Review: Thea Hayes – A Country Nurse

A Country Nurse
Thea Hayes

“Thea Hayes spent twenty years living and working on Wave Hill Station in the Northern Territory. She arrived as a twenty-two-year-old nurse from Sydney, but when she left in 1979 she was married with four children and eager for her next adventure.”

This is more like a teaser rather than a collection of stories. Although the chapter headings lead me to believe that each chapter would be its own little narrative, instead the narrative seemed to jump around a lot. There’s too much packed in, and not enough details.

This doesn’t have the personal details that I need to be entranced by a book. I wanted to hear about Thea’s personal connection with some of her palliative care patients, or a stronger link to her customers in the shop. Even her brush with cancer seemed indifferent, and I didn’t actually care about her family members enough to remember their names. I also felt that her views on Australian Aboriginal treatment were quite antiquated and not well informed. If they aren’t how she saw them, she should do something about it!

My mom was a nurse, and she collects nursing fiction (she’s also impossible to buy presents for!). Thus I’m always on the lookout for more fiction that she might enjoy. Would I normally fork out $29.99 for this book? No, I definitely wouldn’t. Maybe if someone was potentially interested in nursing stories, but enjoyed a loose narrative by a nurse, this would be a book for them.

Allen & Unwin | 7th January 2020 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Kenneth Ring – Waiting to Die

Waiting to Die:
A Near-Death Researcher’s (Mostly Humorous) Reflections on His Own Endgame
Kenneth Ring

“During his many years researching the near-death experience (NDE), Dr. Kenneth Ring was concerned with answering the question, “What is it like to die?” In this book of fifteen sparkling and delightfully witty essays, his question becomes more personal, “What is it like waiting to die?” More specifically, what is it like for an octogenarian who has spent half his life studying and writing about NDEs to face his own mortality? ”

I was offered this book to review, and I was attracted to it because the author writes and researches near-death experiences (NDEs). Cool! I thought to myself. I’ll get some interesting insights from this book of essays. The earlier essays were entertaining and informative, and I enjoyed reading them. As I went through them however I enjoyed them less. Perhaps I just don’t relate well to an aging man with prostate problems?

I’ve never feared death, so NDEs don’t freak me out. I think for someone who might be facing death presumably sooner than I would appreciate it! Growing old is a process, and I suppose dying of natural causes is also. The thing that resonated with me the most was that Kenneth reflects on being one of his last friends standing! Old age kills off your friends and family.

Something else the book raised for me was the research into near death lucidity, where people with dementia or similar mental losses suddenly revert to their old selves when dying. A fascinating concept that I would like to read more about for sure. I’m interested to read more of Kenneth’s professional work, even if ultimately this collection was not for me.

I’ve never been one for reading books of essays, any more than I like short stories. I like to have something really meaty to sink my teeth into. So that might have been one of the problems with this book. I think that different people are going to get different things, and not all of them are going to enjoy or appreciate all the essays. I’m on vacation right now, so I’m going to be releasing it into the wild. I hope that someone else enjoys it more!

Review: Elena Dunkle & Clare Dunkle – Elena Vanishing

Elena Vanishing
Elena Dunkle & Clare Dunkle

Elena doesn’t have anorexia or an eating disorder or anxiety. She just carefully controls what she eats to make sure that she maintains the right number. When she doesn’t know what that number is, she can’t think straight – and she certainly can’t trust a psychologist to help her think straight either.

This is the true story of Elena’s recovery from anorexia as well as some of the causes and compulsions that underlie her disorder. What I found striking about this novel was that Elena is a caring person by nature, and yet she can’t care for herself. The root of the problem doesn’t become apparent until later in the book. We think that perhaps her sister has something to do with it, but ultimately that isn’t it. While I would have liked to know more about her sister, I also respect the family’s privacy.

Wow, the guts it must have taken for Elena to write this book with her mother. This is a memoir – so don’t expect it to be an easy read. What it is, is a raw and painful read that pulled at me and made me feel physically ill with Elena at the same time. I felt everything with her intimately. I’d like to read the memoir of Clare Dunkle now so that I can see the other side and perhaps get a bigger picture. It feels a little wrong of me to be so invested in personal aspects of their lives, but at the same time I’m so grateful to them for letting the reader in.

