Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Australian (page 1 of 4)

The Helpline – Katherine Collette

I first encountered Katherine Collette via her podcast with Kate Mildenhall (The First Time). She spoke there about The Helpline, writing it and the process of publishing, and I thought it sounded fascinating. To be honest, though, I probably would have picked it up anyway, based on the amazing and hilarious cover art alone…

The Helpline - Katherine Collette - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Helpline here.
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The Helpline is a book about Germaine. Germaine is in her late thirties, she’s very good with numbers, she loves Soduku (more than most people, she attends conventions and watches YouTube videos of champions in her spare time), and she very recently lost her job as senior mathematician at Wallace Insurance. Her mother, Sharon, is hardly the nurturing type, and full of useless suggestions, which is why Germaine makes a point of seeing her as little as possible. In fact, she avoids most people. She’d rather be analysing spreadsheet data than engaging in pointless conversation.

Germaine soon discovers that there is very little demand in the job market for senior mathematicians. In the end, she’s forced to accept the only job she can get: answering the senior’s helpline at the local council. She shares an office with her new colleague, Eva (who drinks three large Slurpees a day, and sleeps just five hours a night). Aside from the paycheck, the only good thing about working the helpline is the free biscuits.

It’s not long before the mayor, high-flyer Verity Bainbridge, recognises Germaine’s unique talents and work ethic. Naturally, she invites Germaine to participate in a secret project: ousting the chairperson of the local Senior Citizen’s Center, Gladys. Gladys has been causing a lot of trouble for the owner of the ritzy golf club next door. In fact, it might be best if the Senior Citizen’s Center was closed down altogether – for the good of the community, Verity reassures Germaine. Germaine agrees, and takes to her new assignment with vigor, but it all goes a bit sideways when she’s forced to get to know the people she’s supposed to be getting rid of…

The Helpline is a charming, heart-warming story for anyone who loves a good oddball protagonist: think The Rosie Project, or A Man Called Ove. Germaine’s quirky narration (complete with helpful figures and graphs to illustrate her story: anticipated career trajectory, persons at fault for The Incident, and so on) is immediately endearing. Of course, the underlying truth that makes these kinds of books enjoyable is the disconnect between the way the narrator sees the world and the way we know it to be, but the comedy is magnified by the fact that we can also recognise the truth in Germaine’s dealings with bureaucracy and office politics. In other hands, that could make The Helpline sad or confusing or (worst of all) dull, but Collette nails the voice that allows us to engage and empathise and laugh with (instead of at) Germaine.

Another masterstroke: Collette provides an array of small, delightful details that flesh out The Helpline without bogging it down. I can see how this plot and its characters could have easily swung too far in one direction or the other – grossly saccharine, or striving but soulless – but Collette gets the balance just right. Her prose is lighthearted, but sharp, and straightforward, but enchanting.

An important note: Germaine’s personality isn’t a front. There’s no shadowy childhood trauma that “made her this way” (unless you count the cheating scandal that robbed Alan Cosgrove of the 2006 Soduku Championship). It’s a welcome respite from the trigger-heavy “rom coms with depth” that build a character around a defining Terrible Thing that happened to them years prior to the narrative.

I’ve read elsewhere a couple of veiled allusions to the fact that The Helpline may have been inspired by real-life events (Celia may or may not bear a resemblance to a certain president of a certain senior citizen’s centre somewhere in this great country). It’s certainly not hard to believe, given the machinations of local councils and petty corruption we’ve all become too used to. That said, this book is more than just an office comedy with a light romantic sub-plot: it’s a witty contemporary parable about how we decide what to value in life, and what to do when the world throws us a curve ball or two.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Helpline:

  • “I didn’t finish , too slow characters pathetic, all they seem concerned about was biscuit jar .” – Jan Fischer
  • “The characters made me laugh throughout the whole book. Of course, they also made me quit doing Sudoku.” – Betsy Donaghey

Australia Day – Melanie Cheng

One of my favourite bits of book trivia is that Arthur Conan Doyle, author of Sherlock Holmes, was actually a country doctor. Believe it or not, back in those days, writing actually paid better than doctoring, so detective stories were his side-hustle. It’s kind of the other way around for Melanie Cheng, but still, she is both a general practitioner, and now – after publication of her debut short story collection, Australia Day, in 2017 – a writer.

