Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Memoir & Autobiography (page 1 of 7)

Eggshell Skull – Bri Lee

The title of Bri Lee’s debut memoir, Eggshell Skull, is taken from an old legal doctrine. It’s the principle that a defendant cannot use a victim’s unknown weakness as a defence in a criminal trial. If you punch a guy, you can’t use the fact that you had no way of knowing his skull was made of eggshell as an excuse for killing him. The phrase takes on new meaning over the course of Lee’s story, as the man who abused her has to reckon with her unknown strength.

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Eggshell Skull begins with Lee as a law graduate, commencing a highly-coveted position as a judge’s associate in the District Court of Queensland. She knows it’s going to be a tough gig, with overwhelming responsibility for keeping the cogs of justice turning. What she doesn’t know – but finds out very soon – is that the cases her judge will hear are almost exclusively those that involve sexual violence, harassment, and abuse of women and children.

Day after day, all around the state, Lee sits in court and listens to women and children testify about the horrific trauma they have experienced, and – most of the time – watches the (aLlEdGeD) perpetrator walk free. Of course it’s difficult for her, as it would be for anyone, but especially so because it evokes memories of the abuse that Lee herself experienced as a child.

If people didn’t believe these women, why would they believe me?

Eggshell Skull (page 29)

The details of the abuse are revealed gradually, as Lee herself comes to terms with the emotional impact of recovering feelings and memories she has long repressed. She’s faced with a barrage of others’ emotional trauma at work, and then her own demons at home. She’s “lucky”, as she herself acknowledges, as a victim in that she has a strong support system (in the form of her long-term boyfriend and her loving family) and the relative privilege of being white, educated, and articulate. That’s not enough to shield her, though, from the mental and emotional fall-out of both her work and her past (CW: suicidality, substance abuse, self-harm, disordered eating).

The crux of Eggshell Skull comes two years into Lee’s job, when she decides to bring forward her own case against Samuel, the family friend who abused her. That’s the point where the memoir truly shines, as Lee transitions from observer to warrior doing battle in the system herself. The retraumatisation of her experience seeking justice – even with her legal education and career, even with her father being a cop – is heart-wrenching and eye-opening.

Lee’s radical vulnerability in sharing her story is, I think, the reason it’s been so well received and widely acclaimed. She’s won multiple awards for Eggshell Skull (the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Victoria Premier’s Literary Awards, the Davitt Award, and the Ned Kelly Award for Best True Crime), in a just-barely post-MeToo society where we still turn away from many victim’s stories and feel uncomfortable shining light on awful truths.

I will say, though, that this is one of the rare times when the quality of the writing (very, very high) makes the book difficult to read. I had visceral, physical reactions to reading it. At various points, my stomach churned and my heart rate skyrocketed. In the final chapters of Eggshell Skull, I unwittingly gave myself a headache because I didn’t realise I’d been clenching my teeth.

It’s not just the abuse that Lee experienced, or that she saw on the job, that’s so distressing (though, of course, both are awful). It’s the frustration of the failure of our “justice” system to support and protect victims in the most intensely vulnerable moments of their lives.

The more I learned of the huge, ‘blind’ justice system, the more I learned that it was just as human and fallible as everything and everyone that created and preceded it.

Eggshell Skull (page 33)

So, Eggshell Skull falls into the category of an incredibly good book that it’s incredibly difficult to recommend to anyone – I’d certainly say to take great care reading it, even if you think that you’re unlikely to feel triggered. It will be a five-star read for anyone who enjoyed Roxane Gay’s Hunger. It will be a rude shock for anyone who’s ever asked why a victim would “wait so long” to come forward.

The Princess Diarist – Carrie Fisher

If all you know about Carrie Fisher is that she starred in the Star Wars film franchise, The Princess Diarist is going to be a great awakening for you. You’ll start on familiar ground, in that it’s Fisher’s memoir about her time filming the first installment in the series back in the late ’70s, but you’ll get to know her on a whole different level – and, undoubtedly, it’ll leave you wanting more.

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Fisher actually calls The Princess Diarist a “sort of memoir”, I suppose because it’s a bit of a mash-up. The book includes excerpts from the diaries she kept as a 19-year-old, contextualised with commentary from her later years. She’s also worked in a bunch of fascinating behind-the-scenes photos from the set of Star Wars, and dedicated the book to George Lucas, Mark Hamill, and the rest of her intergalactic crew.

It begins in 1976, filming on location in London, but Fisher does take the time to explain a bit of her back-story prior to that. She was one of the OG nepo babies (daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, who famously split when Eddie left Debbie for Elizabeth Taylor). As a result, she went into show business already jaded about fame and performance, entirely unsure whether she wanted to be there at all but determined to have a good time while she was at it.

