Category Archives: Non Fiction

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.

Hunger

“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.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Non Fiction

Escapades in Bizarrchaeology

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

Escapades in Bizarrcheology

“Escapades in Bizarrchaeology: The Journal of Captain Max Virtus” is a history book with a twist. Narrated by the fictional Captain Max Virtus, the readre is taken on a tour of his Warehouse in Bizarrcheology. The book covers quite a few areas of geographical areas and themes in ancient history with a particular focus on Rome, Egypt, war and weapons.

This is a fun read that I think would be well suited to pre-teens and early teens. It has a good mix of silliness with historical facts, and covers a broad range of historical information. The book has a very diverse range of structures like recipes for making mummies, letters and quizzes that I think would be great for capturing the interest of young readers.

It does have a really strong focus on fighting and weaponry, and I think I would have liked to have read a bit more about bizarre examples of history in other topics. Most of the historical figures discussed in the book are men, and while I appreciate that women have been excluded from many history books (and while I did enjoy reading about the famous woman pirate Ching Shih), they are there and I would have liked to see more women in this book.

An enjoyable and educational read.

 

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Non Fiction

South of Forgiveness

Please note that this review discusses sexual violence and may be upsetting to some people. I use the term “victim” and “survivor” interchangeably throughout this review.

I received a copy of this book courtesy of Lost Magazine. I first became aware of this book, and the controversy surrounding it, when I watched the International Women’s Day episode of Q&A earlier this month. I was pretty taken aback by the premise: an author touring Australia with her rapist to talk about the book they have written together? Before I had even seen the book I was conflicted.

20170329_180426.jpg

“South of Forgiveness” by Thordis Elva and the somewhat befittingly named Tom Stranger (in slightly smaller writing), is a recount of a week that they both spent together in Capetown, 17 years after Stranger raped Elva when she was 16 years old. While finishing high school in Iceland in 1996, 18 year old Australian Stranger met Elva and they started dating. Very early in the relationship Stranger brutally raped Elva while she was completely incapacitated by alcohol then broke the relationship off shortly afterwards. A number of years later, long after Stranger had moved back to Australia, Elva reached out to Stranger by email to talk about what had happened. After 8 years of emailing, Elva and Stranger agree to meet in South Africa to see if they can finally achieve what they both long for: Elva’s forgiveness.

Where do I even start? I found this book to be incredibly problematic in a plethora of ways and I have a lot of very complex thoughts about it. From the outset, this is a very difficult and uncomfortable book to read. I found myself many times sitting there with the book next to me procrastinating on my phone – not because the book was badly written (Elva is a spirited and eloquent writer) – but because I was so reluctant to dive back into the incredibly raw, challenging and morally ambiguous conversations.

Having some knowledge of justice systems and restorative justice programs, I was quite appalled that Elva would embark on a journey like this at all. Due to the Icelandic statute of limitations, the length of time that had passed and issues of evidence, there was no possibility of Stranger being charged for his crime. As a consequence, Stranger is caught in this awkward grey area of not being a convicted criminal but being remorseful for his actions nonetheless. Living on opposite sides of the planet doesn’t help, and access to joint counselling, mediation or any kind of formal process is impractical and ultimately never raised. I think my biggest reaction in this regard was wondering how Elva could feel safe spending a week with her rapist. As the story unfolds it transpires that this is not the first time that they have met up since the incident, but even so, it made for some very intense reading.

However, it’s not just physical safety that could have been a concern – it was also emotional safety. Sexual violence is about power, and Elva is clearly driving this bus. In fact, even from the writing it is clear that Elva is a very strong, determined person and Stranger seems much more hollow and unsure. The difference in tone between Elva’s parts and Stranger’s parts is clear. Nevertheless, it made me wonder: what kind of message is this sending for other rape survivors? I’m conflicted about the idea of recommending that people forgive their rapists generally, let alone over the course of a week of intimate discussions in a country not your own. One of the biggest obstacles for most victims, obviously, is actually having a rapist who feels remorse for their actions. I don’t think that forgiveness is essential for everyone’s survival. Elva decided that this was what she needed to do to let go of her trauma, but I don’t think that this is going to be the path for everyone. Everyone deals with suffering in their own way, some people could be seriously retraumatised by having to face their attacker. This is one point where I think it’s important to reiterate that this book is not and should not be taken as prescriptive.