Australia Day - Melanie Cheng - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Balancing medicine and manuscript wasn’t easy for Cheng. This collection was written over a period of nine years, and finally published after she won the Victorian Premier’s Prize for an unpublished manuscript in 2016. Australia Day contains 14 stories, each depicting some aspect of the life of a “typical” Australian. Of course, there’s no such thing; her protagonists range from the very young to the very old, the wealthy to the working class, the vaguely Christian to the devout Muslim… so, no points for deducing that she was Making A Point(TM).

Australians don’t share a single background or cultural identity, nor do their experiences of Australian life necessarily match up. And yet, the characters in Australia Day undoubtedly “belong” together. They all desire the comfort of home, and yet they all feel some variety of displacement. That seems to be the defining characteristic of the typical Australian, by this collection’s definition.

An important note on the title, for overseas Keeper Upperers who might not understand the subtext: Australia Day is our “official” national public holiday, 26 January, supposedly commemorating the arrival of the First Fleet of British ships in 1788. Setting the many historical quibbles with that date aside, it has become a really contentious subject in contemporary Australia given that the arrival of the British marked the beginning of a period of horrific destruction and violence for the First Nations people of this continent. While some Australians are having barbecues, and others are having citizenship ceremonies, Indigenous Australians and their allies are mourning. It has become a rallying point for resistance against the ongoing colonial occupation of First Nations land.

So, to call a short story collection Australia Day, particularly one that doesn’t always necessarily paint Australia and Australians in a great light… well, it’s a bold choice.

To really underline the point, the first and last stories of the collection – the bookends, as it were – are both set on Australia Day. The first is about a young medical student, an immigrant from Hong Kong, bravely facing a hailstorm of microaggressions at an Australia Day barbecue. The last is about an elderly woman, Mrs Chan, whose grandson’s birthday happens to fall on the same date.

Some of the stories, like ‘Macca’, clearly draw upon Cheng’s experience as a doctor. I’d imagine that line of work has given her intimate access to private lives across the spectrum of our community, which gives her a deep well from which she can draw characters who are complex and complete. That said, at times, I got the impression that Cheng was simply trying to show off how much of the world she’d seen and how open her eyes were to different life experiences. To my mind, the best of her stories were the deceptively banal slice-of-life ones, as opposed to the white-guilt-marrying-into-money-and-honeymooning-in-the-Maldives ones.

Plot-wise, the stories generally focus on the structural inequalities that Australians battle every day. In that sense, it’s a lot like Christos Tsiolkas’s The Slap, or (to use an overseas example) Tayari Jones’s An American Marriage. Cheng has written about people and their problems (as opposed to problems personified), and in so doing, made their struggles tangible without the telling of them coming across as moralistic or patronising.

All of Cheng’s characters are seeking something elusive, at times ineffable, and there are few happy endings. Some of the stories – ‘Ticket Holder Number 5’ in particular – offer the clang of revelation that I look for in short stories. Others fell a bit… well, short. Still others were perhaps ahead of their time; ‘Big Problems’ struck me as a precursor to novels like Kiley Reid’s Such A Fun Age. So, as with any short story collection (with maybe a notable exception or two), I’d say that this one is hit and miss. Some are great, some are okay, and each reader will probably have their own opinion as to which is which.

