Tag Archives: Memoir

Book Review: Educated by Tara Westover

A remarkable read about a young girl growing up in a fundamentalist Mormon family who prepared for the end of the world, believed that the government and health professionals weren’t to be trusted and that education should only come from home-schooling.

How Tara Westover achieved her education without stepping into a classroom until she was in university is quite incredible.

But this memoir is more than her struggle and achievement towards education. It’s a journey to understand her family and her place in it after she learns how to think and question and challenge her family and the way they live.

As a small child, Tara is home-schooled, learning to read and write mostly from the bible. When she’s big enough she is enlisted alongside her other siblings, seven in all, to help out in her fathers scrapping junkyard. Her father knows nothing of safety and when he threw scraps of metal Tara made sure she got out of the way. Indeed, the accidents on the site made for harrowing reading: her brother Luke’s burning leg, another brother, Shawn who fell from a great height, her mother’s head injury after a motor vehicle accident where seat belts weren’t worn and finally her father’s own horrific accident where he almost died. What was even more horrifying was the parents’ belief that the injuries could be dealt with at home from faith and herbal remedies.  Doctors were never visited and hospital was out of the question.  Tara herself suffered as well.

“My back struck iron: the trailers wall. My feet snapped over my head and I continued my graceless plunge to the ground. The first fall was seven or eight feet, the second perhaps ten.” Of her mother’s reaction to her fall? “She rested her left hand lightly on the gash and crossed the fingers of her right. Her eyes closed. Click, click, click. ‘There’s no tetanus,’ she said. ‘The wound will close. Eventually. But it’ll leave a nasty scab.’

As Tara grew into her teens, she realised her place as a woman in the family and outside of it. She was constantly reminded of her place in the kitchen by her father. A loving relationship between her and her older brother Shawn turned sour and violent in her teen years scarring her physically, emotionally and mentally. The terrifying violence was made all the sadder because Tara and her family cover for Shawn. When she questions it as she grows older and challenges what he has done, the family turns against her.

It’s a sad story but also an uplifting one as Tara makes her way in the world without the shackles of her gaslighting family. You could mistake her childhood memories as being inaccurate or exaggerated, but she has verified her memories with those of her older brothers, Tyler, Richard and Tony. They made their way out on their own and have been supportive of her.

This is an extremely well written and impactful story detailing a life not in the 1800’s but in the last thirty odd years. An incredible read.  

Book Review: No Friend but the Mountain: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani



This is a book every Australian should read. But I warn you that it’s a hard one to get through. It’s confronting and uncomfortable, mostly because each of us will feel complicit in allowing our various governments to treat our refugees so badly.

It’s not meant to be a literary masterpiece, instead the writing is a remarkable stream of consciousness smuggled out by text from Manus Island where Boochani was held prisoner for five years. That in itself is an incredible accomplishment deserving of our time to read and absorb every word.

We, Australians have known it as the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre or the Manus Island Detention Centre and after reading Boochani’s account of what life was like, it’s actually worse than any modern day prison – it’s more like a concentration camp.

Boochani relays everything about his experience, and his observations are insightful and confronting. It’s a commentary of humanity under duress and he paints a painstaking and brutal picture in both narrative and poetry. He and other refugees endured cruelty, hardship and tortuous conditions designed to bring them down. What makes someone want to flee their home and take a hazardous boat trip to a place they hope will give them a better life? It’s only someone truly desperate. Yet these refugees were used as pawns in a political plot from which there was no escape.

“We are hostages – we are being made examples to strike fear into others, to scare people so they won’t come to Australia. What do other people’s plans to come to Australia have to do with me? Why do I have to be punished for what others might do?”

This book is more than a description of what life was like for Boochani. It’s an academic analysis of the Australia’s border system described as systematic torture which he labels as the Kyriarchal System.

“The term Kyriarchy was first used by radical feminist theologian Elizabeth Fiorenza in 1992 to describe intersecting social systems of domination and oppression… the term also captures the way the intersecting systems are perpetually reinforced and replicated. This important aspect connects the prison with Australian colonial history and fundamental factors plaguing Australian society, culture and politics. “

You may agree or disagree with Boochani’s analysis but it’s thought provoking. There are numerous examples cited which breached basic human rights, particularly freedom. Use of the telephone was limited, food sparse, communication with the outside world non-existent, disgusting sanitary conditions, and nothing to do.

