Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay

‘Everybody has a story and a history. Here I offer mine with a memoir of my body and my hunger .’

This memoir was recommended to me, and when I picked it up I knew nothing about Roxane Gay. I read that Roxane, born 28 October 1974, is the daughter of prosperous Haitian immigrants to the USA. She is 6’3” (190.5 centimetres) tall, and at her heaviest weighed 577 pounds (261.7 kilograms). Who is this woman, and why is her story important?

I found this memoir is both about being fat, and how our experiences (particularly traumatic experiences) can shape our lives. Roxane Gay was raped as a twelve-year old. She did not tell anyone and responded by eating: ‘I ate and ate and ate in the hopes that if I made myself big, my body would be safe.’ While I understand that response, my heart ached for the twelve-year old girl who thought that she needed to punish herself, who thought that by being fat (and therefore less attractive) she’d be less visible and therefore safe.

There’s no weight loss success story here. Success takes a different form as Ms Gay writes about her experiences, about her body and what has happened to it, and how she views it. Alongside the personal journey, Ms Gay writes about perceptions of women, about what is seen as attractive and desirable.

‘Why do we view the boundaries people create for themselves as challenges ?’

I agree with much of what Ms Gay writes about the various forms hunger can take and the unrealistic expectations placed on so many women. Women are frequently criticised for their looks, their weight and their shape. It’s logical to conclude that a woman’s body is her own responsibility. But what does that responsibility entail? I need to think more about that. I need to think about my own response to weight issues, about what is healthy.

Ms Gay writes that: ‘Writing this book is the most difficult thing I’ve ever done .’

I can believe that. This kind of self-analysis is incredibly difficult and confronting. For me, this book is a starting point, an invitation to think. Some hunger can never really be satisfied.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

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The Art of Preserving Love by Ada Langton

‘Edie had a plan. She’d written it in her notebook and once something was written in her notebook, Edie knew it would happen.’

This novel opens in Ballarat, on Sunday 5 November 1905. Edie Cottingham is 19 years old, living with her parents. While some of the local gossips consider Edie too outspoken, too modern and too stubborn to get a husband, Edie’s plan is to marry Theo Hooley. Theo plays the organ at the church Edie and her family attend. He’s a quiet man, a veteran of the Boer War. Edie and Theo form an understanding, and Theo will visit the Cottingham home to ask Paul Cottingham for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Theo’s mother, Lilly, is delighted.

But Edie’s mother dies, leaving Paul with a new daughter, Gracie, and Edie with a new set of responsibilities. How can Edie marry Theo, and leave?

Theo is patient. He’s prepared to wait for Edie. Every Sunday at three, he calls on Edie, with a rose. Every Sunday, Edie refuse to walk around the lake with him. Every Sunday, Theo decides to wait longer. Many in the town are fascinated. How long will Theo wait? Will Edie change her mind as Gracie becomes older? It seems like Theo is prepared to wait for ever. But Theo and Edie are not the only characters in this novel and theirs are not the only stories to be told. Lives are about to be changed, first by an unexpected event and then by the onset of the Great War.

This novel spans the period from 1905 to 1924, and the story will take some unexpected turns. Beth, the Cottingham’s maidservant will make several critical decisions, and Gracie will continue to charm everyone with her delightful smile. Theo will leave Australia to fight in the Great War, other characters will enter the story.

This is not a typical romance, although there are certainly romantic elements. Patience is a central theme, as is a sense of duty and family obligation. The world changes in many ways during and after the Great War and people change as well.

‘A week could be a very long time. It could take from one Sunday afternoon to the following Saturday and a whole life could be lived in the middle.’

There are so many components to this story, so many pieces that fit together. I’m finding it difficult to assemble the right words to do the novel justice. At times I was frustrated by decisions made, by inaction (so often followed by dutiful reaction) that I thought I’d stop reading. Then an image would take and hold my attention, or there’d be a reminder of life in regional centres when two of my grandparents were of a similar age to Edie. And once again I’d be swept up in the novel. Just when I thought I’d worked it out, there’s be another twist to negotiate.

This is by no means a straightforward romance, but it is an interesting (if at times frustrating) and ultimately rewarding read.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

Escape to Paradise Island by Trish Ollman

‘Come to Paradise Island and leave your cares behind .’

Anna, Sue, Bianca and Rachael each see an advertisement for Paradise Island, a luxury resort in tropical North Queensland. Each of the women has a different reason for seeing a holiday on Paradise Island as attractive. Anna, in her early 60s, sees an opportunity to rekindle romance in her marriage to Ken. Sue, about to turn 50, is single after a failed marriage and wonders if she’ll ever experience romantic love. Bianca, just married, hopes that a romantic holiday will help her husband Joel overcome problems with intimacy. Rachael and her husband Harry have not had a holiday alone in ten years of marriage: an opportunity for a holiday without their three children would be marvellous!

