully at least by tidying up the rest of my stuff, I’ll have more space for books!

Now, I do want to mention a few things that I wasn’t completely sold on in this book. First of all, Kondo is quite a quirky person anyway, but a few of her ideas (such as drying her dishes outside in the sun and standing carrots upright in her fridge) I don’t intend to implement. I think thanking each object for the contribution it has made to your life is a nice idea, but is honestly a little too labour-intensive for me.

The other thing I wanted to mention is that although the first edition of this book was only published about 9 years ago, Kondo does have a bit of an essentialist view of gender with men and women each having particular traits (though I’ve even heard Margaret Atwood make comments about why men can’t find socks). However, Kondo does gently encourage women to aspire towards elegance and femininity, and her target audience in this book appears to be mothers and housewives. This is not to say that I don’t think that her method could be applied to anyone, but she does seem to view these tasks – organising and tidying – as women’s tasks. I will say that in her TV show, she very happily sets both men and women to decluttering spaces without any concern whatsoever for gender.

Finally, I do think that there is one thing that Kondo doesn’t turn her mind to in this book which is one of my biggest obstacles when it comes to decluttering: how you throw things away. Although in my city we now have green waste as well as recycle, although I have two types of compost bins, although you can drop quality clothing and items off at op shops, although some places accept plastic bags, fabric and even batteries for recycling, there are still a lot of items that simply cannot be donated and are likely going to just find their way to landfill if you throw them in the bin. Things like old teddy bears and out of date or damaged electronics have hung around the house simply because I feel guilty just throwing them in the bin. I think that while reducing the number of belongings you have is a great way to think more sustainably about your life, the act of reducing itself is important and I think that part of the reason why we accumulate so many things is because things are so disposable.

If you want to declutter your house and you’re not really sure where to start, this book is as good a place as any. Although not definitive, especially with regards to disposing things, this book has some unique ideas and helpful tips about how to tackle the task of tidying.

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Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the Haunting of American Psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum

Non-fiction book about the history of an asylum in Georgia, USA

Content warning: racism, ableism, massacres, eugenics, neglect, abuse, slavery, forced sterlisation

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

“Administrations of Lunacy: Racism and the haunting of American psychiatry at the Milledgeville Asylum” by Mab Segrest is a history of a mental health asylum from when it opened as the Georgia State Lunatic, Idiot, and Epileptic Asylum in 1842 and how it stood by, was influenced by, was complicit in and actively participated in features of American history such as the massacres of first nations people, slavery, the American Civil War, Jim Crow, forced labour, eugenics, forced sterilisation and the prison-industrial complex until its closure in 2010.

This is an exceptionally well-researched book. According to the acknowledgements, Segrest spent many years investigating the enormous institution that at one point was the largest mental health facility in the USA and the many threads that connected this facility to the American historical context. Under several iterations, and many more superintendents, the asylum is thoroughly deconstructed by Segrest who explores, through newspaper articles, annual reports, journals and clinical records, the impacts of racism, sexism, ableism and white supremacy on its administration and its patients. I felt like the case studies of individual patients who found themselves, one way or another, admitted to the asylum. Their stories were equal parts fascinating and heartbreaking, giving the reader a real appreciation of the impact of segregation, neglect, starvation, hard labour and forced sterilisation on the tens of thousands of individuals who lived and died there.

I thought that Segrest’s research clearly illustrated how dependent the conditions of the asylum were on personal views of those in charge – especially when it came to legislation and funding. As demonstrated by the way people with disability continue to fall through the cracks, better legislation and funding is critical to ensuring that they receive the support and dignity they deserve. It is clear that even in 2020, people with disability are still incredibly vulnerable to abuse. In just the past week here in Australia there have been three devastating stories of unfathomable abuse and neglect that demonstrate that on a systematic level as well as an individual level, people with disability are still being failed. The strongest parts of this book were the anecdotes about the day-to-day life of the patients who found themselves admitted to the asylum.

As is often the case with well-researched books, it can be difficult to decide what to include and what to leave out. There is no question about the breadth of Segrest’s research on this topic, and she follows up every single lead that might provide more understanding about the asylum and how it came to be. However, I think at times the breadth of this book was at the expense of the depth. While I appreciate how important political history is to the American psyche, and historical periods and events were to the nature of the asylum, I think a stronger focus on the asylum itself would have made the book a little easier to follow. Particularly in the earlier parts of the books, Segrest peppers the book so liberally with metaphors and historical and cultural references that it does at time result in quite dense reading.

Segrest approaches psychiatry with a level of skepticism informed by the circumstances through which the field has developed and evolved. She critically examines the social factors experienced by patients admitted to the asylum and offers alternative explanations for symptoms of mental illness including environmental factors such as poverty, physical illness, malnutrition, culture, abuse and prolonged exposure to trauma. I agree that these factors are important to consider, and I can understand Segrest’s reluctance to lean too far into genetic causes for mental illness and disability given the horrors of eugenics policies.

However, having worked in mental health, I feel that she did downplay the impact that untreated and unsupported mental illness can have on an individual’s life outside a clinical setting and that this too can leave them vulnerable to abuse, neglect and homelessness in the community, especially without families or friends equipped to care for them. Regardless of her views on the utility of diagnostic tools such as the DSM-5, I think that we must accept that sometimes people do have symptoms of a mental illness or disability that do not have an environmental cause. I think by accepting people for who they are without looking for an external explanation (and unintentionally apportioning blame), we can better design a system that works for the individuals affected.

