Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction (page 1 of 5)

Becoming – Michelle Obama

I worry that reviewing Daisy Jones And The Six has put me on a dangerous path. All of a sudden, I find myself tempted to pick up all of the hugely hyped books of the past few years, the ones I thought I’d never bother reading, just to see if they live up. Here’s exhibit B: Becoming. (Does that mean I’ll end up reading A Promised Land, too? We’ll see…)

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I think we can all agree that the market for White House memoirs is well and truly saturated. Even before the Trump era, we were drenched in the recollections of the second undersecretary to the whoever of no-one-cares. It makes me wonder whether it’s even possible to have a single unguarded conversation with anyone who might go within a hundred feet of the U.S. federal government, seeing as they all seem to have notebooks and voice recorders in their pockets…

But there seems to be something special about Becoming, Michelle Obama’s account of her life up to and including her time as the first black First Lady of the United States. It sold 725,000 copies on the first day of release, and 1.4 million in its first week. It set the record for the best-selling book published in the United States in 2018, just fifteen days after it hit the shelves. What’s most remarkable is that its popularity has persisted, past the initial curiosity spike and gossip-hounding; as of November 2020, there are at least 14 million copies in worldwide circulation.

The thing is, there’s nothing about the way the book is written – with its straightforward chronological format, and no-nonsense accessible tone – that seems remarkable at all. Content-wise, it didn’t seem particularly earth-shattering, either. From the preface alone, I got the impression that, while Obama was going to be frank about the ups and downs, she’s an earnestly optimistic person at heart and Becoming was hardly going to be a salacious tell-all.





The first section, Becoming Me, covers Obama’s life growing up on the South Side of Chicago, with loving parents and a stalwart brother in an apartment above her aunt and uncle’s. Thanks to her mother’s advocacy, her own hard work, and a couple of lucky breaks, she received a more-than-decent education that saw her accepted into Princeton University (and, later, Harvard Law School). Obama recounts a fairly charmed-life version of her childhood and adolescence. Her story is not without sadness or difficulty, but it all just seems so wholesome. There was, as she tells it, no more angst than a gnawing sense of self-doubt, and no more misbehaviour than a (very) brief mention of smoking pot and necking with a boy in the backseat of his car. Surely, she’s left the good stuff out.

Becoming Us – as you might guess – covers her courtship and marriage to Barack, whom she met as a young lawyer at a prestigious law firm. Obama is a little more open in this section, about her desire to leave the corporate world, her misgivings about her new husband’s political career, and – most admirably – her miscarriage and troubles conceiving.

That said, sometimes the writing gets a bit repetitive, especially through the first half (we get it, your Aunt Robbie is a hard-arse). There are times where it also feels a little indulgent; some anecdotes had me wondering “Why are you telling me this? What’s it going to add to the story?”. I had to remind myself that Obama is a public figure, not a writer – that’s probably why Becoming is so long, and willfully ignores some of the more creative aspects of memoir writing.





The feminist in me is pushing me to pretend that these early developmental sections – how Obama became Obama – are the most interesting, that Obama’s own career in law and then community advocacy are the best parts of Becoming. They aren’t a snooze fest – it’s interesting and inspiring to see how a young woman persevered to overcome everything that was, on paper, against her – but let’s be real. The reason we read Becoming is for the third and final section, Becoming More – her account of her time as First Lady.

Throughout the election campaign and early days after the vote, it’s clear that Obama had an agenda: to be the change she wanted to see in U.S. government. Even though she, herself, wasn’t in a position to be drafting policy or implementing legislation, she still had a certain sway – especially with the public – and she used it tactically. Her Let’s Move campaign was seeded with her concerns about her own daughters’ nutrition, and by carefully and strategically addressing those concerns and bringing them to a bigger platform, she sowed and reaped tangible changes for childhood nutrition across the U.S.

She also offers some really powerful and touching insights about her own mis-steps and mistakes while her husband was in office: from her naivete to outright ignorance of what her role should be and what it required of her. She’s not quiet about her frustrations with the media and public attacks on her and her family, but she doesn’t seem overly bitter about them, either. Throughout Becoming, her faith seems to lie in her in-person interactions with the public. “When voters got to see me as a person, they understood that the caricatures were untrue,” she says, on page 270. “I’ve learned that it is harder to hate up close.”