And here’s the big ticket item: most of The Princess Diarist revolves around Fisher’s affair with Harrison Ford, her then-married father-of-two co-star. I think we all kind of “knew” that they’d hooked up on set, but… well, let’s just say, this kind of explicit confirmation was unexpected. It turned into a far bigger news story than Fisher expected too, as she said on The Graham Norton Show.

This is an episode that’s only potentially interesting because its players became famous for the roles they were playing when they met.

The Princess Diarist (page 188)

And, let me tell you, there are confessions and passages in The Princess Diarist that you couldn’t have waterboarded out of me if I were Fisher. The extracts from her diaries are C.R.I.N.G.E. I nearly died from secondhand embarrassment. There are love poems 19-year-old Fisher wrote about Ford, for crying out loud. There are even a few thinly-veiled allusions to a desire to take her own life as a result of their affair and his indifference to her when they weren’t having sex. I mean, Facebook memories are bad enough – this is Fisher putting her most private, vulnerable thoughts from one of the most shameful periods of her life into the public sphere for comment and criticism.

The more you read of The Princess Diarist, though, the more the decision to “put it all out there” makes sense for Fisher. She’s very aware that she’s an over-sharer. She makes no bones about the fact that she struggles to contain herself, to keep private thoughts private, to intuitively know what she should hide and what she should show. And she’s completely frank about needing money to maintain her lifestyle – and “selling her story” in The Princess Diarist was a way to do that, a less-schlocky one than going to a tabloid or writing one cheap tell-all.

Sadly, there wasn’t much of her lifestyle left to maintain, in the end. The Princess Diarist was Fisher’s last book, published shortly before her death in December 2016. Naturally, the explosive revelations about the affair coupled with her untimely passing ensured that it rocketed to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

I had my qualms about The Princess Diarist – Fisher repeated herself often, and she was really, really down on her body/weight all the time, which was a bummer – but none at all about Fisher herself. After I turned the final page, I immediately turned to YouTube and watched every interview and appearance clip of her I could find, and every single one had me howling with laughter. I can’t wait to read more of her work – and given that she’s written two other memoirs, four novels, and a one-woman show, I’ll be spoiled for choice for a while.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Princess Diarist:

  • “OMG! I should’ve known better than to believe the blurb. It is hardly an “intimate and revealing recollection of what happened on one of the most famous film sets of all time”: Fisher admits it herself – she hardly remembers what happened on set because she was strung out on Ford’s pot most of the time. What a disappointment!” – jeaneeem
  • “An evening with Jar Jar Binks would have been less painful than reading this book.” – JS2012
  • “The entire middle third of the book is devoted to the Harrison Ford affair. And as it turns out, listening to a 60 year old woman discuss a teenage affair she had with a married older man with a 1-dimensional personality more than 40 years ago just isn’t that interesting.” – wparker1339
  • “Self-indugent crap. She was 19 when she wrote it, but old enough to know better when it was published.” – JJ

When You Are Engulfed In Flames – David Sedaris

I treat myself to one David Sedaris book a year (otherwise, I’d gobble them all up at once like a greedy little goblin). This year, I went for When You Are Engulfed In Flames, his sixth essay collection first published in 2008. As per the blurb: “Subjects include a parasitic worm that once lived in his mother-in-law’s leg, an encounter with a dingo, and the recreational use of an external catheter. Also recounted is the buying of a human skeleton and the author’s attempt to quit smoking.”

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Yes, of course, When You Are Engulfed In Flames contains twenty-two essays as hilarious and ridiculous as we’ve come to expect from Sedaris. Other subjects include the time he joined his brother for a drug deal in a North Carolina trailer home, karmic retribution on rude plane passengers, his husband lancing a boil on his tailbone, and befriending a French local only to find out he was a child abuser.

There’s less about his family in this collection than in others I’ve read so far. It’s disappointing, if only because his family seems a veritable goldmine of comic fodder (I have a particularly soft spot for his foul-mouthed brother). But When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t lacking in comic characters, even if they’re not related to Sedaris. I saw another review refer to them as a “new crop of lunatics”, which is spot on.

My personal favourite in the collection – one that gave me many, many literal lols – is That’s Amore, an essay about/profile of Sedaris’s New York neighbour, Helen. She hates everyone, believes herself to be the center of the universe, and sounds like an absolute nightmare to live next to (if incredibly funny to read about). Sedaris attributes to her endless hysterical non sequiturs, including “I shit so hard, I think I sprained my asshole”.