An important and thoroughly-researched book whose proverbial forest was at times obscured by the (pecan) trees.

 

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Always Another Country

Memoir about belonging and growing up in exile

Quite some time ago, I was running late to an author event. It was being held at the Australian National University, but in a theatre that was quite far away from the entry to the campus. I’d raced over after work and tried to sneak quietly into the back to find…an empty theatre. I was a day early. Anyway, I returned the following evening and saw the author give an incredibly articulate and compelling talk about her life growing up in exile. Afterwards, I bought a copy of the book and had it signed, but it wasn’t until now that I managed to pick it up to read it.

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I found this old Virgin Australia ticket and couldn’t help myself

“Always Another Country” by Sisonke Msimang is a memoir about growing up outside your own homeland. The daughter of South African freedom fighters, Sisonke is born in Zambia and spends years there with her two sisters before the family moves to first to Kenya, then Canada. After a brief visit to South Africa after Nelson Mandela is freed and the end of Apartheid begins, Sisonke moves to the USA to start university. There, she makes new connections, develops her political views and falls in love – three things that have a profound effect on her life. When she returns to South Africa emotionally fragile, she reconnects with her family and begins to develop her career. However, this is the first time Sisonke has really called South Africa her home and she is faced not only with the nation’s Apartheid hangover, but with the gulf between the idealised vision for South Africa and the reality playing out.

This is an important book that provides a unique perspective on South Africa’s political transition. The child of freedom fighters but growing up outside South Africa, Msimang has the perfect balance of lived experience and objectivity to provide what reads like a very unbiased social commentary. I felt that I learned a lot about South Africa from this book, in particular the hard work that went in to dismantling Apartheid – often work that was happening outside the country’s own borders. In between reflections on how South Africa’s political situation impacted her and her family, Msimang also provides insights into how living as a third culture kid provided her with particular strengths and vulnerabilities that she had to grapple with as an adult.

I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog that memoir is a genre that I have difficulty with with. While I continue to believe that this genre is critical to ensuring that more diverse voices and stories are heard, ultimately memoir is the curated highlights (and lowlights) of a person’s life, arranged to highlight a particular issue or point of view. In this book, I felt that Msimang went into great detail about some things such as her relationship with Jason, her experiences in Canada and her friendships in the USA, but skated over some of the parts that I was much more interested in: visiting South Africa for the first time, her ongoing relationship with her South African relatives that she only met in her late teens and the day to day of living in the country post-Apartheid. While Msimang provided glimmers of these parts, I felt that these were the strongest parts of the book and really exemplified Msimang’s struggle with reconciling her birthright as a South African with her own developing values.

A necessary memoir that explores South African identity, citizenship and nationhood that I wished had a little more South Africa in it.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Migraine: A History

Non-fiction book about the history of treating migraines

Back in the days when gyms were allowed, I was using audiobooks to help motivate myself to go. The rule was that I was only allowed to listen to the book while physically inside the gym building. This meant that in order to hear what happened next, I would have to go back to the gym. It was a great system! Anyway, I was flipping through Audible, trying to figure out what to spend my credits on, and I came across this book. I’ve had migraines since I was about 10 years old, so this is a topic close to my…brain.

Migraine: A History cover art

“Migraine: A History” by Katherine Foxhall and narrated by Robin J Sitten is a non-fiction book about the history of diagnosing and treating migraines. Foxhall examines how early physicians responded to their patients complaining the constellation of symptoms we now associate with migraine, and attitudes changed over time.

This is a fascinating book that taught me a lot about the way migraine is viewed by society. Interestingly, Foxhall argues that during the Middle Ages, physicians were more sympathetic to migraines (despite the brutal treatments they often tried out on their patients). It was only later that migraine began to be associated with weak, feminine and intellectual individuals unsuited to the hardships of labour outdoors. Foxhall argues that this change in social attitude has meant that migraine, despite being such a common and debilitating chronic condition, has received so little medical interest and funding. She compares this with other illnesses associated with women and touches on the issue of pain bias in the medical profession.

Foxhall is a clear, thorough researcher who explores in great detail the hardships many patients were subjected to in addition to their migraines. Sitten does an admirable job of bringing spirit into a non-fiction work, and her slightly sardonic tone was particularly enjoyable when reading the more gruesome treatments patients were subjected to.

However, this book taught me two other things. One, non-fiction is difficult for me to listen to for prolonged periods of time. Two, long books are difficult for me to listen to for prolonged periods of time. Despite Foxhall’s compelling research and Sitten’s reading style, it is hard to make a non-fiction book exciting to listen to, especially one written in an academic style. This book is just shy of 10 hours long, and with introductions, chapter summaries and conclusions, there was quite a lot of repeated information. Foxhall also spends a significant amount of time at the end of the book describing migraine art competitions which felt a little bit hard to relate to without actually looking at the artwork itself. It is also worth mentioning that this is a Eurocentric book, and while I appreciate that linguistic barriers exist, I would have really liked to have learned about how migraine has been considered and treated in non-Western cultures as a comparison.

Although perhaps a bit too long and academic to keep me enthusiastic at the gym, I related a lot to this book and learned a lot about how medical opinions on migraines have changed over the centuries, and not necessarily for the better.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, Non Fiction