Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

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Educated – Tara Westover

When it comes to writing memoirs, you’ve either got to have talent for storytelling or a life so fascinating that talent (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. Luckily, Tara Westover has both. Even in the hands of a real bore, Educated – a memoir about shame, understanding, and the transformative power of education – would be an interesting read. In Westover’s voice, it’s downright enthralling.

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Educated, first published in 2018, is Westover’s account of her remarkable life: growing up in a family of survivalist Mormons, leaving them to step foot in a classroom for the first time as a university student, and going on to complete a PhD at Cambridge University. The story is told in three parts, to match that chronology.

Part One begins with Westover’s birth – date unknown, sometime around the end of September, 1986 – on an isolated rural property that served as both family home and junkyard. Westover didn’t have a birth certificate for the first nine years of life. When the time came for her to get one, none of her family members could agree on their recollection of the day she was born. “I remember the day [my delayed birth certificate] came in the mail,” she says, on page 26. “It felt oddly dispossessing, being handed this first legal proof of my personhood: until that moment, it had never occurred to me that proof was required.”

Her parents were deeply suspicious of any government or organisation, be it hospitals, schools, or the tax man. Westover and her siblings grew up fearing the kind of federal intervention we’ve seen play out on the evening news, where operatives would come to take them away – and for them, the threat was a lot more tangible, and local. A 1992 siege upon the home of a like-minded Idaho family nearby resulted in three deaths; you might know it as Ruby Ridge.

Westover’s attempts to attend school or participate in any other aspect of “normal” childhood were (sometimes violently) opposed by her father. That included seeking medical attention. Educated has any number of stories of junkyard injuries that the family “treated” (homeopathically) themselves at home, and more than one serious car accident – each more stomach-turning than the last.

Despite that stumble start in life, Westover managed to “home school” herself enough to pass the required exams and gain entry to Brigham Young University. In Part Two of Educated, she details the pressures and obstacles that come from starting college at 17, having taught yourself to read with only the Bible and the Book of Mormon as reference texts.

Once Westover begins her formal education, she is reluctant – in the extreme – to tell the truth of her upbringing, her circumstances, and her needs. It’s easy, with privilege and hindsight, to shout at the page: “Just tell them! It’ll help! It’ll make things better for you!”. It takes a long time for Westover to concede that she does, in fact, need more than her upbringing gave her to survive in the world. I’ll never forget one particularly harrowing episode where Westover finally found the courage to ask a question in class: the meaning of the word Holocaust. Her classmates were horrified, but of course, none of them knew why she asked.

I’d never learned how to talk to people who weren’t like us – people who went to school and visited the doctor. Who weren’t preparing, every day, for the End of the World.

Educated (Page 101)

The final section of Educated covers Westover’s opportunity to study at Cambridge, the financial assistance and mentorship she received to help her stay there – and, of course, what choosing the path of education meant for her relationship with her family, her hometown, her religion, and herself. The book learning’s not all beer and skittles, after all.

Westover writes her true history without judgement, a remarkable feat given her circumstances. She says at the end of her memoir that she’s in touch with only a few of her family members, and lives a life entirely separate from the mountain that was her first home, but she doesn’t seem to wish them ill or bear any bitterness for the life they gave her. In the interests of a right of reply, I’ll tell you here that Westover’s parents (via their attorneys) have said that there is “only a little germ of truth” in Educated, and her brother Shawn in particular has vehemently denied the instances of abuse Westover described. Westover hasn’t given a public response to that – the book kind of speaks for itself, really, having been professionally fact-checked by the kinds of very smart and thorough people who do that kind of thing.

What Westover has lost in family, she has won in fans, hundreds of thousands of times over. Educated was an instant best-seller, and received wall-to-wall positive reviews (a frightening number of which appear as blurbs in my edition, pages and pages of them!). The book spent over two years on the New York Times Bestseller List, and has been translated into over 45 languages. As of last year, it had sold over 6 million copies worldwide.

I found Educated to be a breathtaking read, in more ways than one. The dangers and horrors of Westover’s childhood had my heart in my throat – but the moments of love and compassion shared within this bizarre family did, too. I was captivated by the way Westover was able to relate her story, with frankness and fairness that any memoir writer should envy. Naturally, I must offer any prospective readers content warnings for family trauma (and one particularly alarming incident of cruelty towards a dog, near the end), but trust me: if you can stomach it, Educated is an incredible and transformative read.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Educated:

  • “By purchasing this book, helped her pay for her psych bills.” – Gloria H. Pedrick
  • “Survivalist, near- death experiences, severe mental illness, religious conflict, this book has it all. And you think YOUR family is nuts!” – Nancy
  • “I need this book downloaded on to my iPad, please” – Yvonne barmon swanstrom

3 Incredible Memoirs by Refugees

I could write a thesis on all the ways in which media coverage of refugees and asylum seekers is fucked up. Unless you make an effort to seek out accurate information and empathic reporting, you’re likely to assume that an “invading hoard” of money-hungry manipulators is beating down your door. Nothing could be further from the truth. The best way to find the truth, in my experience, is to go right to the source. These three incredible memoirs by refugees will give you just a small glimpse into the vast array of refugee experiences, and the myriad reasons a person or family might seek safety and freedom so far away from their own homes.

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The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do

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Anh Do is best known to most Australians as a comedian, artist, and television personality – but before he was any of those things, he was one of those much-maligned and unfairly-feared “boat people”. He almost didn’t make it to Australia at all. His entire family came close to losing their lives as they escaped from war-torn Vietnam in an overcrowded boat. 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 and made their way to Australia, but that’s only the beginning of the story Do tells in The Happiest Refugee.

With only elbow-grease and grim determination, Do’s family managed to forge a life for themselves here, and despite the obstacles and the set-backs, Do became a disarmingly positive force for good in the hearts and living rooms of millions. 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. Read my full review of The Happiest Refugee here.

No Friend But The Mountains by Behrouz Boochani

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Behrouz Boochani’s story of seeking asylum and resultant indefinite incarceration is (to our great shame) a definitively Australian story. Boochani is happily and safely settled in New Zealand now, but at the time of writing No Friend But The Mountains (entirely via WhatsApp messages, on a smuggled smart phone, to his translator Omid Tofighian) he was detained on Manus Island, an “offshore detention centre” (i.e., prison) for refugees who come to Australia by boat.

Boochani was a journalist facing persecution in his home country, and came to our shores seeking help (we’ve “boundless plains to share”, after all). Instead, he found himself trapped on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere, desperate and hungry and angry. He wrote this book, a lyrical memoir slash exposé slash work of critical theory and philosophy, to bring the forgotten story of the men of Manus prison to the world. He became our eyes in the dark, where our government has forbidden cameras and reporters (aside from the ones they imprison, clearly). This book is moving and empowering; I don’t know how it’s possible to finish it without finding a fire lit inside of you.

In Order To Live by Yeonmi Park

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Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, in 1993. She was raised there, her family forced to black-market smuggling just to earn enough to feed themselves. When she was thirteen, she and her mother managed to escape into China, only to find themselves in the hands of human traffickers, and a whole new ordeal began. In Order To Live is her story of survival and endurance, how she fought for the basic freedoms that most of us wouldn’t think twice about in our day-to-day lives.

The picture Park paints of life in mid-90s North Korea is dire. Despite what their propaganda channels would have the world believe, starvation, disease, and desperation ran rampant. Park’s journey to China is harrowing, the relief she feels at the sight of a full bowl of rice palpable, and the realisation that more battles lay ahead truly horrifying. When she finally reached South Korea, the very basic essentials for life provided to her by the relatively philanthropic government were hardly enough to even the playing field. Your heart will break for Park, and the thousands of others who have died in the pursuit of what she found on the other side of the fence. Read my full review of In Order To Live here.

In Order To Live – Yeonmi Park

Park Yeon-mi (Korean: 박연미, English: Yeonmi Park) was born in North Korea, the Hermit Kingdom, in 1993. In Order To Live is her memoir, an astonishing true story of physical and mental endurance, detailing how she escaped the world’s most impenetrable and fearful dictatorship. It was written with the assistance of Maryanne Vollers, and published in 2015.

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In Order To Live is told in three parts, tracing Park’s journey to freedom. It begins in Hyesan, where Park was born and raised, and it was normal to go weeks or months at a time without electricity. The Park family had just a tiny fireplace to cook and keep themselves “warm” throughout the icy North Korean winters. Park’s childhood was punctuated by “tiny tastes of freedom”, like the time she watched a black-market bootleg copy of Titanic (Western media being banned by the regime), and the first time she earned her own money (bribing an orchard security guard to steal fruit to sell at a local grey-market).

Park’s parents had little choice but to build careers in black-market trading during North Korea’s economic collapse of the 1990s. They smuggled Chinese cigarettes, clothes, metals, and anything else that could fetch a price. Their income fluctuated; at times, they were wealthy by North Korean standards, but at others they struggled to feed themselves. By the time Park and her mother got the chance to escape, they were – literally – starving (her father having been caught and imprisoned in a labour camp for years).

The second part of In Order To Live begins at this point, in 2007 when Park was 13 years old. She and her mother were smuggled across the border into China by people they later discovered were human traffickers (rather than benevolent Samaritans). According to Park, there is still a thriving economy for “wives” (read: slaves) in China, and she and her mother were traded like chattel. They searched in vain for Park’s sister, who had gone ahead of them to China and left no word as to her eventual whereabouts. For the Parks, “escape” from North Korea was a sickening case of out of the frying pan and into the fire – but at least, in China, they had enough to eat.

The third part of In Order To Live focuses on Park’s final bid for true freedom, a journey planned and aided by missionaries. Park, her mother, and other North Korean refugees in China made their way across the Gobi Desert on foot, coming to Mongolia where they could apply for asylum in South Korea. Park arrived in South Korea traumatised, and with only a second-grade education. While the South Korean government provided refugees with basic living assistance, she still faced an uphill battle to live a full and healthy life.

Against the odds, Park has gone on to become an advocate for human rights and support for victims of human trafficking; In Order To Live, and sharing her story, has become a platform to draw attention to the horrors that take place away from the media spotlight. Above and beyond what Park sacrificed to make it to freedom, she faces execution as a “defector” (one with a very public face, no less) if she ever returns to her homeland. Her former friends, neighbours, and distant relatives have all faced consequences to her speaking out.

As far as the memoir itself goes, the prose is sparse, simple – it’s not a literary memoir, but I think that actually works in its favour. It feels more authentic, allowing Park’s story to stand for itself. Plus, it gives the reader the opportunity to connect a lot of the broader dots for themselves. Park’s personal history is inextricably political; so much of her fate has been determined by the prevailing winds of economically powerful countries thousands of miles away. It’s a powerful reminder of the voiceless cost of large-scale war games.

Naturally, Park has been subject to a lot of gotcha journalism, exposing supposed “inconsistencies” in her story of escape – but show me a memoir writer who hasn’t, really. As best I can tell, all of the “exposed” holes and gaps are attributable to (or, at the very least, exacerbated by) language barriers, and Park’s obligation to obscure parts of her story in an effort to prevent retaliation by the regime. Of more pressing concern are the troubling views Park has expressed since publication of In Order To Live (criticism of universities for guiding students in the use of gender-neutral pronouns, for instance). I’d like to give her the benefit of the doubt, and hope that her statements are taken out of context and cannot be neatly separated from her childhood indoctrination. Still, it’s enough to make me grit my teeth.

The final message of In Order To Live, the one that really hit home for me, came from the Acknowledgements: “caring is how we begin to change the world”. Caring about the thousands (tens of thousands? we’ll never know for sure) who have died in their bids for freedom from the North Korean dictatorship is the first step in ensuring that no one else has to suffer in order to live. All told, this memoir is a moving, compelling must-read – the perfect pick for fans of Educated!

10 Best Celebrity Memoirs

Celebrity memoirs are a bit of a mixed bag. Some of them are just okay, some of them are obvious publicity grabs, some are so clearly ghost-written and sanitised they leave you feeling a bit dirty. That makes it all the more special when you find a really, really good one! Here are ten of the best celebrity memoirs.

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Becoming by Michelle Obama

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Michelle Obama bridges the gap between celebrity and political figure. She came to the world’s attention as the first black First Lady of the United States, but she’s become much more than that: a spokesperson for health and wellbeing, an activist, a comedy show guest, and a best-selling author. I was skeptical when I picked up Becoming, because I figured it couldn’t possibly live up to the hype… but it did! So much so that, after I finished the hardcover paper-and-ink version, I listened to the Grammy award-winning audiobook. It’s full of refreshingly honest insights into an unintentionally political life, marriage, motherhood, race, and growth. Read my full review of Becoming here.

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey

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Matthew McConaughey has been the punchline of many a joke, but it doesn’t seem to have affected him much. In the public eye, he went from rom-com leading man to Serious Actor(TM), but it turns out he was forged in fire long before he ever came to the silver screen. In Greenlights, a memoir-slash-scrapbook, he shares snippets from his first fifty years of life. He angles towards the self-help style of memoir, too, or (as he puts it): “It’s a love letter. To life. It’s also a guide to catching more greenlights—and to realizing that the yellows and reds eventually turn green too.”

