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.

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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.

Whitefern – VC Andrews

Whitefern, the long-awaited 2016 sequel to the 1982 My Sweet Audrina, takes place following the death of Audrina’s father, Adrian. It turns out Adrian left controlling interest of his company to Audrina, much to the consternation of her husband, Arden. (Andrews had a thing for alliterative names). The book follows Arden’s pressure to make Audrina sign over her share of the company, along the lines of ‘it looks bad for a man to not have control of his business’.

(It’s been a while since I read My Sweet Audrina so I’m not sure of the exact timeline, but I think it’s set in the 50’s. Perhaps it even made sense, albeit in an old-fashioned way, in 1982. But it really grates in 2017.)

Whitefern is basically all about Arden being angry that he isn’t in control of the Adare company and isn’t getting what he wants (a son) and the lengths he goes to to rectify those two factors. A lot of the reviews on Goodreads are to do with how far removed My Sweet Audrina‘s Arden is from Whitefern‘s, but I disagree. I found the Arden of MSA to be a coward who made excuses for his behaviour and justified the actions that had caused Audrina so much trauma through inaction. It didn’t surprise me that the Arden who could behave the way he did in MSA, keep quiet about it for over a decade and continue to justify his behaviour to the woman he claimed to love who he had helped traumatise, was capable of doing the things he did as a grown man with his heart set on owning an extensive business and having a son – regardless of who those things might belong to, legally and morally. It’s not spectacularly well-written – none of Andrews’s work was, and even less so since Andrew Neiderman has been ghosting writing since Andrews’s death in 1986 – but I felt the levels of entitlement, cowardice and even sociopathy that Arden displayed at a young age were presented very plausibly in adult Arden.

This book is definitely intended for fans of Virginia Andrews, but I found it to be significantly better than much of what Neiderman has written since 1986; perhaps, like his work finishing off her other series, he actually made an effort to match up the characteristics with established work rather than write a new novel with new characters that doesn’t have her voice at all. I read the books about twenty years apart, and my tastes have changed since (not to mention my opinion of cowards who cause trauma through inaction) but I found Whitefern to be a very satisfying conclusion to My Sweet Audrina. 

The Dismissal – Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston

The Dismissal is the latest in a long line of works that covers one of Australia’s most (im)famous points of history, the dismissal of an elected government, headed by Gough Whitlam, by an appointed Governor-General, John Kerr, who was largely meant to be in a ceremonial role, at the behest of Opposition Leader Malcolm Fraser.

(For those of you reading internationally, a quirk of the Australian political system is that our liberal party are known as Labour – fair enough, since they were founded on the trade union movement – and our conservative party are known as Liberal, an idiosyncrasy no-one has ever fully explained to me. If anyone can shed some light on this, please do.)

The Dismissal doesn’t really shed a lot of new information on a situation which has been one of the most reported on and analysed events in our history. Rather, it focuses on the different personalities of the major players, primarily Whitlam, Kerr and Fraser, and how the rigid attitudes of each man contributed to a situation that could have been avoided at a dozen different points had  any of them been a little more flexible and far-sighted. As it was pointed out, Fraser most likely would have won the next election anyway, to push the matter and create so much division, even forty years later, was a huge price to pay for an extra few months in power.

Whitlam and Kerr don’t escape criticism either, the former being to wrapped up in his vision for Australia to see what was happening and how little compromise it would take to avoid it (among others, Bill Hayden, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating all saw Kerr’s treachery coming) and the latter being self-serving and cowardly – he acknowledges he should have given Whitlam fair warning of his actions, but to do so would have got him dismissed himself. (The irony!) Kelly and Bramston acknowledge that while Kerr took the lion’s share of the blame for the events, all three men were to blame, not to mention a political system whose exploited flaws have never been addressed. (The reserve powers of the Governor-General remain to this day.)

It closes with a postscript as to what happened to all the main ‘characters’- all three men are now dead – as well as the thoughts of every Prime Minister since, including Malcolm Turnball. It’s fascinating to read how divisive the event remains in our political history, and having read it, I have a much better understanding of why this book was filed under 320 (polical science) and not 990 (Australian history).

