Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘memoir’

This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett


I’ve never read any fiction by Ann Patchett, so had no particular reason for picking up This is the Story of a Happy Marriage except that I liked the title. As it turned out, I liked the author’s voice in this collection of memoirs and essays so much that I have already found a novel by this author to read.

The stories and essays tell of events which shaped the author’s life and career. Most have appeared in magazines or other publications.

I particularly enjoyed reading how the author honed her craft writing for Seventeen, bridal magazines, Vogue, the New York Tes Magazine and Gourmet, travelling or writing about particular experiences up to a particular word count on demand, then ruthlessly editing to suit a number of task-masters. The Getaway Car advises would-be writers sit down at their desk for two hours every day for two weeks, writing, (or trying to), without using the internet, reading or becoming distracted by tasks around the house. If would-be writers can’t manage this, then Ann Patchett suggests that writing is not for them.

One of the ideas which struck me was hearing that the author struggled to find work which left her with enough mental energy to write for herself, she tried teaching, worked in restaurants and took on other jobs before realising that she could get paid for writing, which fuelled her creativity and output rather than supressing it. This makes sense to me, as I’m only good for doing the dishes after a day at work followed by a long commute, which is why I write my book reviews early in the morning.

There are stories about the type of people who turn up to ‘Meet the Author’ events and I was surprised, (although on reflection, I don’t know why) to learn that they are the readers of the book prior to the one currently being promoted. There are also stories about friends, husbands, family members and dogs. The story about the author’s beloved dog, Dog Without End touched me most of all.

The Sacrament of Divorce reminds readers that we don’t have to stay in the wrong marriage until death do us part. The Best Seat in the House describes the author’s love affair with opera, which she discovered while doing research for her novel, Bel Canto. My Road to Hell was Paved was written for Outside magazine, and was intended as an expose on grey nomads endlessly on the move in their Winnebagos in their often ridiculed way of life, but the author confides that she ended up loving the lifestyle after a junket to Yellowstone National Park. The Mercies is a lovely story about the author assisting and becoming friends with the now-elderly nuns who taught her in school.

The title story, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage, is the story of the author’s parents and grandparent’s marriages, happy and unhappy, as well as her own first marriage to the wrong person and her second, happier marriage. The author’s advice for picking the right person to marry came from a friend;

“Does your husband make you a better person?” Edra asked.

“Are you smarter, kinder, more generous, more compassionate, a better writer?”

“That’s all there is: Does he make you better and do you make him better?”

Ann Patchett has a meticulous voice which made me feel conscious of reading her stories more carefully than I usually read. She does not always paint herself in the best possible light and her honesty is likeable. This made every word of every story ring true.

I’m looking forwarding to working through Ann Patchett’s novels, starting with Bel Canto.


The Boy Behind the Curtain by Tim Winton


Tim Winton writes his stories for me. The Boy Behind the Curtain is an autobiographical collection of stories telling you who he is, what shaped him as a person and a writer, and why he writes the stories he does. He is of my generation and tells the stories of my Australia.

Tim Winton is known for his fiction, for adults and children, and has won the Miles Franklin Award four times but he also writes non-fiction and essays, very often promoting environmental causes. Whatever he writes, I get such a strong sense of the location (usually coastal) that I can smell the sea, feel the wind and taste the salt in the air as I read.

While I enjoyed, or learned something from all of the stories in the collection, the following stories touched me the most.

In The Boy Behind the Curtain, the author tells of his early teenage years, when he took his father’s rifle and stood behind the curtain of his parent’s bedroom, training the unloaded barrel on passersby every time he got the chance. I grew up on a farm and know, as the author does, how easy it is for a person to accidently shoot themselves while climbing through a fence with a loaded gun, never to shoot into water because of the ricochet, never to shoot into bushes or an area where you don’t know what is in there, and never, ever to aim at anything you don’t intend to shoot regardless of whether your weapon is loaded or not. Despite my unease reading this story, the author’s brutally honest recollection of being a teenage boy made me understand the appeal of this very dangerous practice. The author then brought me to tears by recounting the bravery of our Australian Prime Minister John Howard, who pushed for and secured drastic gun reforms in the aftermath of the Port Arthur massacres in 1996, on one occasion wearing a bulletproof vest to a pro-gun rally when tensions were running at their highest. Regardless of their politics, most Australians agree that John Howard will forever be remembered in Australian history for making the necessary changes to gun control legislation for Australia to be a safer society.

A Space Odyssey at Eight tells the story of a birthday outing for a group of eight year olds to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the movie frightened the crap out of the boys, it also taught Winton that his imagination was unlimited. I must watch this movie sometime.