I got the distinct impression, from the way Becoming is written and presented, that the Obamas aren’t done with politics and public life. She insists, in the Epilogue, that she herself has no aspiration or interest in pursuing a career in politics, but given the sanitary and affirming tone of the book, I don’t quite believe it.

Publishing her memoir has certainly given Obama a huge platform, perhaps even bigger than the one she held while her husband was in office. Becoming was an Oprah’s Book Club pick – with all the international reach and influence that that entails – and the audiobook even won a Grammy (for Best Spoken Word Album, 2020). If she were to pursue some new line of public life, I’ve no doubt they’d pave the road in gold for her. In the meantime, Becoming wasn’t perfect, but it was a pleasure to read, and I’ve gained some insight into recent U.S. political history that surely won’t go astray.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Becoming:

  • “The title should’ve been more like “Becoming Michelle Obummer”!” – sergio chavez
  • “I wouldn’t wipe my dogs butt with this book.” – virginia g foretich
  • “Great book… I bought two one for my auntie birthday and one for myself, get comfortable with a little greatness in your life and she looks great on my coffee table!” – Sharonda Rudolph-Doe

Bad Feminist – Roxane Gay

If you follow Roxane Gay on Twitter, you probably already love her as much as I do. She’s forthright, unabashed, and gives voice to the best and worst of the little voices inside our heads. So, I picked up Bad Feminist – her 2014 essay collection – fully expecting to love it. After all, if she could cram so much into 280 characters, surely this book would be brimming with brilliance.

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Buy Bad Feminist here.
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For those of you who aren’t already familiar: Gay was born in Nebraska to Haitian parents, who had moved to the U.S. and worked their way up to middle-class comfort for themselves and their children. Gay has two younger siblings, and grew up in a comfortable, though strict, household. Though she was a lonely and slightly weird child (as per her own recollection), experienced a terrible sexual assault in her early teens, and had a couple of wayward years in her youth, she is now settled as a respected academic, writer, and critic. Plus, she’s a total boss.

This collection, Bad Feminist, catapulted her into the limelight. It’s a bunch of stand-alone essays, most published individually elsewhere prior to the 2014 release, grouped thematically. They’re all loosely tied to the overarching ideas of feminism and womanhood, what it means to do it well, and what the consequences are for doing it badly.

Gay starts Bad Feminist by explaining to the reader her personal understanding of feminism: what it is, what it means, and its guilt by association with provocateurs who have made it part of their ‘brand’. “We forget the difference,” she says in the introduction, “between feminism and Professional Feminists,”. I couldn’t help but think of Mia Freedman when I read that (here’s why). Gay’s central thesis is that there is no Essential Feminism, no one true feminism to rule all of womankind. And – as she circles back around to, in her epilogue – it is better to be a “bad” feminist than no feminist at all.





The essays in Bad Feminist blend academia and pop culture seamlessly. Gay is just as comfortable citing professors and academic papers as she is pop stars and Law & Order: SVU. In fact, my very favourite essays in this collection were her arts criticism, a notably hybrid field, in which she examines our culture and how we consume it.

She takes aim at 50 Shades Of Grey, The Help, Django Unchained – rather than boycotting these books and films, as many Feminists(TM) do on spec, she gives them a fair shake and owns up to what she likes and what she doesn’t. Some of the cultural references (e.g., TV channels and their programming) flew right over my non-American head, but I could still catch her drift.

I was really surprised to see glimpses of David Foster Wallace in Gay’s style and tone. I’m not likening Bad Feminist to Infinite Jest (though it’s a cool off-rhyme), but Gay’s essay about Scrabble, for instance, was definitely Wallace-esque. What was truly refreshing about her writing and her approach, however, was her willingness to concede her vulnerabilities, her peace with being wrong or imperfect or “bad”. I read another review that said she “punctures the need for perfection”, which sums it up perfectly. That gives her so much room to maneuver, and to invite the reader in (as opposed to herding them in a certain direction). She is able to recognise and appreciate other points of view, without discrediting or discarding her own. The real masterstroke is that she does this without any faux-humility or self-deprecating bullshit.

The only real downside to Bad Feminist is that some of Gay’s points of reference have dated really badly (the example that stuck in my mind is a couple of glowing references to Bill Cosby – yikes). It really frustrates me that the world moves so quickly that a book like Bad Feminist, one so good and from such a brilliant mind, can feel dated in just five-or-so years. I read Bad Feminist in a post-Trump, post-#MeToo, post-George Floyd, and (very nearly) post-pandemic world – a very different world from that in which Gay wrote it.

