Monday, 14 May 2018

The Trauma Cleaner

The Trauma Cleaner is having a moment just now. It's doing very well in sales, has a 4.07 Goodreads rating, and has won or been shortlisted for many major awards already. I saw author Sarah Krasnostein at the Sydney Writers Festival recently, so I picked up the book in the week before. Of course I didn't finish it til the week after, but I was glad that I'd made a start on it before our early morning session. 

Biography isn't a genre that I take on all that often, I find memoir more appealing I guess. But Sandra Pankhurst, the trauma cleaner of the title, is a particularly fascinating biographical subject. She was born a boy called Peter and adopted into an abusive family. Peter married young and fathered two children before leaving his family behind, coming out as gay, and later becoming one of the first gender reassignment patients in Australia and marrying again in later life as a woman.

Those family factors alone are interesting enough without the jobs that Peter and then Sandra worked along the way. Including drag queen, prostitue, funeral director, hardware shop owner before becoming a specialised trauma cleaner dealing with the houses of hoarders and crime scenes. It all seems like enough to fill more than one life. 

As a biographer Sarah Krasnostein had her work cut out for though, as Sandra is a very unreliable historian.
She is in her early sixties and simply not old enough for that to be the reason why she is so bad with the basic sequence of her life, particularly her early life. Many facts of Sandra's past are either entirely forgotten, endlessly interchangeable, neurotically ordered, conflicting or loosely tethered to reality. she is open about the fact that drugs have impacted her memory. ('I don't know, I can't remember. The lesson to be learnt is: Do not take drugs, it fucks your brain.') It is also my belief that her memory loss is trauma-induced. 
Of course cognitive impairment can happen in your sixties, but it is not just minor details that have slipped from Sandra's memory. She can't remember "the year of her marriage or whether she had a wedding reception or the births of her children or the details of her divorce or the year of her sex reassignment surgery." Major, major life events. In fact, the major events of a life. Sarah writes a very sympathetic version of Sandra's life.
Using words as disinfectants, we are trauma cleaning. Word by word, sentence by sentence, we are reuniting fragments scattered by chaos to create heat and light. 
But nothing here is sugar coated. Not Sandra's life, or her work. The named chapters relating Sandra's work with horders are particularly interesting. The description of the mess, the chaos, the smell. 
I hang back, sapped for a moment by the smell. Hanging over everything is one of two smells (the other being death) that I will discover and come to know during the time I spend watching Sandra at work: human dirt at close quarters over time. We have no single word for it, this smell. We have no adjective to describe how profoundly repulsive and unsettling it is. It's not just human effluence or rot, nor is it a simple matter of filth or grime or feculence of unwashedness. 
Sarah goes on to wonder if we used to have a word for it in "less hygienic times". I found these passages on smell particularly relatable as I know that smell. I really know it. I have come across that smell in my line of work many times. It is indescribable, but distinctive. It was revelatory to consider it "equally the ineffable smell of defeat, of isolation, of self-hate. Or, more simply, it is the smell of pain."

As a young adult I found Peter both courageous and cowardly. Courageous, or foolhardy, perhaps, to wear makeup to work in a flour mill in the early 1970s (even now I should think), but cowardly to lead a secret life while married to his young wife. Leaving her at home with the kids while he went out to gay nightclubs, taking drugs and being repeatedly unfaithful to his wife. My sympathies lay much more with his wife Linda during these sections. Peter is acting as if he doesn't have a family, and he eventually leaves Linda with nothing, and two children to raise. 

There is a chapter detailing a horrific rape that Sandra suffered at work that was particularly difficult reading. I've never read such a graphic account of a sexual assault- that term alone seems inadequate to cover the brutality of this attack, and almost sounds sanitised. Rape is a much more honest term for what happened to her. 

The Trauma Cleaner is mostly told in alternating chapters. Numbered chapters dealing more strictly with Sandra's story and named chapters showing Sandra at work with hoarders (Sarah wasn't allowed to report on the crime scenes). Sandra show tremendous compassion and empathy with her clients, both as a way to get the job done, but also just in the understanding way she treats people. At times I got a bit lost stylistically, but that was relatively minor and didn't effect my overall enjoyment of this rather unique book. 

