Review: Caleb Wilde – Confessions of a Funeral Director

Confessions of a Funeral Director
Caleb Wilde

“We are a people who deeply fear death. While humans are biologically wired to evade death for as long as possible, we have become too adept at hiding from it, vilifying it, and—when it can be avoided no longer—letting the professionals take over.”

What I thought I was going to get out of this book was a series of interesting, respectful stories about funerals Wilde had directed. Instead I encountered a memoir that aimed to dispel a negative ‘death narrative’ and restore a knowledge of death as inevitable, but not bad. While there are some stories, this book is more about how Wilde has changed his attitude towards God and religion since being a child afraid of hell through to being an adult who sometimes suffers from compassion fatigue.

I picked this up on a whim from the library, looking for something lighthearted to read (think Confessions of a Shopaholic etc). I read it over two days, and didn’t feel very strongly about it one way or another. I wouldn’t recommend it even though it wasn’t bad per se.

Review: Klester Cavalcanti – The Name of Death

The Name of Death
Klester Cavalcanti

Julio Santana committed his first kill at the age of 17 at the behest of his uncle. Despite his initial anxiety about the kill, he later went on to kill over 490 people. His strict code of ethics meant that despite this, he only killed for money and never out of a personal rage.

If only Julio had been taught about money management from  young age, and then perhaps he would have gotten as rich as he desired. I’m not familiar with the currency conversion, and of course the price of living is cheaper in Brazil, but I feel like he still could have done more. When he stated that he had left school at the age of 14, I understood that education was part of the problem. It is a systematic problem that led to Julio being able to lead a profitable life as a killer.

This novel was translated from Portuguese and it shows in parts. Some of the language is very formal and jostles the reader out from the story. I felt like I never really got inside Julio’s head. but then again, I wanted to understand more of the psyche behind the killer.

I wonder whether I should tag this under ‘Real Life Crime’. But Julio has never been charged with a crime, and this perhaps reflects the extent of Brazilian corruption more than anything else. I didn’t really follow the Brazilian Olympics, but I didn’t hear great things about the country then.

If you’ve ever wanted to know more about a real life killer-for-hire, rather than a movie blockbuster version, this will be the book for you. Get it for someone for Christmas who you know enjoys a look into the darker side of human nature.

Allen & Unwin | 24th April 2018 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Tim Watson-Munro – A Shrink in the Clink

A Shrink in the Clink
Tim Watson-Munro

Tim Watson-Munro was one of the first psychologists to enter Australian prisons and offer insights into prisoner minds and motivations. Drawn into the dark criminal world, Tim himself fell into cocaine addition before finding his way back out. This non-fiction work provides another exposé of bad minds.

Well, I started off reading this book with avid fascination, and ended up not finishing it due to a sense of reading about exactly the same wrongdoings over and over again. The chapters are titled by the offenses detailed within them, yet the ‘characters’ have so much in common. I feel as if Tim tries to make them appear different, yet so many offenders have the same personality types (psychopath / narcissus) and the same upbringing (low socioeconomic status / abuse).

The writing style of this book is engaging, and an effort has been made to include different formats of text. For example, the Hoddle Street killer started to write poetry that conveyed his feelings while he was performing mass murder. I wonder what the Copyright is on these sort of things! For some reason, reading about some of these murders makes me wish the death penalty was still in place.

I first reviewed Dancing with Demons a year ago, and I haven’t revisited it. I think I’m going to pass these books onto another reader, and see what they make of them. I just feel like these two books do not really offer anything different – read one, but perhaps not both.

Macmillan | 31st July 2018 | AU$32.99 | paperback

Review: Petrea King – Up Until Now

Up Until Now
Petrea King

Petrea grew up in a household with a father suffering from PTSD and a demanding, yet fragile older brother who eventually killed himself alone overseas. Petrea herself is diagnosed with cancer and given a limited time left with her two children and her estranged partner. Unsatisfied and unhappy with her life, Petrea finds herself able to help others so that she can help herself.

Lyrically written and with beautiful prose, you will find yourself travelling deeply into Petrea’s consciousness throughout her life. This memoir is one of the more enjoyable ones I have read, although at times I found myself having to hold onto my disbelief at how things worked out so conveniently. I AM a scientist by trade after all.

Sometimes I felt like Petrea’s introspection was too much for me, and was too self-absorbed compared to what a normal person could achieve (although of course I would not wish her life circumstances on anyone). I think this is because I feel like only people who can go and meditate in a cave for months in peace could reach that level of enlightenment and contentedness. *If only* I think to myself, if I too could meditate for hours I would also reach that same level of being ok with the world. This is my envy speaking.

It’s important to remember that this is one woman’s story, and that she has written it to inform people about her life, and her opinions, not a life-path that everyone can follow. For people who feel inspired by her story of healing herself both physiologically and psychologically, Petrea has written a range of other novels. I would expect that those are equally well-written and enjoyable, and I will read any that wander my way.

