Tag Archives: memoir

No Friend But the Mountains

Memoir of an asylum seeker in indefinite detention

I borrowed a copy of this book from a colleague. We had a bit of an office book club, and this was one our master list of books to discuss. This book garnered a significant amount of attention after publication for many reasons, but there were two that really stuck with me. First was that this book was written text message by text message over WhatsApp and then painstakingly translated. It is an enormous amount of work to write a book with the luxury of a laptop, but to type one out on a mobile phone is nothing short of remarkable. Second was that the author won two extremely prestigious awards in Australia, but due to being detained on Manus Island, was unable to accept the awards in person. Needless to say, this was a book I very much wanted to read.

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“No Friend But the Mountains” by Behrouz Boochani and translated by Omid Tofighian is a literary memoir about Boochani’s experiences as an asylum seeker in detention centre on Manus Island. The book begins by detailing harrowing attempts by Boochani and other asylum seekers to travel to Australia by boat, and the impact of failed attempts on the safety and morale of passengers. Eventually, after another dangerous attempt, Boochani’s boat is intercepted by Australian authorities and he is transported to Christmas Island before being transferred to Manus Island. Once there, it becomes clear that this is not likely to be a temporary stay. As time stretches on and the prisoners endure competition for access to food and facilities, tension from the guards and local Papuans and ultimately violence, Boochani begins to try to understand the logic behind the centre.

As we enter our 7th year of offshore detention policy, this is a critically important book. I’m going to break the fourth wall for a moment here and say that this is a very difficult review for me to write. Our media and political discourse has been dominated by polarised opinions about how best to manage the phenomenon of asylum seekers who attempt to travel to Australia by boat from Indonesia, and I have and continue to have a lot to say on the topic. However, I think that I need to set that aside for the purposes of this review and focus instead on Boochani’s book. The primary reason for this, aside from it being the subject of this review, is that I feel that largely the voices of people who are in offshore detention are excluded from discussion about the policies that directly impact them.

The translator, Tofighian, spends a long time before the book begins outlining some of the history of Iranian literature and the theories that Boochani has developed to try to understand the mechanism of offshore detention and the way the centre itself is run. This was invaluable later in the book to help understand Boochani’s unique style of prose intermingled with poetry and the broader implications of what is described as “Manus Prison Theory” and the “Kyriarchal system“. Boochani argues that the prison is deliberately run to cause conflict among the prisoners and between the prisoners and guards, and the availability of food, toilets, showers and any form of entertainment is deliberately limited to cause stress and hopelessness.

Boochani’s intellectualism oozes from the pages, and emphasises the self-awareness of people in offshore detention. Boochani wryly acknowledges that the difference between him being taken to Manus Island and him being assessed on mainland Australia was nothing more than a matter of days. Boochani styles himself as largely an observer of the prison dynamics, however he is ultimately never able to forget his status as a detainee and is never able to completely isolate himself from the pain his fellow detainees feel. In fact, this heightened and overwhelming sense of empathy between his efforts to rationalise what is happening is what really makes this book. The interludes of poetry, although I would hardly consider myself an authority on poetry, is where Boochani does what I feel that Australia has largely failed to do: highlight the humanity of the people on Manus Island.

I think that the main thing I struggle with about this book was a criticism I often level at memoir. In this case, it was Boochani’s decision not to explain in detail his personal circumstances that led him to flee Iran, and his decision not to explain the thought-process and mechanics of paying someone to take him to Australia by boat. I completely understand that there may be sensitivities around divulging this information, not just for Boochani’s safety but for people who may have assisted him. However, I did feel that given the strength of the rest of the book in building empathy and understanding, this was somewhat of a wasted opportunity. I won’t descend into a lecture about the legal status of refugees in the countries between Iran and Australia or the availability of rights and resettlement in Indonesia, but I felt that a by being a bit more frank about these issues Boochani’s book may have addressed some of the most frequent criticisms leveled at asylum seekers.

Nevertheless, this is a necessary book that brings a much-needed perspective to an issue that my country has been fighting over for years. Boochani has a strong, haunting voice and I think that this is a book that not only should be read by as many people as possible, but one that has and will continue to leave a mark on Australian literary history.

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River Queens: Saucy boat, stout mates, spotted dog, America

Memoir about a gay American couple, their restored river boat and their dog

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

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“River Queens: Saucy boat, stout mates, spotted dog, America” by Alexander Watson is a memoir about a couple, Alexander and Dale, who decide to restore a luxurious wooden motor yacht. Together with their dalmatian Doris Faye, the pair embark on a physical and emotional journey first getting the boat seaworthy, and second taking it out on the Arkansas, Tennessee and Ohio Rivers. Along the way they meet the unique characters who make a living operating marinas and locks and maintaining boats.

This is a lovely book. Watson captures the domestic dynamic between Alexander and Dale in a beautiful way: creative and tempestuous Alexander draws on his experience from antiques and quiet and reliable Dale is the ship’s captain. Doris Faye is the beloved mascot who wins over every stranger. Watson has an engaging writing style and brings everyone they meet on the river to life. As someone from Australia, which is (at least among Anglo-Australians) a bit of a monoculture, I loved reading about people’s different accents and eccentricities, and the culture of camaraderie along the river. I’ve travelled on river boats a couple of times: a house boat on the Canal du Midi in France, a narrow boat on the Trent & Mersey Canal in the UK and the Clyde River in the USA. It was really nice adding to the little I know with people who have made an idyllic holiday a lifestyle.

