Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me, by Lily Collins

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_unfilteredLily Collins is a popular actress and Instagram star who has just released her autobiography. Her book, Unfiltered, is a series of essays about her life. There is a particular emphasis on relationships, being true to yourself and her early years.

As I was unfamiliar with her work this was a completely fresh introduction to Lily Collins and I found her writing very easy to read. Lily has written one essay about her father (the musician Phil Collins) and her relationship with her mother, who mostly raised her, flows through the other essays. Most interesting is her determination – she decided teen magazines needed actual teen input and through a lot of work talked her way into a regular column in ELLE Girl magazine. This lead to other freelance work (while still in her teens) for Teen Vogue and other publications. This lead to TV journalism work – and from there to acting. It is a really interesting story.

Like many essay collections, it suffers from a lack of cohesion. It felt like many subjects were not discussed in depth, or conflicted with information previously discussed. One chapter discussed an abusive relationship – but the vagueness of detail lessened the impact – it was mentioned obliquely, then she moved on.

As a structure for an autobiography it made for somewhat disjointed reading. It is a shame, as there were some interesting events and experiences that might have made more sense in a more traditional chronological format.

Her main point in the book is to be yourself. This fits with her main charity focus – peer support and bullying prevention. Lily was involved in peer support programmes as a student and has been involved in youth advocacy for counselling centres. It is always nice to hear people’s accounts of what they remembered (and used) from High School days. She is also involved in ‘We day’ – a children’s advocacy charity.

At the end of the book there are links to resources to deal with issues raised in the book. I note this because the book deals with eating disorders and relationship violence. For this reason I would recommend the book for older teenagers.

Reviewed by Emma Rutherford

Unfiltered: No Shame, No Regrets, Just Me
by Lily Collins
Published by Ebury Press
ISBN 9781785034107

Book Review: Peak. Reinventing Middle Age, by Patricia and Don Edgar

Available in bookshops nationwide.

cv_Peak_reinventing_middle_age.jpgHaving recently turned 60, I have been interested in the changing perceptions of what middle age is. My father retired at 60 and has been an active member of a rural community for 30 years. While he still farms, his community involvement has finally ebbed away, but he just turned 91.

So do we need to change the categories of middle and old age? According this book, the answer is an overwhelming yes.

Patricia and Don Edgar are in their late 80s. This Australian couple explore the key aspects of aging in the first part of the book. This includes perceptions of middle age, family, work, housing, learning and alternative work. I was impressed by their research and the evidence they provided both on the current situation and on what the future looks like. As the Baby Boomers reach their mature years there are implications across all aspects of society.

I know that my own community has wonderful examples of older people making valuable contributions in the paid and voluntary workforces. Likewise, education, travel and recreation are firmly on the agenda for those wishing to pursue life after retirement.

The call made by the Edgars is for government to start planning alternatives to the traditional views of old age, such as encouraging employers to continue a different work model, where the experience of older workers is matched with reduced hours and mentoring programmes. Continuing to work contributes to taxes and engagement in work allows a longer more productive old age.

The second part of the book is a collection of life stories. These were superb little vignettes. Each story explores the possibilities for living a rich and varied life into and beyond middle age. These people are not heroes. They are tales of ordinary people doing extraordinary things.

My copy of Peak is about to have its own long and varied life. I have friends and family lined up and we will make an action plan to follow.

Watch this space..

Reviewed by Kathy Watson

Peak. Reinventing Middle Age
By Patricia and Don Edgar
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925355963

Book Review: I Don’t Have Time, by Audrey Thomas and Emma Grey

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_I_don't_have_time.jpgIt took quite a long time to read this book, rather ironically, because it contains material that needs to be well thought over. It is written, according to Audrey and Emma, the authors, for ‘women of a certain age, splashing dramatically in a sea of self-inflicted over-commitment’ who need to realise that they do have time to do the things that will add satisfaction to their lives. The sub title of the book is “15 -minute ways to Shape A Life You Love”.

A quick flick through it offers some quick-flick ideas common to self-help literature, and this book fits into that genre. But a deeper reading reveals that Audrey and Emma have lived much of what they write about. It has an honesty about it which appeals and which prevents the material from being slick or glib. As some other reviewers noted, this is ‘a time management book for real people by real people.’