This is a superior novel to Standing on my Brother’s Shoulders in terms of a sister dealing with her brother’s suicide. The writing style of this novel is lovely and consistent, despite Petrea’s insistence that she is not naturally good at writing (given that she didn’t have much formal schooling). You will likely enjoy this novel if you like thoughtful novels that prompt contemplation and want to balance a discussion of how Western and other Traditional practices can work together. I am overseas, and so this novel will likely not come home with me due to baggage limits, but if I was at home it would remain on my shelf.

Allen & Unwin | 23rd August 2018 | AU$32.99 | paperback

Review: Roxane Gay – Hunger (A Memoir of (My) Body)

Hunger (A Memoir of (My) Body)
Roxane Gay

After a horrific gang rape, the only way Roxanne knows how to cope is to make herself fat and undesirable to men. This novel is a story of how she tried to come to terms with the rape by herself, and also how she mostly recovered from her eating disorder(s) that occurred as a result of her traumatic experience.

Please keep in mind that I am not discounting or demeaning the author’s experiences at all. This is a review of the writing style, and I just couldn’t get into it. For example it is kind of present tense, and also past tense.

I know I am going to be ripped into for saying this, but this wasn’t a good memoir and I didn’t enjoy it at all. In fact, I didn’t finish it. I at least finished Patient 71, the last novel that generated contentious comments now. It’s non-fiction, but I’d give it 1 star.

Reviews: Tim Watson-Munro – Dancing with Demons

Dancing with Demons
Tim Watson-Munro

Tim became a psychologist in a high security prison early in his career. This set him up well in order to become a renowned psychological criminal profiler. But a job with high visibility leads to a lot of stress, and the associated mental health and addiction problems that eventually caused Tim to fall off the rails – and write this memoir.

It’s scary that a huge number of the people who are criminals stored in prison actually have mental health problems. If those problems could have been caught earlier they probably wouldn’t have the drug habit or the addiction that led to them being put in jail in the first place!

I find it very interesting that the author refers to the jail and spells it in the American form which is JAIL not GAOL. Personally, I always thought this was a stupid way of spelling it! Spell it how it sounds, there ain’t no ‘g’ in there. It’s not a memoir for everyone. It does tackle the author’s drug problem / past drug problem quite in depth which some people could find uncomfortable to read.

This offers a quite an insight into different well-known criminal minds that although Tim has said he hasn’t revealed anything that is not publically available, is very interesting. I think that people who are more familiar with the criminal underworld would probably get even more out of it than I did. I really try to avoid following the news…

I enjoyed it because I’m interested in mental illness. I’m actually feeling quite inspired to go and look at some other statistics in the area for how many mental health problems present in this population. Of course this book documents a time when our jails were very rough and you would hope that they’ve changed by now. The novel allows the reader to look along through the years to an extent, providing some interesting information about the early years of the rehabilitation program.

It is really, really well documented that crims can’t adapt back to society. The minute that you bring them back into society, they can’t deal with freedom and usually find themselves reoffending because they don’t know what to do with themselves. It’s difficult to find jobs, it’s possible they no longer have any family left, and then only the option to survive is to go back to crime. Jail ultimately is more of a cost to the community than the criminals.

The problem is that the majority of people think that locking crims up actually solves the problem. But there are always more people to offend and it’s also well-documented that people have received training in jail from more senior criminals to commit worse crimes. There are exceptions to that of course, including chart molesters & serious people that are actually psychopaths. You can read about a fictional psychopath in Breaking Butterflies.

Pan Macmillan | 27th June 2017 | AU $34.99 | paperback

Review: Lily Bailey – Because We Are Bad

Because We Are Bad
Lily Bailey

Lily’s Obsessive Compulsive Disorder was out of hand from nearly in her childhood. Without a point of reference, she thought that everyone thought this way. Eventually, OCD was ruling her life to the extent that she couldn’t function. A series of doctors, medications and therapy later, Lily can live an almost normal life.

Anything that could go wrong? She was going to be responsible for it. Anything that did go wrong? She had cursed the person and made it happen. Only by using rituals could Lily overcome some of her limitations, and it was a hard struggle the whole way along.

Dr Finch makes a huge impact on Lily’s life, and this relationship that Lily explores in depth in this novel shows the complexities of patient-doctor interactions. A good doctor can bring patients a long step forward, and bad ones can set patients’ progress back by many years and even prevent them from seeking help.

This memoir is less ‘meaty’ than The Man Who Couldn’t Stop, but still a good addition to someone’s library who has an interest in OCD and how it can manifest in a variety of ways. It might be a ‘read once and pass it on book’, but it’s well worth that read. If it was a fiction novel, I’d give it 4 stars.

Allen & Unwin | 10th May 2017 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Julie Randall – Patient 71

Patient 71
Julie Randall

Julie Randall went from being a partying 50 year old to having major surgery to remove a tumour from her brain in less than a month. Following that, Julie had to fight to get the treatment she needed in order to survive and be with her kids – whether she’s in Australia or not.

