Review: Andra and Tatiana Bucci – Always Remember Your Name

Always Remember Your Name
Andra and Tatiana Bucci

“A haunting WWII memoir of two sisters who survived Auschwitz that picks up where Anne Frank’s Diary left off and gives voice to the children we lost. … An unforgettable narrative of the power of sisterhood in the most extreme circumstances, and of how a mother’s love can overcome the most impossible odds, the Bucci sisters’ memoir is a timely reminder that separating families is an inexcusable evil.”

I have been ‘enjoying’ a number of non-fiction novels lately about the Holocaust. I say ‘enjoying’, but really they are quite sad reads due to the devastating loss of life as a result of Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies. I found myself horrified and yet not surprised at the level of brutality exhibited by the Nazi’s. It’s one thing to have a critical idea of World War II (as I’ve said before, my history knowledge is poor) and another to really experience it as these writers did.

To hear that 230,000 children were deported, and that less than 200 survived is horrific. No, that’s not a typo. Somewhat confusingly perhaps, the book blurb suggests that all of these children were subjected to experiments by Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death. This was not the case – the majority of children were simply gassed to death because they were deemed to be useless. Andra and Tatiana remain together because they are thought to be twins – and remembering their names is crucial in being able to return them to their parents many years later.

I am haunted by the last fact I learnt in The Keeper of Miracles – some people don’t believe that the Holocaust happened. This makes it all the more important to keep publishing, promoting and researching literature about this catastrophic loss of more than six million lives. This book should be higher on the high school reading list than the iconic fiction book of The Boy in the Striped Pajamas (which has noticeable inconsistencies with the real events of the Holocaust) or the very dense memoir If This is a Man. Always Remember Your Name gets full stars from me.

Allen & Unwin | 20 February 2022 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Wendy Mitchell – What I Wish People Knew About Dementia

What I Wish People Knew About Dementia
Wendy Mitchell

“When Wendy Mitchell was diagnosed with young-onset dementia at the age of fifty-eight, her brain was overwhelmed with images of the last stages of the disease – those familiar tropes, shortcuts and clichés that we are fed by the media, or even our own health professionals. Wise, practical and life affirming, What I Wish People Knew About Dementia combines anecdotes, research and Wendy Mitchell’s own brilliant wit and wisdom to tell readers exactly what she wishes they knew about dementia.”

I’d recommend this book to basically everyone, regardless of whether they have a family history of dementia or whether they’ve barely heard of the condition. It’s compassionate and sensible, and filled with ways to help people understand dementia rather than just judging someone by it.

I need to get my hands on Wendy’s first book. You certainly don’t need to have read that one to understand this one, but Wendy’s accessible writing and friendly (and matter-the-fact) tone makes me want to read more of her work. I hope that she continues to write while she is still able. I’m also now following her blog.

My wife and I joke that I have to get dementia first – because I’m the person that hates telling stories more than once. Also, I’d love to be able to read all my books again for the first time. However, the way that Wendy illuminates the REAL advantages and disadvantages of living with dementia lets me think differently. Most people no doubt have a stereotyped image of what a ‘person with dementia’ looks like or acts like, but the reality is that it can be very different for every person – and that progression of the disease is variable too.

I wish I had had this book 10 years ago when my grandmother developed dementia. I found myself often confused and scared because I didn’t know what to expect. Although we laughed about the fact she put a wheat heat bag into the microwave for 90 minutes instead of 90 seconds, it was actually kind of terrifying to know that the house easily could have burnt down.

This was an excellent non-fiction book that I had to read in stages to get the most out of it. It will get pride of place in my new non-fiction bookshelf, and it’ll be a book I recommend to anyone and everyone who shows a passing interest in

Bloomsbury | 1 February 2022 | AU$26.99 | paperback

Review: JingJing Xue – Shanghai Acrobat

Shanghai Acrobat
JingJing Xue

“Jingjing Xue was born in China in 1947, during a period of civil war. Jingjing, left in an orphanage in Shanghai, was destined to a life of hardship before officials singled him out and enlisted him to train with the Shanghai Acrobatics School. Shanghai Acrobat tells the moving story of Jingjing’s rise from poverty to become an admired performer in China and beyond. Through the turbulent period of the Cultural Revolution, he realised the value of freedom. This is a story of hope and perseverance, of overcoming adversity and of finding a place to belong.”

I listened to this as a talking book after I was disappointed by the last two fiction audiobooks I tried. Unfortunately this one let me feeling a bit cheated. I expect and enjoy memiors that are filled with human nature and the feelings of their writer. This memior fails for me because it is filled with too much dry history and is quite repeditive. Someone who enjoys history will probably get more out of this book than me.