Will they all find what they are seeking on Paradise Island? Will a week of sand, sex and sun change their lives?

There’s a lot to like in Ms Ollman’s novel and while certain aspects are predictable, that’s part of the comfort of an escapist read. It’s a quick, easy read, even though it’s over 400 pages. But, like many self-published novels, it really needs editing. It is one thing to substitute ‘ridicules’ for ‘ridiculous’, to have a ‘fibular’ instead of a ‘fibula’, to have ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’ but when occasionally ‘Harry’ becomes ‘Jack’, ‘Lily’ becomes ‘Ruby’ and ‘’Bianca’ is referred to as ‘Rachael’ it becomes annoying. I chuckled at ‘ante depressants’ but I’m fairly sure that it was really ‘anti depressants’. And while ‘making love to venerable women’ could be a worthy objective, making love to vulnerable women wouldn’t be. What do you think?

Does editing matter if the story is good? It does to me, and if it does to you, then you may also find aspects of this novel irritating. Consider this sentence, quoted as written:

‘She’d see a load of different area’s Yellow Pages in Reception and decided she would go there after lunch and look up a Specialist, if they had a Sydney copy.’ (pages 223-224)

The problem for me is that once I start focussing on poor editing, it jerks me out of the story and reduces my enjoyment of it. Not very romantic. But I am keen to find ‘Thingwall Beach’ near Wollongong (although I wonder if it’s really ‘Thirroul’). Ms Ollman has set the book up nicely for another romantic instalment and, yes, I will probably read it.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

Gone on Sunday by Tower Lowe

‘There are no complete secrets in Homeville. Everybody knows part of the story.’

In 1932, Bead Baker was murdered in Homeville, Virginia. There was plenty of speculation, but the murder was never solved. Forty years later, in 1972, Bead Baker’s granddaughter Little Mary is found murdered on her front porch. Who killed Little Mary, and why?

Little Mary’s friend, Cotton Lee Penn, becomes involved in the investigation at the request of Attorney Max Mayfair. Mayfair has been retained by Little Mary’s fiancé Walker because he’s afraid he’ll be blamed for the murder. Cotton Lee accepts the request: while she thinks Walker may be guilty, she’s convinced that there is a connection between the two murders.

Cotton Lee Penn is an intelligent and attractive woman. She survived a childhood bout of polio which left her with a limp and a disfigured leg. Many of the townspeople, unable to see beyond Cotton Lee’s physical disability, underestimate her. Naturally, Cotton Lee uses this to her advantage.

‘You don’t ever keep your place, do you, Cotton Lee? You always try to be more than you are.’

The story shifts between 1932 and 1972. As Cotton Lee investigates the events around both murders, we come to know more about the lives of Bead and Little Mary, more about who might have murdered each of them, and why. The more Cotton Lee digs, the more secrets or partial secrets she uncovers. The lives of members of the Baker family, the black servants who work for them and the townspeople they knew. As the story shifts back and forth, it becomes clear that there’s more than one suspect and more than one motive to be considered. So many secrets for such a small town; so much kept hidden; so many assumptions about individuals based on rumour or skin colour. And a couple of nasty people as well: especially Sharp Dorn, the local minister in 1932. All of this leads to tension in the present, as some townspeople want the past left alone.

‘Maybe the past is alive and well in the present.’

I found this novel intriguing. While I was happy, by the end, to know who killed whom and why, it was the journey to that knowledge I most enjoyed. One of the reasons that this journey works so well is that many of the suspects in 1972 are also connected in some way to 1932, and there are several possibilities. There’s a view here of racism, violence and sexism that is uncomfortable but realistic. Cotton Lee Penn is an interesting character, able to tease facts out of rumour, able to uncover information because most people see her physical limitations rather than her enquiring mind. An unlikely hero.

I understand that this novel is the first in a series to feature Cotton Lee Penn. I’ll certainly be looking out for the next in the series.

Note: My thanks to the author, Tower Lowe, for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel for review purpose.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend

‘The journalists arrived before the coffin did.’

Clad in black, Chancellor Corvus Crow reads a statement to the journalists. He advises that his daughter Morrigan is dead and now there is ‘nothing to fear’. Poor Morrigan: one of the cursed children, born on Eventide, doomed to die at midnight on her eleventh birthday. That’s when all the cursed children die.

And, having remarked Morrigan’s death, the story opens three days earlier:

‘The kitchen cat was dead, and Morrigan was to blame.’

Morrigan is blamed for all local misfortunes: it’s the fate of the cursed children. But worse than that, at least from Morrigan’s perspective, is the knowledge that she will die on her eleventh birthday, just three days away.