The Trauma Cleaner book trailer:

A short SBS profile on Sandra Pankhurst:

Monday, 30 April 2018

The Pigeon

When I borrowed The Pigeon from one of my bookgroup ladies a few months ago I'd never heard of it. Naturally I'd heard of one of Patrick Süskind's other books, indeed his debut, Perfume. It was a sensation in the 80s, and I read it way back then. I remember loving it. But I barely remember anything about it. A little, but not all that much. I don't think that I even knew that Peter Süskind had written any other books.

I did borrow The Pigeon some months ago now, and even though my bookgroup lady has been very gracious about letting me borrow it for so long I wanted to get it read. So I picked it up during the Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon this weekend. And I'm so very glad I did, it was simply amazing. Mind blowing really.

The Pigeon is the story of a simple, rather nondescript man, who is really rather unusual. Jonathan Noel is a 50 something security guard working what could be a rather dreary job at a bank in Paris. Everyday is the same routine. Although Jonathan revels in this. He takes pleasure in the "total uneventfulness" of his life. Which is not surprising really, as every significant person is despatched with in the first three pages of the book- his parents to the Nazis, his sister to Canada, and his wife to a "Tunisian fruit merchant from Marseilles". His rather spartan room has become "his beloved".
As a result of all these many acquisitions, the room had of course become smaller still, growing inwardly, as it were, like an oyster encrusted with mother-of-pearl, and in its diverse sophisticated installations resembled more a ship's cabin or a luxurious Pullman compartment than a simple chambre de bonne. But its essential character had been maintained down through those thirty years: it was and would remain Jonathan's island of security in a world of insecurity, his refuge, his beloved - yes, for she received him with a tender embrace each evening when he returned home, she offered warmth and protection, she nourished both body and soul, was always there when he needed her and did not desert him. 
The Pigeon is largely set over a single day in Paris (that's always a good start for me at least). And more particularly on the Left Bank. Jonathan works on Rue de Sèvres, which is where I stayed for six weeks in 2013, so I know the area the book is set very well. Naturally that thrilled Francophile me. Jonathan lives nearby and when he walks rue du Bac, visits Bon Marche (which was my corner shop back in 2013), or walks rue de Vaugirard to the Jardin du Luxembourg (one of my very favourite spots in Paris) I pretty much squealed with delight. I've done all those things, and walked those streets many, many times. I've even eaten my lunch in Square Boucicat where Jonathan eats his lunch. I didn't however watch a homeless man shitting in the street and have existential thoughts about the "essence of human freedom". Next visit to Paris I'll have to visit rue de la Planche, where Jonathan lives. 

The story starts when Jonathan finds a pigeon outside his door one morning on the way to the share bathroom. It is a hot Friday morning in August 1984 and Jonathan is getting up and ready for work. Jonathan was in the habit of listening at his door to ensure that noone else was in the hall, or heaven forbid meeting a fellow resident at the toilet door. That had already happened once, "in the summer of 1959, twenty-five years before". 
He had almost set foot across the threshold, had already raised the foot, his left, his leg was in the act of stepping - when he saw it. It was sitting before his door, not eight inches from the threshold, in the pale reflection of dawn that came through the window. It was crouched there, with red, taloned feet on the oxblood tiles of the hall and in sleek, blue-tray plumage: the pigeon. 
Jonathan's controlled life then spirals out of control. He ponders how he is allowed to kill a person (because of his work in security) but not a pigeon
... a pigeon is the epitome of chaos and anarchy, a pigeon that whizzes around unpredictably, that sets its claws in you, picks at your eyes, a pigeon that never stops soiling and spreading the filth of havoc of bacteria and meningitis virus, that doesn't just stay alone, one pigeon lures other pigeons that leads to sexual intercourse and they breed at a frantic pace, a host of pigeons will lay siege, you won't be able to leave your room ever again, will have to starve, will suffocate in your excrement, will have to throw yourself out of the window and lie there smashed on the pavement...
As Jonathan's life spirals the writing changes. Some pages are completely full of words. No paragraphs, no breaks. And yet this slim little novella (a mere 77 pages) is utterly captivating. I really loved it. It's one of those books that you want to reread straight away, and I think I will reread it this week. Even I can inhale it very quickly. 

