Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘biography’

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein


My goodness, other people live such interesting lives don’t they? Australian author Sarah Krasnostein’s biography of Sandra Pankhurst, The Trauma Cleaner, was a fascinating read.

The subject, Sandra, was working as a funeral director in Melbourne when she noticed a gap in the market and opened a business as a trauma cleaner. Trauma cleaning includes murder and accident scenes, but the business she started and continues to run also includes cleaning up deceased estates (this includes the specialised cleaning required when a person dies and is not found for some time), cleaning up drug labs after busts and crime scenes. A large part of Sandra’s business is cleaning and clearing out the homes of hoarders.

Various stories of Sandra’s clients are woven into the telling of her personal story, and while reading about people with mental illnesses so terrible that they cannot throw anything out is fascinating, Sandra’s personal story is even more interesting. She was born a boy, adopted as a baby and brought up in a violent and difficult home, then as a young man married and became a father. Eventually she discovered Melbourne’s gay scene and left her wife and children, eventually having gender-reassignment surgery to become a woman. She worked as a prostitute before becoming a funeral director, then married a much older man. Now, Sandra runs her own business where the physical work she does is equally as important as the emotional assistance she provides to her clients.

The Trauma Cleaner has been all over the news in Australia all of this year, having been nominated for and winning a swag of prizes, although my feeling is that the prizes were won because of the strength of the subject matter rather than because of the writing. Sandra’s personal stories are balanced with her work stories, both of which are interesting enough to have stood alone. The author lets us know that Sandra is an unreliable narrator, but she clearly feels affection and respect for her subject. On occasion, she brushes over Sandra’s version of events which I felt could have been questioned more closely, but as the story of a life, this one is certainly more interesting than most.



Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story by Bernadette Murphy


Bernadette Murphy’s Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story, might seem as if it has an obvious topic, but instead I thoroughly enjoyed reading about the author’s seven-year search to find out what happened the night Van Gogh cut off his ear and gave it to a prostitute, just as much I did the topic.


Bernadette Murphy was born and grew up in England but was living in France, about fifty miles from Arles when she became interested in the ‘hows and whys’ of Van Gogh’s ear story, after noticing how much uncertainty there was regarding how much of his ear had been cut off, who he gave his ear too and why he did it. When she started researching, she didn’t know if she would be able to get definite answers to her questions or even if anyone else had previously investigated the mystery.


Van Gogh’s story is fascinating. An artist whose works are recognised today as masterpieces but who sold almost nothing during his lifetime, lived in a small town in a foreign country where he painted frenziedly in a unique, colourful style, then suddenly mutilated himself one night by chopping off part or all of his ear and presenting it to a prostitute. He was then admitted to hospital, where he recovered somewhat and went on to paint again, but was in and out of hospital until he suicided soon after.


The story of Bernadette Murphy’s research is also fascinating. Years of looking through archives and learning about the people and the town of Arles have made her an expert on the subject, let alone on Van Gogh and his time there. Anyone interested in tracing their family tree who had a relative in the town would probably find she had a dossier on them. The author successfully answered her questions and the story became a BBC documentary, which I’m keen to watch.

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Van Gogh’s Ear: The True Story has lovely colour-plates, but as I read this I wanted to see more. I went from looking at photos of the Van Gogh’s art on the internet to borrowing a book with larger-scale photos of his work which I referred to as I read. I would love to see this book as a coffee-table book with larger pictures.


The story also raised other questions and points of interest for me. The financial and emotional support Vincent Van Gogh received from his family, particularly his brother Theo was wonderful, particularly when the easy solution to the problem of Vincent’s mental health issues would have been to dump him into an asylum.


I was also very interested to learn why Vincent Van Gogh’s works were recognised as or become masterpieces after his death and not before. I think this was partly clever marketing, and am interested enough to look for other books on this subject to learn more.


Jane Austen by Carol Shields


Jane Austen, a biography by Carol Shields, left me feeling incredibly sad for the author’s version of Jane Austen. This biography suggests that Jane Austen was a sad and bitter woman who resented her restricted life.

The facts of Jane Austen’s life are probably well known even to casual readers. Born in England in 1775 to a rector and his wife, she was part of a large family living in a rural community. She was a daughter, sister, a friend, and later a sister-in-law and an aunt. Jane Austen never married, having been engaged once only to change her mind overnight. As an unmarried adult woman along with her sister Cassandra, she had little control over her the course of her life. When her father retired and moved to Bath, she went too. She wrote stories from a young age to amuse herself and her family but in Bath, she either did not want to write (having too much fun?) or was unable to (too miserable?), but after her father died she, her mother, Cassandra and another female friend moved to Chawton Cottage in rural Hampshire, where her writing ramped up again, revising Sense and Sensibility and Pride and Prejudice for publication, followed by writing Mansfield Park, Emma, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. Jane Austen was working on The Watsons when she died in 1817 at the age of 41.

