Tag Archives: Non Fiction

The Trauma Cleaner

Content warning: gender identity, trauma, suicide, neglect, abuse, mental illness

The author of this book came to speak at an event in Canberra earlier this year, and although I unfortunately couldn’t make it – I did manage to meet the author later on in the evening. Having heard the premise of this book, I knew it was one I was going to have to read. Then I had the absolute pleasure of seeing her speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival.

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“The Trauma Cleaner” by Sarah Krasnostein is a biography of transgender Melbourne woman Sandra Pankhurst. A trauma cleaner whose business is in cleaning up humanity’s worst messes from suicides to hoarding situations, Krasnostein’s book explores how Sandra went from a neglected little boy to a successful and resilient woman. Interspersed throughout Sandra’s story are the stories of her clients: sad and lonely people who are being suffocated by their traumas.

Krasnostein writes with a piercing depth that is difficult to encapsulate. She applies an academic rigour to the story, but also manages to reach multiple layers of humanity both in sharing Sandra’s story as well as the story of her clients.  This story is so thoroughly researched yet so honest about where the limits of verifiable fact lie. Sandra is a fascinating person and Krasnostein explores each of her many lives with an exacting sensitivity that demands empathy from the reader. Krasnostein maintains her sense of candour when describing Sandra’s sad upbringing, exiled to the shed by her neglectful and occasionally violent family; her brief stint as a father and husband; the shocking grief of losing her girlfriend; her years working as a sex worker; her years as the wife of a businessman; and, finally, her life as a successful businesswoman.

Having worked in the mental health sector, I thought that Krasnostein did an excellent job navigating the stories of Sandra’s clients. Hoarding is a particularly insidious mental health issue and although it is actually relatively common, it can be difficult for others to relate to. I think one of my favourite parts of the book was when Krasnostein captured Sandra’s finesse and compassion in speaking to these people and asking them to help her help them.

I think the only thing that felt a little jarring was that on a few occasions, Krasnostein goes to some lengths defend Sandra and her choices. However, I think that Sandra’s story really speaks for itself. Sandra’s kindness radiates off the page and the occasions where she made mistakes just make her feel even more relatable.

Anyway, there is absolutely no question why this book won two prizes at the Victorian Premier’s literary awards. It is excellently written and excellently researched, and it tells the story of someone whose story would otherwise never have been told.

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Joe Cinque’s Consolation

Content warning: death, mental illness, murder

I’ve been listening to the podcast “Chat 10 Looks 3” which is hosted by Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb for a while now, and they are both enormous fans of Helen Garner. I have actually never read anything by Helen Garner before, and so I was inspired to try one of her books. I wasn’t quite sure where to start, but there was one story (as someone who lives in Canberra and went to the Australian National University) that I have always wanted to know more about.

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“Joe Cinque’s Consolation” by Helen Garner is a non-fiction book about the killing of engineer Joe Cinque by his girlfriend Anu Singh with a lethal injection of heroin in Canberra in 1997, and the subsequent trials in the ACT Supreme Court. Although not present for the aborted joint trial by jury, writer Helen Garner attended the trials of Anu Singh and her friend Madhavi Rao and interviewed friends and family of the accused as well as Joe Singh to try to understand why this death happened.

This was a really difficult book to read. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the surroundings to me – parts of Canberra, the ACT Supreme Court, even the street where Singh and Cinque lived. I’m not sure if it was because of the familiarity of the mental health system to me. Maybe this book just felt a bit too close to home.

Also, maybe it was Garner’s writing style. She had a compelling but really terse tone that seemed quite at odds with her descriptions of her own emotional reactions to the events around her. I read the book and didn’t feel like I found much empathy or even information but instead found a lot of judgment. There was something about this book that reminded me of a Louis Theroux documentary I saw once. Unable to get an interview with Michael Jackson, Louis Theroux instead spends his time interviewing everyone he can who is as close as possible to the pop star, trying to find out the real story. I felt like Helen Garner in this book was a smarter version of Louis Theroux. She tried to get to the heart of the story, but in the end, without being able to speak to Anu Singh directly (which was hardly Garner’s fault) the book felt unfinished somehow. I also felt like despite trying to instead shift the focus on Joe Cinque, and having access to his family, the picture of Joe Cinque was incomplete as well.

There were two other things that got under my skin as well as made me think. The first was that despite all the focus on Anu Singh and her actions, you simply cannot tell this story without shining a spotlight on the inaction of the people closest to her. I think this was a source of tension in the story because although the temptation is to think of Anu Singh as some demonic succubus, the reality is that she did what she did because the people around her didn’t stop her. It was a completely preventable crime, yet nobody prevented it – despite Singh’s clearly deteriorating mental state. I felt like this was a concept that Garner herself struggled with, because I felt like Garner’s gut reaction was to dislike Anu Singh.