(Heads up: there’s a few uncensored slurs scattered here and there throughout When You Are Engulfed In Flames. Normally, it wouldn’t warrant a mention, but I’ve noticed an uptick on readers looking for content warnings before they pick up a book – so, there you have it.)

The final story in When You Are Engulfed In FlamesThe Smoking Section – is remarkably long, much longer than any other essay I’ve read by Sedaris. He recounts, diary-style, his attempt to quit smoking by moving to Tokyo for six months (yes, that sounds insane, but in Sedaris’s world it makes perfect sense). The story is good – not quite as good as his very best, but still good by any benchmark – even if it does read more like An American In Tokyo, and make me crave a cigarette myself.

My dog, Fyodor Dogstoyevsky, doesn’t care for David Sedaris – because the books make me laugh out loud so hard and so often, his nap time is frequently disturbed. Even though When You Are Engulfed In Flames isn’t my favourite of his collections I’ve read so far – and probably not one I’d recommend to first-time Sedaris readers – it’s still great. I’m still in awe of the way Sedaris can craft a story out of seemingly nothing at all. I’d dearly love to share a cocktail and a smoke with him (if he hadn’t, as The Smoking Section suggests, sadly quit both alcohol and cigarettes).

Read my reviews of Sedaris’s other books here:

My favourite Amazon reviews of When You Are Engulfed In Flames:

  • “I laughed out loud more reading this book than I have in my day to day life since childhood.” – aprillaman
  • “He is a breath of fres air for this busy weiry lady suffocated by every day stressers.” – Elizabeth Carver
  • “I felt like I was sitting next to a guy on the plane who tried really hard to make me laugh, waving his arms in my face telling crude exaggerated stories. I sat stone faced for 30 minute chance before I told him, “Enough.”” – R Hilux

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

I Love Dick obviously has an incredible (and memorable!) title, but beyond that its contents were a bit of a mystery to me. According to the blurbs, it’s “an epistolary novel with autofiction elements“, “blurring the lines of fiction, essay, and memoir”. So, that’s about as clear as mud. I mean, is it true, or not?

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It’s a weird one, folks, so I’ll do my best to break it down. Part One (“Scenes From A Marriage”) sets the stage. In December 1994, Chris Kraus and her husband, Sylvère Lotringer, have dinner with a rogue academic pseudonymously named Dick. All of these people are real, by the way (they have Wikipedia pages and everything: here, here, and here). Chris and Sylvere are forced by poor weather to spend the night at Dick’s place, and Chris starts feeling… something.

Based on almost no direct interaction, Chris convinces herself that she has fallen in love with Dick. Not only that, she makes the logical leap to conclude that he too has some feeling for her, and they have shared a “conceptual fuck”. Because she and Sylvère have one of Those types of marriages, she tells him immediately, and thus her (their) “affair” with Dick begins.

They both start writing letters to Dick, independently and together. At first, it’s a game, like married couple chicken – how far will we actually take this bizarre thing that we’re doing? How far can we stretch our ridiculous self-justifications? But then they start actually calling Dick, telling him about the letters, sending him some and asking him to help them turn the eighty ninety hundred and twenty pages into some kind of art piece.

Dick is justifiably freaked out, and gives them a polite “huh, interesting, we’ll see”, which they interpret as “full steam ahead”.

Then, Part Two (“Every Letter Is A Love Letter”) gets even weirder. Dick becomes, in effect, a diary that Chris writes to daily. She veers away from merely expressing her deep love for him, and starts pontificating on feminism, schizophrenia, art, Judaism, and identity. It would almost read as a collection of essays, if not for the occasional “oh, yeah, and that’s how we fell in love, Dick, how’s that going for you by the way?” interjections.

I Love Dick comes to a crashing halt, in the end, when Chris gives Dick the complete collection of letters and he realises that polite deferral is no longer an option. He writes a letter to Sylvère, the tl;dr version of which is: “This whole thing has been weird as fuck, I hope we can still be friends but you lot need to calm down,”. Chris receives a letter too, and opens it with hope abounding – only to find it’s simply a photocopy of Dick’s letter to Sylvère, her (now semi-estranged)husband. An incredible final fuck-you from Dick, A+ for pettiness.

Look, I don’t like to judge. I err on being so open-minded my brain might fall out when it comes to other people’s marriages (and affairs, come to that). But given that Chris and Sylvère put all this out there in I Love Dick, I feel entitled to proffer an opinion. Here it is: these two are covered, head to toe, in red flags. If I were Dick, I would’ve set world records for how fast I’d run away from them.