The Family Law – Benjamin Law

Working in a beloved local bookstore definitely has its perks (though not necessarily the ones you’d imagine – being able to read all day behind the desk is a pipe dream!). I’m a long-time fan of Benjamin Law, and one day earlier this year he came in to the store for a TV shoot. When he was done, my boss convinced me to (shyly) ask him to sign a copy of his memoir, The Family Law.

The Family Law - Benjamin Law - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Family Law here.
(When you do, an Australian author will get a cut, a small publisher will get a cut, I’ll get a cut, and you’ll get a great read!)

In case you’re not familiar, Law is an Australian author and journalist. He’s been working in television, radio, and theater for years – not to mention his strong Twitter presence. He was born in Queensland in 1982, to immigrant parents from Hong Kong. The Family Law is his memoir, about what it was like to grow up in an Asian-Australian family in the heartland of Pauline Hanson and her ilk.

It’s not a misery memoir, however – no sad laments, no tearful recollections of racially-motivated violence and oppression. This is a story of heart, humour, and hope. As per the blurb: “Meet the Law family – eccentric, endearing, and hard to resist. Your guide: Benjamin, the third of five children and a born humourist.”

The Family Law is presented as a series of vignettes and essays, in the style of David Sedaris. The through line is family connection, the love between siblings and parents, forged in the fire of being the only Asians on the mostly-white Sunshine Coast. The humour is self-deprecating, colourful, occasionally scatalogical, and uniquely Australian. Law plays to his strengths: the strangeness of being both an insider and an outsider at once, of feeling both at home and displaced.

Law is disarmingly honest about experiences that would make most of us squirm to recount (and probably automatically disqualify him from any future in politics): performing in black-face for a school production, family in-jokes about rape, an Islamophobic aunt, an extended family summarily deported after overstaying their tourist visas… He is admirably forthcoming and frank about these flies in the ointment (there’s probably something to that whole power-of-vulnerability thing) and it’s a handy signpost for the reader that he’s not here to make himself look good. He’s here to tell his family’s story.

“Every marriage starts with passive aggression, but couples soon realise that being passive requires effort. It’s easier to be openly hostile.”

The Family Law (Page 15)

I must say, even though each of the Laws get a look in, it’s the mother – Jenny – who steals every scene. She’s beyond brilliant. She tapes difficult English words (like “diarrhoea”) with their definition to the wall, so she can remember them. She likens giving birth to “squeezing a lemon out of your penis hole”. She is always, always borderline-inappropriate, in the most amiable and likeable way.

The Family Law is a memoir that will speak to all young Australians, not just those with an Asian background, not just those who are gay. Even though Law speaks to his racial and sexual identity, those facets aren’t defining in his story, and they’re certainly not essential to engaging with it. Basically, all you’ll need to enjoy The Family Law is some level of experience with family relationships, and a permissive sense of humour. Some familiarity with the Queensland vernacular and culture might also come in handy…

In 2010, Law created a six-part television comedy series of the same name, loosely based on the book. (No, I haven’t watched it yet – my to-watch list is now longer than my to-read list, if you can believe it – but I watched the trailer on YouTube, does that count?) It was the most-viewed program on SBS OnDemand throughout the series, and received huge critical acclaim here and overseas.

All in all, The Family Law is a charming, funny, and occasionally over-the-top series of recollections about feeling different and family life. Despite what they say about not meeting your heroes, I feel lucky to have done so, and Benjamin Law remains one of mine 🙂

The Trauma Cleaner – Sarah Krasnostein

Sandra Pankhurst is a woman of extremes. She has lived her life at both ends of the bell curve. Her highs have been very high, her lows have been very low. Initially, Sarah Krasnostein set about telling Pankhurst’s life story in a long-form essay (‘The Secret Life Of A Crime Scene Cleaner’), but she found that this woman’s multitudes could not be contained. Thus, she wrote this book, The Trauma Cleaner, about how an abused kid from the suburbs came to be a professional cleaner of others’ messes.