This leads me to the second point – Anu Singh through a feminist lens. I think Anu Singh herself was problematic because although everyone who knew her was attracted (or repelled by) her beauty, histrionics, fragility and body image obsession – apparent paragons of femininity – she then rejected that femininity by becoming a criminal of the worst kind. Suddenly she wasn’t a thin, pretty and melodramatic young woman anymore. She was a sinister she-devil who used sex to commit an abhorrent crime. I think perhaps Garner struggled to find an objective medium when it came to Singh’s character, especially one that encompassed mental illness, and particularly a personality disorder. Garner focuses a lot on femininity and female relationships in this book, but despite being drawn to the women she meets while researching this book, she never quite seems to be comfortable in that kind of discourse or those kinds of relationships. The lingering of the book over what Singh and Rao are wearing, how they were sitting, how they were reacting during the trial irked me. Perhaps these superficial observations would have been less prominent if the book had been written today. Perhaps today there would have been more of a focus on Singh’s deteriorating mental health and the inability of society to prevent her from hurting herself and others.

The entire time I was reading this book, I kept misremembering the title as “Joe Cinque’s Desolation”. I was looking for the consolation, as I think Helen Garner was as well, and I honestly don’t think in the end either of us found it. I think this is a powerful, insightful and well-researched book (given the circumstances) but I don’t think that it contained any revelations larger than the fact that Australia’s mental health system needs some significant improvement and people need to take threats their friends make seriously.

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On Doubt

About a year ago, my friend suggested that I check out a podcast called “Chat 10 Looks 3“. It’s a conversational show with media heavyweights and real life BFFs Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales and I quickly became hooked. The fanbase of the show, who call themselves Chatters, have swelled in numbers and Crabb and Sales have started doing special live events around the country. My friend wangled me a ticket to one such event in Sydney and we drove up from Canberra to see the pair speak a few weeks ago. Both Sales and Crabb are published authors, and they had a number of books for sale (theirs and books by their own favourite authors) after the show. I bought one book by Sales, and one by Crabb, then lined up to get mine signed. Sales’ book is very small and very short, so it didn’t take long for me at all to get to reading it.

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Disclaimer: I would never actually throw a book in the bin (I would either donate it or, at the very least, recycle it). Leigh Sales, however, has no sentimentality or qualms about getting rid of books once read and Annabel Crabb has taken to inscribing gift books to Sales with her personal address and mobile number just to make sure she doesn’t ditch them!

“On Doubt” by Leigh Sales is a short non-fiction personal essay about Sales’ observations on truth in politics and media as an Australian journalist. Originally published in 2009, this 2017 reprint includes a postscript about changes in media and politics in the past 8 years.

It is a quick read, and this is going to be a quick review because really there’s no excuse not to read this book yourself. It cost me $12.99 and you can buy the eBook version even cheaper. Sales investigates politicians who frequently make decisions based on gut feelings and instincts and the stigma and perception of weakness that is associated with those who doubt or are uncertain. For example, Victorian Premiere Daniel Andrews’ public admission that he changed his opinion about euthanasia was headline news because it is so unusual.

Opinions are increasingly being substituted for facts and the although the rise of the internet was expected to mean more information, it has in fact meant more platforms for people to voice mere opinions without being challenged. This book champions the courage it takes to tell the truth and the courage it takes for politicians and media magnates to admit when they are wrong, have made mistakes or have changed their mind. Sales has a clean, honest and matter-of-fact style of writing and makes her points both eloquently and succinctly.

In a world poisoned by fake news, alternative facts and baseless mantras like “everyone is entitled to their own opinion”, this book is the antidote we all desperately need right now.

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The Case Against Fragrance

So I’ve held off on writing this review because, strictly speaking, I didn’t buy this book for myself. It isn’t very long, so even though I got it signed for my Grandma a couple of weeks ago when I saw Kate Grenville speak at the National Library of Australia, I had a cheeky flip through before I put it in the post.

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“The Case Against Fragrance” by Kate Grenville is a non-fiction book about the pervasiveness of fragrance in products we use everyday. Although Grenville is best-known for her novels, she started this book after becoming increasingly affected by her own “fragrance sensitivity” – something that is actually not uncommon at all. In clear, accessible language, Grenville sets out what we do and what we don’t know about the chemicals included under the umbrella term “fragrance” or “parfum” and the impacts that they can have on our bodies and on our health. Her findings are shocking. Every day we apply things to our skin, clean with them and spray them into the air and due to “trade secrets”, we have no idea what is in them or the effects they have.

This is a very important book. I am no stranger to fragrance sensitivity. I’ve worked in a workplace where fragrance was banned, and I know people who cannot abide to be in the same room with someone who is wearing perfume. Personally, I can’t stand new car smell, petrol fumes or even the shower cleaner I use. Nevertheless, I am constantly surprised at the amount of products we buy and use, trusting that the big companies we buy them from have ensured that they are safe, ethical and environmentally friendly. After reading this book, I did a quick whip around my house to see how many cleaning and bath products I use on a daily basis have the mysterious ingredient “fragrance” listed in their ingredients, and it was nearly every single one I looked at. The only product I could find that was fragrance/parfum free was my bottle-free bar of Ethique shampoo which contained essential oils instead. This is including brands that I deliberately go out of my way to buy because they don’t test on animals or because they’re eco-friendly. I have to admit, I felt betrayed.

I think Grenville is really onto something here and this book may be a game changer in the increasing social awareness about what we buy, what’s in it and where it comes from. This is a real wake up call for us to constantly check what we put in, on and around our bodies. It’s a quick read and I think it’s a critical reminder that consumers cannot guarantee that companies have their interests or wellbeing at heart.

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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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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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