Collection of poetry and essays about food, love and identity
I have been following this author and poet on social media for quite some time. I am a big fan of books with recipes in them and I was thrilled to find out she has a collection filled with recipes and ordered a copy immediately. I knew it was an ideal choice for my Short Stack Reading Challenge.
“Uncommon Feast: Essays, poems, and recipes” by Eileen Chong is, as described, a collection of essays, poems and recipes. At the heart of this book is Chong’s upbringing in Singapore, and the rich culinary culture that underpins her family and her identity.
This is a beautiful book with a comforting, nurturing tone. Using the same care with which we prepare food for our loved ones, Chong carefully prepares her writing for the reader. I particularly enjoyed reading the recipes. Recipes are often a rather dry format, but Chong invokes her inner aunty to make her recipes feel warm, eminently readable and achievable. Unfortunately I’m mostly vegetarian these days, but the multi-part recipe in Diana’s Hainanese Chicken Rice had me salivating. I found that Chong’s poetry had a slightly different tone: nostalgic with a sense of longing for family and times past. Burning Rice was especially evocative and juxtaposes the labour of generations past with the small errors of the present. In her poems, food is shared memories and shared language with family. However, it is in the essays that Chong is more frank about her experiences living as a migrant in Australia and how through food, family and words she navigates her way through the world.
Non-fiction book about making a podcast about an unsolved murder
Content warning: murder, graphic violence, child sexual abuse
I started listening to this podcast when it first aired back in 2017 and I was immediately engrossed, but perhaps not for the same reasons as everyone else who listens to true crime podcasts. In 2008 a friend of mine went missing while travelling overseas and was found dead several weeks later. The answer to the question of what happened to her has never been resolved. In fact, her case has also been discussed in episodes of different podcast. So listening to this story about a woman who was murdered in her own bookstore being told by someone who was truly committed to finding out the truth gave me hope that perhaps one day the truth of what happened to my friend will be uncovered. When the author came to the Canberra Writers’ Festival the following year to discuss her book, I knew that I had to go along. I’m not quite sure what led me to finally pick it up three years later, but the timing couldn’t have been better. After all these years, the Victorian Coroner is re-examining the case. The podcast had a new episode out just this month and you can keep up to date with the court proceedings here.
“Trace: Who killed Maria James” by Rachael Brown is a non-fiction book about the making of Season 1 of the true crime podcast “Trace“. This season is about the unsolved murder of Maria James, who was found stabbed to death in her own bookshop in 1980. Brown reviews historic case material and interviews police officers who were involved in the original investigation while she tries to negotiate the production of the podcast and navigate interviews with witnesses who may be reluctant to speak out.
This is an engrossing book that goes into much deeper detail than the podcast, with a strong focus on Brown’s own experiences researching and recording. With the extra space afforded by the book, Brown is able to give a lot more detail about the different leads that were and were not followed by Victoria Police. She outlines the initial investigation, and shares the in-depth interviews she has with the detective who was the lead of the case. I think some of the most powerful parts of the book are when Brown, in her signature honest style, acknowledges the choices she made as a journalist and the times where those choices were mistakes. Brown is forthright about balancing the needs of the interviewees, the priorities of the producers and pursuing promising lines of enquiry. The most harrowing parts were about Maria’s sons and their experiences of abuse by priests of the Catholic church, and the stories Brown uncovered from over survivors of abuse. Perhaps, however, the most disturbing parts were how many errors there seemed to be in the way the evidence in Maria’s case was handled and whether or not these errors were accidental.
An incredibly important book not just for true crime fans or even fans of the podcast, but for all of us who believe that the truth should not be obstructed.
Non-fiction anthology of essays and memoir by people who grew up disabled in Australia
Note: in this review I used the terms disabled person and person with a disability interchangeably to reflect that some people prefer person-first language and some people prefer identity-first language
Content warning: bullying
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publisher. I was really excited to receive a copy of this book because I had read another book in the excellent “Growing Up” series. I also read the editor’s memoir and was very confident that this was going to be a well-curated collection.
