All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: A Room Made Of Leaves by Kate Grenville

A Room Made Of Leaves
Kate Grenville
Text Publishing
2020, 319p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

What if Elizabeth Macarthur – wife of the notorious John Macarthur, wool baron in early Sydney-had written a shockingly frank secret memoir? In her introduction Kate Grenville tells, tongue firmly in cheek, of discovering a long-hidden box containing that memoir. What follows is a playful dance of possibilities between the real and the invented.

Grenville’s Elizabeth Macarthur is a passionate woman managing her complicated life-marriage to a ruthless bully, the impulses of her own heart, the search for power in a society that gave her none-with spirit, cunning and sly wit.

Her memoir reveals the dark underbelly of the polite world of Jane Austen. It explodes the stereotype of the women of the past- devoted and docile, accepting of their narrow choices. That was their public face-here’s what one of them really thought.

At the heart of this book is one of the most toxic issues of our times- the seductive appeal of false stories. Beneath the surface of Elizabeth Macarthur’s life and the violent colonial world she navigated are secrets and lies with the dangerous power to shape reality.

A Room Made of Leaves is the internationally acclaimed author Kate Grenville’s first novel in almost a decade. It is historical fiction turned inside out, a stunning sleight of hand that gives the past the piercing immediacy of the present. 

Recently I read Elizabeth & Elizabeth, a book that detailed a friendship between two very well known Elizabeths in New South Wales history – Elizabeth Macquarie, wife of Governor Lachlan Macquarie and Elizabeth Macarthur, wife of soldier and farmer John Macarthur, credited with the establishment of Merino sheep here in Australia. I found that book really interesting and although I’d like to read some non-fiction about either or both one day, I was pointed towards this book, which is a fictional telling based on the pretend discovery of papers at Elizabeth Farm, the farmhouse where the Macarthurs lived after John Macarthur was granted his first 100 acres. Kate Grenville fleshes out the facts with fictional tellings of what Elizabeth might’ve been thinking or feeling during her life time, such as when her mother remarried after the death of her father and left her in the care of her grandfather or when she became the first soldier’s wife to arrive in New South Wales.

Elizabeth arrived in New South Wales in 1789, which is just the following year after the colony was established. By all accounts, Sydney Town was already a rough place (what else could you expect I suppose, in a place to which criminals had been sent). It would surely have been a great culture shock for someone such as her, to come from Devon in England, to Sydney when it was basically still a camp. Her position as wife of a Lieutenant did grant them a house and as John moved up currying favour with the right people their living quarters improved too. As well as Sydney, a colony was being established about 20km to the west at Parramatta, generally considered to be better in terms of soil and fertility. The English early on, spent a lot of time treating Australia as though it were Britain, planting crops that thrived in the motherland and having them not do so well in the warmer climates and less than ideal soil near the coast of the harbour. They also faced sabotage from the local Aboriginal communities, who often burned crops and melted back into the bush without being seen.

In both books, John Macarthur is portrayed as a difficult, blustery man with ambitions of power. This book takes place before some of the events later in his life that lead to him being court-martialled and spending about 12 years back in England on two separate occasions,  defending himself. Once from injuring a superior officer and then the latter charge is about his role in the infamous Rum Rebellion. It is during this time I think, that the farm out at Parramatta (and several others) take off and are grown successfully by her and any managers and they are a regular supplier of wool. Elizabeth is often said to have been calm and even-tempered, a foil for her husband’s more volatile personality and it’s her good nature that kept them in good standing when John was often difficult. In NSW, she regularly held salons to which an invitation was sought after, with music and conversation and high spirits. It’s clear she’s clever and has been quite well educated and in this book, she seeks to educate herself further in terms of things like astronomy. She must’ve been a person of very high tolerance for poor conditions, to survive and thrive in New South Wales in those early days, before the establishment of Elizabeth Farm (Elizabeth Farm house still exists and is heritage listed. My cousin was married there in 1994, so I’ve been but don’t have much memory of it other than how lovely the gardens were).