So it’s a reasonable enough memoir but not exactly what I was hoping for. As long-time readers will know, I’m a scientist by training and so I was hoping for more juicy details about everything – the science behind the new treatment, the ‘magic pill’ that might have cured everything, what’s it’s really like to be a scientific guinea pig. Instead, I got a bit of a repetitive heartthrob tale that I didn’t really feel any inclination to keep reading. Instead I would have thought that “breakfast, school run, chemo” is actually a more relatable story even if that one doesn’t actually have a happy ending so to speak. Cancer is hard.

I appreciate that the author is a real person, with real problems, and I would hate to read a negative review of a novel I had probably put a lot of time into crafting. But honestly, some of the fault must also lie with the publishers. This book could have benefited from some significant editorial guidance. There’s a lot of inconsistent tenses and it would have been really useful to define who is alive/dead earlier in the novel. Additionally, I know the author actually wrote letters to her dead mother while undergoing treatment, but I actually found the letters quite distracting and not actually very useful.

The author makes it sound like this wonder drug is a complete cure but at any time, as far as I can see, the cancer could return. She seems to say that she has monthly treatments on a maintenance dosage. I really hope she’s making the most of life that she has left, because knowing about drugs and cancer, they always have the capacity to surprise you.

I’d also like to complain about the repetitiveness of Julie’s little chant about ‘My body is healthy, my organs are healthy’. I’m all for mindfulness and appreciating what you have, and supporting your body mentally, but arg! it just was very irritating for me. There is some useful things to take from this because it promotes still having a healthy lifestyle and remaining active as much you, but also really pushing for the help that you need.

Thankfully no need to provide stars for this one. Look elsewhere for an Australian cancer memoir.

Hachette Australia | 27th June 2017| AU$32.99 | paperback

Review: Bree Record – The Road to Transition

The Road to Transition
Bree Record

Sarah was destroyed by Steven, now Bree is ready to take her rightful place in the world. This novel chronicles the 40 days before her surgery, interspersed with her most distressing memories of the last 55 years of her life. This is the transition of everything.

I love the way that the blurb labels this as a ‘gender confirmation surgery’. It’s not a reassignment surgery, which implies that there is something weird about it. I think it is very difficult to properly convey the feeling of both relief and confusion when someone takes their identified form. I would really like this novel to have a bit more after the form change, but it’s limited in pages to explore everything.

While the imagery was beautiful, I needed more substance. I could have had more of everything, particularly more about Bree’s relationship with her Wife. When a transition takes place, it often rips apart families, particularly as people who never thought they were gay suddenly find themselves with a same-sex partner. I find that that usually raises a really interesting question.

It had potential I think, but could have done with significantly more editing to improve the flow. It feels a little like the journal was just plucked up and turned into a novel without much thought of how a reader would enjoy having the storyline presented to them.

I’ve hit a lot of splashback in the past from people feeling like I haven’t thought as the author/their cousin/aunt/mother as a real person with a true terrible journey. Let me be clear – I am not criticising the author’s life (how should I know what parts haven’t been included?), simply the literary construction of the novel.

I read this one night that I was suffering insomnia. It kept my attention because I couldn’t sleep, but it wasn’t that great. However, this was so so much better than when Adam became Audrey. That’s written from the perspective of the partner of the transitioning person, and it’s absolutely horrible. I can’t warn people away from it enough. This is a good book in comparison.

Review: Henry Marsh – Admissions

Admissions
Henry Marsh

Dr. Henry Marsh was a Political Studies student before wagging college for a year. Eventually, he ended up studying medicine and becoming a celebrated neurosurgeon. This novel is a memoir of his experiences in remote hospitals in places such as Nepal and Pakistan, where he offers his services as surgeon and teacher to those in need.

I honestly expected more juicy stories and less reflection, but perhaps that was a hallmark of this being his second novel – perhaps they were all exhausted by his first novel, ‘Do No Harm’. For me then, there was too much memoir and reflection on aging rather than substance about the joys and upsets of being a neuroscientist. I can accept a certain level of introspection, but I’m not certain what regular readers would pull from this novel.

Although I enjoyed the scientific discussion because I’m a scientist and know something about the brain’s morphology, it would have been very useful to have diagrams of what the incisions and brain areas looked like. Nothing too gastly, I’m certain it would be difficult to get permissions to print images of patients, but just dry diagrams could have been useful.

The brief discussions about how Henry could apply his knowledge to neuroscience about how personality probably does [not] exist after death could not save the novel for me. Neither could the discussions on his renovation project in his retirement. Additionally, I wasn’t actually sure what family he had left, which made me wonder at his sanity! Also, he is obsessed with getting dementia which derails a lot of the chapters.

If you are looking for more ways of living mindfully, shaped by what others dying has done so far (The Five Invitations) or are looking for a provocative discussion of the implications of a ‘Good Death’ (The Easy Way Out), this is not the novel for you. It wasn’t really the novel for me, but others might enjoy it. Thankfully it is non-fiction, so I don’t have to assign a star rating to something I didn’t particularly enjoy.

Hachette Australia | 16th May 2017 | AU$32.99 | paperback