Havoc; A Life in Accidents is the story of the accidents which shaped the author and his family. As a copper’s (policeman’s) son, accidents and their aftermaths were part of his family’s everyday life, but when his own father was knocked off his motor bike by a car, all of their lives changed forever.

I read Betsy on the train, which turned out to be a mistake. There is nothing like getting the giggles when you are on your own to have other people give you a wide berth. Betsy was a 1954 Hillman Minx, a horribly uncool car for the author to have been seen in the 1970s when big Fords ruled Australian roads. The story of the author’s father having to stop on the side of the road to empty his bowels after some Chinese food disagreed with him had me in tears again, which is when I nearly cleared my train carriage.

Twice on Sundays tells of the Winton family’s devotions. I was brought up in a religious family myself, so felt the author’s pain at seeing a Sunday slip away in church, although compared to other families I knew, ours was not that bad. For example, we didn’t say Rosaries every night, or go around door-knocking in an attempt to save other people from the eternal hell-fires of damnation, and none of us ever remembered the sermon afterwards. Mum, who was supposedly the most devout, said years later that she only went to church to get an hour of peace and quiet. In Twice on Sundays, Winton says that he most enjoyed the sense of belonging to a community and that he is still a believer. I might not be, but I do understand the appeal of being part of a group who hold the same values as I do.

The Wait and the Flow is an explanation of why people surf. I love surfing on a boogie board, it is one of the most joyful things I do, pure fun, relaxing and invigorating. Tim Winton explains it much better than what I do though, and he manages to liken the experience of surfing to writing, where he waits and meditates until the right wave comes along, then rides it like mad until the end.

The Battle for Nigaloo Reef is the story of the author’s role in fighting alongside his community to protect the coral reef from a proposed resort in the area. At the time, Winton put his money where his mouth is and donated his prize money from winning the Western Australia Premier’s Book Award to the cause. This area is now a World Heritage Site.

Breathe is my favourite Tim Winton novel, but The Boy Behind the Curtain is also going to find a special place in my bookcase.






What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

whatI enjoyed Haruki Murakami’s memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, loads more than his novels, Colourless Tsukura Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage or The Strange Library, as good as they were.

What I liked best about What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was that it was real. It was the author’s own story, mostly about his experiences training for and running in marathons and triathlons, and a little about writing and how he lives his life.

Confession – I used to run. I know the world is divided up into people who run and people who don’t, (just like or people who read and people who don’t, people who like chocolate and people who don’t, or even people who go to bed early and people who don’t), but either way, I like running (and reading, chocolate and going to bed early. Don’t get me wrong, I never ran a marathon. (I’m not stupid). I’m not built for long distance running, but I used to manage between five and eight kilometres three or four times a week and I did this for years. When I was running, I felt good. I fit into everything in my wardrobe and I could eat what I liked. I enjoyed the time on my own while I was running too, but the best thing was the sense of satisfaction I felt after a run. (Haruki Murakami also says that sometimes finishing a run is the best part, so there!).

I stopped running because the amount of free time I had changed and for some reason I never started again. This book makes me think about running again though.

In this memoir, which was written about ten years ago when the author was in his late fifties, and splitting his time between Japan, Hawaii and Cambridge. Haruki Murakami is clearly a busy man, strict in his habits and as a man who likes his company, well suited to the solitary natures of writing and running.

Haruki Murakami’s honesty is brutal. For example, when he talks about feeling jaded with running, he describes the sensation as being, “Just like when you lose the initial crazy feeling you have when you fall in love.” Ouch.

He also points out that most writers burn out. “Some writers take their own lives at this point, while others just give up writing and choose another path.”

Haruki Murakami explains that he runs in part for his physical health and partly to extend his creative life, as he believes that writing novels brings out the writer’s emotional toxins, and that being in the best possible physical health helps authors to cope mentally. He stresses over and over that this view and his way of dealing with the mental demands of writing are his opinion only, but that they help him to do his best, or as he describes it, beyond his best.

He also comments that when he doesn’t feel like going out for a run that he tells himself how lucky he is not having to commute to work or to attend meetings. (He does recognise that some people would rather suffer a commute or meeting than go on a run!) He is honest about the pain of running long distances, about ageing and about the benefits of a routine.

The author’s story of how he came to be a writer is interesting too. He says he was sitting outside watching baseball, when the thought came to him he could write a novel. So he did. He sold his jazz bar and started writing, just like that. If he were to write another memoir about music and his former career, I would read it too.

I found What I Talk About When I Talk About Running to be inspiring. The idea of doing your best comes through loud and clear, regardless of how people feel about running, although I think I’m going to find time to run again myself.*

*Since writing this review a few weeks ago, I went on one very short run, which nearly killed me. I have eaten my way through several blocks of chocolate and found that to be much more enjoyable.


