Tag Archives: book review

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

Griffin & Sabine

Interactive graphic novel about love and letters

I picked this book up goodness only knows how long ago from the Lifeline Book Fair. It was clearly a graphic novel, but it has an enigmatic front cover. I actually assumed that it was about a bird called Griffin (it is not). Given how dire things were getting for my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge, I decided that this book had sat on my shelf long enough.

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“Griffin & Sabine” by Nick Bantock is a graphic epistolary novel about an artist called Griffin who begins receiving mysterious postcards from a tropical island far away, written by someone called Sabine. From the outset, Sabine appears to have intimate knowledge about Griffin and his artwork, and as their correspondence becomes more and more involved, Griffin begins to wonder who she really is.

This is a stunning piece of fiction, expertly executed with illustrations, writing and even fold-out letters. Bantock is clearly a creative genius who is able to manifest two distinct voices and bring them to life with striking and original designs. Looking at the cover of this book, I had absolutely no idea what I was in for and I enjoyed every second. I was also thrilled that even though I bought it secondhand, all of the pieces were still intact and I was able to enjoy the tactile experience of lifting the longer letters out of their envelopes.

A shining example of the graphic novel genre, and a story that left me equal parts delighted and disturbed.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels, Mystery/Thriller

If Cats Disappeared from the World

Japanese magic realism novel about death and the little things

I had noticed this little book a while ago in a bookshop. It has a striking cover, a ink black cat with eyes embellished with gold foil that makes it look like it’s staring right at you. I noticed it, but didn’t buy it. Then one day I was checking my street library, and a copy was sitting right inside. Of course I had to read it.

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Thank you to my colleague Ingrid and her obliging cat Callie for these great photos

“If Cats Disappeared from the World” by Genki Kawamura and translated by Eric Selland is a Japanese magic realism novel about an unnamed postman who is diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Distraught, the narrator is offered a deal by the Devil, who appears as his doppelganger, as a way to prolong his life. For every additional day the narrator chooses to live, the Devil will remove an item from the world. The first item seems simple: telephones. However reminiscing about his ex-girlfriend and their relationship which was conducted primarily over the telephone, leads the narrator to reconnect with her one last time. The next item, television, also becomes problematic. When the Devil proposes cats, the narrator is faced with making Cabbage, the cat he inherited from his mother and who has suddenly started speaking, disappear.

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This is an unusual little novel with an intriguing premise: how much of the world can you remove before life isn’t worth living? I quite enjoyed the story of an ordinary man, with an ordinary job, who is faced with the reality of his unremarkable life just before his untimely death. I liked how the author explored the way that the narrator had allowed himself to become isolated, and how he had lost contact with those most important to him and how ultimately, in the wake of his mother’s death, he had himself become lost.

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It’s difficult to review a book when you like the idea but not the execution. I want to say something first about the translation, because it’s not clear how much of my criticism is due to the translation, and how much is due to the writing itself. I think that Kawamura has a relaxed, minimalist narrative style that Selland has adapted into a modern American tone. While occasionally drawing on global elements at points in the story such as Christian iconography, the Devil’s choice of attire and his travels with his ex-girlfriend overseas, there is not a very strong sense of place in this book.

While I understand that the narrator is meant to be a generic everyman, with nothing distinctive about his life except his feelings and relationships, I struggled to find a foothold while reading. I think that overall, Kawamura probably spent a little bit too long spelling out exactly what the author was thinking and feeling at any given time, and not really enough on fleshing out the novel’s strength: exploring the idea of what would happen if things started disappearing from the world. Maybe that would be the difference between magic realism and science fiction, but I think I would have preferred Kawamura to have committed more fully to his concept and spent less time the exposition of a backstory that I wasn’t invested in.

An interesting concept that felt like it needed colouring in.

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Filed under Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism

The Ice Palace

Norwegian literary novel about a missing schoolgirl

Content warning: missing child

While on my trip to Northern Europe, I wanted to read a book from every country I visited. This book is hailed as a Norwegian classic, and I was keen to try something a bit different to Scandi Noir.

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“The Ice Palace” by Tarjei Vesaas and translated by Elizabeth Rokkan is a literary novel about a young girl called Siss who meets a new girl in school just as winter is setting in at her small Norwegian town – freezing the river solid. Although Unn is much more reserved than popular Siss, Siss is nevertheless drawn to her and the two girls spend an intimate evening playing together. The next day, after Unn skips school to explore a frozen waterfall, the town bands together to try and find her. One of the last to see her, Siss is grilled for answers as to where she may be. While Unn remains missing, Siss is also at risk of being lost.

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Icicles on traditional houses just outside Oslo, Norway

This is a beautiful, eerie novel that explores the intense yet fragile nature of the friendship of young girls. I don’t like to compare books too much, but it reminded me of “Picnic at Hanging Rock” and “Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood. It had a similar dreamy quality juxtaposed against the sharp clarity of friendship, made all the more dramatic by the captivating yet deadly winter landscape. The opening scenes of the book with the cracking sounds of the ice in the darkness and the frozen beauty of the waterfall was mesmerising. This is quite a short book, almost a novella, and I am still haunted by it. Vesaas knows exactly how much information to give to the reader, and exactly how much to withhold. I also thought that he provides the reader with an incredible insight into the life-shattering and unresolved grief that comes with knowing someone who has gone missing.