A issue I often have with memoir is that I get so engrossed in the story and the people in it, and I find myself wanting to know much more about the “characters” and their lives. As a gay couple travelling the southern states of America, Alexander and Dale occasionally are not met with acceptance, including from their own families. I found myself wanting to know more about their families and their earlier lives, however I have to remind myself that these are real people and perhaps not all their personal details need to be exposed to sate my curiosity. One issue that was very easily solved was that I really wanted a map so I could follow the trio along their journey. It turns out, Watson has just such a map on his website.

This book is a great modern take on a classic American journey and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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Only

Memoir about growing up as an only child in post-war Europe

The first I heard of this book was when I went to go see the author speak at the National Library of Australia. As someone from a large family, I have always been a bit curious about the dynamics of a family with only one child, and so I bought a myself a copy and got it signed by the author.

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“Only” by Caroline Baum is a memoir about growing up as an only child with two European parents in England. With Caroline’s successful businessman father an Austrian refugee from the war and her beautiful mother an orphan from tragic circumstances, her elegant yet traumatised parents raise her in an affluent home full of tension and high expectations. As a young adult, the controlled and isolated environment of her childhood becomes stifling and Caroline begins to forge her own life. However, as her relationship with her parents turns increasingly fractious as they age, Caroline finally severs ties with her parents. Resuming contact years later after a tentative olive branch, Caroline soon finds that her relationship with her parents is forever changed.

This is a beautifully written book that weaves together the many themes experienced by  this small but complex family. Baum explores the deep and lasting impact of her parents’ trauma on her family’s unique dynamic, and throughout the book struggles to reconcile with her father’s controlling behaviour against his extreme vulnerability as an older man. Baum is very cognizant of her family’s privilege and her recollections of her extraordinary upbringing are tempered with an awareness that the dinners, schools, clothes and travel were not opportunities available to many people. I also really enjoyed Baum’s recollections of her early days as a journalist, which honestly would have made a great memoir in its own right.

I think the one thing that I felt was missing was a bit more information about Baum’s life in Australia. I think that with any memoir, it’s hard to know what to include and what to exclude. This is a book about being an only child, but I would have liked to have read more about what it is like to be an only child living in another country away from your parents.

A fascinating insight into an elite and insular post-war family, I enjoyed this book and I look forward to reading more of Baum’s work.

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Lost the Plot – Episode 28 – Memoir

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Capital Yarns Volume 2
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Street Library stolen from Franklin
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Readings Prize for New Australian Fiction 2018 – Shortlist
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“The Lucky Galah” by Tracey Sorensen
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Shakespeare’s Library
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New covers for Georgette Heyer novels
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“Ball Lightening” by Cixin Liu
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“His Name Was Walter” by Emily Rodda
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“The Barefoot Investor for Families” by Scott Pape
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The phonics controversy continues
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John Marsden wouldn’t write the Tomorrow Series
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Chinese crime writer who based his books on his own murders
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“No Country Woman” by Zoya Patel
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Gaysia” by Benjamin Law
The Hate Race” by Maxine Beneba Clarke
Hunger” by Roxane Gay
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August Reads
“Oathbringer” by Brandon Sanderson
“No Country Woman” by Zoya Patel
“City of Brass” by S. A. Chakraborty
“Cicada” by Shaun Tan
“Love and Other Inconveniences” by Rhea Arielle

 

 

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Foot Notes

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

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“Foot Notes” by Benjamin Allmon is a memoir about a last ditch attempt to make it as a musician. Ben records an album, renames himself Smokey and sets on a 1,000km trek from Queensland to Sydney. Smokey sets out full of confidence that he’ll be able to sell albums, walk the whole way and sleep rough without any dramas. However, it quickly becomes clear that his expectations about weather, terrain, performing and even his audience were not even close to reality.

This was a really interesting read about a pretty extraordinary journey. Allmon’s experience walks a line between pilgrimage and homelessness. The only assets he has are his guitar and CDs to sell. He has no tent, no cash and no support aside from friendly strangers he meets along the way. I’ve driven up and down the Princes Highway between Sydney and the Gold Coast more times than I can count, along that hellish road between those north coast towns. A lot of the places Allmon walked through were places that I had visited. Beautiful coastal scenery and towns that are plagued with unemployment. On foot, Allmon observes far more than I ever have out the window of my white sedan on cruise control. More importantly, he observes his own responses to the people that he meets. Elitism is a hard trait to maintain when you’re sleeping under a plastic garbage bag on the beach. I think one of the most important parts about this book is Allmon finding himself through finding his audience.

When reviewing a memoir, it’s always tricky to critique the book without critiquing the author’s experiences. I think that Allmon wrote an incredibly honest story, and for the most part it was pared down to the most interesting and dramatic parts. I think where I really enjoyed Smokey’s interactions with the locals (flora and fauna included), I was a bit lost during some of the passages where Smokey is overcoming physical and emotional hardship. I think the pragmatist in me was very frustrated by scenes such as the crossing of “the Sahara”. I felt like many obstacles could have been avoided with a bit of preparation, and so I think I wasn’t quite as willing to come to the party about how meaningful overcoming them was.

Ultimately though, this book was a pleasant surprise. I would recommend it to anyone who feels like the pursuit of their dreams is getting a bit stale, or anyone who wants to get a good look at life on the north coast through a fresh pair of eyes.

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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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