Another message I had concerns about was the message for perpetrators. As I mentioned earlier, Stranger essentially got off scot-free, and I worried about this sending the message to rapists (or potential rapists) that a) they were unlikely to ever be prosecuted, and b) that their victim would forgive them eventually. I had concerns about the extent to which this book could be interpreted as being apologist, but I think ultimately that was not the case. The book is divided into 7 sections, one for each day in Capetown, chronicling Elva’s experiences and their conversations, and then finished with a brief summary from Stranger. Despite never having faced the law for his actions, Elva’s observations and Stranger’s sections show that he has been wracked with guilt. Although my knee-jerk reaction was for someone to throw the book at him, on reflection that is probably against my core beliefs when it comes to the justice system. Sentencing by courts typically have one or more of three main purposes: punishment, community safety and rehabilitation. Despite my initial desire to see Stranger punished, ordinarily, that’s not the purpose I subscribe to and I prefer prisons and sentences to be more about community safety and rehabilitation. After reading this book, I was left with two questions to answer: did I think that Stranger was safe to be in the community and did I think that he had been rehabilitated? My answer to both was yes.

I think that this raises two important points. The first is that legal systems worldwide are still extremely flawed when it comes to sexual violence, both in the laws and their application. Maybe if circumstances had been different, Stranger would have gotten a conviction, maybe he wouldn’t have. I recoil from ideas of vigilante justice, but I acknowledge that the legal system frequently does not get it right. The second point is what Elva calls the monster effect, and I think this is the most important message of the book. Sexual assault isn’t always done by some stranger down an alleyway, sexual assault can and is done by people known to the victim. This is in some ways even more traumatic because of the enormous breach of trust. Most people who know Stranger probably consider him a “good guy”. There are probably millions of men around the world like him who did a similar, once-off thing and kept going when their partner said no, or took advantage while their partner was not able to give consent. This raises further moral questions about to what extent people are and should be judged on a once-off action. Most casual rapists probably never think of it again, while the impact on the victim can be lifelong. I think this book treads a fine line between raising awareness of this different kind of rapist and inviting the reader to believe that people can change and be “on the right side” again.

There was one part of the book that made me deeply uncomfortable. Towards the end, Elva and Stranger visit a rape crisis centre together and although Elva seemed completely fine with this, Stranger and I were not. While I appreciate (as I’ve said above) that Stranger was never convicted of a crime, I think in my heart a rape crisis centre is a safe place for survivors to seek assistance. This was one point in the book where I felt like Stranger and Elva’s reconciliation was put before the best interests of others. It was almost like a betrayal of the CEO’s trust. Without any criminal convictions, there was nothing apart from Stranger’s own guilt stopping him from being there but eventually Stranger grew so uncomfortable that he left. I felt as though if this had truly been about Elva networking, she could have gone alone but there was a sense that this was more about proving a point.

I think another thing that felt a bit incongruous with the core subject of the book was how much of this book seemed to be a joyful celebration. I think I described this book to my partner as something along the lines of “misery porn meets travel blog”. The beginning of the book in particular feels like it’s leading up to a hugely traumatic event, but the rest of the book had a bit of a summer holiday by the beach feel with Elva and Stranger doing a lot of their discussions on various tourist activities. Elva has quite a whimsical writing style and there is a fairly strong spiritual undertone to this book with references to the “playwright in the sky” and a lot of credence given to signs and serendipity. They both laugh a lot, and they both cry a lot. I think this serves to highlight just how complex the relationship between Elva and Stranger is with years of history and trauma between them, but also a fragile friendship. I think again it would be incredibly unrealistic for most rape survivors to have a fun holiday with their rapist and talk it out heart-to-heart.