Carol Shields’ biography tells the story of a grown woman who had little opportunity to make her own decisions. Writing must have been an escape from reality, an opportunity for Jane Austen to live a private life or to experience other lives. She was poor and wanted her books to be published in order to make her fortune, but also wanted her ‘darling children’ to go out into the world to be loved by others.

My sadness came from the feeling of suppression and unhappiness which Carol Shields suggests Jane Austen must have suffered. This biography suggests that Jane Austen was an unhappy, bitter woman for most of her adult life, that she had a difficult relationship with her mother, and was suppressed by her sister Cassandra. Possibly so. I agree that mothers and adult daughters are better off not living together, and possibly the same could be said for adult sisters. As for being unhappy and bitter, maybe Jane Austen was sometimes. She did not write (or if she did, nothing survived) during the Bath years, she was poor and unmarried, and as a result, probably invisible in society. All of these are good reasons for being unhappy, at least occasionally.

However, I struggle to believe in Carol Shields’ ‘take’ on Jane Austen as a miserable and invisible woman. As a writer, she would have lived the lives her characters did, experiencing their sorrows and joys alongside them, then she would have had the amusement and enjoyment of experiencing her family’s reactions to her stories. Jane Austen’s writing style in much of her fiction and in her letters is amused and amusing and I don’t believe that someone who was bitter, unhappy and jealous could have sustained this particular writing voice. Later, she had the pleasure of her work being sold for publication, and of her works succeeding in the world. I’m not saying she was a little ray of sunshine all of the time, just that Carol Shields’ book felt unbalanced to me.

Jane Austen’s actual books and the heavily edited letters to her sister Cassandra and other family members are all we have of her writing. Memoirs written many years after her death by other family members provide further information, although these are difficult to believe in fully too, as they were written so long after her death by family who were presenting a particular image of their relative.

I also think the cover of my copy of this book is horrible, too. In my opinion, Jane Austen wouldn’t have liked it either.

Anyway, as a mad-keen Janeite, I’d love to know other people’s opinions on whether she was bitter and twisted, or full of fun and joy, or like most of us, a mixture of both. Carol Shields has her opinion, I have mine, and no doubt you have yours.

Also, if you were a writer, would you rather be poor and unknown for most of your life then become one of the world’s most enduring and loved authors for hundreds of years to follow, or to be rich and famous during your lifetime then quickly forgotten? Which do you think Jane Austen would have preferred?

Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung


I read Laurinda by Australian writer Alice Pung some time ago and quite enjoyed the story of a Chinese-Australian girl from the western suburbs of Melbourne who won a scholarship to an exclusive girl’s school. When I found a copy of this author’s biography, Unpolished Gem, I was very happy to have the opportunity to read her story of growing up in Footscray, a suburb in western Melbourne where I have worked. Footscray is home to a great many Asian-Australians and this story gave me an insight into a world I can see but not be part of.

I suspect the author was able to tell her Chinese-Cambodian family’s story so openly because her parents do not read English, so she was quite safe from getting into trouble with them after telling all of their secrets. I suspect her parents would say “Wah!” if they realised she had written so openly about their faults and failings.

The family’s life in Australia was in complete contrast to her parent’s lives in China and Cambodia, from the atrocities of Cambodia under the Pol Pot regime in particular.

Some of the stories are funny and absolutely gorgeous. I loved hearing about the author’s grandmother blessing Father Government for giving old people money in the form of a pension, and the joy that came from shopping at supermarkets and stopping traffic with the little green man at the pedestrian crossings. It made me laugh to hear that the Chinese people call white Australians ‘ghosts.’ The happier stories also reminded me of how much I take for granted as a white Australian.

Other stories were more difficult to read. A number of generations living together has blessings and curses, and I felt terribly sorry for Alice as her mother and grandmother used her as a tool to make each other angry or unhappy. Sharing her bed with her grandmother must have been difficult for Alice too, possibly not so unusual for a child visiting a grandparent but quite unusual in everyday life in contemporary Australia.

The story which most made my heart go out to the author was an incident when Alice’s younger sister rolled off the bed and had to be checked for brain injuries while Alice had been looking after her. Luckily the baby was fine, but the blame and guilt heaped on Alice, who was also very young, was excessive.

Alice was diagnosed with depression as a teenager, and did amazingly well to end up studying law at Melbourne University. In Australian, Chinese parents are known for expecting their children to do well at school and I found it sad to read stories of families treating their children with contempt when they failed to achieve what was expected of them. Often these ‘failures’ were just shy of achieving the marks to do law, so in reality, they had achieved very good results in school.

The story ends with Alice about 19 or 20, breaking up with her Skippy (white Australian) boyfriend.

I preferred the fiction of Laurinda, but Unpolished Gem was an interesting read.

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