Hello and Welcome

My name is Gabriella and I’m a librarian, writer and voracious reader of anything I can get my hands on (which fits in nicely with the first two). I routinely read over twenty books each week, and often get asked why I don’t review more of them. Of course, many of those books are unmemorable, but every so often one stays in my mind. Some, I absolutely loved, some I hated (Chauvinists touting their rules of conquest shall not be named)  some I hated because I had loved the writer’s previous work and sat there thinking ‘what the hell happened?!?!?’, and others I didn’t like much to begin with but the more I thought about them, the more insightful I found them to be. ALL of those books I felt deserved more than a few lines on Facebook, so here I am. Welcome to the Black Swan Book Corner. Kick back, grab a tea (or coffee, if you’re that way inclined… blasphemer) and I hope you find something that intrigues you enough to read the book!

And the Band Played On; Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic – Randy Shilts

After reading Somebody to Love, the biography of Freddie Mercury which was heavily intertwined with the history of AIDS, I looked further into the history of the disease, and And the Band Played on by Randy Shilts came up repeatedly. It is a very engaging read, having dated little since its publication over thirty years ago. Gaeten Dugas’s status as archvillan of the scourge has since been tempered somewhat (rather than being the so-called Patient Zero, he’s been downgraded to a kind of Typhoid Gaeten, albeit a more malicious one that the original Typhoid Mary) and Ronald Reagan has been elevated in his legacy as a neo-conservative who did a lot of harm and little good, but beyond that, the writing feels as relevant today as it would have been in the mid-eighties.

Shilts, himself a gay man who was diagnosed with the virus shortly after finishing the book, tracks the early cases of this mysterious wasting disease from the Belgium Congo to impoverished islands nations such as Haiti and eventually to America, then the rest of the world. He talks about isolated incidents of what, in hindsight, were probably the virus but died out due to a particular village’s isolation from the world; knowing what we know now (and even what was known in the mid-eighties) this is a foreshadowing, even more so, reading it in 2017. How many diseases have in the past simply died out because geographical isolation contained them? With modern travel obliterating most of those isolations, what epidemics might we look forward to in the future?

Shilts was deeply damning of Reagan and the conservative politics he represented; Reagan’s refusal to recognise the severity of the disease as anything but the gay community’s problem (some almost gleeful at the thought that said community might wipe itself out with the disease) allowed the disease to get a foothold in the first world, and by the time it had started affecting the ‘respectable’ members of the community, it was too far gone. Shilts recalls how swiftly the government responded to the Legionnaire’s Disease and poisoned Tylenol scares, both of which infected and killed far fewer (and this was by the numbers of the time, when the AIDS death count was in the tens of thousands) but affected desirable members of the community – the wealthy, the respectable and children – so were dealt with in a swift and effective manner, namely with a lot of public government support and money. This goes back to AIDS being seen as a problem of the undesirable members of the community, so it was left to fester, until it was affecting more ‘desirable’ members, by which point it was too late.

He was also damning of the blood banks, who thought it would be too expensive to screen for the disease, and actively campaigned to have references to the disease being blood-borne removed from public consumption, which meant people remained ignorant for much longer than they ought to have been about the sexually transmitted nature of the disease.

Shilts’s last main villianous group is the gay community, who collectively refused to acknowledge the sexually transmitted nature of the disease and promote safe sexual practices. From a 2017, it is heartbreaking to read, over and over again, the attitudes of ‘they’re just trying to stop me having fun’ which allowed the disease to spread. Shilts singles out Gaeten Dugas to reflect this attitude and the tragic consequences of it, although later journalistic evidence has since conceded that not only was Dugas not the one who brought the disease into the US, but his remarkable memory when it came to his lovers is what allowed early doctors and scientists to create some of the earliest databases of patients. (Dugas’s refusal to believe he was sick, and later on his malicious infecting of others, hardly makes the man a saint, he’s just not guilty of all he was accused of.)