I can't remember the style of Perfume after so many years but there are blurbs for it on the back cover of The Pigeon, that compare it to Kafka. "In a manner reminiscent of Kafka in its fearsome triviality and its bleak description of vulnerability." The back cover also says that The Pigeon is on the same theme as Perfume, which they described as obsession and disgust. Although I'm not exactly sure that The Pigeon is about either. 

Patrick Süskind hasn't published anything for over 10 years. He is apparently a recluse. He is German, writes in German, and yet both of the books I've read have been set in Paris. As he doesn't grant interviews I guess I won't find out why. Still I plan to seek out all of his work. I want to reread The Pigeon for a start. I should reread Perfume too. And have a go at Kafka. I think it's time.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon The Fourth

I really thought that this was my third Dewey's 24 Hour Readathon, but it turns out it's my fourth!

We have a 10pm start time in April in Australia, so it's always a bit of a tricky slow start. I made a tactical error with my starting selection I think. I'm so far behind on my #LesMisReadalong and so sad about that that I picked up Les Mis to start. I finished V2B3 in the evening/early hours of the morning, but not before I napped. I should have picked something quicker- Note to Self for November! Yes I'll still be reading Les Mis then, as it's a year long read along.

So some time in the early hours I picked up My Brother's Husband. My first ever Manga I think.  And I got 64 pages in before I conked out at 0230.

So now it's just after 0900, I've been up for half an hour, and about to launch into reading for the day. Which is when I always get the majority of my #readathon reading done. 

1 nap

6 hours sleep
38 pages of Les Mis
64 pages of My Brother's Husband

1300 Hour 15 - entering peak reading time for the Aussies

1 book finished, about to start the second I will finish

1 nap, but touch and go on #2
6 hours sleep
25 pages of The Dress
54 pages of Les Mis
352 pages of My Brother's Husband

1600 Hour 18

2 books finished

2 naps finished
6 hours sleep
19 pages of The Pigeon
25 pages of The Dress
54 pages of Les Mis
306 pages of Long Way Down
352 pages of My Brother's Husband

2000 and into the final two hours

3 books finished 
3 naps finished
6 hours sleep
25 pages of The Dress
54 pages of Les Mis
77 pages of The Pigeon
306 pages of Long Way Down
352 pages of My Brother's Husband

My mind was seriously blown by The Pigeon. Now I don't know what to do with myself. I do want a sprint to the finish, but I'm not sure what I can possibly read. I think I will go with a bit of fashion non-fiction with The Dress, and then maybe try another graphic novel. 

2200 My final tally

3 books finished
4 naps finished
6 hours sleep
40 pages of The Dress
54 pages of Les Mis
77 pages of The Pigeon
96 pages of Persepolis
306 pages of Long Way Down
352 pages of My Brother's Husband

For a total of 925 pages! My biggest ever tally- reading graphic novels and verse novels sure helps get those numbers up. Next time I'll have to try and crack 1000....

Saturday, 28 April 2018

The Happy Life

I've been meaning to read this issue of Quarterly Essay since it came out (in 2011, oops), so when I found the audiobook at my library it seemed a perfect opportunity. I'm very glad that I did. Indeed, I'm always glad when I find the time to pick up a Quarterly Essay, they're always very worthwhile reading, or listening.