“Growing Up Disabled in Australia” edited by Carly Findlay is an anthology of short autobiographies by 47 disabled people. The contributors, who come from an incredibly diverse range of backgrounds and cultures, have a very diverse range of disabilities and perspectives. There are some well-known people including Senator Jordan Steele-John, and plenty of people who are not so well known but whose stories are just as important.
This is a really well-rounded collection that showcases the myriad of experiences people with disability have in this country. Disabilities can affect mobility, senses, learning, mental health, chronic health and cognitive ability. They can be caused by genetics, illnesses or injuries. Something that I think a lot of people don’t consider is that people may have more than one disability, and I thought that Dion Beasley’s piece To Lake Nash and Back about growing up Aboriginal, Deaf and with muscular dystrophy in the Northern Territory surrounded by love, family and dogs particularly captured this intersectional experience and the importance of accessibility and community. C. B. Mako uses free verse poetry in December Three to succinctly how a person with two disabilities who is also a carer, a parent and a member of the migrant community can be excluded from all of those identities.
This book is full of exceptional creativity and I really enjoyed the variety of styles each piece was presented in. Kerry-ann Messengers two poems ‘Life Goes On’ and ‘The Blue Rose’ explored the depth of emotional reaction, positive and negative, that people have towards her as a person with Down Syndrome. Tim Slade’s poem A Body’s Civil War explores the sense of destabilisation living with auto-immune conditions where your body attacks itself. I really loved Sarah Firth’s comic Drawing My Way which gave a practical example of alternative ways information can be presented to assist people with learning disabilities like dyslexia.
Although there each contributor’s experience is unique, nuanced and impacted by other factors such as race, gender, class and cultural background, there were common themes that wove their way through the book. I was surprised at how many contributors wrote about the significance of animals, particularly dogs, in staving off feelings of isolation and loneliness (though I particularly enjoyed Iman Shaanu’s subversive piece Blurred Lines where she writes “For the record, I hate dogs and would prefer a guide cat if that was a thing”). Hippotherapy by Alistair Baldwin was a particularly wry piece about the ubiquitous experience of horse-riding as an activity for disabled kids. At a time when everyone is talking about vaccinations, it was really poignant to read about two contributors, Gayle Kennedy and Fran Henke, who each wrote about the lasting impact of contracting polio, a disease that has been eradicated in Australia through vaccination programs but that continues to affect people of older generations.
However two of the common themes that were the hardest to read about were bullying and lack of accessibility. Jessica Newman-Marshall’s piece Dressing to Survive describes the cruel judgment and bullying she received as a person with a disability that affects not just mobility but causes her to have a very low BMI in a world that constantly scrutinises women for their weight. Kath Duncan, writes in Born Special about the prejudice and bullying she experienced growing up with missing limbs and reclaiming the word ‘Freak’ for herself.
However not everyone with a disability is bullied. Belinda Downes, in writing about her facial difference and disability in Having a Voice, reflects on how it is not her appearance that has made things most difficult for her, but rather people in her life deciding on her behalf what is best for her in terms of corrective surgery and accessibility needs. In Forever Fixing, El Gibbs writes about living with the chronic skin condition psoriasis and how learning about the social model of disability helped her to find a community and see barriers to access, rather than herself, as the problem.
There are a multitude of other things that I could write about this book, but I will finish off to say that this is an incredibly important work that highlights the fact that there is no single disabled experience and that the biggest barriers for people with disabilities are systemic.
Illustrated children’s book about Macquarie Island
I mentioned in my previous book review that I recently went on a hike in Tasmania. There were lots of fantastic things about this hike, but there were two things in particular I really enjoyed: the collection of books at each hut and the lovely and enthusiastic ranger on our first night who told us about this book.