It’s not just the interpersonal aspects of I Love Dick that bother me. It’s the hyper-intellectualisation of what is a demonstrably bonkers endeavour that skeeves me out. This is the ’90s academic version of being chronically online. Chris and Sylvère are so far up their own arses, they manage to position their entire existence as performance art. I’m not opposed to academic modes of thought or writing, but when you’re using art criticism and philosophy to impose an “affair” on a bloke who just offered you a sofa bed for the night after dinner? That doesn’t sit right with me.

The most interesting aspect of I Love Dick, for me, was barely mentioned in the book itself: privacy. Not only are Chris and Sylvere real people, Dick is too. They gave his identity the flimsiest obfuscation possible, just enough to technically avoid legal claims of defamation, but it’s abundantly obvious who the real Dick is (or, even if it isn’t, you can find out on Google in 0.60 seconds). I think this raises a lot of interesting questions about where the ethical line is between art and exploitation. I’m not sure I’m the right person to decide exactly where that line is, but I’m fairly confident that I Love Dick lands on the wrong side of it.

All that said, I Love Dick is still an interesting read (just… bloody weird). It brought to mind Maggie Nelson for me, and Patricia Lockwood. I’m not sure I can articulate exactly why, other than to say they all have a resonant Vibe. I think I’ll need to sleep on this one for many nights yet before I finally land on how I really feel about it, beyond simply weirded out.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Love Dick:

  • “This was like if s bored person got their dumb blog published. So trite and Gen xer. Very over white women voices.” – SeymoreSluts
  • “Weird book. Well written but a labor to read. Far less salacious than I hoped. I give it a solid meh” – Larika Jones
  • “Chris behaves like a middle schooler fixated on the quarterback. You want to shout at her, pull her aside, take her out for a few cocktails and tell her to smarten up.” – Orange Kitty

Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia – Anita Heiss (ed.)

Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia is a 2018 autobiographical anthology, with 52 short essays by Aboriginal people about coming into their own identities. It’s the second in Black Inc’s Growing Up series, a collection that aims to ‘enlighten, inspire, and educate’ (see also: Growing Up Asian In Australia, Growing Up Queer In Australia, and so on). The tagline promises “childhood stories of family, country, and belonging”.

The anthology is edited by Anita Heiss, an Aboriginal Australian author, poet, cultural activist and social commentator. She’s done an excellent job of collating diverse stories from a broad cross-section of Aboriginal people. Contributors to Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia include a handful of writers you might recognise – like Tony Birch, Evelyn Araluen, Tara June Winch – but they are mostly non-writers. For many, it’s the first time they’ve published anything they’ve written. The only requirement Heiss laid out for them is that their stories be true, non-fiction accounts about (as the title suggests) growing up Aboriginal in Australia.

Mostly, the stories are told in a straightforward essay format, though some of the contributors mixed it up, offering conversation transcripts, open letters, and poetry. On the whole, they’re not particularly arty or Literary(TM). That’s good in the sense that it makes these accounts widely accessible. You don’t need to be a “reader” to appreciate and learn from them, nor do you have to be an adult (I’d say Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia is appropriate and accessible to just about any age group with an interest in reading it).

However, if you’re looking for literary masterpieces about First Nations people, this isn’t the collection you’re looking for. You should try reading Melissa Lucashenko, or Alexis Wright. That’s not to say that their Literary(TM) writing is any better than that in Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia, or vice versa – simply that different styles will appeal to and resonate for different readers.

It’s also not a particularly graphic or explicit collection, if anyone’s worried about that. Of course, traumatic events and racism are frequently mentioned throughout Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia, but they’re never exploited or discussed in gratuitous detail.

The feeling of not being “black enough” or “Aboriginal enough”, and lamenting loss of connection to ancestry and culture, is present in almost all of these stories. That’s the most heartbreaking aspect of Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia for me – the impact that colonisation has had, and the damage it has done, in deciding what a “real” Aboriginal person “should” look like, or how they should live.

Each account reveals, to some degree, the impact of invasion and colonisation – on language, on country, on ways of life…

Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia (Anita Heiss, Introduction)

My personal favourites from Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia include Finding ways home (Evelyn Araluen), White bread dreaming (Shannon Foster), A story from my life (William Russell), It’s too hot (Alexis West), and Aboriginemo (Alison Whittaker). Most of the contributions I particularly enjoyed were ones that focused on a single incident, or period in the person’s life – but that’s a purely personal preference. Some of the stories do that, others offer a more sweeping overview of the contributor’s childhood. It seems like Heiss gave them pretty free rein to tell their own stories as they saw fit.

Whichever approach they take, each contributor clearly speaks from the heart in their stories, with a strong desire to humanise their identities and reject the stereotypes they have been subjected to throughout their lives. Growing Up Aboriginal In Australia encourages empathy and demands respect, a wonderful contribution to the canon of First Nations literature in this country.

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