Category Archives: Non Fiction

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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Filed under Advanced Reading Copies, Book Reviews, eBooks, Non Fiction

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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A Room of One’s Own

Essay on the importance of independence for women writing fiction

This was a gift from a friend (I believe) who is quite the Virginia Woolf fan. It’s a beautiful little hardcover edition with light blue embossed fabric beneath the dust jacket and shiny gold edges. This my 81st, and last, book of 2019 and I was looking for something short but also inspiring to kick-start my writing in 2020.

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“A Room of One’s Own” by Virginia Woolf is an essay about the barriers for women in the early 20th century to becoming writers of fiction. Much of the essay reflects on the prestigious university campus of “Oxbridge”, a portmanteau of Oxford and Cambridge, and the ways in which doors had opened to women, but not completely. Woolf also writes about the way poverty impacts women’s ability to write fiction: poverty of money, but also of time, education, opportunity and privacy.

This is an intriguing book. Although it is non-fiction, fiction seeps into the edges and Woolf uses suggestion, exaggeration and imagination to convey her points. While she explores the Oxbridge university campus, Woolf also examines the lives of historical women fiction writers and analyses why they were able to find success. She concludes that it is not a lack of ability that holds women back, but a lack of time and resources, particularly due to the expectation that women devote themselves wholly to being mothers.

Woolf creates a parable out of an imaginary sister of Shakespeare’s, rebutting the argument that a woman couldn’t have written Shakespeare’s plays with example after example of sexism. Woolf later creates another character to explore the significance of women fiction writers in writing same sex relationships. This edition of the book includes an introduction by Frances Spalding, which provides useful historical and biographical context for Woolf’s writing.

Woolf’s key argument is that for women to be able to write fiction, they need £500 a year, the equivalent of approximately AU$63,000 by today’s currency, and a room of one’s own. For a bit of perspective, this is about half as much again as Australia’s minimum wage. While Woolf is very aware of the barriers that separate women of her class from their male peers, I think perhaps she is not quite nearly so aware of the barriers that remain between her and woman of other classes and races. Woolf, very fortunately, inherited a sum from her aunt, which set her up to be able to focus on her writing. However, wealthy aunts are not something available to all of us, and while Woolf’s family did prioritise her brothers’ education over hers, it was nevertheless a wealthy family that was supportive of her writing. 

This is a very creative piece of non-fiction that uses fictional characters to shed light to real barriers for women who write. I came away from this book very grateful that I have a room with a desk to write in, but also very aware that the time, space and financial means to write are not things that are available to everyone.

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My Name is Book

Creative non-fiction short history of books

I actually have no recollection of where this book came from. There are no clues on it either except for a faded sticker that says $16.99 on the back. Was it a gift? Did it appear in my street library? Who knows! The important thing was that it was short, because I had mere days left to reach my 2019 reading goal.

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“My Name is Book” by John Agard and illustrated by Neil Packer is a short creative non-fiction book about the history of books. The book is told from the perspective of Book, an anthropomorphised representative of all books, who reflects on how books evolved from stories told by the fire to the eBooks of today.

Agard is a talented wordsmith who has a clear background as a poet. It is an easy, lyrical read with plenty of historical highlights, interesting designs, calligraphy, illustrations and poetry to keep the reader engaged. Although not particularly a poetry aficionado myself, it was Agard’s poetry, and the poetry of his partner Grace Nicols, that I enjoyed the most. The illustrations are also very beautiful, and I think this would make a really nice coffee table book.

I think it’s probably pretty self-evident that this is not a definitive history of books, but rather a creative non-fiction piece with historical elements. This book has a focus on written language as it developed from the Middle East/Northern Africa and spread through Western culture, and does not go into much detail about other independent inventions of writing around the world.

Nevertheless, a quick and entertaining read that brings books as physical objects to life.

 

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Proof of Birth

Collection of essays about birth registration and the right to citizenship

I picked up book last year while I was attending the 2019 Castan Centre for Human Rights Conference. It was sitting on a table with a number of other pieces of free reading material, and as statelessness and the barriers that exist to obtaining documentation is something of interest to me, I nabbed myself a copy. Then, when I was looking for some shortish books in a desperate bid to meet my 2019 reading goal, I thought I’d better give it a read.

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“Proof of Birth” edited by Melissa Castan and Paula Gerber is a collection of essays that explore the issue of birth registration, the barriers that exist to obtaining a birth certificate and the legal and social implications of struggling to prove your identity and citizenship. The book has a particular focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander experiences and how disadvantage, distance, traditional naming conventions and financial barriers can make it difficult to participate in Australia’s birth registration system. The book also investigates case studies in countries such as Nepal and Indonesia.

This book tackles an important issue that I think a lot of people are simply unaware of. A birth certificate is something that the majority of us simply take for granted. A birth certificate means that we can get other documents like a driver license or a passport. It means that we can easily reach 100 points of identity when engaging with the government or when doing a police check when applying for jobs. It means that we are counted, that legally we exist. However, for a lot of people in Australia, especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, getting a birth certificate means having to overcome sometimes insurmountable barriers. This is a thoughtful and well-considered book that explores this issue from a number of perspectives, and sensitively compares the challenges experienced in Australia with challenges experienced in other countries in the region.

The contributors are from a wide range of fields – community legal centres, community health organisations, academia, government and business – and share some extraordinary expertise with the reader. I think that the essays are all well-edited and get their point across clearly and quickly, using statistics, analysis and some fascinating case studies of programs that work well and unintended consequences of overly punitive systems.

I think it is important to note that this is a book that is written in an academic and legalistic style. While not inaccessible per se, the intended audience is not the people who may struggle to obtain identity documents, but rather an intellectual elite who make the policies.

Nevertheless, this is an important subject and this book is short enough in length yet broad enough in scope to be able to cover the issues quickly and thoroughly. An important and under-discussed area of human rights law.

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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.

First Picture

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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Filed under Australian Books, Book Reviews, Guest Reviews, Non Fiction