My final problem with this book is a problem with money, and I think ultimately I would not have bought this book myself. In Australia especially, it is illegal to profit from your crime, however again Stranger finds himself in the grey area of having admitted to a crime but never having been convicted. Technically, the proceeds of the book go towards him for having done a bad thing rather than having done a crime, but I think my reaction is still the same. There has been some call for him to donate any profits he makes and I understand Elva said that she would be receiving the bulk of any royalties anyway.

My main message to people who are considering reading this book is to not take this as a recommendation for how to respond if you have been sexually assaulted or sexually abused, or you yourself are a rapist. This book depicts an extraordinary situation with two very privileged and educated people that would be completely out of reach for most. I think that the correct way to take this book is as a thought experiment to unpack some of the moral and social issues around rape. It is an incredibly challenging book to read and ultimately I’m not sure where I fall on every moral conundrum, but I think anyone who reads this book should read it with caution.

If you have experienced sexual violence, either as a survivor or a perpetrator, please report and seek assistance through your local services. 

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction, Uncategorized

Around the World in 80 Tales

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. I love to travel, so I was very keen to see whether there was any overlap between my adventures and the author’s, and whether our observations had been similar.

Around the World in 80 Tales

“Around the World in 80 Tales” by Dave Tomlinson is a collection of stories about his adventures across many continents. Separated into 10 sections with 8 stories each, the book has a bit of a postcard-feel about it with each story a brief vignette about a place Tomlinson went and what he found there. Each section is broken up by photos Tomlinson took on his travels.

Tomlinson’s stories are bite-sized and it’s very easy to read a couple, take a break, and come back and read more later. He has a clear passion for the physical side of travelling and shares keen observations about transport, hiking, scenery, architecture and the practicalities of getting from one place to another. Reading Tomlinson’s book really made me think about the age-old tension between tourism and travelling. This book made me realise that there is no one way to travel. I think where I would focus on the people I met, the cultural nuances I observed, the language I learned and the food I ate, intrepid Tomlinson is much braver than I about pushing his body to its limits by tackling epic trails to observe some of the most ancient and wonderful structures in the world. The book is peppered with tips about visiting different places and I found myself wondering whether Tomlinson does much other travel writing. It turns out he does, so if you want some more great advice about travelling on a shoestring, check out his website.

A take-your-time book that you can put down and pick up whenever you like, and full of great snippets of what must have been some incredible trips.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, Non Fiction

Fucking Apostrophes

Obviously, there is a lot of swearing in this particular post, so if you don’t like excessive swearing please close this page immediately. I got this book courtesy of Harry Hartog, and as a self-professed grammar fanatic, there was no way I could walk past this one. The prevalence of apostrophe misuse in our society is enormous, and each superfluous apostrophe or forgotten apostrophe that I see on a sandwich board causes me immense pain.

2017-03-17-21.02.36.jpg.jpeg

“Fucking Apostrophes” by Simon Griffin is a pocket-sized guidebook on how to correctly (and incorrectly) use apostrophes in the English language. Divided into a handful of short chapters, this book covers omissions or contractions, possessive fucking apostrophes, pronouns and fucking apostrophes and plural fucking apostrophes.

So, why should you read this book? This book takes a dry topic (grammar) and spices it up with something most people find amusing (profanity). The result is a quick, educational and funny book. I was slightly sheepish about reading it on the plane, but it made me laugh aloud in several spots which, to be honest, books rarely do. Griffin peppers this little book with lots of great, modern examples to give these everyday concepts some context. Griffin acknowledges that there are some situations where there are differences of opinion and divergent uses, but (happily for me), states unequivocally that there is absolutely no scenario where “CD’s” is OK. Society really needs this book. In walking around town to take the above photo, it was unbelievably easy for me to find examples of apostrophes being misused or forgotten (well, except for having to dodge all the chuggers).