I found this book to be engaging, heartbreaking and infuriating – all in a good way. There has been little covered since that isn’t covered in this book, which may in itself be pretty damning, but makes it hold up well as a definitive authority on such as devastating disease and the medical and social reasons behind it.

Somebody to Love – Matt Richards/Mark Langthorne

Somebody to Love, a recent biography of Freddie Mercury, is a fascinating read that wove the history of AIDS into the book. This might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but having an interest in history and medical history, I was utterly engrossed. Richards and Langthorne manage to create an almost unbroken link between the original AIDS-infested primate in the Congo and Mercury, not to mention the six-degrees game between Mercury and alledged ‘Patient Zero’ Gaetan Dugas (which was more like two degrees), although I suspect said link was more creative than reliable.

 The music side of the biography was interesting, looking at Mercury’s life from his upbringing as Farrokh Bulsara and the conservatism of life in India which coloured his attitude towards his sexuality his entire life. Though he had come of age in the swinging sixties, there was still a great deal of homophobia that influenced the way he lived his life, never publicly coming out until he was on his deathbed. It goes into his attempts as a young adult to confirm to heteronormativity, and one girlfriend who became a life-long friend, the platonic relationship lasting far longer than the romantic one did.

 Reading about Queen’s formation and rise to fame reads like a Who’s Who of 70’s music, and highlights just how much they contributed to modern music. Richards and Langthorne were quite critical of the way the remaining members – Brian May in particular – have continued to benefit from Queen’s legacy, from the moment of Mercury’s tribute concert that was more about the big-name artists of the day and not those Mercury had actually admired – Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson etc.

 While there is a decent chunk of the book dedicated to their music and its effect on the industry, much of it was about Mercury’s personal demons, namely his inability to publicly acknowledge himself as gay, culminating in his outing himself as a gay man and one with AIDS on his deathbed; the day before he died, it turned out. Which brings me back to my original point; this was as much as story about Freddie Mercury as it is about the public face of AIDS and its place in popular culture. Mercury, along with Rock Hudson, was among the first known celebrities to die of the disease. His illness and death helped raise awareness of the disease, although we still have a long way to go. The emphasis on the history of AIDS may not interest some, but I found in intriguing and would recommend this book because of it.

This is How it Always Is – Laurie Frankel

This is How it Always Isis the account of the Walsh-Adams family, whose youngest son Claude knew from a young age – young, as in three years old – that he identified, to some degree, as a girl.

 Though it’s a fictional account, Frankel was inspired by her own journey with her son/daughter, and at times it comes across like an idealised account of how she would have liked to have handled the situation. Nonetheless, the story in engaging and thought-provoking, detailing the Walsh-Adams journey as they do their best to accommodate Claude/Poppy’s identity, which includes moving from the midwest (and all the conservatism that implies) to Philadelphia, which Frankel describes as being so far beyond tolerant that straight couples feel like an endangered species. Naturally, not even the most ‘beyond tolerant’ of cities will make Claude/Poppy’s childhood and adolescence trauma-free (even allowing for the usual traumas you would expect of a pre-pubescent child) and their lives are fraught with secrets and a tightrope of decisions that seem like the best of a bad bunch at the time but have the potential to go catastrophically wrong at any given moment.

 There’s a segue into Thailand and its ladyboy culture (which comes across as a lot less shoehorned than how I just wrote it) which offers some great insights into how a country viewed by many in the West as backwards could be so more tolerant, perhaps in a large part because of its Buddhist influences. And there’s a fairytale that author dad Penn has been making up on the fly for over a decade that ties it all up together in a way that made me feel all warm and gooey inside.

 This Is How it Always Is is, for all it’s examples of bigotry, quite a heart-warming story about a child who doesn’t fit into a binary definition of gender and their loving, supportive family. Though mum Rosie, an ER Doctor, frequently reflects on the hate crimes she has seen committed against transgender people, and her fear for such crimes being commited against her child were heartbreakingly believable, I never felt that Claude/Poppy was in danger. Nonetheless, it is an insightful novel about the arbitrary nature of what is considered ‘acceptable’ when it comes to things like gender and identity, and one I would wholeheartedly recommend.