“One Small Island” by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch is an illustrated children’s book about the history and biodiversity of Macquarie Island. In particular, the book explores the impact of humans on the island’s delicate ecosystem and the battle to undo the damage done by invading species.
This is a beautifully and intricately illustrated book that captures the dramatic landscape and fragile wildlife with its vivid language. Not only is this a story about a critical environmental issue, the destruction of native flora and fauna due to introduced species, it is also a story with a beginning, a disaster, a challenge and a resolution.
An excellent book for children and adults alike with a keen interest in natural history.
Content warning: drug use, mental health, sexual harassment
I first really heard about this book when I heard Reese Witherspoon’s”excellent speech (transcript here) about her film production company that produced an adaptation of this book. I have read quite a few books now that have been adapted by Witherspoon’s company (“Gone Girl“, “Big Little Lies” and “Little Fires Everywhere“), and this one has been on my list for a while. My friend lent me her copy quite some time ago, and for a while I though I had accidentally Marie-Kondoed it. When another friend invited me to go on a three night trek in Tasmania recently, I felt like it was the perfect opportunity to finally read this book. I had a better look and found it tucked away in my non-fiction bookshelf.
“Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail” by Cheryl Strayed is a memoir about Cheryl, a woman in her early 20s who is spiralling. In the wake of her mother’s death, a broken marriage and a heroin addiction, Cheryl realises that something needs to change. After spotting an innocuous guidebook about the Pacific Crest Trail, Cheryl is galvanised by the goal to hike it alone. With an overweight pack, little experience and only the hope that her pre-packed supplies arrive at post offices along the way, Cheryl is pushed to her absolute limit. Completely alone for a significant part of the journey, she must reckon with her life so far and how she can keep putting one foot in front of the other in the direction she needs to go.
If you ever find yourself on a hiking trip, this is the perfect book to pack. Strayed is an honest and raw writer whose vulnerability and determination make for a compelling mix. While I frequently talk about how I struggle with memoir on this blog, this is the kind of memoir I really enjoy. It reminded me a lot of “H is for Hawk“, blending trauma with literature and a very narrow yet fascinating topic. Although a lot of the book is spent hiking by herself, it is the characters Cheryl meets along the way who really make this book. There is a particular section in the book where Cheryl has overestimated her access to water and is then approached by two terrifying men which was chilling.
When I was on my last day of my hike in Tasmania, I had developed some pretty impressive blisters on the soles of my feet and in between my toes. Although wearing two pairs of socks, taking some anti-inflammatories and applying band-aids liberally had helped, walking was quite painful. Reading about Cheryl’s (much worse) ordeal with feet rubbed raw by ill-fitting boots and her resilience helped me realise that I could get through it too and complete every last kilometre of the walk.
A great companion for hiking that, unlike Cheryl, I declined to burn once finished.
Part self-help book, part memoir about finding your inner glow
Content warning: cancer
I think it’s pretty obvious why I picked up this book: it is breathtaking. The unique hardcover design is covered in subtle, intricate silver foil and it is truly eye-catching when you walk past it in a bookshop as I did. I saw Julia Baird speak some years ago about her biography of Queen Victoria, but I haven’t yet managed to tackle that very large book. However, this book seemed much more manageable and I think we can all agree we need a bit of brightening up.
“Phosphorescence: On awe, wonder & things that sustain you when the world goes dark” by Julia Baird is a non-fiction book that blends memoir with self-help. Drawing on her own experiences in the wake of a cancer diagnosis, Baird considers what it is that nurtures us during challenging times and how we can foster our own phosphorescence. Baird divides her book into four main sections that loosely deal with our physical environment, our identity, friendship and finding hope.
