A mixed bag

I seem to be incapable of writing reviews at the moment. I’m not going to labour over them. Instead, brief thoughts on some of what I’ve read over the last two months –

On Earth We’re All Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

I completely understand why critics were in raptures over this book – some of the lines sing. And sting.

It’s rare that a passage in a novel will take me completely by surprise, and rarer still that I read something so repulsive that I have to put the book down. Vuong managed both. As elements of Little Dog’s story were revealed, I savoured the beautiful sentences but equally, turned away from some parts. I loved the motifs – particularly how Vuong gently loops back to them at the end; I loved the slightly distant ‘reporting’ style (it is loosely an epistolary novel); I loved the brief references that told a bigger story –

The time with a gallon of milk. The jug bursting on my shoulder bone, then a steady white rain on the kitchen tiles.

But there was also an abstract quality to the story that kept the characters at a distance – it meant I wasn’t busting to return to reading.

3/5 It won’t be for everyone (but you’ll know for yourself after the first two chapters).

(trigger alert: cruelty to animals)

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Beartown is a story about a small town; sport (specifically, ice hockey); prejudice; and loyalty. Themes of justice, grief and loss dominate.  Without spoilers, Backman pivots a number of sublots around one key event and in doing so, shows how deeply a town can become divided.

The story demonstrates how a person’s values inform (and are exposed in) their parenting. In my experience, there is nothing more telling than watching how parents respond to their child’s defeat on the sports field, and Beartown provides lots of well-observed and nuanced examples of this.

The last book I read by Backman was A Man Called Ove – charming, heartbreaking and in parts, very funny. In short, it’s a hard act to follow. While Beartown had memorable characters and a wonderful sense of place, in my opinion, it lacked the warmth and humour of Ove.

2.5/5 Still worth a read.

I received my copy of Beartown from the publisher, Atria Books, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

The Resilience Project by Hugh van Cuylenburg

I had the great pleasure of hearing the author speak (at my kids’ primary school) at the beginning of his career. His message – about finding happiness through gratitude, empathy and mindfulness – was engaging and memorable (I should stress that at the time, the words ‘resilience’ and ‘mindfulness’ were not used as excessively as they are now). However, as authentic as Hugh’s story was (it focused on his experience teaching in India), I remember wondering what else had happened in Hugh’s life to drive his curiosity, his empathy, and his persistence. This book provided the answer. It’s a memoir rather than self-help guide to resilience, and in it Hugh reveals his sister’s struggle with anorexia and how that changed his family. It all made sense.

In terms of tips to finding happiness, there’s not anything particularly new in the book – the appeal is in the way that Hugh tells it (although the section on social media is very interesting and he does suggest deleting Facebook from your phone, and only looking at it on your computer; removing all social media apps from your home screen; and turning off notifications).

3.5/5 The score reflects the memoir element, rather than the self-help.

Your Own Kind of Girl by Clare Bowditch

I assume honesty and authenticity in memoirs. Obviously, I’ll never really know if that’s what the author delivers but in the case of Clare Bowditch, I’m confident – she lays it all out. Her story is raw, packed with emotional highs and lows (i.e. real life), and is also very considered and interesting. There’s something in Clare’s story for every memoir fan – a teen struggling to fit in; disordered eating; mental health battles; discovering a talent; destructive and heathy relationships – but naturally I zeroed in on the grief. When Clare was five-years-old, her sister Rowie (seven-years-old) died after a long illness. The impact on Clare is felt in every chapter of this book but her recollections of experiencing grief at such a young age left me in tatters.

No one has ever asked me how I did it, how I ‘survived’ – it’s just not something people seem to ask children. Maybe we should. Maybe if someone had asked me how I ‘survived’, I would have twigged that th reason I felt that way was not because I’d done something bad and wrong. Rather it was because bad and wrong are what grief sometimes feels like.

I never knew my sister as I know people today.

Grief makes vessels of us all, but most especially, of children.

For reasons that I didn’t then understand, there was a very bad feeling inside me. I didn’t know it was just a feeling. I thought it was who I was.

3.5/5 (the first half was a four, the second half a three).

14 responses

    • I’m sure what was described (in regards to the animals) really happens but I was honestly too scared to check. Either way, it’s burnt in my mind 🙁

  1. I’m sorry to hear you are not that impressed by Bear Town. Very unexpectedly I really loved A Man Called Ove, not usually my sort of book at all, so I’ve been looking forward to something new from him. Maybe I’ll wait until the library reopens and see if they have a copy.

    • Perhaps Ove is a unfair comparison? But, it’s difficult not to compare books by the same author. I suspect Beartown was a little ambitious in terms of how many characters there were – in a way, they were all necessary but at the cost of the emotional depth and warmth? I think I’d rather a story focused on a couple of key characters.

      I have another one of his, and look forward to reading it (I think it’s more like Ove).

    • The first chapter is glorious (the butterflies are referred to at the end, and it closes the narrative loop brilliantly), but the style of writing demanded my full attention, and some parts were really tough to read.

  2. I persevered with the Vuong but was disappointed, probably because I wanted to believe in its premise of being a letter to a young man’s mother and found myself thinking, really? There’s no doubt he’s capable of lyrical prose and writing with beauty, but it left me with nothing that has endured.

    • Agree – I lost the sense of the ‘letter’ at various points, partly because there was a sense of retelling parts of a story that I assumed the mother would know?? (particularly about his mother and grandmother leaving Vietnam).

  3. I am really curious about the Ocean Vuong book but probably not something I would rush to. Thanks for the heads up on some of the issues the book deals with.

  4. My favourite Backman book is “My Grandmother Sends her Regards and Apologises” very different from A Man Called Ove but also has Backman’s humour. Highly recommended especially to grandmothers.

  5. Pingback: History Memoir and Biography Round Up: May 2020 | Australian Women Writers Challenge Blog

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