Six Tudor Queens: A King’s Obsession – Alison Weir

To be honest, I find Alison Weir’s work to be a little patchy. I’ve loved some of her work (Innocent Traitor was what got me started) and found others to be very average. I was delighted with the first installment of her six-part series about King Henry VIII’s wives, told from the perspective of Katherine of Aragon, was was looking forward to the second about Anne Boleyn, as much of their stories overlapped and I was intrigued by how different two perspectives of the same story would be.

The result was a little blah in my opinion. There was a very interesting thread throughout the book about the rights of kings – and to a lesser extent, men – in such a time period, that absolute power gives them unchecked rights, and I would have liked to have seen that fleshed out more.

There’s also a fascinating section towards the beginning of the novel about the time she spent in France and the bastion of literacy and education it was for women. In her notes at the end of the book, Weir talked about how she disliked the concept of Boleyn as a feminist heroine, as feminism didn’t exist in the sixteenth century, but that her research had caused her to rethink that as there have certainly been fiery, well-educated women throughout history who held no reservations about utilizing that fire and education. (Perhaps as a foreboding, Queen Claude cites both Isabella of Castille – Katherine of Aragon’s mother – as well as the dreadful treatment of Katherine’s sister Jauna being referenced early in the book.)

The problem, which is a problem with much of the Anne Boleyn-centric literature, is that it failed to capture what was so fascinating about her that Henry tore the country apart and reshaped history in his desire to have her. Perhaps the point is that she wasn’t fascinating, that Henry was a greedy man with an unchecked sense of entitlement who had to have someone who didn’t want him, that Anne was merely a pawn in a game where an autocratic rapist (who didn’t want to be made to feel he was a rapist) called the shots.

(Speaking of autocratic rapists – Weir has long been an advocate of Mary Boleyn’s, claiming her reputation was entirely undeserved. She really goes to town damning both Henry and Francis’s treatment of her, and gives Mary the happy ending of both marrying for love in the end and outliving every member of her scheming family and inheriting the lot.)

Another criticism is of Jane Boleyn – I am yet to read an account which makes sense of her behavior. She lost a lot for her tattling, and every story I’ve read of her portrays her as a vile schemer who seemingly plots for the sheer thrill of it. Either she was severely mistreated by the Boleyn family or she was a sociopath who overplayed her hand, but I’d love to see a novel that fleshes out her motives as something more than a two-dimensional villain, a woman who’s testimony results in the death of several people for seemingly no better reason than petty jealousy.

I actually enjoyed this book, for all my criticisms of it. It just wasn’t as great as the first installment, and failed to elicit any sympathy from me for any of the characters. There are better novels on the Tudor court to read.

Rise – Cara Brookins

Rise, the memoirs of writer Cara Brookings, tells the story of the house she built with her children. Not ‘the house they oversaw being built’ but the house they built. With their own 8 hands. Yes, they had professional help with stuff like wiring that can’t (or at least shouldn’t) be done by someone who isn’t licenced, but a lot of it, the foundation, laying the bricks, nailing boards, was done by her and her children.

Brookings had emerged from two highly volatile relationships, her first marriage to an diagnosed (and when diagnosed, untreated) schizophrenic a heartbreaking illustration of a man’s decent into madness, a madness that threatened his wife and children physically and psychologically. Her second marriage contained its own terrors, but her memories of Adam, interspersed between stories of the house being built, offers a touching juxtaposition of a life broken and a life being rebuilt. On the run from her second husband, she decides to build a house in the woods almost on a whim, an idea that gains more and more traction with her children until she’s talked her way into a construction loan.

