Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Memoir & Autobiography (page 1 of 8)

Reckoning – Magda Szubanski

Like a lot of Australian millennials, I grew up on Magda Szubanski’s comedy. I remember laughing out loud at her poor sad-sack character Sharon Strzelecki on Kath & Kim, I remember seething with jealousy when she made out with Heath Ledger on the red carpet, and then – most relevant to this review of her memoir – I remember watching in awe as she came out on live television in 2012. But despite all those years of watching, laughing, and cheering her along, it turns out I knew very little about Szubanski, as I learned when I read her memoir Reckoning.

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For those of you who aren’t familiar with Szubanski, here’s a quick run-down. She’s an Australian comedian, actress, advocate and (now) author, known for her comic characters and iconic roles like Esme Hoggett in Babe. In 2003 and 2004, surveys found that she was the most-recognised and well-liked Australian television personality. I doubt that many of those surveyed knew what they were getting with her 2015 memoir, Reckoning – I sure didn’t!

It has a killer opening line for starters – literally! “If you had met my father,” Szubanski writes on page one, “you would never, not for an instant, have thought he was an assassin.”

After a brief introduction to her father’s former profession, Szubanski takes us back to her childhood. She was born in England, to a Scottish-Irish mother and Polish father, immigrating to Australia as a child as her family searched for stable lives in sunnier climes. But, as she quickly reveals in Reckoning, moving to the bottom of the earth wasn’t far enough for her father to escape the ghosts of his past.

Szubanski Senior had been an assassin in the counter-intelligence branch of the Polish resistance movement during WWII. Szubanski grew up in the shadows of her father’s war-time violence, and his struggle to reconcile his traumatic past with his safe present. Her adolescence in particular got pretty dark, as she struggled to gain the approval of her mercurial patriarch while secretly coming to terms with her own sexuality (neither of which she truly achieved until decades later). In many ways, Reckoning is a memoir about a dual reckoning, happening simultaneously: with his past, and with her identity.

So, if you pick up Reckoning expecting your standard, relatively light-hearted, comedian memoir… yeah, you’re in for a rude shock. It’s a pensive, penetrating story, told without pretension and with radical vulnerability. Szubanski doesn’t shy away from sharing the least flattering aspects of her own past, personality or behaviour, nor does she redact her father’s historical violence.

Szubanski was widely lauded and acclaimed for her story, with Reckoning winning the Douglas Stuart Prize for Non Fiction, the ABIA Book Of The Year and Biography Of The Year, and the non-fiction prize for the New South Wales Premier’s Awards. Richard Ferguson, in a review for The Sydney Morning Herald, said: “This is documentary writing of the highest order and Szubanski has given life to an incredible war story… Reckoning [is a] tale of war and suburbia, sexuality and comedy.”

As far as I’m concerned, Reckoning offers compelling evidence for the theory of inherited trauma, even that which is unspoken in families affected. My only real criticism of the book is that I really could’ve done with a touch more of the brevity for which Szubanski is so beloved, just to break up the heart-wrenching hard truths of her life. That said, I understand why she didn’t write this book as A Comedian, writing instead from the heart of a daughter who loves her complicated father. While it didn’t offer ‘comic’ relief exactly, finishing the book on the high note of coming out in support of Australia’s marriage equality campaign ensured I closed the final chapter with a smile on my face.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Reckoning:

  • “Too self indulgent, storyline very moving but too much on being a lesbian. I love lesbians but not being one it seems I don’t understand how hard it is to come out.” – Patricia Eastley
  • “With warmth courage and honesty, with her pants full, it was not easy but it was worth it.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Magda seemed to spend a lot of time being depressed and writing about it.” – susan rickert
  • “I am enjoying it overall but am uncomfortable with the details regarding her sexuality. I am not convinced she is a lesbian.” – Amazon Customer

I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell

Can you remember a time you almost died? Maggie O’Farrell can – in fact, she can remember 17 unique brushes with death. In I Am, I Am, I Am, she writes about each of them in turn. As she says in this collection of essays, “I know all too well how fine a membrane separates us from that place, and how easily it can be perforated.”

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The title, I Am, I Am, I Am, is of course an allusion to Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart: I am, I am, I am,”). It hints at both O’Farrell’s overarching philosophy and her appropriation of well-practiced techniques for writing fiction in telling her true stories. O’Farrell had avoided writing about herself at all prior to this book, her first autobiographical work, but her extensive body of fiction has clearly given her the skills she needs to spin a good yarn.

What surprised me, first off, is that the stories of O’Farrell’s brushes with death aren’t told in chronological order. Narrative tradition would dictate that she starts with the very first incident, the one that happened when she was the youngest, and work her way forward to the present day. Not so! It’s hard to divine any true organisation or hierarchy to these stories beyond Vibes. As such, I Am, I Am, I Am reads more like a series of disparate morbid essays, rather than a life story relayed through a series of notable events.

Maybe that was intentional, though. When you’re telling a variation on the same story seventeen times, you risk boring the reader or lulling them into complacency, so O’Farrell might’ve thought she needed to pull a few rabbits out of the hat to keep us interested. There’s enough variety within the stories themselves, though, to keep things exciting. Each is contained within its own chapter named for the body part affected (cerebellum, circulatory system, and so forth), and takes the reader through the event in heart-stopping detail.

There’s the encounter with the machete-wielding mugger in South America, the night of teenage misadventure that almost ended underwater, the childhood illness O’Farrell wasn’t expected to survive, the traumatic labour and eventual C-section, the plane malfunction that sent her and her fellow passengers hurtling through the sky… All terrifying, in their own way.

For me, the most impactful chapter is the very first, Neck. O’Farrell sets the bar high for the rest of I Am, I Am, I Am, which is always a risk. This encounter with death happened when O’Farrell was in her late teens, working at a remote retreat and taking hikes around the surrounding trails when not on duty. A man starts to follow her, initiates conversation, insists on putting his binoculars around her neck to show her the birds, all the while her gut is screaming at her to RUN. It’s a terrifying situation, a threat sadly recognisable to just about every woman in the world, but the real gut-punch comes at the very end. Cops show up to the retreat to talk to O’Farrell the following week, and reveal that the man who followed her went on to murder a 22-year-old backpacker in the area – by strangling her with the strap of his binoculars.

So, yes, some of O’Farrell’s stories are truly terrifying, and you’ll find your heart rate rising as you read. Other instances… well, it must be said, some of the brushes with death in I Am, I Am, I Am are closer than others. A couple seem like a bit of a stretch. It made me wonder why O’Farrell felt to include all of them. Was 17 some magical number she was determined to reach? I Am, I Am, I Am is a great read, but I think it would’ve been even better pared down by a vicious editor.

Thematically, I Am, I Am, I Am falls into an interesting segment of the Venn diagram. In some respects, it’s a travel memoir. In spite of O’Farrell’s brushes with death (or because of them) she has a serious and lifelong case of wanderlust. In others, it’s a disability memoir; both O’Farrell and her daughter live with disabilities (brain damage, life-threatening allergies and dermatological conditions, respectively) and it colours the way they experience both their bodies and the world. That said, don’t mistake I Am, I Am, I Am for a misery memoir; O’Farrell’s aim is not to exploit her trauma or bum the reader out. In fact, for the most part, she has a rather blithe and nonchalant attitude about her frequent flirtations with the Grim Reaper. It’s only in the final chapter, about her daughter’s illness, that the cracks really show and her distress comes across.

It’s worth mentioning here, too, that O’Farrell is donating from the proceeds of I Am, I Am, I Am to the Anaphylaxis Campaign and to Medical Alert Dogs, to support people who live with conditions like her daughter’s.

All told, I Am, I Am, I Am is a riveting read penned by a practice hand. O’Farrell’s extensive experience writing acclaimed fiction has clearly served her well in finally sharing her own stories. Sure, some parts might’ve been better left out, but that’s just my opinion and I’m happy to defer to O’Farrell’s expertise and wisdom here.

My favourite Amazon reviews of I Am, I Am, I Am:

  • “This book is a waste of money and time. So many life and death moments and of course the reader already knows the author is still alive.” – Mekdi
  • “If I used the same criteria that the author uses for “brushes with death” I could come up with a thousand for myself, and I’ve lived a relatively dull life! … All of the chapters/events are told in a self-absorbed style, as if her life was filled with hardships and challenges, but most people have similar experiences. It’s called life. Midway through, I was almost rooting for her demise.” – Kevin F. Giannini
  • “I found this book about brushes with death quite boring. I think her brush must have a very long handle!” – Luci King
  • “a 35 page whine about her kid’s allergies. That’s not what I signed up for reading this. It felt like the author just wanted a reason to talk about herself without sounding like a narcissist. Mission failed.” – Kelley

Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – David Sedaris

Every David Sedaris book is like a treat for me. I hoard them like chocolates in a secret corner of the fridge, and pull them out when I need something sinful and delicious. My latest indulgence is Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls, his collection of narrative essays from 2013.

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It won’t come as any surprise to fellow fans of Sedaris that Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls contains very little about the titular diabetes, or owls. The title was taken from a conversation he had with a reader at a book signing, who asked him to inscribe one of his books with something along the lines of ‘explore your inner feelings’. Sedaris said: “I never write what people ask me, so I said ‘I’ll keep the word explore’, and I wrote ‘let’s explore diabetes with owls,’.” There you have it.

The essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls aren’t closely tied to a particular theme or servicing any overarching narrative. Rather, there’s a few threads that loosely connect a few of them, more like a mind map than a straight line through a story.

Sedaris’s voice remains as singular as ever, though – curious, awkward, wry, self-deprecating, at times angry, mostly baffled. He waxes rhapsodic about his relationship with his French orthodontist, he overcomes his fear to hand-feed a kookaburra at a regional Australian cafe, he grumbles about the futile but irresistible task of cleaning rubbish from the English countryside, and he wonders what exactly it is about him that gives a taxidermy shop attendant the (correct) impression that he’d like to see human remains they keep out the back.

A couple of motifs appear multiple times throughout. Many of the essays in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls were written or set during the early Obama years, for instance, so quite a few of them reference the 2008 election and the world’s fascination with the American political side-show. Sedaris’s father is also a recurring character, at times an menacing presence in the family home and at others an object of fun. Any other writer might struggle to communicate to the reader that a man who rarely wears pants inside the house can intimidate a child, but Sedaris isn’t just any writer. Without ever explaining it explicitly, Sedaris impresses upon us his lifelong struggle to satisfy his father – only to delightfully resolve the tension by finally conceding to his father’s demands that he get a colonoscopy, which makes the old man happy.

My love for Sedaris is so great that even the cruelest subject matter doesn’t put me off his writing. In Loggerheads, he describes a disastrous childhood experiment keeping captured baby sea turtles in a bedroom aquarium, despite knowing nothing about them (not even what they ate). The sea turtles met an unfortunate end, which would be enough to put me off any other essayist, but Sedaris has engendered enough goodwill that I can forgive it.

In that vein, delicate readers might be put out by some of what I’d diplomatically refer to as some cultural insensitivity in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls – in the chapter about examining a taxidermied Congolese Pygmy for instance, or the one about food and hygiene habits in China. It’s dicey ground, but I like to assume the best of intentions in Sedaris and I hope that other readers can do the same.

Really, the slightly sour note in Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was a layout issue more than anything else. Sedaris includes comedic fictional monologues throughout the collection, which he explains in the foreword, but they’re not flagged as such in text. So, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls led to frequent experiences of whiplash, realising that Sedaris was writing in character and not, in fact, relating a story about being a teenage girl who gets ripped off on a school trip to England or a woman who is duped by her gay son into wearing a Big Proud Dyke t-shirt to a conservative rally. These stories are funny, and no doubt fun for Sedaris to write, but I could’ve done without them – or at least would have preferred they be signposted a bit better.

All told, reading Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls was another wicked delight, and I’m already eagerly anticipating my next treat from Sedaris.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls:

  • “A turd left floating in a toilet is far funnier than one mans take on politics in the US.” – amlphx
  • “As a resident of the south who got to go to one of his book signings it now makes me re-evaluate whether or not he actually wanted to be there or secretly was hating our guts cause we might be conservative.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Do you really want to read about the taxidermist who used a human head as his subject, for example, or about his sisters’ reactions to some pervert exposing himself? In two words, this book is childish trash.” – Spot
  • “Too mean-spirited and kind of snobby and elitist – like this guy has the monopoly on good taste. Get over yourself.” – Anonymous
  • “Reading this was like going to your favorite restaurant, ordering a lobster and having the waiter lift the lid of the serving dish to reveal a dead rat. I tried three time to read this mound of steaming crap.” – Tom Hemeon

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
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