I learnt from this book that in Shanghai it is the custom to give children the same first name twice, so JingJing was originally named Jing. That’s something I’ll now be able to talk to my students about – so it’s not a dead loss!

While I admire JingJing’s devotion to ‘endure’, it didn’t seem like he could or would be evicted from the troop. This created an aura of holier-than-thou around him that didn’t seem to be cracked by the fact that many people he knew didn’t make it out of China. I didn’t get any sense of his humanity, and his relationships came off as quite sterile.

I don’t think this should be compared to Mao’s Last Dancer. While both books might cover the period of the Cultural Revolution of early Communist China, this book is more about history and Last Dancer is about the process of becoming the best. I wouldn’t recommend this book.

Review: Shane Jenek – Caught in the Act

Caught in the Act: A Memoir
Shane Jenek aka Courtney Act

“Boy, girl, artist, advocate. Courtney is more than the sum of her parts. Behind this rise to national and global fame is a story of searching for and finding oneself. Meet Shane Jenek. Raised in the Brisbane suburbs by loving parents, Shane realises from a young age that he’s not like all the other boys. At a performing arts agency he discovers his passion for song, dance and performance, and makes a promise to himself: to find a bigger stage. … Told with Courtney’s trademark candour and wit, Caught in the Act is about our journey towards understanding gender, sexuality and identity. It’s an often hilarious and at times heartbreaking memoir from a beloved drag and entertainment icon. Most of all, it’s a bloody good time.”

This book will be an eye-opening and brilliant ride for anyone who is part of the queer family, or would like to know more about the lives of the queer. That being said, it’s important to remember that this is the experience of only a single person. Shane/Courtney is one of the newer queers on the scene – which is to say that unlike other books I have read (nonfiction – My Epidemic; fiction – The Things We Promise), the specter of HIV/AIDs isn’t the main ‘threat’ to Courtney. Instead it comes in the form of front-page homophobia (you’ll never have a job with kids if you’re gay) and TV-show nastiness/misperceptions.

There’s a lot of navel gazing in this memoir which can largely be enjoyed, actually. The only points for me where this got a bit cloying was at the end and I actually would have been happy enough to end it perhaps a chapter earlier.

Who knew that casual sex could be so interesting? Or so nuanced? Shane/Courtney illuminates the way that sex can be viewed as a pleasant distraction but also a way of learning about yourself. Even if you have previously read about male-male sex and been perhaps disgusted, it’s worth reading this book to get a different perspective.

I have a friend in mind who I am going to give this book to for Christmas. I know he’s going to love it, because he’s a huge fan of RuPaul’s Drag Race. I personally don’t understand the allure of the show, but this book totally made me rethink the other reality TV shows I’ve watched and their portrayal of people as Characters (Lego Masters I’m looking at you).

If I gave non-fiction stars, this would be getting a 4.5/5. This was a very enjoyable read, and one I’d recommend to a range of audiences, even those people you might think would be interested.

Pantera Press | 2nd November 2021 | AU$32.99 | paperback

Review: Phillip Maisel – The Keeper of Miracles

The Keeper of Miracles
Phillip Maisel

“For more than 30 years, Phillip Maisel has worked selflessly to record the harrowing stories of Holocaust survivors. Volunteering at Melbourne’s Jewish Holocaust Centre, Phillip has listened tirelessly to their memories, preserved their voices and proven, time and time again, just how healing storytelling can be. Each testimony of survival is a miracle in itself – earning Phillip the nickname ‘the Keeper of Miracles’… Published as Phillip turns 99, this deeply moving, healing and inspiring memoir shows us the cathartic power of storytelling and reminds us never to underestimate the impact of human kindness.”

I cannot wrap my mind around the thought that some people try to deny that the Holocaust occurred. There are thousands of people who were affected – not just those that died but those like Phillip who lived through traumatic times and yet came out the other end still as a human. Phillip speaks of this in the book, and the reader is struck by his compassion even to those who are in my own words, ‘idiots’.

This is an intimate look into how Maisel kept himself together and survived the Holocaust, but also how he had paid forward that privilege to help tell the stories of others. As he said, and this sticks with me, it is the fact that all the different memories are recalled differently that adds realism to the picture. I am horrified by the loss of stories and people that has occurred.

I don’t care for history, and I am certainly not an avid reader of World War II history. However I found this book a very moving and thoughtful examination of the Holocaust and a somewhat gentle introduction to the atrocities of the time. I certainly did not realise the extent of Jewish persecution – I admit that in my ignorance I kind of just assumed that Hitler took over Germany and thoroughly persecuted people there, and then not much else – just that it was invaded.