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A waterfall on our way to Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord

This was an excellent, haunting book that is an ideal novel for travelling through the spectacular scenery of Norway.

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Filed under Book Reviews, eBooks, General Fiction

Body Music

Collection of short graphic stories about love and intimacy

Content warning: sexual themes

I picked this book up from Canty’s Bookshop recently. They have been getting in some great graphic novel stock, and this one caught my eye because the author is the same author behind “Blue is the Warmest Colour” that famously was made into an incredible film.

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“Body Music” by Julie Maroh is a collection of short graphic stories set in the city of Montreal, Canada. Each story explores issues around love between two (or more) people, transcending gender, race and age. Some of the characters feature in more than one vignette, but each story is, for the most part, a standalone story.

Maroh is an exceptional artist with an honest illustrative style that highlights the beauty, the grotesque and the humanity that can be found in everyday life. Maroh has a natural flair for storytelling with each panel a quiet revelation of hope, pain, loneliness, and love. I really loved chapter 14, The Ghost of Illness, chapter 16, In the Heat of the Club. Sait Catherine Street East, and Charlene’s perspective in chapter 6, Fantasies of the Hypothetical. Maroh did an exceptional job depicting her characters with disabilities (which included a wheelchair user, a person who develops blindness and two men who use sign language), and presents sex as something awkward, humorous and tender. I also really enjoyed the diversity of bodies: slim, curvy, freckled, hairy.

While I felt that this was a beautiful book, I felt that there was something missing to tie all the stories together. Maroh is very committed to diversity, in theme as well as in her characters, but I think a side effect of this was that there wasn’t really a strong common thread to unite each vignette. Perhaps if she had intertwined the stories even more, and had more overlap between the characters and their experiences of living and loving Montreal, I may have gotten a stronger sense of the city itself.

A poignant and thought-provoking book full of excellent examples of the storytelling strength of the graphic novel genre.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Graphic Novels

The Twins

Historical fiction about twins on either side of a war

Content warning: child abuse

This book is one of the rare occasions where I saw the movie (or at least part of it) before I read the book. When I saw a copy in the translated literature section of the Lifeline Book Fair, I thought I would see how it compared.

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“The Twins” by Tessa de Loo and translated by Ruth Levitt is a Dutch novel about twin sisters Anna and Lotte who, upon their father’s death, are separated from one another. Lotte, recovering from tuberculosis, is sent to live with progressive and educated family in the better climate of the Netherlands. However Anna, naturally more robust, is kept in Germany with much poorer relatives to help them with their farm. Living through either side of the war and apart almost 70 years, the sisters meet by chance as old women at a health resort in Spa. With so much between them to catch up on, both wonder if they can ever bridge the divide.

I think that the premise of this story is an interesting one, and the sisters are a clever way to explore the nuance and different perspectives of the war. Although Anna grows up among Nazis, she is at a significant disadvantage in other ways to Lotte including suffering physical abuse, emotional abuse and neglect at the hands of her aunt and uncle. Lotte’s ability to influence politics is, accordingly, extremely limited and de Loo uses her perspective to explore the idea that it is the collective, rather than individuals, who are responsible for travesties such as World War II.

While this is an interesting and stimulating premise, unfortunately this book suffered when it came to readability. The rigid structure of the two sisters taking turns to recount parts of their lives felt artificial, and the stories dragged. As it is translated from Dutch, it is hard to say whether it is a better read in its original language. I found Anna’s story more compelling than Lotte’s, but both were a bit of a slog. I don’t think it would be fair to suggest that this book is sympathetic to the Nazis. Rather, it sheds a light on some of the economic drivers behind fascist ideology. However, I did feel like it was written in a way to be more sympathetic towards Anna’s German perspective.

A challenging read with a unique concept, but ultimately I think the film was better.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Historical Fiction

Kingdom Cold

Multicultural fantasy reinterpretation of King Arthur mythology

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

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“Kingdom Cold” by Brittni Chenelle is a medieval fantasy novel about Charlotte, a princess, who at 16 years old is betrothed to a prince from a far away kingdom called Vires. When she first meets Prince Young, Charlotte will do anything within her power to sabotage the engagement. However, when her kingdom is invaded and she must flee for her life, Charlotte’s life changes forever.

This is a diverse reimagination of a classic mythology that. Chenelle explores gender roles, love, differences in culture and differences in faith against the backdrop of war and violence. Charlotte is a spirited princess who starts out prissy and dependent and who, by the end of the book, develops into someone much more strong. I quite enjoyed the character of Young and felt that he was a good counterweight to the story.

I think one thing that I struggled a little with this book is the sense of place. Charlotte’s kingdom feels very small geographically, and the invasion itself small in scale. I understand that Chenelle is writing in American English, but given that the characters are broadly European, African and Asian in ethnicity, I think I would have liked to have seen a little more diversity in language as well as a better sense of distance and geography. I also struggled with the character Milly, Charlotte’s handmaid, and felt that she didn’t really get a fair shake of the stick in this story.

A story that explores themes of romance between cultures and courage in the moment, fans of Arthurian legend may find an intriguing retelling.

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Filed under Book Reviews, Fantasy, Uncategorized