The Trauma Cleaner - Sarah Krasnostein - Book Laid on Wooden Table - Keeping Up With The Penguins
Buy The Trauma Cleaner here.
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At present, Sandra runs the company she founded, Specialised Trauma Cleaning Services, as she has done for the past 20+ years. It’s a job that draws her into the homes of hoarders, the homes of victims, the homes of the dead. “Her work, in short, is a catalogue of the ways we die, physically and emotionally,” Krasnostein puts it, on page 2.

The hook of The Trauma Cleaner is, naturally, the voyeuristic thrill we get from peering into lives that have fallen apart. The thing is, though, it’s not really about trauma cleaning. Krasnostein did accompany Pankhurst on several jobs, and describes them from her own perspective (that of an outsider) while weaving in Pankhurst’s matter-of-fact seen-it-all commentary. There’s not enough detail to make your stomach churn, but just enough to make your eyes widen. Krasnostein gives a thorough beginner’s-guide to the nature of that work, but really this story is about Pankhurst, and her incredible life.

To step back to the beginning: Pankhurst was horribly and sadistically abused by her parents (as punishment, Krasnostein implies, for having been adopted – a surplus child supplanted by two subsequent biological children). She was unceremoniously booted from her family home in her teenage years, but unfortunately her rough trot didn’t end there. Her first job, to support herself and secure her own living arrangements, was working on the now-infamous Westgate Bridge. When the construction collapsed, she witnessed the deaths of 35 colleagues.

Krasnostein traces Pankhurst’s life from there, through marriage(s), children, coming out as trans, sex work, business-building, drugs, damage, and drama. She alternates between these aspects of Pankhurst’s past, and the reality of her present work (and illness).

Krasnostein is, thankfully, not exploitative of the clients and crime victims that require Pankhurst’s services; she offers them as “case studies” of sorts, but makes clear to the reader that their consent was gained, their own insights offered freely and in their own words. Krasnostein uses what she finds behind their doors to pave in-roads into Pankhurst’s history. She and her publisher make one noticeable concession to the voyeur: a few glossy photographic inserts, showing scenes from Pankhurst’s whole life.

The major stumbling block in The Trauma Cleaner – for Krasnostein, and by extension for the reader – is the patchy nature of Pankhurst’s memory.

“The challenges posed by Sandra’s memory loss mean that parts of her biographical story have required imaginative reconstruction. All dialogue and characters, however, are based on what she does remember and, where possible, interviews with third parties or historical records. Nothing has been exaggerated.”

Author’s note, The Trauma Cleaner

It’s a good thing that Krasnostein included that final affirmation in her Author’s Note. It would be easy to suspect – believe, even – that she took some creative license in telling Pankhurst’s outlandish life story. Throughout The Trauma Cleaner, Krasnostein reminds the reader that Pankhurst is “not a flawlessly reliable narrator”. She points to gaps and inconsistencies in Pankhurst’s memory, rather than hiding them, which (contradictory as this might seem) actually makes her story more believable, and illuminating.

Even though Pankhurst is the “hero” of The Trauma Cleaner, she is not faultless. Krasnostein doesn’t shy away from her past mistakes, oversights, and selfishness – in particular, the way she left Linda (her wife, prior to coming out) and their children.

Still, even when detailing Pankhurst’s flaws, Krasnostein is kind, generous, and insightful in her depiction. The only point on which the author seems to miss a step is her surprisingly puritanical attitude about Pankhurst’s career as a sex worker. Krasnostein calls the work “distasteful” and “dangerous”. She seems surprised that Pankhurst, as a trans sex worker, might be more concerned about violence perpetrated by the police than by her clients. It’s a jarring bum note in an otherwise fantastic book.

The Trauma Cleaner – aside from being a biography of an extraordinary woman with an extraordinary job and an extraordinary resume – is a book about the satisfaction of imposing order in a chaotic world. The world certainly hasn’t become any less chaotic in the years since its release, so you might say it becomes more resonant as time goes on. I would highly recommend it to fans of Chloe Hooper and Susan Orlean.