I really enjoyed this….but I felt it ended a little early. I think I would’ve liked it to continue through the years when John wasn’t there. I understand that a lot of it was establishing the events around their marriage, the voyage to Australia and the difficulties in that and how she found her footing and something to contribute here. But I just would’ve liked to see it continue on through some of those years. Still this was a really interesting read. I’ve found a non-fiction book about Elizabeth Macarthur that looks promising so I’m going to look into that.

8/10

Book #24 of 2021

A Room Made Of Leaves is book #9 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2020

It also counts towards my 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. It’s book #5

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Review: Sorrow And Bliss by Meg Mason

Sorrow And Bliss
Meg Mason
Fourth Estate
2020, 352p
Read from my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

This novel is about a woman called Martha. She knows there is something wrong with her but she doesn’t know what it is. Her husband Patrick thinks she is fine. He says everyone has something, the thing is just to keep going.

Martha told Patrick before they got married that she didn’t want to have children. He said he didn’t mind either way because he has loved her since he was fourteen and making her happy is all that matters, although he does not seem able to do it.

By the time Martha finds out what is wrong, it doesn’t really matter anymore. It is too late to get the only thing she has ever wanted. Or maybe it will turn out that you can stop loving someone and start again from nothing – if you can find something else to want. 

So this was recommended to me by an author friend who had just read it and was curious to see what I would think of it. I’d seen it around, glanced over a few reviews but I honestly wasn’t sure I was in the frame of mind for it. I requested it from my local library and it was available so it came in right away. Curiosity got the better of me, so I ended up picking it up, reading it in and around the announcement that we would be heading back into a snap 5 day lockdown.

Martha is not a well person – mentally, she has had many struggles, dating back to her teenage years. She has periods where she’s incapable of really doing anything and then, she will recover a little, be able to participate a little more in what is going on around her. The book begins with the wash-up of her 40th birthday and an argument she’s having with her husband, who at the end of it, finally admits that he’s had enough and packs a bag and leaves. The book then goes back to various times in Martha’s life: her teenage years, a bad relationship in her 20s, how she came to be with her current husband as well as snippets of their relationship as well as her complex family and the interactions that have seemingly shaped some of the events of Martha’s life.

This is a novel that makes your heart ache. My heart ached for almost everyone in this book. It ached for Martha because it’s awful that someone would live this way, to feel this way for so much of her life. It ached for her sister, honestly the character of Ingrid, Martha’s sister, was incredible and the two of them together are a fantastic showing of unconditional love and support, especially after Martha realises that Ingrid already knows her deepest wish and how it’s affected her. It ached for Patrick, Martha’s husband, who had sacrificed for her and to be frank, put up with quite a lot. Loving someone with a mental illness must be very difficult in some circumstances and for Patrick, it seems like it’s difficult quite often. I think there were times when my sorrow for Patrick was very deep, the more Martha’s deepest thoughts were revealed to the reader. She’s brutal in some of her assessments and there’s sometimes a frank, cold detachment to it as well, which is probably related to her illness. It’s not easy to read, this book, but the writing makes it easier than it probably should be. It’s incredibly compelling, I was sucked into this story and everyone in it.

There’s a lot about familial relationships – the relationship between Martha’s mother and her sister is incredibly complex, as is Martha’s relationship with her own mother. Her relationship her father is lovely and although Martha’s aunt and her husband seem to have varying degrees of success in their relationships with their children, Martha and Ingrid, particularly Martha, seem very close to their cousins. I really enjoyed Martha and Nicholas’ closeness, which I think, comes from both of them being troubled, albeit for different reasons.

There’s a lot about this that I thought was wonderful – the portrayal of Martha’s unnamed illness and not just its effects on her after years of misdiagnosis and various medications, but also on those around her, especially those that love her the most. But there were a few things that I thought perhaps weren’t as well orchestrated as other parts of the book. For example, I feel much of Martha and Patrick establishing a relationship and heading into marriage explains her feelings somewhat (although I never really felt like she had a lot of feeling for Patrick, to be honest) but I feel like there wasn’t much about why/how Patrick had such strong feelings for her. There are times when I wasn’t sure why Patrick didn’t leave sooner, with how honestly cruel Martha is. I know she’s unwell and struggling with many complex feelings and emotions and he clearly loves her dearly but I spent a lot of the book wondering what life must’ve been like for Patrick, in the time before he did finally leave. It illustrates the difficulty and toll taken on those around Martha, like also her father, who made sure she was never alone at one point in her life and her sister, who quite frankly had her hands full with her growing family, but was still a huge support to Martha, always ready to be there when needed. Until she too, finally lost her patience.

