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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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Filed under Book Reviews, Non Fiction

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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A Series of Unfortunate Events: The Reptile Room

Children’s book series about three hapless orphans

I was reading my review of the first book in this series, and I actually cannot believe it has been almost three years since I wrote that review. As is often the case, I was scrounging around for short books to read at the end of last year to meet my reading goal, and I thought I’d pick the series back up. The hardcover editions of the series are really lovely with deckle edges and eerie illustrations.

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“The Reptile Room” by Lemony Snicket is the second book of the 13 that make up “A Series of Unfortunate Events”. After things end rather badly with Count Olaf, the Baudelaire children are sent to live instead with Dr Montgomery Montgomery, a world renowned herpetologist who lives in a wonderful large house housing countless species of reptile. The children warm to him immediately, and prepare to accompany him on his next expedition to Peru. However, when Uncle Monty hires Stephano, the new assistant is strangely familiar to the children.

I enjoyed this book a lot more than the first. Uncle Monty is a lovable character who is as oblivious as he is brilliant, and I thought his profession and the way the reptiles are woven into the story made it for a much more interesting read.

The adults are still pretty useless in this book, and I will stress that this is a book for a particular age group.

I’ve been finding it interesting actually watching the Netflix television series, episode by episode after reading the books. The series has drawn very heavily from the books, but has given the audience a little more of the over-arching story. It is a bit of a different experience, but if you’re keen to get your kids reading, getting them into both the books and the TV show might not be a bad idea.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books

Hare’s Fur

Novel about family, trust and ceramics

I picked this book up at Muse one day while having a browse of the bookshop. It’s not secret I love rabbits, and although this book isn’t about any lagomorphs, it still piqued my interest. I have a soft spot for books about ceramics anyway, and I hadn’t heard of this local author before, so I bought myself a copy.

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“Hare’s Fur” by Trevor Shearston is a novel about Russell, a potter who lives alone in the Blue Mountains. Grieving the death of his wife only months previously, Russell continues with his work throwing his beautiful bottles, teapots and plates and glazing them with his signature glaze using ore from a secret place near his home. One day while collecting ore, he finds three children camped out in a cave. Although still raw from his loss, as he learns about their story, Russell must decide how much he can open his heart to the siblings.

This is a quiet, subtle novel with a strong sense of place. Shearston writes beautifully about the art of pottery and leads the reader gently into an understanding of this craft, the skill required and the value of excellent ceramics. I thought Shearston handled the issue of class, one of the main themes in this book, very well. Although not wealthy per se, Russell is an educated, accomplished man who mostly socialises with peers from the art world. His life of routine and contemplation is starkly juxtaposed against the disrupted lives of three kids who have grown up in poverty and are facing the prospect of foster care. The social observation rounds out the reader’s understanding of the Blue Mountains region as a place not only of scenic beauty that attracts tourists and artists alike, but also a place with pockets of disadvantage.

While the strength of this novel is its mood, it is a slow burn so if you’re looking for action or suspense, it might not be for you. This story unfolds slowly and gently with a focus on characters rather than plot.

An enjoyable and insightful novel, perfect for a weekend read.

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Filed under Australian Books, General Fiction

The Swan Book

Speculative fiction novel about an Aboriginal woman and her swans

Content warning: sexual assault

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that I’ve started listening to audio books as a means of motivating myself to go to the gym. I’m still fine-tuning how exactly I select which books to listen to, but certainly the quality of the narrator is something I’ve realised is important to me. I have been trying to read more books by Aboriginal authors, and although I had heard of this author, I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I was scrolling through the categories on Audible and this book jumped out at me. I listened to the narrator in the sample, and immediately knew I wanted to hear more.

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“The Swan Book” by Alexis Write and narrated by Jacqui Katona is a speculative fiction novel about an Australia in the not too distant future. The story is about a young woman called Oblivia Ethylene who does not speak and whose story begins when she was found living in a tree. Taken in by a climate migrant Bella Donna, Oblivia lives on a swamp inside a rusted out hull in the middle of a military-run Aboriginal camp in Australia’s far north, and they are visited often by the overbearing Harbour Master.

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A photo I took a while back of black swans on Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra 

However, as time passes, it becomes clear that Oblivia is not a reliable narrator, and her life actually began before she was found in a tree. We learn that Oblivia was gang raped, outcast from her family and deeply traumatised by the experience. Oblivia forms a deep connection with swans that come to Swamp Lake, later renamed Swan Lake, inspired by Bella Donna’s own love for the white swans of her homeland. After Bella Donna dies, Oblivia is visited by the newly sworn-in first Aboriginal President of Australia, Warren Finch who informs her that she is his promised bride. As Oblivia is forced to follow him to the Southern cities, she is in turn followed by the ghosts of her past and confronted by new ghosts in her future.

