Book reviews

Posts tagged ‘memoir’

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

I’ve had My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell on my To Be Read list for what seems like forever. Had I known I would enjoy this book so much, I would have read it years ago.

The story is an embellished memoir of the author and his family’s life in Corfu in the 1930’s. Durrell was a schoolboy when his mother, sister and older brothers left England because of the weather and also because his mother’s pension as a widow stretched further than it would have in England.

Once in Corfu Durrell filled his life (and the family’s various homes) with every insect, bird, reptile and animal that he could capture and convince his family to allow him to keep. Not surprisingly, Durrell grew up to be a naturalist.

Despite my lack of interest interest in fauna, I found the stories of the various creatures that Durrell wrote about to be fascinating. Reading about a fight to the death between a mantis and a gecko in his bedroom, both of whom the author had been studying for some time before the deadly altercation, was extraordinary. I laughed aloud while reading about the mating habits of tortoises (and I laughed even more when I watched a video on YouTube of the same – don’t judge me, if you choose to watch this too you will also find the tortoise’s enjoyment of this activity to be truly hilarious), commiserated with the author’s brother after finding snakes in the bathtub and shuddered at the author’s delight in finding a bat in his bedroom.

As interesting as the stories about the creatures Durrell collected were, it was the people in the story who really delighted me. The family consisted of Durrell’s easy-going mother, his pompous older brother Larry, another older gun-toting brother, Leslie, and his older teenage sister Margo, whose emotions ran constantly between romance and tragedy. The stories also included those of friends the family made in Corfu, one of whom, Dr Theodore Stephanides was particularly instrumental in providing Durrall with an education in natural history.

One of the ongoing themes in the story was about the family continually moving house. When the Durrells arrived in Corfu, a Greek man called Spiro who became a very dear family friend helped them to find a house with a bathroom but after Larry invited a horde of people from England to visit, including the “most extraordinary eccentrics, who were so highbrow that they had difficulty in understanding one another,” the family had to quickly move to a bigger house so they had enough room for their guests. Later, when their Great-Aunt Hermoine threatened to visit and the family couldn’t face the thought of queuing on the landing as they waited to use the lavatory while she sang ‘Lead, Kindly Light’ from within, they moved again, this time to a smaller house to dissuade this particular unwanted guest from visiting.

Larry, who became a novelist, was the subject of many funny stories. According to his younger brother, Larry “was always full of ideas about things of which he had no experience.” This trait led to Larry setting the villa on fire while drunk, after attempting to show Leslie, who was actually a crack-shot, how easy it was to shoot snipe. I laughed from beginning to end as I read about this series of mishaps.

The description of the author subjecting his bird-loving tutor to a wrestling match which resulted in his tutor breaking several ribs left me snickering to myself (I know, I know, finding humour in other people’s pain and suffering makes me sound horrible, but this story is so funny) as did the following depiction of Theodore’s susceptibility to sea-sickness.

In fact on several occasions when I have been in the cinema and they have shown films of ships in rough seas I have been forced to . . . um . . . forced to leave my seat.

My understanding is that various Durrell family members didn’t make it into the memoir and that other events were exaggerated or altered in the storytelling, but My Family and Other Animals is a delight. If you are looking for a story to bring some joy to your life this book is perfect.

The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust by Laura Smith

The Art of Vanishing: A Memoir of Wanderlust by Laura Smith combines the story of the disappearance of American author Barbara Newhall Follett with Laura Smith’s own story of wanting both freedom and her marriage. The story of Barbara Newhall Follett is fascinating and left me searching for more information about her writings, life and disappearance. Laura Smith’s own story is interesting too, but is also a reminder of what can go wrong when a person acts on their discontent. I also felt as if the author was less than honest about the reasons for her actions in this memoir.

The story of Barbara Newhall Follett was new to me. Born in 1914, Barbara was a child prodigy who published her first novel at the age of 11, then, with her parent’s blessing, enlisted to work as a boat hand at the age of 15 where she travelled to the south China seas. Later Barbara became one of the first women to hike the Appalachian Trail. She married the man she hiked with, but later, when they had settled in to a more ordinary life, he fell in love with someone else. She disappeared soon after, at the age of 25.

Barbara Newhall Follett’s story was made more interesting because of the parallels between her own disappearance and plot of the book she wrote as a child, The House Without Windows, where the main character’s greatest wish was to live a life unrestrained by the people who loved her.

Laura Smith’s own story is of a woman who doubts if marriage is for her, but goes ahead and does it anyway. In the early days of their marriage she and her husband lived abroad, enjoying exotic adventures in far off countries in place of the smothering affection of their friends and family in their lives in America, but things become more complicated when they returned to America and seeking adventure, decided to try an open marriage.

Up until this point the author had constantly stressed how happy her marriage was and how content she and her husband were in each other’s company, which made me wonder why, if this were the case, that they would want to complicate things. Their subsequent romantic and sexual experiments with other partners turned out about as well as you would have expected, regardless of the author stressing that her perceived loss of freedom within her marriage was what was making her unhappy. It really irked me that she did not acknowledge they risked their marriage because of a self-created discontent. Perhaps she herself did not recognise this.