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron

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Name five classic rom-coms, and you can bet that Nora Ephron had a hand in most (if not all) of them. She was one of the most underrecognised comic geniuses of her time, with a keen insight into the human condition – but, of course, because her insight was “womanly”, it was routinely written off or outright ignored. Her memoirs are every bit as brilliant as her screenplays. I Feel Bad About My Neck is a collection of hilarious too-true anecdotes about getting older, and getting on with things. If you’ve ever been or might become “a woman of a certain age”, this is one of the best celebrity memoirs to get your hands on.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

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It burns me up that Carrie Fisher is almost universally remember for wearing a gold metal bikini in an action film in her early twenties. She was an incredible woman, with a unique talent for radical honesty. And yet, she didn’t hesitate to lean into the skid – look at her memoir, The Princess Diarist. This hilarious (and, at times, horrifying) behind-the-scenes look at Fisher’s role in the original Star Wars franchise answers every question you could ever want to ask, and probably a few that wouldn’t even occur to you. It’s an intimate and revealing all-access pass to one of the most famous film sets of all time.

We’re Going To Need More Wine by Gabrielle Union

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Gabrielle Union is “an actress, activist, and one-half of a power couple”, but before I read We’re Going To Need More Wine, I only knew her for her iconic role in the cult classic film Bring It On. It turns out, Union is much, much more than a sassy black antagonist. In her memoir, she bares all, exactly the way you would over a bottle of wine with a girlfriend. She talks sex, trauma, hair, colour, race, politics, family, filming, and more. When you’ve finished this particular celebrity memoir, you’ll feel like you could call Union up and continue the chat where she left off (but, don’t, obviously). Read my full review of We’re Going To Need More Wine here.

Talking As Fast As I Can by Lauren Graham

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When you’re mostly known for a role on television where you talk as fast as a caffeinated Energizer Bunny, what else can you do but write a memoir about it? Lauren Graham barely pauses for breath in this (surprisingly brief) collection of essays about her role in the ’90s classic Gilmore Girls, her role in its ’20s reprisal, and everything in between. She glances back now and then, and regales us with stories of a childhood, singledom, and trying to “make it” as an actress in Hollywood. Talking As Fast As I Can is a delightfully cozy celebrity memoir to curl up with when the nostalgia hits.

Almost Sincerely by Zoe Norton-Lodge

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Zoe Norton-Lodge is perhaps not as bright a star as some of the others on this list (not that I’d ever dare say it to her face), but for dedicated ABC viewers here in Australia she’s definitely a familiar one. She was part of the second generation of the Chaser team, who brought satire and comedy with a healthy dose of education and inspiration to our screens. I also know her as a brilliant regular feature at a local “sit down” storytelling night she co-founded (check out the podcast if you’re curious). All of this is to say that Almost Sincerely is maybe not the most obvious choice for a list of the best celebrity memoirs, but it definitely belongs here. It offers a side-splitting insight into growing up in ’80s and ’90s Sydney suburbia, from the pen of one of our most underrated storytellers.

The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo by Amy Schumer

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A few years ago, you couldn’t open Twitter or turn on TV without seeing Amy Schumer. She was the comedic It Girl with a twist, far from the demure, modest young ladies we usually thrust into the spotlight. Instead, she was unabashedly up for anything, as long as there might be a laugh in it. She’s retreated from public view a little since then, but she’s still streaming Netflix specials and selling copies of her memoir, The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo. She leaves no stone unturned – her teenage years, her sexual partners, her drunken mishaps – in her quest to bring a little relatability to the hot messes of her fan base.

Year Of Yes by Shonda Rhimes

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Shonda Rhimes has had a hand in just about every blockbuster television show to hit our screens in recent memories. So, why would she hire a publicist to help her avoid publicity? How did an introvert become basically a household name? In Year Of Yes, Rhimes recounts how she decided to overcome her near-crippling fear of getting amongst it, and stop using her family and her work as an excuse to hide behind the scenes. This is one of those rare celebrity memoirs that isn’t predicated on knowing or enjoying the subject’s work; even if you’ve never seen a Shondaland show, you’ll appreciate her story of overcoming and discovery. Read my full review of Year Of Yes here.

Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered by Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark

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Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark aren’t writers – they remind you of that frequently throughout their co-written memoir, Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered. They’re podcasters who somehow stumbled into a multi-million Murderino audience and worldwide influence, and have worked hard to keep their community thriving and positive, despite the rather (ahem) macabre subject matter that brought them together. This memoir imparts life lessons that everyone needs to know, true-crime-fan or not. It’s the ultimate how-to guide, as the title suggests, to staying sexy and not getting murdered. Read my full review of Stay Sexy And Don’t Get Murdered here.

We’re Going To Need More Wine – Gabrielle Union

When my mother-in-law gifted me her copy of We’re Going To Need More Wine, I didn’t know much about Gabrielle Union beyond her iconic role in Bring It On – but I could tell by the title of her memoir alone that we would get along. For those of you who are similarly unfamiliar, Union is an “actress, activist, and one half of a power couple” and in this book she offers us “stories that are funny, complicated, and true”.

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Or, to put it the way Union did, We’re Going To Need More Wine features “the good, the bad, and the WTF” (with chapters including Sex Miseducation, On Mean Women and Good Dogs, and Warning: Famous Vaginas Get Itchy Too). It follows a loose chronology of Union’s life, but subjects range from colorism to heartbreak to parties at Prince’s house.

Union grew up in Pleasanton, California, where her black family were “the chocolate chip in the cookie”. From a very early age, as she describes in the early chapters of We’re Going To Need More Wine, she felt compelled to avoid what she called the Black Pitfalls: the things that would make her “seem blacker” in the eyes of her friends (like eating fried chicken with her fingers). This window into Union’s early life shows us the ugly truth of casual racism and microaggressions, but also the universal experiences of childhood and adolescence that will make you laugh and wince with nostalgia (regardless of race). Union in particular expresses gratitude for the Judy Blume books, for giving her and her friends at least a partial education back in the days before girls could simply Google what was happening to their bodies.

A major turning point in Union’s life came in her late teens, when she was the victim of a horrifically violent sexual assault in her workplace. (Obviously, a content warning for that – Union’s description of the event is detailed, but not drawn-out or gratuitous.) Even though the tone of We’re Going To Need More Wine stays casual and humourous, it’s clear the significant impact that this trauma had on Union’s psychology moving forward.

From there, she describes the ups and downs of young to middle adulthood: a firey failed marriage, an acting career, bad hairstyling, and all the rest of it. The real highlights are her frank (and funny!) philosophies on sex. Union is unabashedly and unashamedly liberated in that area; for her, sexual variety is one of the key pleasures of life, and she throws a big middle finger up at the patriarchal values that would shame women out of exploring that facet of themselves.

“You can’t take your pussy with you,” she says at one point. “Explore the full range of everything and feel zero shame. Don’t let society’s narrow scope about what they think you should do with your vagina determine what you do with your vagina.” (Yes, I immediately took a picture of that page and sent it to everyone I thought would appreciate it.)

From that alone, I’m sure you can tell that We’re Going To Need More Wine feels like a boozy conversation with a friend, one that runs the full gamut and has you cracking open another bottle just to keep it going. That doesn’t mean that it’s fluffy or insubstantial, though. As well as exploring race and violence and sexuality, Union uses anecdotes from her life to discuss illness, death, fear, and vulnerability, too. It’s a bit of a bait-and-switch, and a highly effective one.

I think the main message that I took away from We’re Going To Need More Wine is that “fake it ’til you make it” can only get you so far. You can “fake” your smile or your marriage or your opinion of yourself, but you might not like where you end up because of it. What will you “make” of who you’ve pretended to be? That’s a recurring theme throughout We’re Going To Need More Wine and Union’s life; every time she ignored her intuition and went against “her truth”, everything turned to shit. Of course, authenticity and intuition don’t guarantee a perfectly happy life (nothing does), but it’ll feel a hell of a lot better than the alternative – that’s what I think Union was trying to get across.

My favourite Amazon reviews of We’re Going To Need More Wine:

  • “I bought this book as Gift for My woman. she enjoyed it thoroughly. I am pleased if she is pleased.” – Damion Bacchus
  • “i bought this book with the intent of seeing new perspectives, but what i got was basically a wikipedia page with imdb references.” – Joshua M.
  • “Sorry Gabby, you’re my girl but your book sucks lemons, no sugar.” – Adrienne Jones
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