I really wish she’d release another essay collection (like, today! right now!), so that I could get her thoughts fresh out the kitchen. As it stands, Bad Feminist is one of the very few back-list titles I’ve encountered that I wish I’d read as soon as it was released. It’s still worth a read, but it would’ve been better at the time.

So, let that be a lesson to you all: if a new Roxane Gay book hits the shelves, buy it and read it IMMEDIATELY. Failing that, follow her on Twitter for her up-to-the-minute hot takes.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Bad Feminist:

  • “You should read this book if you’re thinking about reading this book.” – Peyton Stanley
  • “Bought for my liberal feminist wife who reads a lot and teaches English. She thought the book was just okay.” – Matt
  • “So thought provoking. I aspire to be a “bad feminist”.” – S. Shane
  • “Enjoying the ever-lovin’ daylights out of this!” – Brenda N Lively


Julie and Julia – Julie Powell

Julie Powell’s life in the early ’00s was a bit of a bummer. She was working a dead-end secretarial job, fielding the public’s suggestions for a Ground Zero memorial. She was diagnosed with PCOS and, given that she was nearly thirty, the pressure to produce a child (from all corners: familial, professional, and internal) intensified. On the verge of existential crisis, she did what so many of us do: she sought out a Project, and she found it in her mother’s battered copy of Julia Child’s Mastering The Art Of French Cooking. Julie And Julia is her memoir, based on her blog, about her year of cooking dangerously.

Julie And Julia - Julie Powell - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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It’s the contemporary domestic equivalent of a herculean feat: 524 recipes, in 365 days. What’s more, Powell only had one tiny apartment kitchen to work in, not to mention an aversion to eggs and no bloody idea where to buy offal or marrow bones. Naturally, mishaps and misadventures ensue.

Powell started the project in August 2002, when blogs were still new, mysterious little rabbit-holes of the internet where one could build a large following relatively quickly if they were doing something no one else was blogging about. Her mother thought she was crazy, and most of her friends did, too – thoughts that Powell doesn’t mind repeating for the reader, and huffing about at length (but after all, as Anne Lamott said, “if people wanted you to write nicely about them, they should have treated you better”). Her only steadfast supporter is Eric, her husband, but even he blanches at some of the more adventurous recipes, and his patience is tested by Powell’s frequent cooking-induced melt-downs.

As she tells her own story, in chronological episodic form (not unlike a blog), Powell weaves in imagined scenes from Julia Child’s life. Drawing on biographies, letters, and photographs, she paints a very rosy picture of Julia’s romance with her husband, Paul, and how she came to love French cooking. These are decorative touches, however; Julie Powell is the meat of the story, Julia Child just the garnish.



In other reviews and articles, a lot has been made of what Julia Child herself thought of Powell’s project (in sum: she wasn’t a fan, really). I’m kind of disappointed that so much focus has been trained on that one aspect of this quite-remarkable story. I find it much more interesting to look at what drew Child to cooking initially, and what parallels can be found in Powell’s experience.

Child, for instance, didn’t learn to cook until the age of 37, and once she’d figured it out (graduating from Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, no less), she set about spreading the word. She published Mastering The Art Of French Cooking in service of teaching the average “servantless” American to cook like a gourmet chef – or, to put it more simply, she made high-falootin’ food accessible.

Isn’t that essentially what Powell has done with Julie And Julia, too? Granted, she’s not teaching us how to cook (she just barely includes a single recipe, it’s not a cook-book after all), but she is making it feel like an achievable goal at least. Before reading Julia And Julia, I would have felt more comfortable skydiving than attempting any fancy-pants French cooking. I’m not one of those can’t-boil-water types, but my idea of a hearty home-cooked meal is more bangers-and-mash than boeuf bourguignon (in fact, I even had to Google how to spell the latter, twice). Seeing that Powell, like me, didn’t have all the tools or know-how when she started off and still she gave it a go… well, “inspirational” is a gross word, but it instilled a little confidence. I even went out and bought a leek.

What’s more: both Julie and Julia are unafraid of admitting their mistakes. Granted, Julie might drop a few more f-bombs, but they both hasten to reassure readers that cock-ups are a natural part of learning to cook. As Julia once said, “If you’re alone in the kitchen, what does it matter – who’s there to see you?”.