This is a deeply rich and complex novel that tackles a number of issues through a unique perspective such as trauma, the Intervention and climate change. I was struck by how many of the issues and predictions Wright made seem even more pressing now, only 7 years after publication. Oblivia is a fascinating character who appears both more aware and more naive than she first seems. Wright is a natural storyteller with a patient style, slowly unfurling each new piece of information and examining it from several perspectives before laying it down carefully before you. Nothing is rushed in this novel, yet at the end I found myself still unsure about so many elements of the plot. How much was real, how much was Oblivia’s fantasy, and how much was something in between? I’m still not certain what happened to the Genies or to Warren Finch, and whether Oblivia saw herself on TV or an impostor.

I absolutely must comment though on the narration of this book. Jacqui Katona was a superb narrator who captured the spirit of the novel completely. She has a soft, slightly cracked voice that reminds me of dust picked up by a desert wind. I loved listening to Katona speak in language, and she had a great knack for capturing the voices of the different characters, the matter-of-factness of the narration generally and even singing refrains from some of the songs referenced in the book.

Although Katona brought this book to life, I did at times find it a bit challenging to listen to. It’s no secret to anyone who has met me that I’m not the best at processing what I hear, but I did find this book at times maybe a little complex to concentrate on while I was also trying to count reps at the gym. Although Wright revisits pieces of the story several times, I did at times find myself asking whether a certain part was supposed to be ambiguous, or whether I had just missed something while I was trying to set the speed on the cross-trainer.

A captivating, intricate and extremely relevant book that Katona impeccably narrates.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Science Fiction

Peter Pan

Classic children’s novel where children don’t grow up

This book hardly needs an introduction. “Peter Pan” has been adapted so many times into so many mediums, but most particularly film. There has been films that are animated and live action, a sequel to and a prequel to the book. Even though I had never read the book before, I had seen so many adaptations of the story that I was very familiar with the plot and themes. I can’t recall where I found this beautiful edition, but I’m not surprised that I bought it. Part of the Puffin Chalk collection, the book has a beautiful chalk-inspired design on the front and back cover and has deckle edges.

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I must have spent about an hour looking for the chalk I knew I had somewhere in the house to draw a hopscotch “court”. On the plus side, while looking for it I found a lost set of keys. 

“Peter Pan” by J. M. Barrie is a classic children’s novel about three children called Wendy, John and Michael Darling who meet a boy called Peter Pan who teaches them to fly. Peter takes them to Neverland, an island only able to be accessed by air. The Darling children join Peter and the Lost Boys in fighting pirates, play-fighting with the Native American tribe, listening to mermaids, watching fairies and hunting the many beasts that live in Neverland. Peter and Wendy play at being mother and father to the young boys, but before long, Wendy realises that they are forgetting their own parents. However, before she can make for home, she is kidnapped by the nefarious Captain Hook who is seeking revenge for Peter cutting off his hand and feeding it to a crocodile.

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It was a really interesting experience finally reading this book that has inspired so many films and concepts. I think every adaptation I’ve seen has drawn quite faithfully on elements from the story, and the themes of Peter Pan have filtered so completely into pop culture, so when I did read it, almost every phrase and every event was familiar to me. The book is jammed full of ideas of love, adulthood and motherhood and what you potentially lose by gaining immortality.

Barrie has quite a primal way of writing, depicting children as almost feral creatures who are often selfish and ruled by instinct. When the children first fly to Neverland, they fly for days, stealing fish from birds and unphased by the unknown. In fact, Barrie’s style reminded me a lot of Joan Lindsay’s “Picnic at Hanging Rock“; dark, with quite a lot of allusions to death and violence, and bodies being things that are malleable and even disposable. The result is a book that while magical, often evokes a sense of unease rather than a sense of wonder. Peter himself is irreverent and unsentimental, with no qualms about using violence including (Barrie hints) against his own Lost Boys. The contradiction between Peter’s rejection of his own mother, playing father to Wendy as mother but yet refusing to grow up is the heart of this novel.

Originally a play, the novelisation was published in 1911 so it is unsurprising that there are elements of this story that have not aged well. If I were reading this book to a child, there would be a lot of points upon which I would have stop and discuss – not least of which Barrie’s depiction of the people indigenous to Neverland. This book deals directly and indirectly with death, which is also hardly surprising given the character of Peter Pan was inspired by Barrie’s own brother who died in childhood. The book also has quite entrenched gender roles, with Wendy moving straight from her nursery into becoming the mother for the lost boys, later returning to Neverland to do Peter’s spring cleaning.

I think this book will remain a classic because growing up is a timeless and universal theme for all children. However, it is a book that I think needs to be read with a critical eye and with an understanding of the context in which it was written.

 

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Filed under Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Pretty Books, Puffin Chalk

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.

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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”.

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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