This is a powerful read – the back describes it as sad and funny but I didn’t find it particularly funny. I’m not sure if enjoyed is the right word, upon finishing it. But I definitely was glad that I read it.

8/10

Book #23 of 2021

Sorrow And Bliss is book #8 of The Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2021

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Review: Open Book by Jessica Simpson

Open Book 
Jessica Simpson w/ Kevin Carr O’Leary
Dey Street Books
2020, 461p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Jessica tells of growing up in 1980s Texas where she was sexually abused by the daughter of a family friend, and of unsuccessfully auditioning for the Mickey Mouse Club at age 13 with Justin Timberlake and Ryan Gosling before going on to sign a record deal with Columbia and marrying 98 Degrees member Nick Lachey.

Along the way, she details the struggles in her life, such as the pressure to support her family as a teenager, divorcing Lachey, enduring what she describes as an emotionally abusive relationship with musician John Mayer, being body-shamed in an overly appearance-centered industry, and going through bouts of heavy drinking. But Simpson ends on a positive note, discussing her billion-dollar apparel line and marriage with professional football star Eric Johnson, with whom she has three children.

I was never a big Jessica Simpson fan, actually I can’t tell you a single song she sings apart from the remake of These Boots Were Made For Walkin’ for the Dukes of Hazzard movie. But she and artists of a similar age – Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake etc – are my contemporaries and the musical sounds of much of my high school. I did watch her reality show Newlyweds: Nick & Jessica and I remember little about it except some of the very classic things she said, like “chicken of the sea” and “buffalo wings” etc. When this came out, I heard really good things about it and I requested it through my library not long after it was released but because of covid, it took until now to get to the top of the list.

There’s a lot in here I didn’t know, in particular about Simpson’s problem with medication and alcohol. She began self-medicating at a very young age, relatively harmless over-the-counter stuff to go to sleep that on it’s own, wouldn’t be an issue but when taken all the time and from such a young age, eventually leads to seeking out other methods for the same result. After being signed to a label (Columbia) she was told immediately to lose 15lbs (almost 7kg, which for a 5’3 17yo girl is a very significant amount of weight, especially when she was only 118lbs, which is 53kg), which led to a lot of diet pills. They also wanted her to bare a lot of skin, get some ribbed abs, presumably to fit into that 1990s aesthetic popular with pop stars. They also wanted to shoehorn her into a type of music that she wasn’t particularly comfortable with or maybe even into, rather than lean into the big power ballads she preferred. To be honest, it seems like the way the music industry treated vulnerable teenage girls was basically criminal. You’d like to hope it’s different now but I’ve honestly no idea if it is.

Simpson is astonishingly frank in this, both about her childhood as well as her adult life – her failed marriage to 98 degrees star Nick Lachey and the reality show that had a role in its downfall, as well as her various relationships including a toxic on-off one with pop star John Mayer who actually comes across as a manipulative stalker at times. She’s blunt about how naive she was, how unready for the life she was and how she often had no filter and whatever popped into her head fell out her mouth, which led to some embarrassing gaffes in interviews. She also talks about the relentless criticism of her looks and her weight in the media, the constant analysis of her figure and if she had put on a few pounds or lost weight. The scrutiny would be so incredibly damaging to a person’s psyche, that constant judgement and the cruel and merciless comments. Simpson readily admits she piled on weight with her pregnancies and that by then, she had reached a point in which she didn’t really care – she had deals with Weight Watchers in place to lose it before the babies were even born but there was still pressure in other ways – you can’t just lose the weight, your body has to be as good or even better as it was, pre-pregnancy. Before this, I didn’t know that Simpson had also built a $1b clothing empire and it’s something that she’s very passionate about. Her own pregnancies made her realise she couldn’t find any maternity clothes she liked and so she also decided to make her own. Despite the fact that she was often portrayed as stupid and vapid, she comes across in this as bright, funny, personable and self-deprecating. Occasionally a bit ditzy and she’s clearly had to endure a lot of obstacles, including being sexually abused as a child, something which she’s still dealing with now, as well as recognising her dependence on alcohol. She talks about dropping her kids at school and having already had her first drink of vodka from her glittery keep cup and hitting a sort of rock bottom and realising that she had to quit. Her second husband, former NFL player Eric Johnson also quit with her, and Simpson had to reassess herself as she did so. They’d built a reputation as having a fun party house for all their friends and now they had to reconcile their new alcohol free selves.

