#6Degrees of Separation from Friendaholic: Confessions of A Friendship Addict by Elizabeth Day to Matthew Flinders’ Cat by Bryce Courtenay

This meme is hosted by Kate from Books are my Favourite and Best, and this month starts with 

Friendaholic: Confessions of A Friendship Addict by Elizabeth Day.

Okay, as I confessed in my review, I only picked this book up because it is the starting point for this month’s #6 Degrees of separation. I am glad I did: it took me into a meditation of different friendships in fiction as well as thinking about relationships for people who are not neurotypical.

My first link is to The Group by Mary McCarthy. When this book was first published in 1963, its descriptions of sex, contraception and breast-feeding as they affected a group of eight female graduates in 1930s America was deemed so scandalous that the novel was banned in Australia as an offence to public morals. I was too young to be conscious of all this, but I wonder if my mother read it?

My next link was to My Brilliant Friend  by Elena Ferrante. A different example of friendship: an intense friendship between two women, starting in the 1950s in a poor neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples.

And, while poverty is one of the themes in my next choice, Carmen and Grace by Melissa Coss Aquino, the setting is quite different. Two neglected cousins living in the Bronx area of New York City become caught up in a drug empire. No, it does not end well.

How do we choose friendships and decide which relationships are best for us? If this is difficult for those regarded as neurotypical, imagine how much harder it can be for people whose neurodiversity can make it challenging to read those around them? Love and Autism by Kay Kerr is about trying to navigate around the world when the compass you use is calibrated differently from most others.

Which leads me to my last choice: Matthew Flinders’ Cat by Bryce Courtenay. The three main characters are a street dwelling alcoholic, Billy O’Shannessy, Ryan Sanfrancesco an 11-year-old streetwise boy whose future is at risk, and Trim (Matthew Flinders’ cat). Three separate stories which involve an historical cat in an unlikely friendship between two people in need.

So, these are my connections for June. The links lead to my reviews either here on my blog, or on Goodreads. Very different books involving very different examples of friendships and relationships. What do you think?

Blackwater by Jacqueline Ross

‘King’s father is dying, and we have been summoned to his deathbed.’

We first meet Grace and her husband Kingsley (known as King) as they are driving to his childhood home, Blackwater, on Tasmania’s Tasman Peninsula. King left Blackwater as a young man and Grace, recently married and now heavily pregnant, knows very little about King’s family and upbringing.

When they arrive at Blackwater, they find the house is a large, damp, and derelict wreck. King’s father yells at Grace to leave and King’s twin sister Ruth seems disturbed. Grace was hoping to return home to Melbourne, but after his father died, King insists that they stay to settle the estate and prepare the house for sale.

Things get worse. As she cleans out the house, Grace makes some gruesome discoveries. And some of the locals share stories which reveal Blackwater’s dark history. Add to this the fact that King is becoming distant, and Ruth continues to behave very strangely, and you have all the ingredients of a gothic horror story.

And what about Grace’s baby?  You’ll need to read it to find out for yourself.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Affirm Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

The Way West: True Stories of The American Frontier by James A. Crutchfield

In his introduction to this anthology, Paul Andrew Hutton sets the scene:

‘The history of America is, at its core, the story of the American West. In 1893, America’s greatest historian, Frederick Jackson Turner, postulated that the origins of American exceptionalism were to be found in the movement of successive frontiers across the North American continent.’

While I am fascinated by stories of explorers and exploration, I am saddened by the impact of both on indigenous peoples especially in Australia, where I live, and in America. I picked up this book with mixed feelings but was soon drawn into the history exemplified by the various accounts included in this anthology. I learned, for example, about the Second Declaration of Independence, about the Texas Rangers, and about the trails followed by more than forty-five thousand Utah-bound Mormon emigrants between 1847 and 1869. I learned more about John Wesley Hardin, as well as about some of the intrepid women amongst the Forty-Niners.

As I read, I reflected on the fact that many of the settlements in the American West are comparatively recent given that European settlement of the American east coast go back to (at least) the early 17th century.

If you are interested in the settlement of the American West, in some of the drivers of settlement, in some of the people and events, I can recommend this book.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Sapere Books for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Book 25 in my 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I’ve entered as a ‘Nonfiction Grazer’ and this book should be included under the heading of ‘History’.

The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis

‘A damn good poem.’

I first read ‘The Waste Land’ in the final quarter of last century. I studied it at school, and became a little obsessed with the imagery, with trying to understand Eliot’s meaning. I read parts aloud, trying to get the rhythm that best fitted. Sometimes I thought I had succeeded, but mostly the imagery took me on differing (and often bleak) journeys. When a friend drew my attention to this book, I knew I had to read it.