“A few people were able to get hold of a permanent marker and draw a backgammon board onto a white plastic table. They began to play, using the lids from water bottles as counters. Almost instantly, a group of officers and plain-clothed guards entered … crossed out the game. They wrote over it in bold letters, “Games Prohibited’.”

It was a very difficult book to read during the time of our own lock-down. Then I read a tweet dated 27 March 2020, saying the following: “the refugees being detained at the Mantra Hotel are not being given any soap. ABF (Australian Border Force) said they can apply for it in writing and would take 14 days to approve. “

Don’t we all put our trust in our governments that they will ensure people will be treated with fairness, respect and dignity? This book tells us not to count on it. 

Book Review: Snakes and Ladders by Angela Williams



This is a story which is raw, brutal and honest. Angela Williams memoir could almost be fictional and you wish that it was.

Angela with university and teaching credentials stepped out to cross a road and was hit by a postie’s motor bike. Police took down her name and a statement and came back two days later with a warrant for her arrest. There was no court case, no bail opportunity, no appeal, just straight to a correctional facility in handcuffs in front of her dismayed partner and young son. Why? She’d served time for a crime she committed when she was a drug addicted teenager, thirteen years earlier. Except she’d only served five months of it. She was taken away to serve the rest.

I’d seen an interview with Angela on the ABC News less than a month or so ago where she talked about her book which had just launched. My curiosity peaked. I had to read it.
Angela pulls no punches. The introduction warns the reader what to expect.

Let’s take something from the old me and jump in with both feet. Let’s hold our breath when we need to, and laugh when we need to, cry when we need to, eat doughnuts when we need to. I’m here, in the future, holding your hand. I promise it all turns out okay… I drove myself mad to tell you this story, so you damn well better read it.

And once you start reading you can’t stop because no matter how much we see of the old Angela, the prison system, the cruelty of her upbringing and enter her old world, we know it turns out okay. That’s what kept me going. That and the writing, which is wonderful.

Acrid panic froths across the back of my tongue. A glint of burning light off chrome catches my eye. I lock onto this shred of bright, body frozen in place. Crickets chirp in the bag hanging from my hand.

Learning about the women in the modern-day prison system, how it runs, life as a sex worker and drug addict was astonishing at times to read, yet eye-opening. Her own personal journey gives hope.

I couldn’t stop myself from questioning power imbalances, was filled with rage at small inequalities and awed into silences by big ones. But I keep trying, trusting, writing, thinking.

I couldn’t help comparing this book to the Mars Room which is fictional and was short listed for the Booker 2018. Snakes and Ladders, I think, is so much better.

Book Review: The Erratics by Vicki Laveau-Harvie

 

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I was keen to read this Stella Prize-Winning memoir by debut author Vicki Laveau-Harvie. The opening sentences hooked me and I knew I’d be in for a roller-coaster ride with this one.

My mother is not in the bed. My sister takes her pen, which is always to hand… and, with the air of entitlement of a medical professional, writes MMA in large letters at the bottom of the chart.
MMA.
Mad as a meat-axe.

So what’s it about? The author and her sister are called to their mother’s bedside after she’s had a hip operation. The daughters have been estranged from their parents for years and their mother has an undiagnosed mental illness, The mother exudes charm and deception and her facade unravels the longer she is kept in care. The author with her sister visits their father and is shocked by the decline of his health and fears for his life if their mother is allowed to go home. The sisters engage in tactics to save their father and keep their mother in permanent care.

It might seem harsh on the surface but as we are led deep into the dynamics of the family, their upbringing and the delusional and unpredictable behaviour by the mother our sympathy grows. Grappling with the care of elderly parents is a hot topic as the number of elderly in care increases and the burden of deciding what’s best is placed on offspring who have little or no clue other than to be guided by the health professionals who have cost and resources for care as a driving force. We also trust that our parents are capable of looking after one another but in this case, the author’s father is being systematically starved and abused by their mother.

That’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom. It’s quite humorous in parts with the sisters freeing their father from his isolation and their mother’s control. The author paints a dark atmosphere of a cold, windswept landscape that is Canada in the winter and her feelings of a home and place she once knew as a child is far removed from her life as an adult in Australia. She poses the questions we all face when dealing with an aged parent, the turmoil of decisions and the fretting for a past gone. She is also wearing the guilt of leaving her sister who lives in Canada to handle the bulk of the care.