I really enjoyed this – even more than I thought I would, after hearing so many good things about it. I found Simpson an interesting and casual narrator, she writes this like she’s a friend, confiding in you and I think that’s the way she saw it herself. She makes comments in hindsight and talks about how she wishes she could’ve warned her past self about things. I really connected with the way she spoke about being a mother and how she feels about it and I admire the way she rebuilt herself and started her clothing line. The way she talks about music sometimes, it was like she had her love of it destroyed by the image makeover, the shoehorning of her by record companies into a certain genre but she talks about slowly starting to write again, to make the sort of music she wants to. And the way she talks about it, it makes me want to listen to it and see what Jessica Simpson sounds like, the way she wants to, rather than the way someone wants to market her.

I’d recommend this – it makes for good reading whether you’re a fan or not. And I suspect that for many who read this without being a fan, they’ll become one after this, simply due to the way it’s told.

8/10

Book #10 of 2021

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Review: Dopesick by Beth Macy

Dopesick 
Beth Macy
Head Of Zeus
2019, 408p
Read via my local library

Blurb {from the publisher/Goodreads.com}:

Beth Macy takes us into the heart of America’s struggle with opioid addiction. From distressed small communities in Central Appalachia to wealthy suburbs and once-idyllic farm towns, this powerful and moving story illustrates how a national crisis became so firmly entrenched.

At the heart of the narrative is a large corporation, Purdue – whose owners are celebrated for their sponsorship of art galleries and museums – that targeted areas of the country already awash in painkillers and encouraged small town doctors to prescribe OxyContin, a highly addictive drug. Evidence of its capacity to enslave its users was suppressed. Macy tries to answer a grieving mother’s question – why her only son died – and comes away with a harrowing story of greed and need.

Overtreatment with painkillers became the norm. In distressed communities of ex-miners and factory workers, the unemployed used painkillers both to numb the pain of joblessness and pay their bills. Macy’s portraits of the families, cops and doctors struggling to ameliorate this epidemic are unforgettable. But in a country unable to provide basic healthcare for all, Macy still finds reason to hope that there may be a decent future for people so abandoned by their political leaders. This is an essential book for anyone trying to understand the harrowing realities of Trump’s America.

This was…..eye opening. In so many ways.

The first time I really properly heard about America’s opioid crisis was a piece that John Oliver did on Last Week Tonight. This was one of the books I earmarked when I made a note to learn more about it and I found it both fascinating and also, heartbreaking. Reading from the perspective of an Australian, it’s also interesting to look at another facet of the American medical system and the ways in which big pharmaceutical companies push their drugs on doctors, teams dedicated to “courting them” with free dinners, vouchers, gifts, etc to make sure that their product is the one they have in mind when they reach for that prescription pad. Here, narcotics tend to be a bit of a last resort and they’re much more controlled. My husband has had several very serious and intensive operations – pain management is controlled intravenously for the first day or two, then they switch you to tablets and honestly, by the time he’s left hospital he’s twice been on only ibuprofen and paracetamol and the two times they did prescribe something stronger, it was one prescription, no repeats, enough tablets for one every six hours for about a week. Most of the time, he didn’t even finish them, switching to over the counter stuff or stuff available anywhere, after a few days. There are some truly disturbing stories here of people being prescribed potentially hundreds of serious painkillers for sprained ankles, thumbs, etc.