The Happy Life was quite different to what I was expecting. Much more philosophical and considered, which if I'd thought about it more I should have expected really. David Malouf starts out with reminding us that it is only relatively recently that we can even consider notions of happiness, and that life for humans for the majority of our history, has not been a happy one.
But for the vast majority of men and women who have shared our planet in the long course of human history, these can have been no more than moments in a life that was unremittingly harsh. 
And moreover, how can we not be happy when "the chief sources of human unhappiness, of misery and wretchedness, have largely been removed from our lives- large-scale social injustice, famine, plague and other disease, the near-certainty of an early death". At least for those of us in the first world these problems really do not bother our day to day lives. 
The truth is that though we are all alive on the planet in the same moment, we are not all living in the same century. 
In a relatively brief time span we have gone from a life spent merely surviving to one where "something called happiness is a condition that we all aspire to, and which, whatever our place in society, we see it as our right to enjoy". I had never considered that a document written in Philadelphia in 1776 would have any bearing whatsoever on whether I am happy in my daily life. But Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence wrote that all men are created equal, "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain (inherent) unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness". David Malouf calls these words "perhaps the most influential of the coming century". Can they really be having an effect more than 200 years later and half a world away?

David Malouf spends quite a bit of time making the distinction between the Good Life and the Happy Life. He argues that we need to feel in control of our circumstances and that as long as our problems are in human dimensions, then we can be happy within limits- he uses the example of Shukhov, an inmate serving out a 10 year sentence, 3653 days (including leap years), in the Soviet Gulags in Alexander Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

I agree that concentrating on problems of human dimensions can reduce our stress, and so increase our happiness. It's basically why I stopped watching TV news 2 years ago after the murder of a French priest tipped me over the edge. We can't take on all the problems of the world. I certainly can't. And it's not just about the major global problems- of climate change, the fate of the polar bears, of poverty, disease and famine in the developing world, of terrorism and idiots being elected President of major nations.  I don't want to know about every person killed by a drunk driver all over the world, I don't want to know about every child dying in tragic circumstances, every family tragedy. I can't grieve every terrible incident around the world. It is truly overwhelming. 
What most alarms us in our contemporary world, what unsettles and scares us, is the extent to which the forces that shop our lives are no longer personal- they know nothing of us; and to the extent that we know nothing of them- cannot put a face to them, cannot find in them anything we recognise as human- we cannot deal with them. We feel like small, powerless creatures in the coils of an invisible monster, vast but insusbstantial, that cannot be grasped or wrestled with. 
But David Malouf entirely ignores many very large sources of human interactions that are all on a very personal scale. The extraordinary pain that can occur from human interactions, especially from those closest to us. The pains of abusive relationships, of domestic violence, of infidelity, of marriage breakdown, or of family tragedy, personal hardship or mental illness. These are major influencers of our internal state of wellbeing and happiness. 

The Happy Life is beautifully written, as you would expect from David Malouf. He made a very interesting aside about writing by hand. 
(I happen to have set that sentence down in the old, slow way by hand. If I had used a computer, I might have got it down in a third, a quarter of the time. But like a good many writers, even this far into the twenty-first century, I find that the pace at which I work in longhand- at which my arm, my hand moves in the act of writing- has what is for a "natural" relationship to the speed at which my mind works and I do not want to let go of a relationship that seems to be peculiarly mine. Writing by hand slows the thought process, allowing thinking to think again, mid-thought, and leaving open the possibility of second thoughts. It has an effect too on syntax, on the way a sentence gets shaped.)
Which is something I'd never thought about but it's interesting to do so. Some years ago my workplace changed from handwritten documentation to an electronic system. While it has some advantages, there are also definite disadvantages. I hadn't particularly thought of it in the context of creativity though, or how the method of notation in fact effects the thoughts being recorded. Another less successful digression was rather too long, and on the subject of Peter Paul Rubens intimate portrait of his young wife. Het Pelsken (Hélène Fourment in a Fur Wrap), now bizarrely available as a doona cover and range of other products. While I did enjoy the art history aspects of this section, I really wasn't quite sure how it advanced his argument- or indeed what that argument was a lot of the time.

The Happy Life gave me much food for thought, but no particularly practical suggestions as to how to achieve a happy life (although I do think I'm working that out on my own). And it is helpful to recognise the Good Life that we lead. 