A traumatized, inexperienced woman and her equally traumatized, inexperienced children building a house from the foundation up goes about as smoothly as you can imagine… but also with the growth and unity within this down-but-not-out family unit you would expect from such a story. Some moments are funny, some tender, some empathy-inducing in the frustration and and sense of being overwhelmed Brookings often felt. There is often a sense of, having gone down this path, they have to push forward if only because they can’t go back. Brookings’s recollections of building the house, interspersed with her life with Adam and the disease and eventually let him to take his own life, conveyed the desperation of a woman who knows exactly what the road ‘back’ leads to, and makes you understand why going ‘back’ is no option.

In the epilogue, where Brookings reflects on how much they took from the experience, the peace she found with the events and individuals that had tormented her, this passage jumped out at me:

Jada and Drew were raiding the pantry together and I was in the library, listening. Jada was having trouble with middle-school mean girls, and Drew was half listening and half-heartedly giving out mediocre advice. 

Then Jada said something that caught her brother’s attention. She said, “I can’t”.

“What do you mean, you can’t?” Drew asked, angrier than I’d heard him in months. “Jada, you built your own damn house. You can do anything.” 

The book finishes on that note. You built your own damn house. You can do anything. Whatever it is that you built, those are good words to life by.

The Throwaway Children – Diney Costeloe

I was thinking of books to recommend for bookclub, and this one came to mind. It’s been a few years since I read it, so I may be a little rusty on some of the details, but the heart of the story has stayed with me over those years and it remains a book I would highly recommend. But be warned – it may be triggering for those of you sensitive to descriptions of physical and sexual abuse, as its central theme is the damage done by the Catholic Church to the other Stolen Generation – the white children shipped to Australia from the 1940’s to the 1970’s as part of the ‘populate or perish’ policy.

Mavis Stevens is a British WWII widow involved with a greedy, abusive bully, Jimmy. When she becomes pregnant, Jimmy uses this as leverage to get rid of her two daughters to her first marriage, Rita and Rosie. In her desperation to have a man, Mavis allows Jimmy to send the girls to an orphanage, omitting the fact that in doing so, she has effectively handed them over to the Church to do with as they see fit. The cruelty of those running church programs is astounding, the lengths they go to to keep Rosie and Rita from Mavis’s mother Lily comes across as much as emotional sadism as to cover their own backsides so their bad behavior doesn’t get found out.

The girls are shipped off to Australia as part of the arrangement between the two countries to populate the ‘colony’ with white children in a bit to stave off the threat of Asian immigrants. History has since judged the consequences of this plan to range somewhere between begin neglect and soul-shattering cruelty and abuse. The Stevens girls fall firmly in the latter camp, and the description of their ordeal is heartbreaking, all the more for how plausible their experiences were, albeit as fictionalized accounts.

(For further reading, I would recommend the nonfiction Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphries, or the movie based on it, Oranges and Sunshine.)

I’ve long advocated the importance of well-researched and written historical fiction as a means of teaching history – I believe Vivien Stuart’s excellent The Australians series should be reprinted, if only to stock in public libraries. The Throwaway Children is an excellent example of this, although I cannot stress enough how dark it can be at times.

My one gripe is how unsympathetically Mavis came across to me. I don’t know if Costeloe intended her to be portrayed so badly or it was her sole major slip-up, but I felt she deserved every last drop of her fate for the way she had tossed away her children for the sake of having a man. Yes, I got the circumstances, yes, I understand how lonely it would have been to be raising two young children in the post-war years, but I felt no empathy for her, and I don’t know if that was intentional or not.

But overall, I highly recommend this book as as well-researched and written insight into one of the darker periods of our history. (Though between the xenophobia and abuse against pretty much every race that wasn’t Anglo, and the natural disasters, it’s not like were short of those…)

Max – Sarah Cohen-Scall

Max is described as a ‘historical fable’ which follows the story of Max, a child of Nazi Germany’s Lebensborn program. Told from his perspective, it starts from his journey from the womb in 1936 til the end of World War Two nine years later. While that sounds somewhat bizarre, Max’s  narrative encapsulates the indoctrination of such children, starting with his warlike attitude about tearing his way through his mother and his worry that he might not meet the physical qualification to be considered a perfect Aryan specimen. It’s a deconstruction of propaganda from the perspective of someone who has been immersed in it from birth – before, even.