This book takes us from Thomas Stearns Eliot’s (26/9/1888 – 4/1/1965) arrival in London in 1915 through to the publication of The Waste Land in 1922. Eliot spent six days a week working at the offices of Lloyd’s bank, which left him little time for writing poetry. But, as Mr Hollis points out, Eliot was not working in isolation: both Eliot’s wife Vivien and fellow poet Ezra Pound enabled him. And yet, Eliot’s marriage to Vivien was not happy and his relationship with Pound was complex.

Mr Hollis takes us through Eliot’s friendships and challenges during these years, showing us developments and revisions, as well as some of the health issues faced by both Vivien and Eliot himself. We are reminded that both Eliot and Pound were flawed: both were antisemites and Pound was a fascist. Great poets, with great flaws.

A dense, detailed, and interesting read.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Book 25 in my 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I’ve entered as a ‘Nonfiction Grazer’ and this book should be included under the heading of ‘The Arts’.

I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel

What have I missed?

Okay, so here’s the blurb for this book:

‘I’M A FAN tells the story of an unnamed narrator’s involvement in a seemingly unequal romantic relationship. With a clear and unforgiving eye, Sheena Patel makes startling connections between power struggles at the heart of human relationships to those in the wider world, offering a devastating critique of social media, access and patriarchal systems.’

This novel was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for fiction and several friends recommended it to me, so I picked it up eager to see why.

While the opening line grabbed my attention:

‘I stalk a woman on the internet who is sleeping with the same man as I am.’

It quickly went downhill from there. I kept reading (it is only 203 pages long) just to see where Ms Patel would take me, if the story would move beyond the unnamed narrator’s infatuation with both ‘the man I want to be with’ and ‘the woman I am obsessed with’. She cheats on her boyfriend ‘with the man I want to be with’ while ‘the man I want to be with’ cheats on his wife and many other women.

‘If he could only stop being exactly who he is, we could be happy.’

 I felt sorry for her boyfriend.

I found her infatuation with ‘the woman I am obsessed with’ slightly more interesting: our unnamed narrator is a second-generation immigrant, conscious of the privilege accorded to others.

Yes, I sense the anger, the urgency, and the role that social media can play in fuelling such obsessions. Yes, I can sense the insecurity that traps our unnamed narrator in her repetitive iterations. And perhaps, if I was thirty or forty years younger, I would be more engaged and possibly more sympathetic.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Friendaholic: Confessions of a Friendship Addict by Elizabeth Day

‘Friends are a key component of life’.

I have my own confession: I read this book because it is the starting point for a monthly book meme I participate in (#6 Degrees of Separation). Otherwise, it is highly unlikely that this book would have made it into my reading pile. And yet, once I started reading, Ms Day drew me into her world. Ms Day grew up believing that having lots of friends meant that you were loved, popular and safe.

‘The more friends I had, my reasoning went, the safer I was, especially when my life hit various speed bumps.’

Quantity, she reasoned, was the same as quality. Ms Day’s quest to be A Good Friend meant that she spread herself far too thin. Changes caused by the global pandemic which started in 2020 had Ms Day (and many others) assessing what friendship was and what it meant. This book is a result.

‘It’s never just giving or receiving. If there’s not reciprocity in a friendship, it’s not really a friendship.’

I kept reading, saddened by some of Ms Day’s experiences (including her infertility) and heartened by others. In this book, Ms Day demonstrates that friendship is not static, that individual needs evolve and change, that best friends are important.

A ‘best friend’, according to a study quoted by Ms Day, applies to those friendships with ‘a high degree of attachment, intimate exchange and support’. Those undertaking the research concluded that people with best friends ‘tended to have lower social anxiety, an increased sense of self-worth and fewer symptoms of depression’. Makes sense to me.

I found this book full of interesting insights. Recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Book 24 in my 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I’ve entered as a ‘Nonfiction Grazer’ and this book should be included under the heading of ‘Relationships’.

One Medicine by Dr Matt Morgan

‘It all started when Barry choked on a Hobnob.’

Dr Matt Morgan, an intensive care doctor, explores several discoveries in animal science that have helped human medicine. Did you know, for example, that female kangaroos have three vaginas, and this has informed improvement in in-vitro fertilisation success rates for humans? Did you know that an anticoagulant found in the saliva of vampire bats is called Draculin? Did you know that studying giraffes has been helpful both in managing both asthma and the treatment of brain injuries? I didn’t.

I was fascinated by the story of Casper, a student pulled from freezing water. Casper had been ‘dead’ for over two hours but survived. How? Lessons learned about positive pressure breathing, from African lizards and Brazilian water frogs assisted, as did regulation of Casper’s heartbeat which took into account lessons learned from whales.