Reckoning: a memoir by Magda Szubanski


Magda Szubanski is one of my favourite Australian comedians. She was ‘Michelle’ in Michelle and Ferret (go on, Google a skit on YouTube, you know you want to), played Pixie Anne Wheatley, Chenille, and Joan Kirner in Fast Forward, which was the most popular comedy television show in Australia in its day. Magda played Mrs Hoggett in Babe, and topped that off as Sharon in Kath & Kim. It turns out she can write, too. I read Reckoning: a memoir from start to finish without stopping.

Reckoning is Magda’s story, interwoven with the story of her family and particularly that of her father, who was an assassin in Poland during World War 2. After the war he went to Scotland, where he met Magda’s mother. They married, had three children, of which Magda was the baby, and moved to Melbourne, Australia during the 1960s.

Magda tells her family’s story with enormous respect, pride and affection. It sounds as if her aptitude for comedy came from her mother, who I would have liked to have read more about, but her father’s story is stronger. She also identifies more with her Polish heritage than her Scottish side, and seems to have craved her father’s approval more than anything else. Happily, it sounds as if Magda had that, and also knew she was loved and respected by her parents too.

The family and personal stories are told very honestly. The family stories from Poland during the war are quite traumatic, and on Magda’s visits to her extended family it is clear that she and her Polish relatives continue to live with sadness and survivor’s guilt from the events of that time. Magda doesn’t hide any of her own difficulties either, such as wondering where she fits into in the world, dropping out of university, her sexuality and most of all, seeking approval from her wonderful but alpha-male type father.

My favourite part of the story was Magda’s entry into comedy. Her realisation that she needed to write her own material if she was going to get airtime was interesting and the never-before heard stories about the shows she worked on were filled with funny stories about people who I have been watching on television for years. I didn’t watch D Generation, but can see I’ll have to rectify that. Since reading the book I’ve watched some old clips of Michelle and Ferret from Fast Forward… which still make me laugh.

Magda is hilarious in Kath & Kim too, where she plays Sharon, Kim’s second-best friend. My only regret from the book is not hearing more about pashing Shane Warne, when he appeared on the show as Sharon’s boyfriend. The pash-rash on those episodes were spectacular.

I think what makes the best performers so successful is that they don’t leave anything on the table, and as a comedian, that is exactly what Magda does. Reckoning is a successful memoir for the same reason because she has let so much of herself be shown while telling her story. I can’t imagine Magda ever being anyone’s second-best friend… she is much more likely to be everyone’s favourite.



Wild by Cheryl Strayed

wild.pngIt’s a funny thing. I loved Wild by Cheryl Strayed, the author’s memoir of her 1100 mile hike along the American Pacific Crest Trail. Wild left me feeling happy and uplifted and all of those beaut things, but I was not left with the urge to buy a pair of hiking boots, spray myself with insect repellant and stride off into the bush.

The funny thing is that after reading a novel called The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce last year, all I wanted to do was walk out of my front door and up the street to the main road, before deciding whether to turn left or right, then keep on walking. The only thing stopping me from starting a journey of my own, in my slippers, was knowing I had library books to return.

Despite me not feeling like making a physical journey of my own, Wild is a great story. The author, Cheryl Strayed was 26 and a relatively inexperienced long distance hiker when she decided to hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), alone, from California through Oregon to Washington State. Hikers cross deserts, climb up and down mountains, and suffer through blazing heat and freezing snow while they are following the PCT. Cheryl Strayed made her trip wearing boots which were too small and carrying a backpack so heavy and cumbersome, she called her backpack ‘Monster.’

Cheryl was struggling emotionally with the death of her mother, the subsequent breakup of her family and the end of her marriage when she decided to hike the PCT. She had also been using heroin, and while not an addict, was dangerously close to losing control. Her  decision to hike the PCT was not well planned, she was underprepared, short of money and emotionally unstable, but the trip turned out to be the making of her.

Despite her sadness, Cheryl’s writing never made me feel as if she was inviting my pity. Instead, I laughed with her during her adventures and enjoyed the trip, feeling as I too was dodging rattlesnakes and watching out anxiously for bears or other humans.

The description of Wild is ‘A Journey from Lost to Found,’ which obviously describes the author’s mental and emotional journey, rather than the physical hike along the PCT. Cheryl Strayed is brutally honest about her own faults, and tells the whole world of her infidelities and other behaviour which most people would never share. She certainly made some stupid choices, and was lucky to come out of that time in her life without further damage.

However, all of the above led to a book which I really enjoyed. Those who enjoy ‘self-help’ type books would probably get something from Wild. I’ll probably watch the movie, which starred Reese Witherspoon, and am particularly looking forward to seeing the scenery.




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