I don’t want to mislead you, though: Julie And Julia is just as much about marriage and existential dread as it is cooking. Powell weaves in memories of her childhood and youth, hopes and fears for her future, making the story more comprehensive than just a single year in her life with one ambitious project as its focus. I think that was a good call, on her part, preemptively answering our desire for authenticity in such accounts and saving us from a repetitive cooking procedural (if that’s what you’re after, seriously, go find a recipe book).

Of course, not long after publication, Julie And Julia was adapted to a film of the same name, starring Meryl Streep(!) as Julia Child and Amy Adams as Powell. I watched it once, years ago, and I can’t say I remember much, other than it was good and funny and Meryl Streep was brilliant. I’ll have to watch it again, soon. In doing some Googling for this review, I learned that it was actually the last film written and directed by Nora Ephron before she died, which makes it extra-special.

So, final verdict: I liked it. Sure, Powell’s snarky sense of humour and tendency towards histrionics won’t be to everyone’s taste, but what is? Julie And Julia is a good, quick read that – if you’re anything like me – will inspire you to pick up the tongs instead of ordering UberEats for the fourth night in a row. If it doesn’t sound like it’s up your alley, that’s fine, because I’m going to share with you the single most important take-away of the whole book: put more butter in everything. Seriously. That pat of butter you normally use? Double it.


12 Amazing Non-Fiction Books By Women

Looking back over the books I read and reviewed this month, I realised: it’s been wall-to-wall amazing non-fiction books by women. That wasn’t exactly by design, but looking over my shelves I can see how it could happen! It would seem that non-fiction books by women – particularly ones on niche subjects, or ones that take a unique approach – really pique my interest. Here are a few more of my favourites…

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales

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Every person who talks about the most devastating day of their life invariably says the same thing: “it was any ordinary day”. Thus, the title of Australian journalist Leigh Sales’ book – Any Ordinary Day – about the worst days, the catastrophic days, when the world collapses in upon you. She asks the questions we all silently wonder when we’re watching for the news. When you have a life-changing near-brush with death, does it actually change your life? When you lose loved ones in the most unimaginably horrible ways, how do you learn to love and trust again? This is one of the most compelling and fascinating non-fiction books by women of recent years, and (sadly) given the increasing rate of life-changing events in our world, it is ever resonant and relevant.

You Daughters Of Freedom by Clare Wright

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This might seem baffling to my American Keeper-Upperers (given that voting is voluntary in your homeland), but I really dig participating in democracy. Put it down to watching Mary Poppins too much as a kid (Well Done, Sister Suffragette!). Every time I line up to the ballot box, I feel immense gratitude for all of the women who fought and died for my right to do so. That’s what drew me to pick up You Daughters Of Freedom – a testament to the Australians who won the vote for women, comparatively early. The trailblazing (though, it must be said, white) women who won the vote served as inspiration for the rest of the world.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay

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You know that voice in your head that says: you’re a bad feminist if you fangirl over Mr Rochester when you read Jane Eyre? Or the one that says you’re a bootlicker if you like the colour pink? Roxane Gay shines the spotlight on that nasty, mean little voice in Bad Feminist. In this series of at-times hilarious and at-time searing essays, she looks at the ways in which the culture we consume reflects who we are, and what we want it to say about us. I have never felt so validated and affirmed as I have reading this incredible book (unless you count reading Roxane Gay’s Twitter feed). Read my full review of Bad Feminist here.

See also: Hunger


Victoria by Julia Baird

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I was skeptical (to say the least) when I heard that there was a new biography of Queen Victoria forthcoming (and with such a creative title, too). Victoria is surely at least the hundredth book about a dead British monarch published this past decade. And yet, the more I heard about it, the more interviews Julia Baird gave about her process and her approach, the more my curiosity was stoked. There’s no shortage of biographies in the category of non-fiction books by women, but this one is surely one of the best.

In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park

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Conceptually, North Korea still blows my mind. In this age of unprecedented globalisation and connection, how has one country so brutally and efficiently cut its people off from external influence and insight? If any of their citizens do get a sniff of the world beyond the borders, how could they possibly find within themselves the courage to run? In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park is one woman’s story of doing just that. Facing dangers the likes of which most of us couldn’t imagine (relying on Chinese smugglers for escape, then navigating across the Gobi desert with no more than the stars to guide her), she made it to South Korea and, as if her survival alone wasn’t testament enough, shared her story with the rest of the world.