Of all the anecdotes included in this book, the only one I knew was Barry Marshall’s research leading to treatment for human ulcers.

This book is divided into four sections. The first three denote where particular animals exist: ‘The Land’, ‘The Air’ and ‘The Sea’. The fourth section, ‘The Underland’ deals with death and grieving.

‘COVID-19 left a legacy for millions, including healthcare workers like me. Through the tough times, the teamwork, the joy and the loss, many working in healthcare, including myself, have now lived through both the day that we were born and the day we realised why.’

A terrific read.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Book 23 in my 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I’ve entered as a ‘Nonfiction Grazer’ and this book should be included under the heading of ‘Health’.

Independent People by Halldor Laxness

I read this way back in 2009, and recently rediscovered my review.

`Independence is the most important thing of all in life.’

Amid the bleak frozen wastes of an Icelandic winter, Bjartur of Summerhouses tends his sheep. After 18 years as a hired hand, Bjartur has acquired his own lease, a small croft named Summerhouses, in a reputedly haunted valley. Here the indefatigable Bjartur experiences the deaths of two wives, attacks on his sheep, the vagaries of weather and international wool and mutton prices, and the loss of most of his children.

Bjartur is inherently conservative and fiercely independent and accepts neither assistance nor charity. In Bjartur’s mind, independence is a singular virtue, and independent people are apparently invincible. I loved this book, but I did not find it easy to read: I found the unremitting struggle of Bjartur and his family depressing. But the words! The prose was beautiful and Laxness’s description of Bjartur’s world kept me engrossed even though I was not comfortable in it.

`And the wheel went on spinning through time’s expanse.’

This is a saga about fate, fortune, family, and the politics of life.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Love & Autism by Kay Kerr

‘Autism is an invisible disability with a long and complex history.’

We all know someone (or are someone) who is neurodivergent. And, regardless of our own relationship with neurodivergence, most of us struggle to make sense of the different ways in which others relate to and manage the world. I think that this is a book for everyone to read and learn from.

The author, Kay Kerr, is autistic. In addition to her own personal story of love and autism, she introduces us to five other autistic people: Chloë, Jess, Michael, Noor, and Tim who share some of their own experiences of being neurodivergent in a neurotypical world. While reading each chapter, I felt like I was part of a conversation and was reminded (yet again) how unique individual characteristics can often be viewed within society as negative.

I was particularly interested in Tim’s story. Tim is non-speaking and has not always been afforded easy access to alternative methods of communication. I was also struck by the impact of labels, discussed by Ms Kerr and Jess, and how easy it can become to focus on the label rather than the person to whom it has been affixed. An added complication is that labels (such as ‘autism’) can have different definitions which impact on perceptions.

Growing up, surviving adolescence, and trying to fit in are all aspects of life that each of us navigates as we grow to adulthood. Imagine how much harder this is for someone who is seen as different, whose behaviours and expressions may not fit neatly within the ‘accepted’ standards. Imagine trying to navigate around the world when the compass you use is calibrated differently from most others.

And what about love? Yes, romantic love is one aspect. But far more important is love of life, love of others and love of self.

Highly recommended.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Book 22 in my 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I’ve entered as a ‘Nonfiction Grazer’ and this book should be included under the heading of ‘Health’.

I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy

‘My life purpose has always been to make Mom happy, to be who she wants me to be. So without Mom, who am I supposed to be now?’

I had never heard of Jennette McCurdy before reading this book and while I don’t remember who recommended it (sorry), I found it a sad but interesting read. Jennette McCurdy was a child actor whose overbearing mother controlled every aspect of her life. But this type of abusive relationship is always complicated, and it is clear from this book that Ms McCurdy continues to struggle.

When she was six years old, Jennette McCurdy had her first acting audition. Her mother’s dream was for Jennette to become a star. Jennette wanted to make her mother happy even though acting was not really her dream.

Yes, Ms McCurdy tells her story in detail and at times with humour. She tells of her struggles with eating disorders and addiction, of her low self-esteem, of her mother’s manipulative hold over her. While her mother was alive, Ms McCurdy was a projection of her desires and dreams, with very little agency in or control over her own life.

I hope that Ms McCurdy finds her own space, her own place in life. And yes, I am glad her mother is no longer controlling her life. As it states in the blurb: … I’m Glad My Mom Died is an inspiring story of resilience, independence, and the joy of shampooing your own hair.

Jennifer Cameron-Smith

Book 21 in my 2023 Nonfiction Reader Challenge. I’ve entered as a ‘Nonfiction Grazer’ and this book should be included under the heading of ‘Biography’.