Tag Archives: memoir

The Anti-Cool Girl

Content warning: mental illness, addiction, suicide ideation. 

My experience of this book was a bit different to my usual reviews because I didn’t read it, I didn’t listen to it as an audiobook per se, but I listened to it as a podcast called “Mum Says My Memoir is a Lie“.

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“The Anti-Cool Girl” by Rosie Waterland is deeply personal memoir about Waterland’s experiences growing up in a dysfunctional family plagued by mental illness, addiction and poverty. Waterland chronicles her sometimes hilarious and sometimes deeply painful memories from birth up until just before publication. Although Waterland’s mother Lisa’s alcoholism had prevented her from reading the book when it first came out, Lisa has since sobered up and is ready to challenge Waterland on some of the things depicted in the book. On the podcast, each episode begins with Waterland narrating a chapter from the book and then Waterland and her mother Lisa spend the rest of the episode discussing the events of the chapter, especially around whether Waterland’s recollections are correct.

I think it’s difficult to separate out the book from the podcast because so much of podcast is the book, so this is going to be a kind of combined review. Waterland is a very funny writer, and has a exaggerated, self-depreciating sense of humour that balances out the more serious parts of the book. Waterland is also unflinchingly honest about her feelings and experiences, sometimes in quite shocking (and refreshing) detail. This book is overall an incredibly telling insight into Australia’s care and protection system, the public housing system and the mental health system. Rosie also shares her personal experiences with depression, suicide attempts, bullying and weight gain and then her remarkable success in her writing.

When I first started listening to this podcast, hearing Waterland read a chapter of her book, my initial judgment was that her mother Lisa was a terrible mother whose alcoholism traumatised her children. I think that if I had read the book by itself, that would have remained my judgment the entire way through. However, having Lisa participating in the podcast and responding to each chapter did lead me to think that Waterland was perhaps not always the most reliable narrator, especially in the chapters about her younger years. It also gave me a lot more empathy for Lisa and a better appreciation of her own struggles. However, where the facts aren’t completely clear or when some of the subject-matter gets a bit dark, you can count on Waterland to bring the mood back up with a joke or an embarrassing story about herself, even if it’s a bit embellished.

This is a powerful, hilarious and insightful book that is given a whole new layer of depth through this unconventional storytelling platform. I think the book is good, but the podcast is excellent and it is a very rare opportunity to listen to frank conversations between an author and her subject-matter: her mum.

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A Bit of Earth

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

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

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

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

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The Butcher’s Daughter: A Memoir

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the author. It was actually quiet a coincidence because I got it while I was reading “Maus“, and it turns out this book complements it very well.

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“The Butcher’s Daughter: a Memoir” by Florence Grende is a collection of vignettes about Florence and her family, their survival of the Holocaust by hiding in woods in East Poland and their new life in America. As a young girl stifled by their silence, Florence imagines her parents’ trauma as a beast that is always lurking within their house. It is not until she is an adult that Florence tries to learn more about her family and her people’s suffering and finds that some names and stories are lost forever.

Grende is a succinct and delicate writer who captures her experiences as a child of Holocaust survivors in bite-sized memories. She thoroughly explores the impact of her parents’ persecution on her home life and shines a light on intergenerational trauma and the effect of the war and moving to America has on her own Jewish identity. Her Mameh and Tateh are depicted as complex characters at once both stoic and vulnerable, trying to forget the unforgettable but who carry invisible (and visible) scars nonetheless.

Again, this would be an excellent companion to “Maus”. Grende provides a daughter’s perspective on her parents that is insightful and sympathetic with more of a focus on who they are rather than who they were.

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Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

This is a borrowed book from my bestie who has been telling me I should read it for absolute yonks. The way she described it to me made it sound a bit like Mad Max – a wild, lawless society. It had mosied its way to the top of my reading pile, and finally I decided to give it a crack.

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“Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight” is a memoir by Alexandra “Bobo” Fuller of her childhood growing up in Zimbabwe, Malawi and Zambia. Her English heritage parents scrape a living managing tobacco farm after tobacco farm, moving frequently both by choice and by force as war and political climates in post-colonial Africa dictates. Raised amid rampant drinking, smoking, guns, violence, disease and hunger, it’s not the safest upbringing for Bobo and her sister Vanessa and the family’s feral lifestyle ultimately takes a big toll. Nevertheless, Bobo falls in love with Africa’s adventures, smells, landscape, wildlife, freedom and, finally, her people.

Fuller is an incredibly vivid writer and as someone who has never visited the African continent, this was an incredibly immersive book. She paints a stark picture of war-torn countries, abject poverty and unrepentant racism interspersed with humour and appreciation for beauty. While in the beginning her book has a white film over it, in line with the uncritical thinking of a child, as the cracks appear in her parents’ lifestyle and the white stronghold on ruling African nations, so too do they appear in what Bobo has been taught about white superiority. I think my main criticism of this book is that it did feel like she didn’t go far enough with her critique of either her family or the society she lived in. A lot of the things she wrote jarred against the eyes of someone reading in 2017, and I do appreciate that it’s a fifteen year old memoir about Africa in the 1970s, but I felt like the criticism should have been a bit more pointed.

An unparalleled and eye-opening insight into crumbling colonialism and the effects of neglect and mental illness on families, this is would be a great start for someone who wanted to learn more about Africa’s tumultuous history and the rise and decline of white settlers.

 

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The Hate Race

This book has been on my radar since it was released in August, but when I found out that local Canberra journal Feminartsy would be using it to kick off their Read Like a Feminist book club this month, well I knew I had to get myself a copy ASAP. I picked it up from the National Library of Australia bookshop and I’ve been waiting to read it.

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“The Hate Race” by Maxine Beneba Clarke, is a memoir about Clarke’s experiences growing up black in 80s and 90s Australia. Born in Australia to British parents, a mathematician and an actor, Clarke’s childhood was largely the quintessential suburban 90s Aussie kid experience. However throughout preschool, primary school and high school her skin colour again and again makes her the recipient of assumptions, stereotypes, microaggressions and even outright racism from teachers and children alike. As she grows older, Clarke learns about the significance of her West Indies and Guyana heritage and about Australia’s own dark past – one that from her perspective doesn’t seem so very distant after all.

I just recently reviewed a famous childhood memoir by Maya Angelou about growing up black in America’s south. This is better. This is a book that Australian kids should be reading. In fact, the high school curriculum should be reviewed, another book scrapped and this put on the list instead. There is no doubt that Angelou could write, but Clarke can do that and more: she can tell a story. Each paragraph, each chapter has a purpose and each memory echoes after you turn the page. For any kid who grew up in the 90s, this book will resonate. Clarke’s experiences – new bikes, concrete toilet blocks, spitballs, cabbage patch kids, 50c bags of red frogs, Trish on Playschool – they’re all of our experiences. Except when white is Australia’s default colour, it’s not white kids who get constantly reminded what colour they are.

This book is one of the best that I have read all year and it should be mandatory reading for all Australians.

 

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