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

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.

Review: Ernman and Thunberg – Our House is on Fire

Our House is on Fire
Ernman and Thunberg

“When climate activist Greta Thunberg was eleven, her parents Malena and Svante, and her little sister Beata, were facing a crisis in their own home. Greta had stopped eating and speaking, and her mother and father had reconfigured their lives to care for her. Desperate and searching for answers, her parents discovered what was at the heart of Greta’s distress: her imperiled future on a rapidly heating planet.”

I fully admit that I don’t follow politics and I specifically ignore the news because I find it quite depressing and frustrating. Thus, although I was aware of the ‘Greta phenomenon’ happening, I wasn’t really aware of the specific circumstances about it. This book won’t give you those either. What it will provide you with is a thoughtful commentary by Greta’s mother on some of the challenges of raising a neurodiverse child.

What did annoy me was the focus on Greta’s mother (whose name I still don’t remember) and her status as a celebrity. I’m really sorry, but I have no idea who you are, and why you might be important. I respect you for being accepting of your neurodiverse, eating disorder and autism-having offspring. But you aren’t the only person with that particular combination of problems. I feel like this book was marketed as being about Greta, but it wasn’t focused enough on her. Maybe borrow it from the library, it’s not worth buying (unless you are then going to pass it around to different people).

This book actually made me feel a bit more guilty about not making better choices for the planet. I had sunk into a ‘enough’ mindset, rather than thinking about how I could improve. I have the cash flow to afford to shop more responsibly, but I don’t always make that choice. This book could serve as a good reminder that we can do more, and that it’s not completely hopeless to try to save the planet.

Penguin Random House | 4th March 2020 | AU$32.99 | paperback

Review: Rita Therese – Come

Rita Therese

“Rita Therese is a 25-year-old sex worker, artist and writer based in Melbourne, Australia. She entered the sex industry at age 18, and has worked as a stripper, porn and as an escort. She currently works as an escort under the alias Gia James. She has written for magazines like Frankie, Vice and Penthouse Australia, and had a monthly sex and dating column for Sneaky magazine.”

I wanted this to be new and innovative, but in the end I actually felt disappointed. I’ve read a similar novel/memoir in the past that still stuck with me. What really frustrated me about this was that it had a ‘fearless new talent’ but the writing itself wasn’t that amazing. It seemed to reply on shock factor, and speed, in order to keep the reader interested.

Arg! The biggest irritation for me was the way that the timeline endlessly jumped around. The novel seems to open at the end, where Rita has already lost her two older brothers to suicide. But then it jumps between when she is just starting out as a topless waiter through to being a porn star, and then back to working at a brothel. Honestly I wasn’t sure what was going on. Maybe some more informative chapter headings would help? I wasn’t sure if her abusive relationship was before her rape or her brothers’ deaths, or something else. It made it hard for me to follow the storyline.

Some of the things that Rita tells you how to do are honestly really gross, and probably not very healthy for your biological workings! I am slightly worried that some people might think of this as a ‘how to’ in terms of getting into sex work, and take some of the things she’s described as good things to try at home. If you’re looking at getting into kink or exploring your own sexual side more (nothing wrong with that!) perhaps I could suggest Oh Joy Sex Toy? As the name suggests, this comic takes a light hearted approach to reviewing sex toys, discussing kinks and quirks, and also takes on sexual health.

One of the few things I appreciated about this book was that Rita does touch on the fact that she attended therapy to help her cope. But I’m not sure her ‘alternative’ lifestyle should be blamed at all for her personal failings. Not all sex workers are drug-riddled alcoholics? If you’ve looked at an AMA, or watched You Can’t Ask That you’ll know that sex workers can have healthy sex lives as well as working.

An interesting exposé that provides an ironically happy and sexual read that will last you at least as long as a night out at a club (and make you think about what the dancers are doing in the ‘spare time’ they have). Remember that sex workers are people too, and that they are all different. There’s nothing wrong with this book, I just wish it was a bit better organised.

Allen & Unwin | 31st March 2020 | AU$29.99 | paperback

Review: Lucia Osborne-Crowley – I Choose Elena

I Choose Elena
Lucia Osborne-Crowley

Lucia Osborne-Crowley was on track to be an Olympic gymnast. She knew her body intimately and knew where she was going. On a night out age 15 she was violently raped, setting off a chain of events that lead to a life of chronic illness.

This memoir almost moved me to tears with the hopelessness and frustration that leaked out of its pages. How could no-one help Lucia when she was obviously in so much pain? Surely bleeding from the vagina should always be treated as serious. I guess that this was some years ago, when endometriosis and Crohn’s Disease were poorly understood, and even more poorly treated.

The statistics that Osborne-Crowley provides the reader with are unsurprising. Men tend to get help/pain relief faster than women, and their complaints tend to be taken more seriously. Yet which gender is it that goes through childbirth? Women are more resilient in my opinion, and Osborne-Crowley has done a fantastic job of making her story accessible and increasing awareness about trauma recovery.

Unlike Foul is Fair, this memoir deals with the subject of rape gracefully and sensitively. Rape is a triggering subject, but this book doesn’t dwell on the rape, instead depicting This reads so smoothly it could almost be fiction – yet I only wish that this was fiction because then Lucia would not have had to go through such hell.

I’d recommend this book both for people who have experienced similar trauma, and those that haven’t. It is a relatively gentle and pleasurable read that highlights both the importance of coming to terms with trauma through counselling and reading literature. Fantastic non-fiction.

Allen & Unwin | 18th February 2020| AU$16.99 | paperback