Just before midnight on her eleventh birthday, as Morrigan awaits her fate, the enigmatic Jupiter North appears. Jupiter, with his fiery red hair and clad in a brightly coloured suit, has come to take Morrigan to safety. Jupiter is hotly pursued by black-smoke hounds and hunters on horseback, but manages to transport Morrigan to the secret, magical city of Nevermoor. Her family believe that she is dead.

Morrigan discovers that she can only stay in Nevermoor if she wins a place in the Wundrous Society. Five hundred children are competing for the nine places available, and the competition will involve four difficult trials. Morrigan is the first child Jupiter North has ever sponsored in these trials, and everyone is interested in why. Morrigan is sure that she doesn’t have the extraordinary talent required, but if she can’t stay in Nevermoor then she will be sent home where she will die.

I loved this novel. I’m recommending it to all of my friends and family members with children, or with an inner child who’d enjoy Morrigan’s journey. Morrigan is a special hero: a cursed and unwanted child, facing both a dangerous competition and at least one secret enemy. But she finds friends as well, in the Hotel Deucalion, so brilliantly managed by Fenestra the Magnificat. Meet Frank the dwarf vampire (the only one in Nevermoor) as well as some of the other children (both nice and awful) with whom Morrigan is competing. There’s so much to like about this novel: the world is nicely imagined – ‘Step Boldly!’ indeed. I’m looking forward to reading the second instalment later this year.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

Good Money by J.M. Green

‘My bedroom. Population: one. I was horizontal under the covers imitating sleep, when my mobile buzzed .’

Meet Stella Hardy, a social worker in her forties, working in the western suburbs of Melbourne. Stella works with the Western Outer-Region Migrant Support Unit (WORMS) which is short of funds, but not of clients. A familiar story. Stella was in a relationship with a married man. But now the relationship is over, and Stella is finding some solace in wine and whisky. Another familiar story.

But back to the 4 am phone call. It’s Mrs Chol, one of Stella’s clients. Her son has been murdered. Stella heads over to Mrs Chol’s housing commission flat (which she notes is bigger than hers and has better views of the city) to offer solace. While there, Stella makes a discovery which worries her.

Back home, Stella discovers that her neighbour Tania has disappeared. Tania’s disappearance is out of character, but as Stella quickly discovers, there’s a lot that she didn’t know about Tania. Others are looking for Tania as well.

As she tries to both find Tania and make sense of the Chol boy’s murder, Stella seeks the assistance of her friend Senior Constable Phuong Nguyen. From this stage on, there’s plenty of action.
I enjoyed the humour in this novel: who else would have a corrupt police minister launching a new initiative named ‘Justice Uniting Neighbourhood Knowledge with Inter-Agency Expertise’ (JUNKIE) and have a really bad guy known as ‘Mr Funsail’? And, just if Stella’s life isn’t complicated enough, her brother (fresh from gaol) comes to stay.

This is a very busy story, and while I questioned some of Stella’s choices and wondered about how various aspects tied together, I enjoyed the read. Stella Hardy is an intriguing protagonist, and I’m looking forward to reading the second book in this series.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

#AWW2018

Ghost Empire by Richard Fidler

‘The story of how Constantinople flourished into greatness and expired in terrible violence is one of the strangest and most moving stories I know. I wanted my son to have that story too .’

In ‘Ghost Empire’, Richard Fidler and his son Joe take a trip through Constantinople’s history and touches on Istanbul’s present. Constantinople’s history is long: the western Roman empire came to an end in about 476 CE but the eastern Roman empire lasted until 1453 CE, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks and was renamed Istanbul. Like Richard Fidler, I find the Byzantine Empire fascinating. Why, I wonder, weren’t we taught more about this in school? Here was an empire that flourished for centuries, straddling Asia and Europe, an empire of contradictions. How was it formed? What were the secrets of its success, the causes of its failure?

‘Constantinople was an old and exhausted city. It had served as the capital of the eastern Roman empire for eleven hundred years, but by 1453 this was an empire in name only .’

This book is part history, part travelogue, and part reflection on a father-son relationship which (in the way of all such relationships) changes as child moves towards adulthood. These three components complement each other, and the book is more engaging as a consequence. I was reminded that while Notre Dame took more than a century to build, the Hagia Sophia was completed in five years and ten months . Richard Fidler’s descriptions and reflections may be as close as I’ll get to the Hagia Sophia, and I enjoyed reading them and imagining myself there.

‘A love of history can sometimes come across as a distraction from the more urgent business of the here and now. But without a grasp of the flow of events that have carried us to the present day, we are all a bit untethered from our place in time and space, condemned to live in an eternal present .’

At the end of their journey, Richard and Joe Fidler walked along the Theodosian Walls. The remains of these walls are reminders of both the might and the fall of Constantinople. While cities evolve, and empires rise and fall, children grow to adulthood and relationships change. At some stage, the present becomes the past.

Richard Fidler may not be an historian, but he is a very engaging storyteller. I enjoyed this book, with its history and anecdotes. Fascinating.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith