Category Archives: Book Review

The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke – Book Review

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If you’ve ever wondered whether Australia actually is a deeply racist nation, then this powerful memoir is for you. It leaves no doubt that answer is yes, all the time, and from almost everyone.

From the nasty little girl at Clarke’s kindergarten who wouldn’t play with the brown girl, to the primary school children who constantly taunted, threatened and mocked, to the teachers and school counselors who told the teenager that it was ‘only teasing’, Clarke’s anger about her treatment lends her prose a searing heat.

Maxine Beneba Clarke is an award-winning Australian fiction writer and poet of Afro-Carribbean descent.  Born in Sydney in 1979, her memoir doesn’t describe some terrible, distant past where things were different – the racism she encountered as a child and teen was (and is) part of contemporary, suburban, middle-class  Australian culture. Her story is book-ended with the racist outbursts that she still encounters when merely walking down the street, or popping into a shop to buy a bottle of water for her little boy, while carrying her baby girl in a sling.

‘She’s sooo adorable! the attendant coos. She walks around me in a circle, looking at the stretchy piece of material knotted at my back and wound over both my shoulders. ‘It’s amazing, how you people carry your babies. It just seems to be, like, instinctive!’ You people. Suddenly, there’s that chest tightening feeling. That hear-in-my-throat, pulse-in-my temples fear. The dry tongue. The gasping for breath. The remembering how it can happen anywhere, at any time. That can’t-think freeze. I am four years old, on my first day of pre-school, standing underneath the mulberry tree watching Carmelita Allen’s lip curl up with disgust as she stares at me. I am slouched down on the high school bus, head bowed, pretending not to notice the whispered name-calling. I take a deep breath in, smile, and hustle my son out of the petrol station.

The litany of the abuses and humiliations heaped upon Clarke over the years would have been damning enough, but she also unflinchingly explores the way the racism changed her. How she began to hate and harm herself. How she cruelly lashed out at others. And how she learned how not to let it crush her.

Clarke, always a bookish child, became a high achieving student. It was her way of showing her tormentors that she was better than them. She found friends, not many, but ones who were steadfast and true. She dated gorgeous teenage boyfriends who loved her for herself. As a senior high school student – and displaying an extraordinary strength of character – she began to report every incidence of racism, every time.  Her high school signally failed in its duty of care towards her but each time she reported, she forced them to do something (albeit while suffering the inevitable backlash from the tormentors). Best of all, as she got older and smarter, she subverted the system, including a glorious, hilarious episode of ‘tribal dancing’.

It doesn’t do, however, to dwell on the positives. This is not a memoir of redemption, of overcoming adversity. Instead it is an indictment of Australian society. The anger that underpins this excellent memoir delivers prose that is dynamic, piercing and damning. In that sense, this memoir bears comparison to Roxane Gay’s Hunger (which I reviewed here).

Clarke doesn’t say so, but the Hate Race is, in my view, the white race. It is me.  It is probably you too.  After reading this book I found myself feeling a weird empathy for all those men who profess themselves shocked when they are shown the extent of sexism. ‘I didn’t know,’ they say. ‘I wasn’t aware,’ they say. ‘It’s not me,’ they say. I, too, struggled with the impulse to claim that racism was #NotAllWhitePeople. Except that, of course, it is. And it’s incumbent upon all of us to do something about it.

Don’t know where to start? Begin by reading this. Now.

But don’t just take my word for it.

  • Whispering Gums thought it was essential reading too.
  • While writing the manuscript, Clarke was awarded the Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship (2014) and an Australia Council grant.
  • The Hate Race won the 2017 Multicultural NSW Award ($20,000), as part of the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards
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Book Review: Hunger by Roxane Gay

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Hunger is so raw, poignant and compelling that it hurts to read it.

At the most superficial level Hunger is a memoir about Roxane Gay’s body – specifically her very tall (6’3), very large (200 kgs +) body. Gay details her daily indignities and humiliations as a woman of size moving through a world designed for much smaller people. And if that were all Hunger was about it would probably be enough. But at a deeper level Hunger is really about Gay’s mental discomfort. Her shame, her anger, her guilt and her intellectual awareness of the way those feelings are contradictory to her beliefs, ideas, and values.