I don’t think the similarities with the author’s memoirs were strong enough to have combined them with the life and disappearance of Barbara Newhall Follett, however I’m glad to have read this book because Barbara Newhall Follett is an extraordinary subject. If I can find any of her fiction I’ll be very glad to read it.

The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort


The Wolf of Wall Street by Jordan Belfort is nasty. I stopped reading at page 48 of 513 to stare out the window of my train for the remainder of my commute to work. I accept that I chose to read this book, but in my defence, it was filed in the business section at my library. I believe it belongs with the memoirs.

Perhaps there was more about the actual business of stock-broking and the ripping-off of clients to come, but up until page 48 of the book, the narration was mostly about hookers, drugs and the author’s wife’s (great) arse. I couldn’t take any more of the author’s bragging about things he has nothing to be proud about and decided my time could be better spent.

I’ll avoid the movie based on my reaction to the book.

Heroes of a Texas Childhood by Kinky Friedman


Kinky Friedman’s collection, Heroes of a Texas Childhood made me think about who my heroes are.

My heroes aren’t as famous as some of the people Kinky Friedman writes about, but the thing we have in common is that our heroes have done or are doing extraordinary things because it is the right thing to do.

23 people, some famous and some completely unknown get a small chapter each in this book, with an explanation of who they are or were, when they did whatever they did and why they matter. The ‘where’ is obviously the Texan connection. Not all of Kinky Friedman’s heroes are Texan, but all have done something for Texas.

One of these was Ace Reid, an artist best known for his Cowpokes cartoon series which looked at the funny side of life on a ranch, particularly during times of general poverty.

Another was Lottie Cotton, who worked for Kinky Friedman’s parents and became a loved friend of the family.

Tom Friedman is the author’s father and another of his heroes and in an ideal world, all fathers should be heroes to their children.

Molly Ivins was a politician who told people the truth as she saw it, with humour. Barbara Jordan was the first African-American woman elected to the Texas senate, an underdog who believed in herself and her country. Ann Richards was a governor of Texas who saved the state six billion dollars by reforming bureaucracy.

I had heard of Audie Murphy but thought he was just an actor in Westerns from the 1940s and 50s. Now I know that he was also a war hero whose bravery made him one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War 2.

Sam Rayburn was a politician who could not be bought, and Heman Sweatt was a black man who paved the way for would-be lawyers discriminated against because of their race. Lady Bird Johnson got her own chapter because she was an environmentalist long before there was a name for environmentalists.

Willie Nelson gets a chapter. He’s a hero to Kinky Friedman because of what he and his music mean to people.

Juan Seguin was the last man to leave the Alamo, riding out to round up people to fight with him against the Mexican army. Emily Morgan, also known as ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’, was a slave who distracted a Mexican General, allowing the Texans to win the Battle of San Jacinto. James Bonham died at the Alamo alongside Davy Crockett, whose story I knew a little of from watching the Disney features starring Fess Parker.

Quanah Parker was the last chief of the Comanches, guiding the Comanche people in the white man’s world after they had been forced onto a reservation.

I would like to read more about some of these people, most of whom were unknown to me before picking up this book. There must already be countless books about some of them, but others will never have any more written about them than their chapter in this book.

I enjoyed Kinky Friedman’s writing style in Heroes of a Texas Childhood just as much as I have the humour in his fiction.




Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell


Like many of us, I read George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 in school because they were on the curriculum and have been thinking about the plots of both ever since.

Down and Out in Paris and London tells stories from Orwell’s time as a young man living from hand-to-mouth in a succession of dirty, bug-infested boarding houses and hostels, always on the lookout for enough money to buy basic foods, tobacco and alcohol. Orwell and his friends weren’t above picking up cigarette butts from the footpaths or pawning their clothes to get by.

Orwell worked primarily as a dishwasher while in Paris, for extraordinarily long hours. He worked alongside other waiters and dishwashers whose only wish was for a better paying job in a better hotel. The last sentences in the book sum up what Orwell learned during his time with the poor, and they include his rule of not eating in small restaurants because of the poor hygiene in their kitchens.

In London, Orwell lived an itinerant life alongside other tramps, receiving food stamps and lodging for a night in cold, dirty ‘spikes’ which were run like prisons, only to be booted out on the morning to make their way on foot to the next spike, usually miles and miles away.

Orwell tells the stories of tramps and beggars, pavement artists and scammers, and wage slaves who work almost around the clock, but who are still poor and malnourished with no hope of a better future. At the end of the book Orwell begs readers to find useful work for these men, to create workhouses on farms or even smaller houses with gardens where the poor could live a more settled life doing real work to help sustain themselves.

Unlike many of his companions in Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell had an aunt in Paris and family in England who gave him money when he asked, although this is never mentioned in the book. Fair enough too, because we might not believe or assist someone asking for social change based on their own experiences if we knew they had resources to fall back on.

Surprisingly, Orwell appears to have it in for the Jewish people he encountered, which seemed odd to me when I remembered that he was the writer who showed us how unfair it is that some animals are more equal than other animals. Orwell’s views may have been in keeping with his time and place but I didn’t expect them from him.

It is sad that so many people exposed in this story were happy to rip off the poorest people in society, but even worse to think that human nature doesn’t change and this still happens today.

I enjoyed Down and Out in Paris and London for the stories, the quality of the writing and the style and will continue to look out for Orwell’s lesser-known works.

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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