Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Non-Fiction (page 1 of 9)

Stiff – Mary Roach

Stiff is “a book about the notable achievements of the dead”. Not in the sense of dead white guys, not even in the sense of zombies – but in the sense of literal dead bodies. It turns out a lot of human knowledge is only possible thanks to the contributions of cadavers. It takes a certain kind of mind to even come up with that as a book topic, and have the stomach to research and write it – seven blessings to Mary Roach, is all I’m saying.

Stiff - Mary Roach - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Stiff is a non-fiction book with a few memoir-y touches. Roach mostly sticks to describing the history of using cadavers to advance scientific knowledge, but occasionally diverts into personal anecdotes of her experiences researching the book. Topics she covers include:

  • Using cadavers for medical training (anatomy classes, practicing surgical techniques, etc.)
  • Using cadavers for forensic pathology (studying how they decay, so we can better understand crime scenes)
  • Grave robbing and the early days of dissecting human bodies
  • Cadavers as crash test dummies
  • Organ donations from the brain dead
  • Alternatives to burial and cremation

And – believe it or not – lots more.

Roach doesn’t shy away from the grim history non-consent and disrespect shown to cadavers used for such purposes (especially the bodies of people from marginalised communities). That said, she describes this history in much the same matter-of-fact tone as she describes more palatable aspects of cadaver research. She strikes a good balance between recognising the gruesomeness of the subject, acknowledging the absurdity of it, and maintaining a respectful reverence for the people who make it possible (living and dead).

Stiff shows that the living people who work with cadavers are almost as interesting as the cadavers themselves. Roach speaks to people who chop up bodies so that medical students can use them to learn, people who leave bodies out in a paddock to see how they decompose, people who put cadavers in cars that are crashed at high speeds to test safety apparatus, people who compost bodies as an alternative to burial – can you imagine what any of these people say they do when they introduce themselves at dinner parties?

I found that I put Stiff down often, not because I was disgusted or disturbed but because I wanted to Google something that Roach had mentioned in passing. Other readers might appreciate Roach’s brevity, but I would’ve been happy with a book five times as long that explored all the rabbit holes.

The only time Stiff really showed its age (having been published 20 years ago) was in the chapter about organ donation. One of Roach’s interviewees, whom she spoke of quite highly, was none other than Mehmet Oz – aka Dr Oz, aka snake-oil salesman and failed Republican candidate. Also, trigger warnings weren’t as common back when Stiff was first published, so I’d imagine a lot of readers went in blind; heads up for death and medical research (obviously), but also a lot of animal experimentation. There have been a lot of stomach-turning things done to dogs in the name of research, and those are the only details in this book I could’ve done without.

On the whole, Stiff has held up well, and remains an excellent read for anyone who’s curious about the macabre (or simply has the stomach for the more gruesome aspects of medical history).

My favourite Amazon reviews of Stiff:

  • “After going through Roach’s unfortunate bestseller, one thing is sure, I am not giving my body to science. Had such a tasteless assemblage not been given birth, I might have.” – Marie-Jo Fortis
  • “Would not recommend to anyone. Kinda of an odd choice to recommend without friends thinking you are weird.” – Unie
  • “Bought this for my fiancee and then she decided I wasn’t good enough. She always treated me like I was worthless.” – Chris Gill
  • “Seven or so good chapters crammed into 12.” – Thomas Tomczak

Pearl – Siân Hughes

Pearl - Sian Hughes - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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The 2023 Booker Prize judges called Pearl “an exceptional debut novel… both a mystery story and a meditation on grief… at once quiet and hugely ambitious”. I might never have come across it, but it was long-listed this year and the wonderful folks at UQP sent me a copy for review.

And I must admit, I went in making some assumptions that were way off base. With that title – Pearl – and the blurb referencing a young girl and her mother, I assumed it was some kind of adaptation or allusion to The Scarlet Letter. If you’re assuming the same, let me disabuse you of that right now and save you a bit of confusion!

Marianne was eight years old when her mother walked out the kitchen door, and disappeared without a trace. She left, in her wake, a million unanswered questions and a collection of poetry, containing the medieval verse Pearl (where the book gets its title). The poem doesn’t play quite as big a role in the overall story as the blurb would have you believe, but it’s still a touchstone throughout.

Pearl is a short novel that packs an emotional punch (heads up for self-harm, disordered eating, post-partum depression/psychosis, and a dog death that sad but mercifully brief). The patterns of Marianne’s life are shaped by her mother, even in absentia. With the absence of any new evidence as to her ultimate whereabouts, Marianne still comes to new levels of insight into her mother’s state of mind when she left the house that day, which brings the story to its climax.

Pearl left me feeling strangely unmoored, like I was walking through fog for a while after I turned the final page. I’m glad it will get its moment in the spotlight along with the other long-listed Booker titles this year, as this quiet English novel might’ve passed by many of us otherwise.

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The Five – Hallie Rubenhold

Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Catherine, and Mary Jane. Recognise their names? They’re all famous for the same thing: being murdered, in 1888. That’s basically all we know about them, because the values of Victorian England have clouded our view of them for the past 130 years. In The Five, Hallie Rubenhold sets out to correct (i.e., expand) the record. These five women are far more than simply victims of Jack The Ripper.

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In the introduction, Rubenhold gives broad context for the murders of these five women. A drought in 1887 had led to poor crop yields and high unemployment in Victorian London. This, in turn, had lead to a growing unhoused population and a movement that might effectively amount to Occupy Trafalgar Square. It sets the tone for The Five, which is a history book more so than a true crime one.

Each woman is given her own section, a biographical sketch that Rubenhold pieces together from scraps of records (like marriage certificates and landlord ledgers), coroner’s inquests and journalism (always emphasising the unreliability of these accounts), historical accounts (written by other people about similar circumstances around the same time), and educated guesses (based on extensive research). It gives a fuller picture of the lives of the five women than we’ve ever had before.

The cards were staced against Polly, Annie, Elizabeth, Kate and Mary Jane from the day of their births. They began their lives in deficit… Their worth was compromised before they had even attempted to prove it.

The Five (Page 339)

Rubenhold also examines how these women came to be known and remembered as sex workers (though she uses the term “prostitutes”, as many observers and commentators have done). In reality, they led full and complex lives, and only two of them (Elizabeth and Mary Jane) ever formally exchanged sex for money. Her approach is compassionate, but unsentimental – angry at the injustice of the historical record, rather than wistful or tawdry.

There were many reasons why an impoverished working-class woman may have been outdoors during the hours of darkness, and not all of them were as obvious as street soliciting. Those without homes or families, those who drank heavily and those who were dispossessed did not lead lives that adhered to conventional rules. No one knew or cared what they did or where they went, and for this reason, rather than for a sexual motive, they would have appealed to a killer.

The Five (Page 344)

Rubenhold makes a fascinating point – though very briefly – that it is precarious/unstable housing that is the thread linking the five women together, not sex work. I wish she’d explored that more, because it felt like a lightbulb going off for me. Even though the five women never met and had little else linking them other than the man who murdered them, they all had unreliable access to safe shelter and all were asleep (rather than in the throes) when he encountered them.

You’ll notice that The Five contains very little information about how the women were murdered. Plenty has been written about that already, after all. This book is about their lives, and the unfortunate domino effects of poverty, inadequate contraception, alcoholism, and homelessness that led to their violent ends. “The larger [Jack The Ripper’s] profile grows,” Rubenhold writes, “the more those of his victims seems to fade,” (page 345).

So, zooming out for a second, The Five is a book about challenging long-held assumptions. Rubenhold encourages us to think critically about what we accept as historical fact. What we “know” about the past is inevitably shaped and coloured by the values of the time, and the hangover of those values on our perspective today.

It is only by bringing these women back to life that we can silence the Ripper and what he represents… by attempting to understand their experiences and see their humanity, we can restore to them the respect and compassion to which they are entitled. The victims of Jack the Ripper were never ‘just prostitutes’; they were daughters, wives, mothers, sisters and lovers. They were women. They were human beings, and surely that, in itself, is enough.

The Five (page 348)

The Five is a fascinating and insightful read, one I really wish I’d got to sooner. If you’re on the fence about picking this one up, let me be the one to tip you over to the side of “yes”. True crime readers will likely find it dry and scant on grisly details, but hopefully will recognise the reason for that and understand its importance in the broader context.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Five:

  • “If this had been a lecture, I would have slept through it.” – michelle whitehead
  • “Imagine reading a very. Structured. College. Essay. About a topic that is so overwritten, with too many adjectives and adverbs. Imagine trying to describe what a world of life was like and then overwriting the heck out of it. And not well. I just didn’t care. And the author really really wants you to care.” – Kindle Customer
  • “This is why I’m becoming hesitant to read female historians, because they cannot remain objective when telling the story. It always has a feminist bent to it.” – William Lyons
  • “Very slow. Too detailed for me. Will be enjoyed by others with patience. Worth a try if you are patient.” – Cecilia Steel

Sybil – Flora Rheta Schreiber

Sybil is more famous as the movie of the same name starring Sally Field, but it was originally a book, the true(?) story of a woman with sixteen personalities. I kept coming across it when I was searching for a copy of Sybil by Benjamin Disraeli, so I figured it was a sign from the universe that I should pick it up as well.