  • Gay is an avowed feminist who wishes she were pretty while fully understanding that no woman is ever pretty enough.
  • Gay, an academic with a PhD, understands that to reduce her size she needs to eat less and exercise more yet despite the gyms, the diets, the trainers and the programs she fails to lose weight, over and over again.
  • Gay supports the social movement to accept and celebrate the fat body, although she has little but loathing and hatred for her own.

Early on in the memoir, Gay explains that at the age of twelve she was gang-raped by her boyfriend and his mates. At the time, Gay told no-one. But those boys told all their friends and Gay subsequently became known as the school slut. Once more, Gay told no-one. Gay continued to see the boyfriend, who continued to abuse and humiliate her. Again, Gay told no-one. At the end of the school year Read the rest of this entry

Book Review: The Daintree Blockade by Bill Wilkie

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What does success look like to an environmental activist?

Sometimes success is obvious, like the protests against the Tasmanian Franklin Dam project. The protesters there were directly responsible for preventing the dam from being built and so protected a unique wilderness area.

But sometimes success is less obvious. A battle is lost but, in the end, a war is won. Such was the case for the Daintree Blockade of the early 1980s.

The Daintree rainforest of far north Queensland is every bit as unique and beautiful as the Tasmanian wilderness. But since the 1950s pressure had been rising to build a road through the Cape Tribulation National Park, and through some of the last remaining low land tropical rainforest in the country.

In 1983 the local council, in defiance of the parks authorities and the state government agency in charge of roads, decided to bulldoze Read the rest of this entry

Book Review: Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls

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A guest post today, from my gorgeous eleven year old daughter Charlie, a competent but reluctant reader who is also “the most faboulousisitst in the world.”*

When the book arrived in the post I thought that it was just my mum hassling me to read more. But that night when I opened the book to start reading it I actually enjoyed it.

The first page was about a mathematician named Ada Lovelace, and I was hooked right away. I think my mum was very surprised when it took less than a week for me to finish the book (that’s really fast for me).

I think that the best books always have a hard cover and a ribbon: this one does. In this book each page is about a different woman, eg: ballerinas, suffragettes, architects, pirates, warriors, singers, etc. some people died in 1458 B.C and some are still alive to this day.

My two favorite pages in the book  would have to be page 78 – Jacquotte Delahaye a pirate who was one of the most feared pirates of the Caribbean. My second favorite is on page 150 – Misty Copeland, a ballerina.

I really enjoyed this book.

 

*Or so says Charlie!

Book Review: ‘Death by Dim Sim’ by Sarah Vincent

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Every day at about 3pm Sarah Vincent would get up from her desk at work and haul her 122kg body across the car park to the food van across the way.

Every day she would order three dim sims (or four or five) and eat them.

And every day as she lumbered back to her desk she would sneer inwardly as she passed the smokers huddled outside the hospital where she worked, with their hospital gowns, and intravenous drips, and missing limbs – all desperate for their nicotine fix.

Then one momentous day, as I passed them wrapped in smug self-righteousness … I realised I was just like them. If they were doing ‘death by cigarette’, then surely I was doing ‘death by dim sim’. The only real difference between them and me was that I wasn’t wearing pyjamas … So I stopped eating dims sims and biscuits and ice-creams and all the other foods I knew were bad for me and began to eat fresh wholesome food in moderation and to exercise regularly…  Are you kidding? Of course I didn’t.

Instead Sarah did what she’d done since she first developed a weight problem at thirteen.  She went on a crash diet. Another time she bought a $500 gym membership, only to attend twice. That’s $250 per visit. She put on the fridge a photo of herself in her underwear. She joined Weight Watchers. She studied mindfulness. She attended a 6am boot run by a South African army sergeant who told her she disgusted him. Hypnotherapy. Overeaters Anonymous. Still no weight loss.  And then her husband was diagnosed with cancer.

Sarah Vincent’s memoir is alternately hilarious and poignant. Spoiler alert – her husband lives and she loses 40kgs – but the real story is in Sarah’s journey from there to here.

I read this book all in one go and enjoyed every minute of it. The memoir part is the first half, the second half is science (of weight loss), recipes, and weight loss tips. All written in Sarah’s clear-eyed, page-turning prose. Reading it is like having a cuppa with a warm and sympathetic friend, one who is always up for a laugh. The book isn’t about preaching, it’s about saying this worked for me and maybe you might like to try it.