The Female Eunuch – Germaine Greer

I always hated being told to “respect my elders”. I’m sure the kids of today feel the same (and my view hasn’t changed now that I’m old enough to say things like “the kids of today”). In my lifetime, Germaine Greer has said (and doubled-down on) a lot of really shitty things, and I could never find it within myself to revere her the way that older feminists seemed to do. Still, lately I got to thinking that it’s only fair that I actually read The Female Eunuch, Greer’s magnum opus, for myself. I worked very hard to go into it with a genuinely open mind, as I hope others would try to do when reading books that challenge their own views. But, as you’ll see… it wasn’t easy.

(And, just a heads up, I’m probably going to get pretty nerdy as I dissect this one, apologies in advance. Feel free to scroll down to the end if you just want a tl;dr summary.)

In October 1970, Janis Joplin died of an overdose. Nixon struggled to find support for a proposal to end the Vietnam War. Fiji became an independent nation. The West Gate Bridge collapsed, killing thirty five people. That was the context into which The Female Eunuch was first published, fifty years ago. Greer had already made a name for herself as a vocal feminist with an academic bent, and this book cemented that reputation.

In the introduction – in fact, in the very first line – she openly declares that she seeks to subvert expectations and draw fire from all quarters. “If [this book] is not ridiculed or reviled,” she says on page 22, “it will have failed of its intention,”. Littered throughout The Female Eunuch are laughably inflammatory statements, with little apparent purpose other than to horrify and outrage. For instance, on page 51, she suggests: “If you think you are emancipated, you might consider the idea of tasting your menstrual blood – if it makes you sick, you’ve a long way to go, baby,”. No, thank you. Not even if Greer were elected the Holy Ruler Of The World and declared that to be the only litmus test for feminism.

She also uses the introduction to The Female Eunuch to bemoan the “old guard” of the suffragettes. She subsequently nominates herself and her book to be the cusp of the “second feminist wave”. (I must admit, I experienced a certain delicious schadenfreude in knowing that Greer herself is now considered the “old guard”, and contemporary feminists bemoan her in much the same way.) Having set the scene, Greer goes about trying to challenge all who had come before her (with the single exception of Mary Wollstonecraft, whom she quotes frequently and at length).

The Female Eunuch is a strange blend of angry rant and scholarly references, as though Greer couldn’t quite make up her mind who she was writing for or how she should write for them. She swings at “traditional” marriage and the “nuclear family” like a wrecking ball, claiming that they (and their related social structures) repress women sexually, rendering them eunuchs – thus, the title. I can get behind that idea, I suppose, and I can appreciate an attempt to shock and awe in order to get your point across… but the whole argument was so muddled, the approach so haphazard, that it was hard to make out what Greer was actually trying to say (let alone whether it was worth listening to).

She splits The Female Eunuch into four main sections: Body, Soul, Love, and Hate (ironically, riffing off binaries, the very thing she claims to rail against: “We will have to reject the polarity of definite terms, which are always artificial, and strive for the freedom to move within indefinite terms”, page 69).

I really, really wish she hadn’t opened with Body, the section focused entirely on her outdated (not to mention manifestly wrong) understanding of biology, sex, and gender. Reading it made keeping an open mind very, very difficult. Unfortunately – but, alas, unsurprisingly – when Greer refers to “women”, she’s speaking exclusively about cis-gender heterosexual women (which means, for expediency’s sake, in this review I’m going to have to do the same – doesn’t mean I have to like it). Occasionally, she mentions “lesbianism”, but seems skeptical that someone might be a lesbian for any reason other than a rejection of men, and she barely acknowledges the existence of trans and non-binary people at all.