As he gets older, he can’t help but question things that don’t make sense, including his friend and brother-figure Lukas, who is a Polish Jew who can pass for Aryan. It’s typical ‘how can my enemy be so much like me?’ stuff, but the regularity of that particular trope’s use in no way take away from the powerful epiphany that such a realisation can bring about.

It reminded me a little of The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas (and was published after it, so may or may not have influenced Cohen-Scall) in the portrayal of World War Two through the eyes of a young boy. An insightful read about the harshness and pointlessness of war, and perhaps one that could prove to be quite relevant in today’s political climate.

Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome – Reba Riley

Credit where credit’s due, I’d rather read a memorable book that’s memorable for its condescension and oversimplification of complex issue over a book that is so boring I managed to read it three times without realising the second two times I’d already read this, and that’s pretty much all I can say in favour of Reba Riley’s Post Traumatic Church Syndrome.

Riley grew up in a strict religious family, and, as a twenty-something, attributes her break with the church with her spiritual sickness and its physical manifestations. She’s often lethargic, has gut and stomach trouble, is in generally poor health. Must be the universe telling her to get right with a higher power! She hits on the idea of exploring thirty religions before her thirtieth birthday, although many of those ‘religions’ are actually faiths that fall under broader religions. I couldn’t exactly place the timeline, but I’m guessing these thirty faiths took place in about a year.

At least one church leader that she approaches, a rabbi, is extremely dubious about her plan, calls her a ‘religious tourist’ and doubts she will get anything of value out of her flirtation with Judaism (or any faith, for that matter). Never thought I’d be agreeing with an old religious man, but dude has a point. Her ignorant condescension towards the various religions she tries borders on offensive, and if I hadn’t had the empathy I did for someone who is obviously in great physical and spiritual pain (not to mention a contempt for anything that calls itself ‘religion’) I would have found her a lot more offensive.

There are some good points – she finds her spirit animal during a Native American ritual and come to the realisation that atheists are some of the kindest folks you’re likely to come across because they know this is the only life they get, so they have to do something valuable with it – but for me, the kicker came at the end, when all her various maladies are connected via the diagnoses of celiac disease. After a few days on a strict gluten-free diet, she’s skipping around like Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. All that anguish about the physical manifestation of her spiritual sickness and it was… celiac disease.

( I am in no way minimising the devastation of celiac disease. It was just such an anti-climax to the book’s general theme of ‘if I get right with a higher power, all my pain will go away. Turned out she just needed a competent doctor.)

I have a lot of issues with organised religion and put a lot of faith in science. I have no doubt as to how devastating and long-lasting the effects of a strict religious upbringing can be. A book like this should have appealed to more more than it did. I found Riley to be entitled and condescending towards the faiths she approached, like it was something for her to dabble in for a day, week or month and then pass judgement on it like she’d been doing it for years. I’m not a big fan of religion, but the folks who do have faith in it – pun intended – deserved better than such ignorant judgement from the likes of Riley.

Unfinished Business – Anne-Marie Slaughter

Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter reminded me somewhat of Annabel Crabb’s The Wife Drought, although Crabb’s Australian perspective made it easier for me to relate to (not to mention more difficult to think ‘doesn’t happen here’). An academic who took a two-year hiatus to work with the Policy Planning staff with the State Department under Hillary Clinton, she returned to academia both to stay on tenure track and stabilise her family life. Despite the fact the two year hiatus was very common amongst academics on tenure track, she received a lot of flack over her perceived willingness to give up her Washington career for the sake of her family, and she details in the book how, like most things in life, it wasn’t that simple.