From the beginning of the book it was painful for me to read. If you have or have had an eating disorder or OCD you should think very carefully about reading this book as it has the potential to be really triggering. It’s not the rosy picture of recovery from an eating disorder that many fiction novels have – this is both deeply horrifying and reassuring at the same time. I’m not sure how to explain that exactly, but I guess it’s that the person themselves must be ready to change and that the science behind eating disorder treatment is constantly changing.

It’s horrifying to me that some people who need help won’t receive it because their insurance won’t pay. That someone with a life-threatening condition can just be kicked out if they can afford treatment. Would a hospital just toss someone out if they needed a heart bypass to survive, but they couldn’t pay? It seems like they wouldn’t – but anything that is perceived to be a personal problem or self-created problem like an eating disorder or mental illness doesn’t come under the same category of care. It’s not good enough, even if I don’t have a solution.

Review: Michelle Balge – A Way Out

A Way Out
Michelle Balge

“Michelle is able to share her experiences [with depression and social anxiety] in a way that allows others to go along for the ride with her: the highs, the lows, and the amusingly unexpected. It artfully conveys Michelle’s journey through mental illness and toward mental health. Beyond the haunting honesty, A Way Out delivers heart, humour, and hope.”

This book will leave you feeling breathless and raw. The author’s honesty is breathtaking and painful, and will make inroads on your heart. What Michelle has written will resonate with other people who have been or are depressed, and hopefully make people feel less alone. Her descriptions of how she felt when deeply depressed may feel familiar, equally so the pages on her social anxiety.

Sometimes the writing style was irritating. I would have preferred for all of it to be in past tense, and not have giveaways of what the future held. It’s a little difficult to explain what I mean by this, but if you pick it up you’l quickly realize what I mean, The words themselves though and the portrait they paint is unarguably both bleak and hopeful at the same time.

What I really like about this book is that Michelle shares the WHOLE story, not just the things that work. It’s a realistic (I’d hope so, since it’s non-fiction) look at what it really feels like to be depressed and anxious, and to try different methods to combat it. The author even lists some strategies that helped her – which include medication! So many novels I read about depression/anxiety suggest that people that need medication to treat these conditions are pathetic/lesser beings compared to those who can manage with ‘just’ lifestyle changes. Remember that every person is an individual.

I don’t think I would reread this non-fiction at this stage in my life, but others might. If you have even a passing interest in understanding mental illness or have a similar mental illness that you would like to understand someone else’s perspective on, great this book. I would compare this to Two Years of Wonder in terms of author honesty and accessibility.

Review: Ted Neill – Two Years of Wonder

Two Years of Wonder
Ted Neill

Neill recounts his years of volunteering with HIV/AIDS afflicted children, the suffering they endured, and the resilience these brave children showed despite unimaginable pain and loss. Moreover, he shares that although seeing the suffering first hand led to a major depressive episode and hospitalization, he ultimately found hope and healing.

Where should I begin? While this is billed as a memoir that Neill has written documenting his journey to recovery from being ready to kill himself to finding a path forwards, this is far more than that. I actually found that quite a minor part of the book – instead I was equally entranced and horrified by the stories of the African orphans living in Rainbow who live with being HIV+. Ted’s time there included the introduction of antiretrovirals (ART) and the lengthening of the children’s lives – so that they could live into adulthood. That of course is a very positive outcome, but not available for all children because it is so expensive and there are so many affected by this insidious disease.

I fully admit that I got confused in some parts of the different children’s stories. The way Ted characterised Oliver in his red beanie for example made him stick in my mind, but other children got mixed up, particularly as they often seemed to be included in the text in a random order. It is highly possible I missed the significance of the order since I was dipping into and out of this book.

What I would have liked was an index of the different languages spoken in Africa and their associated /Tribes/. Also, because I’m quite literal in the way that I read words, it took me a while to work out that the children spoke of HIV in a phonetic manner. So I could have also done with a glossary of those words.

This is strictly non-fiction, so I don’t need to rate it. But I feel like this book was really well thought-out by an author who was really aware of what he was writing and how he was writing in. Kudos to you, Ted (I hope you don’t mind me using your first name, but I really feel like I’ve gotten to know you). Thank you for sharing your story, and the stories of the children you worked with.

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.