Sarah Vincent is a friend of mine, one of my fellow Hardcopy participants. And maybe I wouldn’t have read this book if I hadn’t known Sarah, because self-help memoirs really aren’t my bag. But I’m very glad I did read it, because regardless of whether you need to lose weight or not Death by Dim Sim is an excellent, beautifully written memoir that deserves a wide audience.

Want to know more?

Here’s a copy of the blurb on the back of the book.

And here is Sarah Vincent’s website.

Book Review: Hippy Days, Arabian Nights by Katherine Boland

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Have you ever sat uneasily next to a talkative stranger at a function, only to find yourself mesmerised by their life story? Amazed by the crazy things they’ve done, dubious at their poor choices, and wincing a little when they shared a little too much intimate information?

Katherine Boland’s memoir is just such a rollicking ride. And I have the feeling she’s never going to look back on her life and wonder if she should have chosen the road less travelled – she’s followed her heart rather than her head every time.

After a childhood spent in England, Spain and rural Australia, Boland and her farmer’s son boyfriend dropped out of uni and followed their hippy dreams instead. They washed up in southern New South Wales, living a frugal alternative lifestyle replete with mudbricks and mung beans. This section of the memoir was the strongest, for me.

Boland and her boyfriend (now husband – a seemingly un-hippy-like decision that the memoir remains silent about) live on their own property, in an area that is soon populated with similar peace and cannabis loving souls. Boland loves her life on the bush block near Bega but doesn’t step back from describing the difficulties: the distance from hospital; living quarters riddled with mould; and the endless backbreaking chores necessary in the absence of electricity and running water.  And those other peace-loving souls are, it seems, just as subject to the darkness of family violence and abuse as the rest of the population.

When a bushfire ends Boland’s 27-year marriage in an entirely unpredictable way, she retreats to the city and reinvents herself as an artist. She rapidly wins a number of scholarships and residencies, including one which takes her to Egypt. There she falls headlong and heedless into a loving relationship with her Egyptian translator – a handsome young man more than 25 years her junior. This second section of the memoir was weaker, for me, but perhaps only because I couldn’t help wanting to take Boland aside and shake her.  What the hell was she thinking?

Well, in the beginning at least it is abundantly clear what she was thinking (and feeling, and touching, and… you get the picture) and jolly good luck to her, I say. But to maintain a long distance relationship with a young Egyptian man in the face of fierce opposition from his family, and in the ever dawning awareness of the huge cultural gulf between them (not least about their respective attitudes about women’s rights and behaviours) was to my mind a step to far. But then what would I know?

Hippy Days, Arabian Nights was a fun read, only slightly marred by the overuse of adjectives and a the under-use of a proofreader. Boland’s gutsy, funny and headlong approach to life makes for a fascinating memoir.

Death by Dim Sim

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death-by-dim-simStopped by Readings Books in Carlton today to pick up a copy of my friend’s newly released memoir: Death by Dim Sim.  So exciting to see it on the shelf.

You should buy a copy too. Here’s the blurb from the back cover.

Sarah Vincent once tipped the scales at 122 kilos. She worked at the back of a hospital making calls and answering emails, but at three o’clock every afternoon she would answer a very special call – the call of the dim sim. Running the gauntlet of smokers in the hospital car park one day for her daily dim sim fix, Sarah had an epiphany: just like those nicotine addicts, Sarah was an addict and was slowly killing herself with food.

She knew that if she didn’t act soon it would be too late, and her husband – who had only narrowly survived cancer – and their two young children would be minus a wife and mother. She also knew she had been going on crash diets since the age of thirteen and nothing had ever worked.

But then Sarah met the nutritionist who would introduce her to the low-carb, high-fat eating approach known as Banting, which leaves you feeling full and reduces your cravings. In Death by Dim Sim she details with hilarious honesty how she managed to lose 40 kilos using this method, her childhood battle with her weight and her lifelong struggle with anxiety. And because she wants you to lose weight too, she shares the recipes, tips and meal plans that helped save her life. She is now slimmer and fitter than she’s ever been and she never wants to see a dim sim again.

Melbourne writer Sarah Vincent was one of my fellow-students from the 2015 HARDCOPY program, and I can’t begin to tell you how keen the publishers and agents were to sign her up.

I’m very keen to tuck in to this one (terrible pun totally intended).