Friday, 20 April 2018


I just inhaled this incredible six episode podcast, recommended repeatedly by Leigh and Annabel on several episodes of the mighty Chat 10, Looks 3.  As I listened I was mystified that I'd never heard about the disappearance and murder of these three children.

Now that I've listened to Bowraville: OMG I can't believe that I've never heard of this case before. Three (Aboriginal) children were murdered on the same street in Northern NSW over five months in 1990-1991. Three (white) children disappeared in Adelaide in 1966 and I know all about it, and have heard about it for decades. This one? Nothing. Never heard of it before. Is it really because these three children were Aboriginal? I really hope that it isn't, but fear that it is.

The three Bowraville children were 16 year old Colleen Walker, 4 year old Evelyn Greenup and 16 year old Clinton Speedy-Duroux. The bodies of only two of them, Evelyn and Clinton, have been found. Although Colleen's clothing was found weighted down in the nearby Nambucca River.

Extraordinary claims are made during the podcast. That the police refused to record Colleen and Evelyn as missing initially, stating that they had gone walkabout! Sure 16 year olds do run away, but a four year old!

One man, Jay Hart, was tried, separately, for the murders of Evelyn and Clinton. He was acquitted both times. I presume that there has been no trial into Colleen's death because her body has still never been found. Incredibly at the end of the podcast, Jay Hart rings the reporter Dan Box. They have a 45 minute conversation (which is available in full after the final episode).

Look away now if you want to listen to the podcast (and I recommend that you do) and don't want to hear my thoughts.

During Bowraville I thought Dan Box did a great job of presenting a fairly even view of events, and yet it was inevitable I guess that you would think that Jay Hart must be guilty. While the evidence is all circumstantial really, noone else was even presented as a suspect. The police have tried him separately, i.e. twice, for the murder of two of these children. They must think he's guilty. There is currently consideration in the NSW Court of Appeal as to whether there should be a retrial. Apparently a decision is expected soon.

Bowraville was produced by The Australian in May 2016.

It seems I did miss quite a bit of media about the murders over the years.

A 2006 Australian Story Truth Be Told (video no longer available sadly, but a transcript available)

A 2010 article The Mission - Malcolm Knox (The Monthly)

Justice Just Us Bowraville Special Forum

Dan Box is currently writing a book about the Bowraville murders! YAY. Although I was hoping to get through a podcast without growing the TBR. Oh well. 

Thursday, 12 April 2018

Before I Let You Go

Before I Let You Go is quite a departure from my usual reading tastes. I'd never heard of Kelly Rimmer before I saw the publicity for this book, despite the fact that we live in the same, small Australian town. There are a few reasons for this, as I said it's not a book that I'd usually pick up, and Kelly has had a really interesting path in publishing. She has written four books previously, but these have only been available digitally (at least in Australia, and I think worldwide). But she has achieved extraordinary success along the way. She has sold more than 600,000 digital books, and been translated into 20 languages! And now she is being sold in print for the first time. Obviously her star is on the rise which is fabulous news. I was lucky to be able to attend a local launch, meet Kelly, and get a signed copy. 

Before I Let You Go is the story of two sisters, Lexie and Annie, told in alternating first person voices. The sisters had a difficult upbringing after their father died and their mother remarries. The older girl, Lexie, leaves as soon as she can at 16 and goes on to become a doctor. Annie grows up to a very different life, she is to become an intravenous drug user. Then she becomes pregnant, which is the start of the story. These circumstances would be difficult enough anywhere, but Before I Let You Go is set in Alabama where a law regarding Chemical Endangerment of a Child was enacted in 2006. The law was originally intended to keep children out of meth labs, a completely reasonable aim, however the scope was broadened to include pregnant women using drugs, and babies who test positive to illegal drugs, which is not reasonable, not sensible and in fact dangerous.