The only notable exception was her use of the life of April – a trans woman – to make a point, using language so derogatory I literally shuddered. Greer’s ideas about April’s experience (described entirely in the abstract) were completely dehumanising. I suppose objectification and derision are only bad when it’s cis-men doing it to cis-women, in Greer’s view? Ugh. Even more unbelievably (if that were possible), she has the gall to call April “our sister”, claiming her for “the movement”. If not for my determination to persist in order to write this review, that would’ve been grounds for me to put The Female Eunuch down there and then. Ugh, to infinity.

And – I can’t help myself, I’ve just got to get this off my chest – I can’t believe that Greer’s views have, demonstrably, evolved so little since she wrote this book fifty fucking years ago. Think about how much you’ve learned in the last five years, or the last ten. Has she really managed to avoid becoming a better feminist – a better human – in all that time?

But, open mind, open mind, open mind, I kept telling myself… Further on, Greer likens women and women’s labour to that of the proletariat, and suggests women to exercise and claim power in an equivalent way. Women should go on “strike” in our domestic lives, the way that workers do, until conditions improve. Then, later, in what I came to realise was a typical Greer contradiction, she pooh-poohs the idea of sex strikes, the withdrawal or withholding of sex as a way of wielding power. Surely, for the women of whom she speaks (i.e., white, heterosexual, cis-gender, middle class women in English-speaking countries with Christian backgrounds), domestic labour is indivisible from sexual labour. They are one and the same. Why would she insert this dividing line between the two only when it comes to weapons for waging war against the patriarchy?

(That’s not rhetorical, I seriously don’t understand why. She claimed to be all about women reclaiming their sexuality and libido, but there are any number of ways to express and enjoy and connect with oneself sexually without engaging in sex with a male partner if that sex is rooted in oppression. I just… I don’t understand. If you do, please explain it to me in the comments!)

Take that, I suppose, as an example of all the ways in which The Female Eunuch is underdeveloped, poorly expressed, and narrow in scope. If I tried to detail every problem and fallacy, this review might end up being longer than the book. I found barely anything in there that I thought might be relevant to a person who didn’t look, live, and think like Greer, an incredible feat of tunnel vision even for second-wave feminism. I was baffled by her apparent nostalgia for the Middle Ages and children raised by villages. I was angered by her victim-blaming (particularly in the final section, Hate, where she proposes that women who complain about their alcoholic husbands beating them are just making mountains out of molehills, and if they’d just stop nagging him about how much time he spent at the pub, he wouldn’t beat her – seriously, does that sound like feminism to you?). The only idea of Greer’s that made any kind of sense to me was that of harnessing women’s anger, of provoking them to challenge the limitations placed upon them.

Tl;dr? There are moments of insight, some evidence of forward thinking, but it’s a shame that those brief glimpses into brilliance are clouded by ideas that are dated at best, harmful and factually incorrect at worst. The impact of The Female Eunuch, the reason it has become a “classic” of feminist literature, can really only be found back in the 1970s, in the context of its initial release. The bar was very low, back then, even lower than it is now, so I can see how something like this might have been – as Greer hoped – the mirage of something revolutionary.

I just don’t think that The Female Eunuch has any value anymore. It’s not old enough, or well-written enough, to have the historical status and respect afforded to suffragette writing. It’s been too thoroughly debunked and overwritten to stand alongside later works of feminism. It’s out of date: scientifically, socially, and legally. It’s too deeply rooted in a colonial version of society to have any resonance or relevance in today’s world. I opened my mind so much my brain nearly fell out, and it didn’t do any good. The Female Eunuch did not change my opinion of Germaine Greer at all – and if you’re looking for a strong feminist voice to teach you something, my suggestion is keep on looking elsewhere.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Female Eunuch:

  • “Hatred is not a good way to try to get back in the lime light. Read your books, saw your picture, and now I understand why you took such extreme tactics to get attention. Get some talent.” – Heather Miller
  • “Bought this for the Mrs – she says it is hard work and a bit boring.” – M. MCILROY

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