There are a lot of thought-provoking ideas in this book. Baird incorporates snippets of various philosophies and research to support the things that she does in her life that she finds helpful. I enjoyed the earlier chapters about nature the most, especially about the physical phenomenon of phosphorescence. Reading Baird’s account of swimming at Manly Beach has made me want to get into distance swimming even more and Baird’s awe for cuttlefish was nice to read around the same time as I watched “My Octopus Teacher“. Baird is a spirited writer who beautifully captures the awe nature inspires in us. I was also quite interested in reading about the movement within the Anglican Church to allow women to be ministers and how instead of accepting the idea, the patriarchs doubled down on including women.
However, for a lot of the book, I didn’t feel very engaged. I think the book that I was hoping for was something more like “H is for Hawk” with phosphorescence in the natural world as more of a central theme. I’ve always been captivated by things that glow, and some of my happiest memories are seeing unexpected fireflies at dusk and swimming with bioluminscent plankton, so I was expecting a blend of memoir and natural history. Unfortunately, this book only touches briefly on this phenomenon and the majority of the book is about Baird’s experiences living in New York, surviving cancer and, directly and indirectly, her religion. Without a clear central theme, it did feel a bit more like a collection of Baird’s essays and ruminations vaguely organised by theme. This book actually reminded me a lot of Leigh Sales’ “Any Ordinary Day“, except rather than forensically trying to figure out why events happen in anyone’s lives, Baird is more concerned with sharing the details of little decisions she has made to try to make sense of her own life. She also included two chapters that were letters to her own children which, while I appreciate the sentiment, I’m not sure really aligned with the rest of the book. I also felt that the audience this book is written for was quite a narrow one, and Baird doesn’t really acknowledge that a lot of her experiences are the result of significant privilege.
A book that will certainly cheer you up sitting on your bookshelf, but could have used more glowing jellyfish.
2020 was not a good year for book releases. During the before-times, when someone has a book published, you could reasonably expect that they would do some local events and, if they were lucky, some interstate events to discuss the book, sell the book and meet readers to have their copies signed. Unfortunately for writers, in these uncertain times book events are often limited or cancelled altogether by social distancing restrictions. Some authors flexibly promoted their book through livestream events, but they are tricky to set up and you don’t have the opportunity to sell copies at the door. Although restrictions had eased in September last year, my at-the-time undiagnosed voice issues meant that I was reluctant to attend even the smallest events. I ended up buying a copy of this book by paying the author via PayPal and collecting my signed copy from her letterbox.
“No Matter Our Wreckage” by Gemma Carey is a memoir about the death of Gemma’s mother and about being groomed online and sexually abused as a child. Although aware of the abuse, Gemma’s mother never spoke to her about it and Gemma was left to take the extraordinary action of reporting the abuser to police alone at the age of 16. In the wake of her mother’s death, Gemma asks herself the question she was never able to ask her mother directly: why didn’t her mother stop the abuse? Using her skills honed in her career as an academic, Gemma forensically researches her family history to find answers to why her otherwise privileged upbringing left her so vulnerable to and unprotected against abuse.
This is a fearless book. To write so frankly about your experiences, let alone about your family, takes guts and Carey has guts in spades. Growing up in a family where things were kept secret, Carey’s decision to throw open the doors and air out her family’s trauma is not just an act of defiance against a culture of silence but a commitment to breaking a cycle. Similarly to Caroline Baum, Carey explores how a seemingly well-to-do family can nevertheless foster an unshakable sense of loneliness in the context of inter-generational trauma. Just before I read this book, I had watched a TV series called “Patrick Melrose” which is about a man addicted to drugs who struggles to deal with being sexually abused as a child. The series is excellently done, and the character Patrick is played by a compelling Benedict Cumberbatch, but the part I couldn’t understand was why Patrick’s mother didn’t protect him from the abuse. Carey’s book answers this question. Although the chapters about Carey’s research into her own family’s secrets are incredibly confronting, what she finds goes a long way towards better understanding her mother and making peace with what was left unsaid before death.