The reason I compare Unfinished Business to The Wife Drought is because Slaughter talks at length about the sacrifices women are expected to make if they want to achieve the same success as men – the same sacrifices said men are expected to make if they want illustrious careers at the peak of their professions – while conveniently forgetting (or it never having occurred) that the very reason these men have been able to make those  sacrifices is because they had a wife to pick up the slack at home – managing the house, raising the kids. It’s remarkable how much more energy you can invest into your career if you don’t have such inconveniences eating up your time.

In short, for women to have the same material success as men, there need to be men willing to make the same ‘sacrifices’ that women have been making, to be the one who puts a career on hold to look after the children, to be the one who gives a job without another (better) one lined up because their wife received great opportunity that involves relocating, to do one of a hundred things that says, in actions as well as words, that their wife’s career is a priority.

Slaughter goes into the inherent lack of value associated with caring – there’s a great line about how we associate caregiving with giving but working with winning – as is illustrated by the fact so many careers associated with child raising and caregiving  teaching, nursing etc – are low paid despite requiring high levels of education and a broad skill set (show me a nurse who isn’t equal parts doctor and confidante on top of their actual job description.) She also talks about the double standards you see when men and women switch traditional roles, employs a favourite trick of mine, gender-flipping. Women are still consider smart if they have a working knowledge of a male-dominated field that would be expected basic knowledge for a man, and men are treated as extraordinary if they prove to be competent, let alone gifted when it comes to child-related responsibilities.

It’s a fascinating read that comes back to the fact that much of a mens’ success has come because a woman has compromised on her own dreams to support him, and that any partnership that involves children needs one of them willing to take a less materially successful role, and that the default position should not be that the woman be the one to take that role.

Eat, Pray, Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

I actually read Committed, the quasi-sequel to Elizabeth Gilbert’s East, Pray, Love, first, and found it very thought-provoking. Her boyfriend had run afoul of Immigration so they married and travelled the world while his residency status was up in the air (nice life for some!) and she explored different culture’s attitudes towards love, marriage and family, blowing holes in the Western ideals of true love and love at first sight. As I said, very interesting and so I read Eat, Pray, Love.

I cannot express how big a pile of narcissistic claptrap EPL is. She decides one day she doesn’t love her husband anymore, and is off to Europe to sleep with whoever takes her fancy. Now, please don’t misunderstand me, I am not slut-shaming Gilbert. S’long as it involves consenting adults, you should be able to sleep with whoever you want. But marriage vows (at least the traditional ones that it sounds like she undertook) kinda imply that you DON’T consent to the other sleeping with third parties while married to you, and this is what she was doing to her husband.

Let’s gender flip this: imagine a husband wakes up one day and decides he doesn’t love his wife anymore. She hasn’t done anything wrong, he just wants out of the marriage, to travel and go to bed with whoever he pleases. How much sympathy would you have for him if he started whining when the pesky wife wouldn’t give him the divorce he wanted on the terms he wanted. Divorce is a difficult process when both parties are on board and live in the same city, let alone when one has skipped out of the country, leaving a completely confused spouse behind. Gilbert’s behaviour would receive scathing criticism had she been an Elliot, so I don’t see it as being particularly ’empowering’ just because she’s a woman. I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for Gilbert in the drawn-out nature of the divorce and how much she had to give up to make her husband go away, as I’d have no sympathy for a man doing the same thing to his wife.

Her travel experience are full of self-important indulgences, and it gets worse when she arrives in Bali. She’s incredibly condescending when describing her dealings with the locals, having a colonialist attitude, as if her presence was doing some great thing for the poor, uneducated natives. (I can’t help but wonder what the publicity did for Westerners seeking spiritual enlightenment, and which the Balinese preferred – them or us West Aussies going over for cheap, boozy holidays.)

I can see why this book was so popular, in the same way I can see what Fifty Shades of Grey is so popular, if you believe that Balinese Hinduism and erotica are new things that Gilbert and E.L. James invented. If you don’t, there are way better books on both subjects that you could be reading.