Pan Macmillan | 27th July 2021 | AU$32.99 | hardback

Review: Bella Green – Happy Endings

Happy Endings
Bella Green

“Bella Green is a Sunday-afternoon sex worker. Divorced dads, IT nerds, international students – she’s here for the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour, for soothing the lonely. But really for the cash… Taking us on a funny, candid, can’t-look-away journey through brothels, strip clubs, peep shows and dominatrix dungeons, Happy Endings is a hilarious and compelling memoir from a bright and bold new Australian voice.”

This isn’t the first memoir by a sex worker I have read (see my reviews of: Come and The Brothel). I liked this one in particular because it showed the way mental health can impact someone’s work life. And it’s not that Bella doesn’t work hard – she seems to work her butt off! It’s just that her work is different from the old boring 9-5er.

It was refreshing to see how Bella addressed the relationships she has with both binary and non-binary people. To her, her attraction is based on their personality and approachability. The self-insight she shows (no doubt through quite a lot of therapy) speaks a lot for what a fantastic person she must be.

What I’d like to see next is the reflection of a male sex worker – and whether they have some of the same complaints and commentary on their clients. Who knows? I’ll keep an eye out for this approach and review it if I find one…

I resisted the urge to google the author because I don’t really need sex worker ads popping up on my Facebook (no offense to sex workers, but I do work with underage persons so it is really inappropriate for me to have those ads come up). I like that Bella’s two professional lives and selves eventually came together – a real happy ending!

Pan Macmillan | 29 June 2021 | AU$34.99 | paperback

Review: Yumiko Kadota – Emotional Female

Emotional Female
Yumiko Kadota

“Yumiko Kadota was every Asian parent’s dream: model student, top of her class in medical school and on track to becoming a surgeon… She was regularly left to carry out complex procedures without senior surgeons’ oversight; she was called all sorts of things, from ‘emotional’ to ‘too confident’; and she was expected to work a relentless on-call roster – sometimes seventy hours a week or more – to prove herself.”

Yumiko has claimed her title of Emotional Female and taken it to the next level. As a patient, I feel most listened to when the doctor seems to actually be 1) listening and 2) can empathize. Yumiko takes us on a frankly uncomfortable journey into the Australian medical system where things are rancid and wrong to the core.

Yumiko talks about how staff would get her and another woman of Asian descent confused. Thankfully I see this practice actively changing in the university system, where students are encouraged to learn how to pronounce a person’s given name, not just call them by a nickname.

I love that Yumiko has tried to make the most of her burnout time (if that is such a thing) and found passion in a related area of teaching anatomy. She’s also returned to some surgery, and I hope that her way forward is not as painful as the past. Funnily enough I recently worked with someone who went the other way – first an anatomy tutor and now she’s in post-graduate Medicine. I can only hope that the environment has improved since Yumiko’s time as a student, but I fear that the workplaces are much the same.

I requested this book because I work with both post-graduate and first year undergraduate Medicine students. I feel as if I should know more about what it takes to ‘become a doctor’ because there is so much more ahead of them after they have finished university. I want to be able to give good advice, or at least informed advice, to students about what they hope to achieve out of medicine – and whether they have healthy coping mechanisms.

I have previously read Going Under which is a fictional account of another young woman’s training in Medicine. The original blog of that author’s post was in 2017. It doesn’t give me much home that the profession is changing its ways in regards to its attitude towards mental health and chronic overwork here in 2021. I hope that further people feel able to speak up, and perhaps change will eventually happen.

Buy this book and be part of the change we need in the Medical system. Encourage others to read it. You won’t regret it.

Penguin Random House | 2 March 2021 | AU$34.99 | paperback

Review: Andrew Faulk – My Epidemic

MY EPIDEMIC
An AIDS Memoir of One Man’s Struggle as Doctor, Patient and Survivor
Andrew M. Faulk

“When young Dr. Andrew Faulk first learned he was HIV-positive, he was devastated for it certainly meant imminent death… Due to the rigors and stress of training, he considered abandoning his medical career. But, instead, he dedicated the remainder of his life to the fight against AIDS, ultimately participating in the care of approximately 50 patients who died, many his own peers, including his partner.”

What is there I can say about this book? It is both heartbreaking and uplifting, sad and joyful at the same time. The memoirs that I have read recently didn’t pass muster. My Epidemic does. Andrew shows sensitivity and self-awareness, and his story does bring something new to the bookshelf. To me, Andrew showed the early tenants of ‘active listening’ to his patients, even as he faced most of them going too-early to the grave. This naturally took a toll on this compassionate doctor, leading to him leaving the profession.