One of the most interesting parts of this memoir was Carey’s writing about the abuser. As easy as it is to assume that an abuser is an obviously scary stereotypical bad guy, the reality is that abusers are often otherwise ordinary and unimpressive people who use extreme manipulation as a tool over time to get what they want. Carey provides a nuanced, objective view of a man whose life and already poor mental health are made even worse by his actions. Comparing her own life trajectory to his, Carey examines how factors other than class can leave a person vulnerable to abuse. From a legal perspective, Carey’s case is very interesting as one of the earliest matters prosecuted in Australia involving the use of the internet to groom a child, and provides a first-hand perspective about one of the dangers of being online. It was also really interesting to compare Carey’s experience of the court system with author Bri Lee‘s experience, including the abuser’s rationale for pleading the way he did.
This is a challenging book that refuses to simplify serious issues and instead faces them head-on in all their complexity.
Non-fiction book about the history and psychology of swimming
I came across this book on Twitter a few months ago when the author ran a contest for World Swim Day. I didn’t win, but I was intrigued by the book. I don’t think I have ever been tempted by any book remotely resembling sports biography, but this book hooked me. I was a keen swimmer as a kid and every year trained for months in the lead-up to the inter-school swimming carnival in my local area. I’m a strong swimmer, if not a particularly fast swimmer, and after years of not winning any ribbons in high school I was thrilled to get 2nd place in a race in my last ever swimming carnival. Over the years since then, I’ve come back to the pool again and again and I can still easily swim 1km. A couple of years ago my partner bought me a set of swimming headphones and I even have an aquatic-themed playlist I listen to when I swim. There’s something that draws me to the water, and I was interested to see what drew other people as well. I saw that it was available as an audiobook, so I bought a copy to listen to.
“Why We Swim” by Bonnie Tsui and narrated by Angie Kane is a non-fiction book that blends memoir, journalism and anthropology to explore what it is that draws us to the water. Tsui provides a brief overview of swimming throughout human history using a few modern day examples, and then interviews extreme swimmers including a man who survived freezing Icelandic waters, a woman who smashed international distance swimming records while training to regain mobility and a man who started a swimming school for beginners in a war zone. Alongside this, Tsui shares her own experience as a swimmer and how the joy of swimming connects her with her family.
Tsui is a spirited writer who curates remarkable stories of swimmers who defy the limits. I particularly enjoyed the story of Guðlaugur and the speculation about prisoners who escaped Alcatraz by swimming. I was also fascinated by the history of different strokes and the different types of swimming that emerged through Samurai culture in Japan. The exclusivity of swimming and swimming clubs in relation to gender, race and class in the United Kingdom was also very interesting. There was recently a controversy here in Australia very recently about a women’s swimming pool in Sydney that stated in its policy that only transwomen who have undergone gender reassignment surgery would be able to use the pool. The policy didn’t go into detail about how exactly staff would be checking this, but understandably there was considerable community concern and the Association responsible for managing the Ladies’ Baths has updated their website in response.
In addition to some of the social issues surrounding swimming, Tsui spends quite a bit of the latter part of the book on research about the impact that swimming has on our bodies, and the physical, emotional and social benefits of swimming which really resonated with me. I also found Tsui’s reflections on her own family’s experiences with swimming really touching, especially how the skill and affinity for swimming is being passed on to her own children. Kane was a clear narrator who was easy to listen to.
While this book certainly explores swimming around the world, it definitely has an American focus and a particular interest in exceptionalism. I was probably a little less engaged with the story of a swim school for beginners in Baghdad set up by an American soldier and stories about record-breaking swims than I was some of the others. I was really fascinated by some of Tsui’s writing about human swimming ability and physiology that makes us suitable for swimming, and although it is certainly an extremely contentious theory, I was surprised she didn’t mention the Aquatic Ape Hypothesis just for interest’s sake.
A thought-provoking book that has reignited my enthusiasm for swimming and inspired me to look into distance swimming here in Australia.
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.
“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.
Content warning: sexual abuse, mental health, suicide attempts
I received a copy of this eBook courtesy of the publicist.
“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.