We don’t, however, get a full understanding of what happened in their childhood and the cause of their estrangement and I would have liked to know more about the fractious relationship. But we can imagine from the little glimpses of the mother’s behaviour what it might have been like and the next paragraph sent a chill through me.

One of the few coherent messages my mother repeated to me and to my sister as we grew up, a message she sometimes delivered with deceptive gentleness and a touch of sadness that we weren’t more worthy prey, was this one, and I quote: I’ll get you and you won’t even know I’m doing it.

It’s heart-warming, wrenching and beautifully written with a lot packed into one hundred and seventy-seven pages. Give this one a go.

Book Review: Lion by Saroo Brierley

I saw the movie first and was blown away by this amazing story. I then read the book and it was no less powerful.

This is the story of five-year-old Saroo, who accidentally becomes trapped on a train which travels half way across India. When the train eventually stops, he finds himself in Calcutta lost and alone. He dodges disaster and with luck on his side ends up in an orphanage where he is adopted by a caring Australian family. Growing up in Tasmania, he wonders where he has come from and his nagging memories stir him into action to find out. It takes years of dogged patience and with encouragement from friends he uses technology to methodically trace his footsteps back to his family.

It’s an engrossing story despite the fact I’d seen the movie which by the way, does a remarkable job with the adaptation. The vulnerability you feel for this five-year-old keeps you on edge and it is incredibly brave of the author to reveal it all on the written page. It’s well written enough although with a matter of fact approach. Although we’re not privy to every one of Saroo’s emotions, we nevertheless feel his every agonising step of what was a difficult journey.

When do you tell a white lie?

My father had an operation on his appendix. The doctor and his boss each wrote to my grandparents to tell them and to also let them know that he was well.

He had always been fiercely independent and he played it down in his letter.’I’m very sorry about his appendix business Mum. The doc didn’t tell me anything about sending that cable, and I told you a fib in the letter so as not to worry you.’ I wonder what my grandmother must have thought. He had been away three months on this remote island and already two trips to hospital!

To prove how well he was and I suppose to allay any worries  he later writes,
“I’m thriving on the life up here though and reckon it’s a great place. I’m as fit as a fiddle – developing quite a few long unused muscles owing to the strenuous work and still eating like a horse.” He painted a picture of  his social life – playing tennis, dinner parties and dances.

I knew from his letters there were about 2000 workers on the Island, some with families, but for the most part, the population was male. I started imagining what it must have been like. No doubt there would have been alcohol and I wondered if a young man like him would have indulged. It was a rare day when he didn’t enjoy a beer in his adult life and he was proud to tell us that he never drank to excess.

I wondered if it had started on Ocean Island. I smiled when I read a line in one of his letters.
  ‘And I hope you’re not worrying about the manner of my liquid refreshments – the strongest drink I’ve had, or intend to have is fruit cordial, but put away an average of about four or five coconuts per day.’

I found out later that the European workers each had a daily beer ration. I learnt to read between the lines.

A Mother’s Worry.

Pinnacles on Ocean Island

Pinnacles on Ocean Island

As a man, there are things you can write to your father that you don’t write to your mother.

The next letter  to my grandfather was different and the tone changed.This was a man to man letter. The language was looser, less formal. He described the hardship; hacking at bush; of sweat and dirt; the mining and how it worked; of cableways; crushers, dryers and storage bins and pinnacles of phospate. It was a dry, harsh landscape and it sounded less than tropical island idyllic.

In contrast the next letter to my grandmother talked about his broken watch which he was sending back to her to organize repair. He told her of listening to the amateur hour and about his housemate. He mentioned that he’d cut his leg falling on some steps some weeks prior; that it had become infected and that he had gone to hospital for a few days. He told his mother not to panic, “The leg is quite ok now, so don’t go worrying.”

What a bombshell that must have been. She found out well after the fact.What must she have been thinking. Like most mothers she would have worried. Isn’t it built in as soon as you’ve conceived? If a child tells you not to worry, that’s when you worry. I’m surprised he confessed. But was this because there were bigger issues brewing on the island?

This was a pattern in his behaviour that I recognised. Even when he was sick and in his last days he didn’t want any fuss and tried to hide the reality of his predictament from his family.

I wondered what else he was leaving out.