I enjoyed the alternating first person voices. This was never confusing as the chapters were clearly named, and different fonts are used for each sister. Annie's sections were written in a journal format style in italics as opposed to Lexie's more conventional narrative. For all of her bad choices, Annie was a warmer, more likeable character, while I found Lexie more difficult, full of anxiety, hand wringing, and burdened by the weight of her own expectations. 
You love like that only once in a lifetime - you can love from a place of innocence only once. 
Both Lexie and her fiancé Sam are doctors, and I had quibbles with some of their characterisations at times. There were also some medical errors which grated, but that is probably something that most readers wouldn't necessarily notice- a "BP monitor" on a forefinger, and two doctors ignoring a fever in a neonate. Fevers in babies less than three months are a big deal, and not just ascribed to being a "first cold".

However, I was really disappointed to find that my Australian copy which proudly proclaims BEST SELLING AUSTRALIAN AUTHOR on the front cover was indeed full of Americanisms. There was no attempt whatsoever to modify the language for Australian publication- and every time I read Mom, acetaminophen or diaper my blood pressure rose. This is a particular hobby horse of mine, I realise that, and yes, I know that this is an American story, but it was printed for an Australian audience, it should be published for us. 

My library now has print copies of all four of her previous books (and they are being heavily borrowed which is great to see). All of those prior books are set in Australia, I will certainly be interested to take a look at one of them.

Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Chat 10 Looks 3

I came rather late to worship at the Chat 10 Looks 3 altar- but boy am I there now! I'd heard about it a little bit somehow over time but really leapt into it late last year when it was announced that a live show would be near me in May. So I immediately bought tickets. And then I looked out for the podcast- not really understanding what podcasts where at that stage but I wanted some background so I could really enjoy the live show.

Chat 10 started in late 2014 as a somewhat erratically timed podcast, it's basically just friends Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb chatting about things they've been doing. They are both keen readers and consumers of modern entertainments- movies, Netflix shows and other podcasts. They also love to cook (and eat) and discuss what they've been making for dinner, or for pudding. Which I realise sounds a bit unprepossessing, but it's fantastic. It's like having a couple of intelligent, chatty friends round for dinner and you can't get a word in. 

I've now gone back and listened to every single episode. And loved every minute of it. Well occasionally they did delve into American politics a bit much. Every episode is chock full of wondrous chat, it's intelligent and humorous. I laughed out loud more than once whilst out walking the dogs. 

My major problem with becoming a Chatter is that it makes me want to read, watch or listen to (and of course eat) everything they talk about. And I just don't have the time for it all. The website is just loaded with links. There's a Facebook group that can chew up a lot of time too, but it's an amazing community, and incredible things can happen there. 

So far I have also listened to Alone: A Love Story, a Canadian podcast by journalist Michelle Parise that documents her marriage and the breakdown of her marriage. It's so honest, brutally raw and powerful especially for those who have recently been in a similar place.

I've started watching Chef's Table on Netflix, and I am a few episodes into Series One of The Crown. I've bought Season 1 of VEEP, but am yet to load the disc into the player.

Podcasts are great to listen to whilst out walking the dogs, driving the car, or lounging about at home.
They're certainly having a moment now. I find it rather amusing that what is essentially portable radio programming is the big new thing in the modern world, when we have so much more amazing technology and visual mediums at our beck and call. But they're so very beguiling, and there seems to be podcasts for every taste, and on every subject. True crime seems to be a major theme though. Serial (2014) probably lead to the rise of the podcast. I still haven't listened to it. But now that I'm up to date with Chat 10 I can now cast around and find more. Leigh and Annabel have of course given me lots of great ideas to go on with.

I may be likely to listen to these sooner rather than later:
Dirty John
The Dollop

Or there's plenty of great podcast lists out there.

Wired UK List of Best Podcasts

Esquire's 20 Best Podcasts 2017

Time's The 50 Best Podcasts to Listen to Right Now

The 101Best Podcasts for 2018

And once you conquer the world of English podcasts there are lots available in French.

10 Awesome French Podcasts for French Learners

15 Advanced French Podcasts You'll Absolutely Love

SBS French

Leigh and Annabel discuss their childhood reading
at the Wheeler Centre