This book focuses on rural Virginia and the way in which OxyContin, a “new” (in the 1990s) pain pill, was touted as being incredibly low-risk for abuse due to addiction. Literally weeks after it was made available, people had discovered that if they crushed it and snorted it or injected it, that negated the slow-release part of the pill and they got about 70% of the dosage right away, providing a strong high and creating horrific addiction. Withdrawal from “Oxy” is as as bad as heroin – and after a long campaign by parents of kids who had been killed taking Oxy, the company that created and market it, Purdue Pharma, finally added a “blocker” to it, that took away the high feeling. When that feeling dried up, those addicted to it turned to heroin to get their fix. Both Oxy and heroin created waves of overdoses, often amount young people, those still in high school. It changed the mindset about who could get addicted, who this sort of thing could impact upon. That it wasn’t just street junkies this was happening to – but middle class, white, young (teens and 20s) people as well as others from all walks of life. And because it began in a small, mostly poor rural area, it was a long, long time before it was recognised as a problem. And by the time it was, by the time it had infiltrated cities and larger areas, the damage was done.

Beth Macy follows several parents in this, who lost their children to addiction and their fight to bring Purdue Pharma to justice for what they created and marketed and the ways in which they went about doing it. You hear a lot about the evils of big Pharma and Purdue embraced that with a passion it seemed, lacking in anything remotely resembling interest in people dying from their product as long as doctors were still prescribing it by the bucketload. I was gobsmacked how easy it was to score a decent supply of pills for really, the smallest of injuries – for some, it was a lucrative business, selling the pills they were prescribed to addicts desperate for the next fix. There were things they (Purdue) knew and hid, to get FDA approval and in the time since this book was been published, “it was reported that Purdue had reached a settlement potentially worth $8.3bn, admitting that it “knowingly and intentionally conspired and agreed with others to aid and abet” doctors dispensing medication “without a legitimate medical purpose”. Members of the Sackler family will additionally pay $225m and the company will close.” Many studies drew a direct line between Purdue’s marketing tactics and the uptick in addiction, and the company continued to push their claim that the pills were not addictive, when taken correctly. In fact, most of the time executives said the problem was inadequate pain management and that there should be more pain pills used, not less. Now whilst inadequate pain management might be an issue, it’s a separate one and one that won’t be fixed by throwing more pills at people. OxyContin was originally created for palliative care, giving 12hrs free of pain but when intake is not controlled, the consequences were dire.

Reading about Purdue Pharma is fascinating stuff – after this book was published, upwards of 36 states were suing them due to their deceptive marketing practices increasing addiction and how that had impacted socially and economically in many states. Many people didn’t start off as addicts looking for a quick fix and hearing about a new pill – they started off as people who went to their doctors for a legitimate pain issue and were prescribed a pill that didn’t live up to what it said on the box – so they took more. And became addicted. It was interesting to try and understand addiction as a beast and how little those in power often do. A lot of the time, the only rehab option available to people was a “cold turkey” type, with no medical assistance and a lot of studies show that type of rehab isn’t effective for withdrawal from opioids. In fact, according to this book, the average addict would need about 8 years of failed attempts to get clean for 12 months. However the average life expectancy of an opioid addict is just under 5 years. They’re horrific statistics – a lot of rehab facilities are run by churches and religious organisations and they don’t agree with using controlled medications in order to help people detox and feed the craving but erase the high. Most of the time, insurance doesn’t cover a facility that uses medical assistance and these facilities can run to thousands of dollars. That’s simply not an option for so many people. And even when it is an option, addiction is so tricky that it simply doesn’t always work. There were people in this book who had paid tens of thousands of dollars trying to get clean or get their children clean. Some had lost everything to the addiction as well, like a 70+yo farmer who sold his property and basically everything he owned and spent it all on the addiction. It was heartbreaking, reading so many of the stories.

I feel like this book is a great place to start if like me, you didn’t know much about this. It gives you plenty of information but without being overwhelming on science and policy and legality – and there’s so many stories of real people in here that it gives you a real appreciation of the damage this has done. And continues to do.

8/10

Book #5 of 2021

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