Sybil - Flora Rheta Schreiber - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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Flora Rheta Schreiber was a journalist with extensive reporting experience in psychology and psychiatry. She was invited to meet Sybil(* a pseudonym, since revealed to be Shirley Ardell Mason) by her psychoanalyst, Dr Wilbur. They requested that Schreiber write a book about Sybil’s case, and granted her unprecedented access to the therapeutic relationship to make it happen. Schreiber goes to great pains to establish her bona fides in the introduction to Sybil, maybe anticipating the shit-storm of controversy that the book would cause.

Sybil was born in 1923, and began seeing Dr Wilbur in 1954, initially for treatment of social anxiety and memory loss. Dr Wilbur was able to establish before long that Sybil was actually experiencing dissociative identity disorder (DID; then called multiple personality disorder). This manifested as sixteen distinct personalities, the most recorded of any DID patient at the time. There was barely any literature or research about DID prior to Sybil entering therapy, so Dr Wilbur had to make it up as she went along. Her files and case notes were destroyed upon her death, so this is really the only complete(?) record of her most famous patient and what transpired in treatment.

Sybil is “a whodunit of the unconscious” (page 104), as Dr Wilbur gradually uncovers the reason for Sybil’s disordered mental state and identifies each of the alternate personalities. The unquestioned goal, once the diagnosis is established, is an “integrated” Sybil, whereby all the selves are merged.

It’s a surprisingly gripping narrative. I made a note as I was reading that it really evoked Truman Capote, though I couldn’t put my finger on why. I later read a New York Times article that says Schreiber idolised Capote, so I guess she was emulating him in some measure. At times, I found myself genuinely frightened, mostly on Sybil’s behalf – her memory loss was completely debilitating, as she had no conscious awareness of anything that happened while one of her other personalities was in control.

Also, Sybil needs a big time trigger warning: the abuses that Sybil’s mother perpetrated against her are truly sickening to read about. I have a strong stomach, but I was deeply disturbed when Dr Wilbur started uncovering the truth of what Sybil had experienced in childhood. There is also instances of Sybil’s suicidality, which are hardly surprising given the impact of the abuse and her disorder on her life, but still warrants a heads-up.

So, ignoring any real-world stuff for a minute: as a book in and of itself, Sybil is pretty good. Some of the language is Of A Time (sure), there’s a lot of outdated commentary and applications of psychotherapy (so don’t take it as any kind of indication of DID treatment today), and I guess I harboured some suspicions that the timeline and Sybil’s progression through therapy seemed a little too neat (ironic, given that confusion and loss of time was her primary complaint).

But we can’t shut out the real world forever: there have been some serious questions raised about Sybil. Her true name and identity were revealed the year she died, 1998, and skepticism of the whole case boomed after that. There seem to be two leading theories: (1) that Dr Wilbur was a quack looking to make a name for herself, and convinced Sybil she had multiple personalities through the power of suggestion; or (2) that Dr Wilbur, Sybil, and Schreiber concocted this story together to turn a profit. There’s mountains of “evidence” on either side – whole books (multiple!) have been written about it – but given that all the major players are now dead and their records destroyed, it’s unlikely we’ll ever establish the “truth”.

Whether it was one conspiracy or another, or completely legit, Sybil had a major real-world impact. The book sold over six million copies, and has since been adapted for film twice. Schreiber is pretty much single-handedly responsible for public awareness of DID and the concept of multiple personalities. The number of DID diagnoses skyrocketed after Sybil hit the best-seller list; whether that’s because of the power of suggestion, or because increased knowledge of the disorder helped doctors to recognise it in patients, the jury’s still out.

So, what we have here is a good book with some minor in-text issues and some major real-world concerns. Whether that sounds like a good thing or a bad thing is up to you!

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.

The Princess Diarist - Carrie Fisher - Keeping Up With The Penguins
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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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