The Killing Season: Uncut by Sarah Ferguson

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I might be showing my age when I say this, but what the hell: the first Australian election in which I felt properly and politically engaged was the one that elected Kevin Rudd’s government in 2007. Shortly thereafter, he was usurped by Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female prime minister. Then, in a move shocking to every non-Australian in the world (seriously, we change leaders more frequently than we change underpants down here), Rudd resumed the leadership before a spectacular election defeat in 2013. Obviously, everyone behind-the-scenes has a very different version of these events – each of which Sarah Ferguson investigated when making the documentary program The Killing Season. In the book version, she recounts details she couldn’t put to air at the time. Heck, maybe I’m the only one who cares, but this is the first of the non-fiction books by women about Australian politics that truly gripped me.


The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan

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Ever heard of the Rosenhan experiment? A brilliant psychiatrist sent a bunch of people into psychiatric hospitals with feigned benign symptoms, and they were all diagnosed with stigmatising mental illnesses and fed huge quantities of psychoactive medication. This outcome changed the course of psychology and psychiatry forever, and it has had significant real-world impacts on the lives of people living with mental illness today. Susannah Cahalan took it upon herself, having narrowly escaped misdiagnosis and institutionalisation herself, to uncover the truth of this experiment and the man who instigated it, in The Great Pretender. It is a fascinating, and terrifying, read.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

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You might think you “know” the Harvey Weinstein story, but until you’ve read She Said, I can promise you that you don’t. Not only are the details of Weinstein’s crimes horrific, but the lengths that he went to cover them up (and the number of people who enabled him along the way) are almost literally unbelievable. I’m so grateful to Kantor and Twohey for sharing with us the story behind the story, how they worked to break the sexual harassment story that changed the world – they’ll teach this in journalism classes for years to come.

See What You Made Me Do by Jess Hill

The all-too-common refrain when it comes to domestic abuse is “why didn’t she leave?” or “why did she stay?”. See What You Made Me Do is the first book I’ve read to turn that on its head. The questions Jess Hill poses are more along the lines of “why did he hit her?” and “what ‘counts’ as domestic abuse?”. I’ll admit, this book will turn your stomach – Hill doesn’t shy away from the sheer horror of lives lived in the shadow of domestic abuse, and the very worst of where and why it happens. That said, I’ve made it my personal mission in life to make sure more men read this book. I want “nice guys”, “good blokes”, “wonderful fathers”, and all the rest of them to read this one. Can you imagine what would happen if they did?


Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson

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Imagine if I told you that 176 million people worldwide were affected by one insidious disease, one for which we cannot definitively determine a cause, and one for which the “cures” on offer are (at best) guesswork. Then, imagine that I told you that between 30-60% of the people who could develop this disease couldn’t correctly identify the parts of their anatomy where it might originate. You’d be floored, right? I know I was when I read Pain And Prejudice by Gabrielle Jackson, a book about the ways the medical system has under-served people with uteruses for far too long. This is an amazing, personal account of the patriarchal assumptions that undermine the health of half the population.

Three Women by Lisa Taddeo

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It takes a rare talent to write about sex in a way that is both enthralling and immersive, but never titillating. Three Women is not an erotic book, but a clear-eyed account of women’s sex lives and the experiences that shape them. Over the course of eight years, Taddeo investigated the sexual histories of three women: Lina, Maggie, and Sloane. Her meticulously detailed reporting evokes Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, drawing upon thousands of hours of interviews and documentation to verify the truth as she presents it to you. This book is controversial (inevitably, given its subject matter and Taddeo’s frank treatment of it), but in that lies the beauty of its premise: finally, finally, non-fiction books by women are triggering conversations about the lived experience (and sex lives) of women. Hurrah!

Everywhere I Look by Helen Garner

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A young inner-city women loving Helen Garner is somewhat of a cliche, but I’m steering into the skid – it’s a cliche for a reason. All of her books are worth reading, of course: fiction, diaries, true crime, and everything in between… But my personal favourite, and possibly her least lauded (ironically enough), is her essay collection Everywhere I Look. Most of the essays have been previously published elsewhere, but there’s something especially wonderful about having them all back-to-back on paper. She applies her keen insight and acerbic wit to topics as varied as making a house a home, true crime, heroes, grandchildren, and Russell Crowe movies.


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.

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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.


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