This would make a great gift for anybody who likes a laugh but is a bit shaky on their punctuation. This would make a great buy for yourself if you want to brush up on your own grammar. This would make a great book for the bookshelf of a quiet pub. I thoroughly enjoyed it, I learned a thing or two and I’ve already passed it on to the next person.

4 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction

The Case Against Fragrance

So I’ve held off on writing this review because, strictly speaking, I didn’t buy this book for myself. It isn’t very long, so even though I got it signed for my Grandma a couple of weeks ago when I saw Kate Grenville speak at the National Library of Australia, I had a cheeky flip through before I put it in the post.

20170223_090103.jpg

“The Case Against Fragrance” by Kate Grenville is a non-fiction book about the pervasiveness of fragrance in products we use everyday. Although Grenville is best-known for her novels, she started this book after becoming increasingly affected by her own “fragrance sensitivity” – something that is actually not uncommon at all. In clear, accessible language, Grenville sets out what we do and what we don’t know about the chemicals included under the umbrella term “fragrance” or “parfum” and the impacts that they can have on our bodies and on our health. Her findings are shocking. Every day we apply things to our skin, clean with them and spray them into the air and due to “trade secrets”, we have no idea what is in them or the effects they have.

This is a very important book. I am no stranger to fragrance sensitivity. I’ve worked in a workplace where fragrance was banned, and I know people who cannot abide to be in the same room with someone who is wearing perfume. Personally, I can’t stand new car smell, petrol fumes or even the shower cleaner I use. Nevertheless, I am constantly surprised at the amount of products we buy and use, trusting that the big companies we buy them from have ensured that they are safe, ethical and environmentally friendly. After reading this book, I did a quick whip around my house to see how many cleaning and bath products I use on a daily basis have the mysterious ingredient “fragrance” listed in their ingredients, and it was nearly every single one I looked at. The only product I could find that was fragrance/parfum free was my bottle-free bar of Ethique shampoo which contained essential oils instead. This is including brands that I deliberately go out of my way to buy because they don’t test on animals or because they’re eco-friendly. I have to admit, I felt betrayed.

I think Grenville is really onto something here and this book may be a game changer in the increasing social awareness about what we buy, what’s in it and where it comes from. This is a real wake up call for us to constantly check what we put in, on and around our bodies. It’s a quick read and I think it’s a critical reminder that consumers cannot guarantee that companies have their interests or wellbeing at heart.

Leave a comment

Filed under Australian Books, Non Fiction

A Bit of Earth

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author, with whom I had quite a bit of rapport over email about Edmund de Waal and coincidences. I was very taken by her enthusiasm and was keen to enjoy more of her crackling writing in book-form.

20170207_201236.jpg

“A Bit of Earth” by Wendy Crisp Lestina is an autobiographical collection of vignettes about her many lives. After inheriting a family property in a small town in California, USA, and taking over a weekly column in the local newspaper, Lestina adapts these stories (constrained by neither space nor time) about her varied life into a rich collection.

This is not a book to rush through. Each of Lestina’s stories is wonderfully complex and starts out with several seemingly unrelated threads that cleverly weave together to a wry, poignant or awe-inspiring ending. Lestina shrugs off convention and lives life to her own standards, and is as quick to critique herself as she is inequality and outdated attitudes. Entirely unapologetic when it comes to social expectations regarding marriage or wealth, Lestina instead inspires the reader with her focus on kindness, honesty and family. Each story has a theme and Lestina has a sharp eye for serendipity. This book reads like a mosaic spread across time made up of snippets from all walks of life.

Beautifully written and acutely observant, a great book for an alternative perspective on the realities of the American Dream.

1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction