Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Memoir & Autobiography (page 1 of 2)

Finding Nevo – Nevo Zisin

Nevo Zisin finds the concept of “coming out” – the idea that someone is straight until proven otherwise – really bothersome. They should know, they’ve had to do it a lot. Over the course of their young life, they’ve “come out” as bisexual, lesbian, queer, trans, non-binary, and polyamorous. But they’ve done a lot of other stuff too. Nevo is an activist, writer, and public speaker, focusing on issues of gender, sex, and sexuality. Finding Nevo is their first book, a “memoir of becoming”.

Nevo sums it up best when they say, about halfway through Finding Nevo: “There is no single trans narrative. This is my experience, and my experience alone.” But even bearing that in mind, for people unfamiliar with real-life trans and non-binary stories, this book is a bit of a crash course in a lot of the personal and political aspects of a life outside the cis-gender binary. Nevo introduces and describes subjects like changing pronouns, “passing”, seeking medical care, accessibility in public spaces, and there’s a really helpful glossary and resource guide in the back – but Finding Nevo never reads like a textbook, nor does it read like high-minded literature. Nevo uses language that is accessible to anyone. They don’t assume any pre-existing knowledge, just an open mind.

Nevo was born into a Jewish family, part of Melbourne’s very tight-knit Jewish community, which gives them unique insight into the intersection of culture, social mores, and religion in the LGBTIQ+ community. Nevo was assigned female at birth, and their mother desperately wanted a girl. So, for much of Nevo’s early years, femininity was enforced: dresses and skirts, pink toys, the whole she-bang. Nevo describes their childhood as being very lonely, and the more they tried to conform to others’ expectations, the less they felt they “fit in”.

Over the course of their childhood and adolescence, Nevo struggled to find which “version” of themselves felt most authentic. They are frank about the shifts and iterations they went through with their identity over time, and – crucially – the impact that their realisations and decisions had on their relationships (especially with their family members).





What Finding Nevo ultimately depicts and advocates is a process of “unlearning”: not just our ideas about the gender binary, but other restrictive expectations and assumptions, too. Nevo rejects the dominant narrative that all trans and non-binary people were “born in the wrong body”. However well-intentioned that explanation may seem (indeed, a lot of trans people use it themselves), Nevo resists the idea that their body is “wrong”. They also learned (the hard way!) that identities aren’t rigid, and it’s okay for them to change and evolve over time. It’s okay not to know and to go with what feels “right” at the moment. That’s why we’re all here, isn’t it?

Given that Finding Nevo is only about 200 pages long, it covers a remarkable amount of ground. Nevo talks about many aspects of identity and transformation: the physical realities of life in a trans/non-binary body, negotiating the divide between their sexuality/gender and their religious faith, and all of the good, bad, and ugly emotions that have come with every step. Nevo describes great pain, joyful optimism, crippling anxiety, bewildering dysphoria, and – ultimately – determined hope. And they were only twenty years old at the time of writing! Incredible!

It’s a quick read, with straightforward language, and it’s appropriate for pretty much all ages (I’d say if a kid is old enough to ask questions about this book’s content, they’re old enough to read it and, maybe with a little help, understand). In fact, it won the Australian Family Therapists’ Book Of The Year Award in 2018. It’s a really useful resource and learning tool for queer folk and straight/cis-gendered readers. For people who are struggling with their own identity, Finding Nevo will hopefully be a source of comfort and reassurance. For others, it will be an opportunity to learn, to walk a mile in the proverbial shoes, and come closer to understanding a life that is different to their own.





For me, this was a really timely read – not just because it’s Pride, not just because reviewing Frankissstein last week had me confronting my own blind spots, but also because while there’s never a “bad” time to learn and to empathise, the current moment seems particularly good for it. Reading it re-enforced the importance of amplifying #ownvoices non-fiction, as well as fictional depictions of diverse characters. I really admire Nevo’s generosity in sharing their experience, so candidly, in a way that could help so many others. Finding Nevo is a heart-felt, thoughtful, and constructive memoir – do the world a favour and buy it for the TERF in your life today!


Tracker – Alexis Wright

How do you go about writing the autobiography of a man who was larger than life? The short answer is, you don’t. Tracker is not neat, linear life story told in a single voice. Rather, it is a “collective memoir”, drawing upon the ancient traditions of oral histories, whereby one man’s incredible life is related through the stories of dozens of people. Alexis Wright is not a narrator, but a collaborator, bringing together friends, family members, colleagues, politicians, and countless others to paint a portrait – detailed, contradictory, and powerful – of one of Australia’s most beloved Aboriginal leaders.

Tracker Tilmouth was born in 1954, in the latter years of the White Australia policy. He was one of the Stolen Generation, removed from his family at three years old, and raised on the Croker Island Mission. He went on to become the country’s most powerful advocate for the social, legal and economic advancement of Aboriginal Australians, working with the Central Land Council and other organisations in Queensland and the Northern Territory, until his death in 2015.

Alexis Wright has carefully pieced together his life story from the recollections and statements of over fifty contributors, each carefully selected and approved by Tracker before his death. The effect is something like sitting around the dinner table after a large family reunion, listening to everyone hash over their histories: the good, the bad, and the ugly. The strongest speaker, though, is Tracker. He is instantly beguiling, his distinctive “voice” booming loud and large from the page.

That’s not an artifact, it would seem: it was how Tracker did business. He was charismatic, skilled in the art of tailoring his message for the listener, informal and crass at times but always disarming with his good-natured humour. He was multi-lingual, able to converse in several Indigenous languages as well as Australian English, and this fluidity of language allowed him to act as a conduit, and a mediator, between groups. Even where all parties shared a common language, Tracker still managed to form bridges across political and cultural divides; he was determined, in every circumstance possible, to create an environment where people felt they could talk to him, and to each other, as a way of finding solutions to seemingly insurmountable problems.





Tracker is a long(!) book, one that requires close and attentive reading over an extended period. Even though I was deeply engaged in the content and very interested in Tracker’s life and perspective, some parts dragged, which I guess would be the nature of any biography told in multiple voices (not all of them will resonate equally for every reader). It follows rough timeline, as you might expect of a biography, in that it starts with childhood and follows the trajectory of Tracker’s life and career. That said, it’s only very loosely structured. Sometimes, the same events are revisited and re-told from different perspectives, the pieces of the puzzle pushed together in a new way to form a different picture. This all seems to emerge organically from the mode of storytelling, rather than being forced or engineered as some kind of gimmick.

Wright doesn’t intervene as a narrator at any stage (she’s so absent from the narrative that where she is referred to at all, it is in third-person), which means there is no umpire adjudicating for the reader the contradictions between the different versions of events, and the different descriptions of Tracker. And it’s not all glowing, let me assure you: Tracker is, at times, criticised for his derision, his sexism, and (for want of a better word) his lack of polish. He was “certainly not politically correct by the standards of polite white civility”, and so it’s hardly surprising he ruffled a lot of feathers.

Where the first half of Tracker focuses mainly on events and achievements in Tracker’s life, the second focuses more on his philosophy, his ideas, and his insights. It’s not dense sociopolitical commentary, mind you – just an airing of Tracker’s vision for economic, social, and legal self-determination for Indigenous Australians. For him, it wasn’t just about the legal ruling or the funding approval for an initiative, it was about the practical impacts for the community, what a given decision or action would actually do to combat the entrenched inequality that still exists in Australia. For all the unwieldy complexity of the issues and challenges he took on, he boiled almost everything down to financial independence: “If it isn’t economically sustainable, it won’t work”. That might not be a popular view in today’s climate, reducing cultural continuation to dollars and cents, and it’s one I approached with much skepticism – but I’ve got to say, Tracker’s way of winning people over is just as effective on the page as it was in life.

Tracker also presents his views on the ever-timely issue of constitutional recognition:

“It is not our constitution, it is their constitution. If you want to be invited to a shit sandwich, off you go. It is not ours, it has nothing to do with us. So we have the stupidity of recognition. What do you recognise? You recognise we own it? If you want to recognise we own it all, give us a treaty. Give us our rights. Give us our property rights. Return the stolen land. Do those sorts of things. Do not talk to us about recognising us because you can do that on a piece of paper, it is not going to mean anything.”

Page 407

This view surprised me a little – not the sentiment, but the vehemence of it – as did his views on the Greens and other environmentalist groups. Tracker pointed out a lot of problems in the ethos of these organisations that I’m privileged enough not to have had to consider previously. For me, Tracker really highlighted – in a way we don’t see often enough – the heterogeneity of “the Indigenous community”. Just like there are a broad range of views within “the gay community” or “the Muslim community”, the First Nations people are a diverse group with diverse views. That kind of nuance is too often lost when, as we’ve seen recently, they’re forced front and center of a political debate.





Another surprise: Tracker was a far less emotional read than I was expecting. Most of the contributors presented their stories in a matter-of-fact way, without the grief-stricken lyrical waxing I suppose I’m conditioned to expect from what is, in effect, a eulogy. This is not a book that sobs into the reader’s shoulder about how sad it is that such a brilliant man faced such hardship, and was lost so young (though it is, of course, extremely sad) – rather, it’s a careful record of the “facts” of a fragmented history, and in some ways, that is perhaps a more fitting tribute.

For her efforts and vision, Wright won the Stella Prize in 2018. It’s hard to imagine that a life as large and far-reaching as Tracker Tilmouth’s could have been captured in writing in any other way, and I’m glad that the literary community has recognised this stunning, epic achievement. I’ll leave the last word to her:

“Tracker was the one who made us look more, and work harder… The holes in this book are the missing stories of hundreds of people who knew Tracker. You can go anywhere in this country and there will always be someone with a great story to tell about Tracker, of something he said or did. Keep sharing those stories. Embellish them. Make his stories your own story. Most of all, be the story. That is what he would have wanted.”

Acknowledgements (Page 617-18)



Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered – Karen Kilgariff & Georgia Hardstark

I first discovered the My Favorite Murder podcast back in 2017. I went all the way back to the beginning and binge-listened to every single episode (yes, I’m a podcast junkie, but this one was particularly addictive), and I haven’t missed one since. We fans call ourselves “Murderinos”, and there are tens of thousands of us around the world. The hosts are Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark, and they have over 20 million monthly listeners. “You come for the murder, you stay for the camaraderie” they say, and they’re right. Their friendship is the reason their podcast, and now their book, works. Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is their dual memoir published last year (and this copy was very kindly gifted to me by my very dear friend and fellow Murderino, Chent).

Sidebar: The book is gorgeous, of course, but I must say, I was really bemused by the fact that in the blurb the word “bullshit” is censored (stylised as “bullsh*t”), but they let the word “unfuckwithable” fly in full. Weird, eh?

Anyway, I’ve never read a dual memoir before. In fact, this is the first (officially) co-authored book I’ve reviewed on Keeping Up With The Penguins. It’s a strange mix of self-help and memoir, like a “Look what we learned by how badly we fucked up!” guide to life. Kilgariff and Hardstark’s transparency about hard times and shitty decision-making is gloriously disarming. They cover everything from self-care, to relationships, to substance abuse, to staying sexy, to not getting murdered.

Ah, murder: you’d think that, given the nature of their brand and the subject of their podcast, that Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered would be full of true crime chat. Not so! True crime is mentioned in passing, of course (given that it’s their passion, and now their life’s work), but it’s not a focus. When they do mention it, mostly towards the end of the book, they steer away from recounting grisly details or glorifying sensational cases. Instead, they use the opportunity to pay respects to victims and families, and call out the toxic habit of victim-blaming.

“… at the end of the day, the only reason it matters is the victim. It’s the victim and their friends and family who will forever be affected by the trueness of the crime long after the killer is caught…”

Page 295

The book’s title, and all its chapter headers, are taken from catch-phrases and in-jokes used in the podcast. Basically, Kilgariff and Hardstark take their winning formula and reproduce it in print, only they’re now talking about their lives instead of murders. Their personalities and tone translate well, and there’s no pretentious attempts at literariness. These podcasters are well aware—and they make their readers well aware of their well-awareness—that they aren’t Professional Authors(TM). There’s no bullshit, they’re not writing like they hope they’ll win the Pulitzer. They’re just two insanely popular women with a huge fan base, responding to popular demand for a book about their experiences. They write as they speak, which they know (based on the weight of evidence) will resonate.





Most Murderinos will already be at least somewhat familiar with many of the stories recounted in Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered, but Kilgariff and Hardstark offer more nuanced and detailed insights than they might off-the-cuff in a podcast recording. Their radical vulnerability, their unabashed hanging out of dirty laundry, is very impressive. They are candid and personable, just as you’d hope them to be, and they encourage their readers (as they do their listeners) to eschew the myth of “perfection” and the reverence of politeness. OK, fine, they out-and-out tell readers to “fuck politeness”, and I must say, I agree.

It’s quite funny—I laughed out loud a few times. I’m not sure I’d call Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered a laugh riot exactly, there are a lot of stories of trauma and devastation, but you’re sure to crack a few smiles at least (and if you don’t, you’re dead inside, seek help).

I’m not sure how much this book would mean to readers who don’t already listen to the podcast, though. As I’ve said, it’s generously seasoned with in-jokes, the kind that have already been broadcast to millions and adopted by the die-hard fans as mantras (“stay out of the forest”). Kilgariff and Hardstark are trading, intentionally or not, on the goodwill and emotional investment that already exists. Sure, Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered might win them a few more Murderinos, but I think for the most part, it goes out to the lovers. Still, for them (and I include myself), this book is a slam dunk. It’s like getting to sit in on your best friend’s therapy session. (Oh, yeah, they advocate therapy, a lot—it’s very L.A.)

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered is definitely one of the better celebrity memoirs I’ve read, on par with Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee. This is what I was hoping to get from Amy Poehler’s Yes Please—my wish has finally been fulfilled. Does that make Karen and Georgia my fairy godmothers? Hope so!

My favourite Amazon reviews of My Favorite Murder:

  • “haven’t read…..too busy listening to their PodCast.” – Alison Kramer
  • “…. If I wanted to hear that I should go to therapy a dozen times I’d just listen to my sister rag on me for free.” – Bellingham Bookworm
  • “this book cleared my acne and cured my depression. I love my moms Georgia and Karen, and I LOVED this book.” – Hannah @ A Reading Red Sox
  • “I love staying sexy and not getting murdered. Thank you Karen and Georgia.” – AK
  • “Buy it you true crime lover!!!” – Alex H
  • “I Laughed, I Cried, I Got Inspired! Consider me not murdered.” – Jenna T
  • “Great read! Withstands spilled beer. Would recommend.” – Zack


The Happiest Refugee – Anh Do

You’d be forgiven for picking The Happiest Refugee thinking you’re going to get a light-hearty folksy anecdote from one of Australia’s most cheerful comedians. Indeed, there are plenty of chuckles to be had, but Anh Do’s life hasn’t all been smooth sailing (that is the most awful attempt at a joke I’ve ever made, you’ll see why in a minute, but it’s my blog so I’m leaving it in). I grew up watching Do in televised comedy festival galas and on TV shows like Thank God You’re Here, but I had very little idea about his background before I read his book. So, strap in, folks: this is one hell of a story.

The blurb probably sums it up best:

“Anh Do nearly didn’t make it to Australia. His entire family came close to losing their lives as they escaped from war-torn Vietnam in an overcrowded boat. But nothing – not murderous pirates, nor the imminent threat of death by hunger, disease, or dehydration as they drifted for days – could quench their desire to make a better life in the country they had dreamed about.”

The Happiest Refugee (2010)

That’s right: Anh Do is one of those “boat people” our government has been trying to make us fear for the last decade or so. I’ll tell you right now that I want to shove a copy of this book into the hands of everyone who has ever purchased a “Fuck Off, We’re Full” sticker.

Do was born in Vietnam in 1977, and his family fled to Australia in 1980. The blurb neither over- nor under-sells the horror of their journey. They were attacked by two different bands of pirates, who stole their engines, their jewellery, and pretty much everything else worth taking. One oddly benevolent pirate in the second crew threw a gallon of water on board as they were leaving, which was all that saved the family from dehydration. They were eventually rescued by a German merchant ship.

Now, as Do tells it, his father was only twenty-fucking-five when he packed his entire family (his wife, sons, aunts, uncles, and cousins) onto that leaky boat and took them to sea. There were forty of them, all told, on that fishing boat, just nine and a half meters long and two meters wide. Do Senior captained it out to open water, fixing the back-up engine with a rubber thong and basically running the whole operation, all while he was three years younger than I am now – mind blowing!



Because this is real life, Do’s father – brave as he was in his youth – is not perfect, and Do is really frank about their relationship, including periods of (literally) violent antipathy. His honesty impressed me to no end; when it’s your job to make people laugh, it must be especially tough to tell them about the time you grabbed a knife from the kitchen, prepared to stab your drunken father who was threatening your terrified mother. Their rocky relationship, and the steps forwards and backwards across the course of Do’s life and career, is a central part of his story, and as heart-wrenching as it can be, it’s all told with his characteristic and eternal optimism.

Do’s message seems to be this: work your arse off, and smile, and everything will turn out okay. Powered by elbow-grease alone, he made it through school and university (Business/Law at UTS), forged a decent career as a comedian and actor, pivoted into art (he’s been twice-nominated for the Archibald Prize) and writing, and he’s now raising a happy family with his wonderful wife, a million miles away from the life of poverty and peril that surely awaited him in post-war Vietnam. “I’ve always found that if you apply yourself at the right time with the right intensity, you can accomplish just about anything,” he says on page 113.



The Happiest Refugee has won more awards than you can poke a stick at – including the 2011 Australian Book Of The Year. Like The White Mouse, it’s hardly a literary coup (he’s a comedian, not a creative writing grad), but it’s a cracking yarn nonetheless. It’s one to read when you need a little optimism in your life. I feel like I’ve just met Do in a bar, and had an incredible chat about his incredible life over a few beers. And I couldn’t help but notice it doesn’t have a single one-star review on Amazon! You can’t get higher praise than that!

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Happiest Refugee:

  • “I don’t want to fill this out. I just want to close out and start my next reading. Very annoying.” – Amazon Customer
  • “Never read a better book in my life and I’ve read thousands” – craig reynolds
  • “Good immigrant story” – Reading Granny
  • “Top story, top bloke.” – Tezza41
  • “Really long and absolutely great. It just went on and on but you wanted it to,” – Jesse Crisp


The White Mouse – Nancy Wake

I’ve been obsessed with the story of Nancy Wake ever since a friend told me about her a couple of years ago. She was one of the most highly decorated women of WWII, and the stories of her exploits in resisting the Gestapo are legendary. That’s why I added this book in particular to my reading list. Peter FitzSimons wrote a far more popular biography (which I would also like to read some day), but I really wanted to hear the story of this incredible woman in her own words. The White Mouse wasn’t hugely popular upon release, and it didn’t have a massive print-run, so I thought I had sweet fuck-all chance of finding it in a secondhand bookstore. I always checked the biography section just in case, never expecting much… until one day I ducked into my local while I was waiting for a bus, and there it was! To this day, I can’t believe my luck.

OK, it turns out that Nancy Wake was actually born in New Zealand, even though we claim her as an Aussie (we will claim any decent Kiwi as our own without blinking an eye, it never ceases to amaze). In The White Mouse, she only gives us a page or two about her early life, though; she speeds right ahead to the ascendancy of Hitler and the beginning of WWII. She was living in Marseilles with her French husband at the time, and she found increasingly inventive ways to help the French efforts resisting the Germans, helping sneak refugees out of France when the Occupation began. She went on to become a leading figure in the Resistance, using her “native cunning and beauty” to overcome the suspicions of German guards and get through checkpoints. Yep, she literally flirted her way through the war, all the while killing German soldiers with her bare hands. That’s girl power, folks.

The Special Operations Executive training reports say that she was “a very good and fast shot”, noted for “put[ting] men to shame by her cheerful spirit and strength of character”. She also won a lot of drinking contests. By 1943, there was a 5-million franc price on her head. The Gestapo took to calling her “the White Mouse”, referring to her ability to elude capture – thus, the book title.



Her story is incredible, but the editing is shithouse, which is a real shame. There’s more than a few typos, and a lot of repetition; I quickly lost track of the number of times she described something as “extraordinary”. Little things like that could have been easily (and quickly!) fixed, and that would have made for a much more engaging read. We can hardly fault Wake herself for that; she was a bad-ass assassin spy, not a writer. And the level of detail she manages to recall is unbelievable – she must have kept really meticulous journals.

“For weeks now I had been subjected to more than my fair share of drama. I had been forced to flee from home, separated from my beloved husband and my darling [dog] Picon, made six fruitless journeys to the Pyrenees, been thrown in prison and kicked around, jumped out of a moving train, been fired at by a machine gun, sprinted to the top of a mountain, lost my jewellery, walked for five nights, been starved for eight days, and infected with scabies. There was no way I was going to let the little matter of a password deter me…. I crossed the road, went up to the front door and knocked. A man opened it and immediately I said, ‘I am Nancy Fiocca, you are in charge of our guides, I work for O’Leary, so do you, I want to go to Spain, I’ve had enough trouble getting here so don’t give me any crap.’”

So, yeah, as you can tell, Wake had a really matter-of-fact voice, and she talks really nonchalantly about the most terrifying of circumstances. Her affect doesn’t change between describing a dinner party and a major Resistance operation. I get the feeling she was much like that in real life as well.

Unfortunately, after the war, she didn’t exactly get a happily-ever-after. Her first husband, Henri Fiocca, had stayed behind in France after she was forced to flee, and he was captured, tortured, and executed by the Gestapo when he refused to give them her location. Wake, however, was unaware of her husband’s death until after the war ended. Her dog survived, and the story of their reunion in peace-time was one of the most heart-warming anecdotes I have ever heard.

She was also denied a medal by the Australian government for over five decades (shame!), on the grounds that she was “not fighting in any of the Australian services” during the war (double shame!). Indeed, from what I can tell, the Australian government treated her like shit in all other regards as well. When her second husband died in 1997, she was deemed ineligible for any pensions or benefits, and she had no children or family to support her. She ended up having to sell her war medals to support herself in her advancing years. Even so, she hardly seemed bitter; she said “There was no point in keeping them [the medals], I’ll probably go to Hell and they’d melt anyway”. She died in 2011, aged 98, of a chest infection.



Reading The White Mouse, I had to examine my own biases really closely. Why was I so enamoured with Nancy Wake, I kept asking myself, when I was so repulsed by Chris Kyle, the “American Sniper”? In the end, I think it came down to the fact that Nancy seemed far more grounded in reality, and far more self-aware. While she (self-admittedly) “loathed” the Gestapo, she came across as someone who had quite natural biases and constantly re-evaluated the evidence at hand. She watched the Nazis sack a city that she had lived in and loved for most of her life, first hand. Kyle, on the other hand, came across as someone who had been brainwashed into hating brown people and loving guns, and had never thought to question it.

Nancy Wake’s autobiography isn’t a romantic narrative, so if you’ve come here looking for a non-fiction version of The Book Thief or All The Light We Cannot See, you can move right along. The White Mouse is not a work of art, it’s not going to win any literary awards, but it’s deeply – unavoidably! – charming. It’s a story of incredible bravery and hardship, told without any sentimentality or self-effacing bullshit. Imagine if you got your no-nonsense grandma drunk, and found out she’d spent most of her life killing enemy combatants and doing courier runs for an underground resistance movement: that’s what reading The White Mouse is like. I fail to understand our collective obsession with fictionalised WWII narratives when there are books and stories like this out there (and they go out of print due to low sales). I can’t recommend The White Mouse on its artistic merit, but I think that you should read it anyway, and pay your respects to this incredible woman who probably could have won the war single-handedly if she’d needed to.


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