A Fighting Chance – Elizabeth Warren

US Senator Elizabeth Warren’s autobiography Fighting Chance is a very engaging read, and goes into her childhood and career as a lawyer and advocate for the vulnerable members of society and how those experienced made her the woman she is today. The early section of the book looks at her parent’s struggles to stay solvent, and how little safety net there is the the US job market and welfare system (and this was growing up in the 60’s – she acknowledges how much cheaper university was for her) to her young marriage and motherhood and coming to the realisation that she simply wasn’t cut out to be a stay-at-home wife and mother. Some of her adventures in cooking – or at least, attempting to cook, two vastly different things given Warren’s impressive ability to set the kitchen on fire with a toaster – are told humorously and and unapologetically. Warren is not the least bit sorry she isn’t hardwired to play the traditional wife and mother.

Law and justice have always been passions of hers, and a significant portion of the book focuses on her fight with the Big Banks over underhanded and illegal activities that, in her mind, caused the 2008 GFC as well as destroyed thousands, if not millions of lives targeting the most financially vulnerable members of society with difficult-to-understand jargon, false promises and outright lies, while those who did the damage got off scot-free. A lot of her political career happened by accident, and as she didn’t much care what Washington insiders thought of her, she felt she had nothing to lose by being true to herself and the causes she was passionate about, and her determination has paid off impressively in the face of fierce opposition.

Reading her autobiography has helped me better understand why so many Americans are pinning their hopes on her for 2020 after such a contentious election (not that I doubt a strong-willed women, independent of most of the allegiances you would expect to find of a career politician, will create her own set of controversies). She makes me think of another trust-busting* politician who Big Finance did everything they could to stop, and in the end only made stronger, a certain Mr. Theodore Roosevelt.

*Of the Big Finance kind, not the public kind

Moranifesto – Caitlin Moran

Such a enjoyable book, a collection of thoughts, opinions, words of wisdom and the occasional fanwank (which, given it was in regards to Benedict Cumberbatch, I didn’t mind in the slightest) from English journalist, broadcaster and reporter Caitlin Moran. She covers a range of topics, including feminism, politics, social welfare (Moran was a working-class child in the Thatcher era) celebrity, pop culture, feminism, David Bowie, technology, social media, feminism and a delightful entry about Elizabeth Taylor and her jewels that had me both chuckling and yearning for an era where the Taylors of the world were equal parts glamour and vulgarity and dared you to tell them the two were mutually exclusive.

If it wasn’t obvious from the first paragraph, Moran is an unrepentant, colours-to-the-mast women’s libber (though in all fairness, she has a strong social conscience when it comes to other put-upon groups, including the LGBT community and stateless refugees) But don’t let that put you off; her sense of humour shines through that makes it relatable, perhaps, even, piquing a reader’s interest into picking up something more in-depth, which is for another post.

This was a very engaging book and really deserving of a longer review, but all I can say is buy or borrow it and enjoy it for yourself. I’ll close with a quote from her which is very relevant for me at the moment, in a postscript she wrote for her daughter:

The main thing is just to try to be nice. Keep turning it up, slowly, like a dimmer switch, whenever you can. Just resolve to shine, constantly and steadily, like a warm light in the corner, and people will want to move towards you in order to feel happy, and to read things more clearly. You will be bright and constant in a world of dark and flux.

Anne and Henry – Dawn Ius

I was really looking forward to an atrocious book, and was actually rather disappointed. Anne and Henry, the modern day retelling of the story of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, set in an American High School, was decided blehh, although somewhat excruciatingly awkward when it came to its attempt to update such a setting.

As a stand-alone novel, it is decidedly ok, typical spoilt teenagers behaving badly. It’s in the adaptation that it becomes cringe-worthy. The ‘characters’ simply don’t translate well in a modern setting. Tudor England was a deeply patriarchal culture, no better exemplified in Henry VIII, a totalitarian who had all-say in what was done in his kingdom. In a society when even the smartest and most ambitious woman could only attach herself to a man she hoped was as smart and ambitious as she was (and that he wouldn’t take the credit for all her ideas and shove her in a nunnery when he got bored), you can understand why someone like Anne Boleyn focused her intellect, ambition and sensuality on the highest prize in the land – a crown. And you can understand why so many courtiers were just as focused in dragging her down and installing their own girl in her place.

The concept simply doesn’t translate well in a modern setting. A woman with Anne’s abilities in today’s culture wouldn’t be satisfied with being the accomplished girlfriend of the real star; she would want to be a star in her own right. Ius’s Anne doesn’t even seem too concerned with Henry’s wealth and desirability and likes/loves him for himself. She has a back story of being abused and exploited by a series of men, including her sister Mary’s boyfriend, who sounded kinda sociopathic to be honest, and ended up in an institution after she caught Anne and her boyfriend together. (The real Mary Boleyn outlived both her siblings as well as their parents, and lived her remaining years in wealth and happiness to her second husband, a love match.)  I think the point was that men love to pursue women and twist the story around to make the woman look like the bad guy but it all seemed rather pointless and soapie to me.