It’s a book that not only encourages us to look for ways to engage in activities that we enjoy, but gives us the motivation and energy to do so by recounting the success of others, detailing their efforts and their thoughts. It covers areas of life that matter most to us, exploring the excuses we make to keep us from achieving happiness and satisfaction. I enjoyed it even though I felt older than the intended readers (it is primarily, but not exclusively, written for the younger woman overwhelmed by the pressures and self-inflicted commitments of career building, child-rearing and home-making), because it enabled me to see how I’d managed my life through that time, and feel a little smug that I’d come through it reasonably well-adjusted.

Having said that, I enjoyed it also because of its approach. It appeals to the person we are, to the humanity we share and to the burdens and problems we suffer under, and it offers solutions that we can see will work.

Reviewed by Lesley Vlietstra

I Don’t Have Time
by Audrey Thomas and Emma Grey
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781775593218

Book Review: A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work, by Bernadette Brennan

cv_a_writing_lifeAvailable in selected bookshops nationwide.

The litmus test of a good book about a writer is whether reading it makes me want to revisit the subject’s work – and visit the works I haven’t yet. Bernadette Brennan’s A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work does both in spades.

Brennan, an academic and researcher in contemporary Australian literature, approached the prospect of mapping the landscape that created Garner, author of some of Australia’s most contentious and beloved writing, with understandable nervousness – shared by Garner herself:

‘She established at the outset that she did not want a biography. I did not wish to write one, but I knew that the intersection and overlap of her life and art made discussion of the biographical essential to understanding her work. Garner gave me access to the NLA [National Library of Australia] files, but went further in answering every query that I have put to her. She has admitted to anxious rumblings about this book.’

But Garner’s work itself is so closely tied to her own life that it’s impossible not to read any discussion of her forty years of writing alongside one of her personal history; her fiction and non-fiction both tap into her own experience, sometimes revisiting the same situation or character over and over again, tilting the mirror or camera slightly for a different angle on the same scene. Brennan was given full access to the NLA archives, Garner’s diaries and Garner herself. One of the main resources from the archives, setting the scene for Part I of A Writing Life, are the ‘Letters to Axel’. Garner was a prolific letter writer and shared everything with Axel, her companion and confidante from a young age:

‘As a twenty-year-old, Helen joked to Axel Clark: ‘One day these letters will be famous¬ – “The Life, Loves and Letters of Helen Ford [her name before marrying writer and actor Bill Garner]”. She envisaged neither her fame nor that Axel would keep and later archive her early correspondence.’

‘Famous for her letters, postcards and, more recently, her emails and texts’, Garner is notoriously self-interrogating, the letters and her own journal entries revealing anguish over the publication of her first novel, Monkey Grip – now considered an Australian classic, it’s a thinly veiled self-portrait of a life of share houses and shared parenting in inner city Melbourne in the ‘70s – as well as her trajectory in the Australian lit scene following the sudden success and dissection of that book. That trajectory has not always been upwards, and Brennan goes deep into the controversies that have dogged Garner and in turn been subject to dogged unpacking by her on the page, in fiction and non-fiction.

Garner ‘redefined and shaped literary genres to accommodate her material’, she’s a novelist, journalist, scriptwriter, lyricist and essayist, and a boundary-crosser whose championing of interior lives and the domestic sphere in turn suggested a structure for Brennan’s book, where ‘each chapter, dedicated primarily to literary analysis, can be read as a room describing Garner’s house of writing’. Brennan uses this framework to walk through the ‘rooms’ of Garner’s literary house, considering her work along the way: from Monkey Wrench to Everywhere I Look. It’s a comprehensive and compelling way to travel through an exceptional quantity of material, and, fittingly, the bookend to this story is that Everywhere I Look won the best non-fiction category at the Indie Book Awards shortly after publication of A Writing Life.

Now I’m off to re-read Monkey Grip, which I haven’t read since I too lived in a house in inner city Melbourne, and I expect I might spend the next few months walking through the rest of Helen Garner’s house.