This is a book by a man who knows how to actively listen, who knows how to empathise and grieve, and is willing to share what story has taken place in his life so far. Personally, I felt cheated to an extent. This memoir is filled with two page summaries of patients and friends Andrew has known and nursed. I wanted more information – but perhaps to include more would have crossed the confidential patient-doctor boundary.

I particularly appreciated the epilogue on COVID-19. Thankfully, Australia has not been as hard pressed by COVID-19 as the overburdened USA healthcare system. It didn’t occur to me to parallel the two epidemics. HIV/AIDs seems to be so far in the past – I always thought of AIDs as belonging to third world countries (reinforced by other books I had read). I’ve read novels on the 1980s epidemic or current life with HIV, but they didn’t resonate with me in the same way as this memoir.

When I corresponded with Andrew and his publicist, I felt listened to and appreciated (he even addressed my beloved birdie in my signed copy of the book!). Treating your reviewer with respect for their time will always lead to a tick in my book, and lead to this book being read almost as soon as it arrived.

The gay men in my life are HIV-negative as far as I know, and I know that many are taking PReP to minimize their chances of contracting HIV. Advances in medicine such as these have changed the face of disease burdens and perhaps minimized their significance, in Western countries at least.  Thank you Andrew for bringing the AIDs epidemic back into context and not letting those brothers who were victims of this disease be forgotten.

Review: Joram Piatigorsky – The Speed of Dark

The Speed of Dark
Joram Piatigorsky

“The Speed of Dark reveals how the author, his mother the daughter of the French Rothschild banking dynasty and his father a world-renowned cellist, broke the chain of his lineage of art, music and banking to establish an important career in science. ”

Just because you can write, that doesn’t mean you should write. Equally, even if everyone else in your family has written a memoir, that doesn’t mean you need to. There needs to be something unique or exciting, some motto that someone else can gain from your life. This book had none of this.

I started off dead bored with this book, and it didn’t improve from there. First, Piatigorsky describes both his parents – one a renowned cellist, the other an expensive Rothschild. Then, we slowly saw his progression through science, from a beginning scientist through to a renowned lab head. Somewhere in that progression I lost patience with the book offering me something interesting and new, and I just started skipping/skimming pages.

I got nothing from this memoir. I wasn’t overcome by feelings for someone who overcame insurmountable odds. Also, forgive me for saying so, it’s just another “white man” memoir, and that’s certainly not something we need in the current climate. He has money to spare, which although he describes how he tried not to rely on this crutch, it’s blatantly clear that he could do whatever he wanted because he had the family to back it up.

I am a molecular biologist of sorts (mainly I teach), so that’s why I decided I’d review this book. Sadly, it didn’t give me anything interesting. Perhaps I should have gone with his fiction or other non-fiction choices? It’s too late now, I’m completely browned off and too disappointed to keep reading. I’m sad I wasted my precious reading time on this book.

I received a complimentary copy of this book for review.

Review: Janet LoSole – Adventures by Chicken Bus

Adventures by Chicken Bus
Janet LSole

“Embarking on a homeschooling field trip to Central America is stressful enough, but add in perilous bridge crossings, trips to the hospital, and a lack of women’s underwear, and you have the makings of an Adventure by Chicken Bus.”

Part guidebook, part travel diary, this book explored backpacking with two young children in tow – and that it can be done! One thing that made no sense to me was that the family had a whole heap of debt, and basically had nothing at the end of their trip. Yet they were sure their jobs would still be there when they got home? I couldn’t imagine going overseas with so little cash that a flight out might actually could have been impossible. Also, the last chapter jumps forward a year, and I felt cheated that I didn’t hear about how they readapted to living in a Western society.

What I would have liked to read more about was about the author’s ability to converse in Spanish. Were other backpackers like themselves also fluent in Spanish to get around Costa Rica and the other Central America countries? I’d love to take this trip myself, but I’d be worried about not speaking the local language.

This book could have been longer, with more details and I still would have been happy. The writing is engaging, and the number of stories told were all very interesting. It’s clear that the author takes pride in her writing, and practices her skill diligently (we hear hints of her writing in this book). Other people have called for photos to be included, but I don’t think they are essential. LoSole describes the environment so well, I didn’t need any additional visual cues.

The Chicken Buses reminded me of travelling in Jeepneys in the Philippines. They hardly stop, and somehow the driver manages to take passengers’ payments while driving! There’s no respect for road rules either. I found it slightly entertaining that the author remained terrified of driving there, when it’s really just a way of life. A big coach I was travelling on in the Philippines literally scraped a wall in a tunnel, and just kept driving!

A very enjoyable read, and I’d highly recommend it to anyone considering travelling overseas, homeschooling/unschooling their kids, or someone who just wants to live vicariously through others.