Katherine Aragon has turned into a rich-bitch-scorned type character who persecutes and humiliates Anne for daring to go out with Henry after he had broken up with her. She and her gang of rich, spoilt kids behaving badly set Anne up (who’s main crime seems to be a tendency towards drinking too much in times of crisis – utterly not what the real Boleyn would have done) to be dumped by Henry and kicked out of school. I think the Katherine character is the most obvious way the story fails to translate into a modern high-school setting, because Katherine of Aragon was, by the time Anne came along, a middle-aged woman who had sacrificed her youth and health trying to have a son, not to mention kept England afloat with her military mind and diplomatic ties. That Katherine had every right to be pissed about being dumped. Ius’s Katherine is closer to Katherine Howard.

As I said the story itself was an average rich-kids-behaving-badly story. (Speaking of high-school retellings, it reminded me a little of Cruel Intentions.) It’s the subject matter that makes it awkward to read because so many of the personalities that stood out in medieval times don’t have a place in modern society.

At least Anne got to live, walking out before they could officially expel her and doing some damage on her motorcycle on her way out. I can’t help but hope that Anne  went on to do great things that made Henry, Katherine, et al, look even smaller than they were.

The Santangelos – Jackie Collins

A Facebook memory reminded me of how much I hated Jackie Collins’s last novel, although I have since come to the conclusion that either the chemo had turned her brain to mush or, like the Harper Lee conspiracy theory, she was bullied into it by a greedy ‘carer’ in her vulnerable final months. It really was an extremely disappointing end to an engaging series that, while it had been flagging in its last few installments, did not end to deserve on such a blehhh note.

Lucky Santangelo is still her typical bad-ass, and that’s where the resemblance to the rest of the series ends. Paige, who Lucky previously had an excellent, part-maternal, part-sisterly relationship with, has morphed into a gold-digger who shares a mutual loathing with her step-daughter and her previous healthy, curious bisexuality has morphed into something depraved. I was half-waiting for the dogs and peanut butter to come out. Naturally, in the epilogue, she meets a depraved end fitting her depraved lifestyle.

And Venus? Remember Venus? Feisty, whip-smart chameleon who changed from day to day into whoever she felt like being that moment? Fun, canny Venus who was profoundly insightful as to the double standards of Hollywood, and society at large, who had made a lot of sacrifices to be true to herself but was happy with those sacrifices, if not the society that said she (but not any of her husbands or lovers or her bludging brother) had to make them? That Venus has become a woman who moulds herself to whatever her current man desires. It comes across a lot worse in the book than how I just wrote it.

And Gino. I knew Collins would eventually kill Gino off – the guy had to be pushing a hundred and hadn’t been hugely relevant to the story for half the series. But I was hoping he might at least be afforded the dignity of a brave death – perhaps facing down a mountain lion that was threatening his grandchildren? Something very Gino-ish like that, who was as loyal and brave as he was fierce and bad-ass – after all, he was Lucky’s father, she had to learn it from somewhere. But instead, he gets shot in the back and much of the novel meanders through figuring out whodunit (while interjecting sadsack no-identity Venus and gold-digging Paige.)

Spoiler alert: it was some far-flung Bonatti relative. I think they imported the guy from Italy. Seriously, at what point of half a century of the Santangelos wiping our any Bonatti who came their way should they have stopped and thought, hey, this feud started before any of us were born, everyone who’s tried to kill them has ended up dead themselves, the pile of bodies is entirely on our side, maybe we should give up and live in peace with them? Every time a Bonatti shows up, their motivation is even flimsier than the previous installment. I actually got it when it was about Enzio and his sons (why wasn’t Donatella all, ‘Score, the Santangelos woman got rid of my abusive husband for me!’?) but after that that it was like, what do these people hope they’re trying to achieve that a dozen people before them failed to???

You know what would have been a great read?  A book where Lucky breaks the REAL Paige and Venus out of wherever they’ve been stashed and the three women go on to annihilate their doppelgangers.I want THAT book. Joan, for the love of God and your sister’s memory, PLEASE write that book. I’m willing to forget The Santangelos ever happened if you do.