Reviewed by Mitch Marks

A Writing Life: Helen Garner and Her Work
by Bernadette Brennan
Published by Text Publishing
ISBN 9781925410396

Book Review: A Crime in the Family, by Sacha Batthyany

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_a_crime_in_the_familyThis book was an intriguing choice from the review pile. The author, Sacha Batthyany, is a journalist, born in Switzerland to Hungarian parents. He belongs to a once aristocratic, wealthy and powerful Hungarian family who lost everything in the Second World War, and in the Communist takeover immediately afterwards. Like many wealthy families, his grandmother’s family chose to flee, in this case to Switzerland. Sometime before the war, his great uncle, Count Batthyany, had married Margit Thyssen-Bornesmisza, sister of Baron Thyssen-Bornesmisza, billionaire Swiss industrialist and famous art collector, and they lived in the castle the family owned in Rechnitz, a town near the Austrian-Hungary border.

Quite by chance, around 2007, Sacha found out that Margit was involved in a massacre of 180 Jews that took place while she was hosting a party one night towards the end of the war at the family castle. Amongst the guests were German aristocrats and SS officers, as well as local officials. This is the first he has heard of such an appalling event, naturally he must find out more, and so his journey begins, the result of which is this memoir.

Once I had finished reading this book, I tracked down via Google what may be the original article that propelled Sacha into investigating and answering the questions about his family’s past. It is clear that the writer of the article, David Litchfield, does not have a high opinion of Sacha Batthyany, but that is another story and just as intriguing as this book. Links to the article and the writer of it are at the bottom of this review.

After so many years, so much death, records destroyed or altered, so many people refusing to speak, it is very hard to know what is the truth and what isn’t. Hungary being behind the Iron Curtain for so long has not helped the dissemination of information, and with virtually no-one from that time still alive, maybe the truth will never come out. However, this does not detract at all from a most interesting and at times very emotional journey that the author must take to track down what his family members did or did not do.

Sacha has a number of sources in his search. Firstly, his father is still alive, and as a small boy lived in the castle, although too young to remember what happened in 1944. He is most reluctant to speak about what happened, the rumours, any coverup. Sacha’s grandmother, Maritta, kept a diary during the terrible war years, and it is in reading this that Sacha comes across another tragic and violent episode involving a local Jewish family. Sacha again has to question everything he has heard about his family and what went on during those years.

His investigations uncover the daughter of the Jewish family, Agnes, now very elderly and living in South America with her own daughters. She was a friend of Sacha’s grandmother and also kept a diary during the war years, survived Auschwitz and its aftermath, but never knew what had happened to her parents or her brother. The family very generously allow Sacha to read the diaries, and eventually he is able to return to Agnes and tell her exactly what happened to the rest of her family.

Secrets, secrets and more secrets. As the years pass, the survivors of the war years are dying. In many cases they take the secrets of what happened to them, to their communities, betrayals, good deeds and bad, to the grave with them. It was a truly terrible time, and who can blame them for wanting to bury it all as deep as they can. That their children and now grandchildren are beginning their own investigations is producing many many books of this ilk such as The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Vaal. Sacha Batthyany is clearly very troubled about what his family did or omitted to do during the war, and the veil of silence he appears to keep coming up against is difficult for him to bear.

This book is as much about the author’s journey of discovery as it is about what actually happened. At least two trips to the town of Rechnitz, one with his elderly and reluctant father, another to Buenos Aires, and weekly visits with his psychoanalyst are all carefully documented. He actually struggles more with what happened to Agnes’s family than he does the massacre. This may be because the massacre has been well-documented, accurately or otherwise, but the deaths of Agnes’s parents not at all. His ‘family’ guilt almost consumes him, and as annoying as I found them, the weekly sessions with Dr Strassberg have their own reveal.

Sacha Batthyany is just one of many thousands of descendants of people who have lived through terrible times such as the Second World War. There will be many, many other stories such as what he has uncovered, and it is good that we get to hear of them, wondering what we would ourselves do in such situations that aren’t really all that long ago. For these reasons alone it is worth reading, and I am putting this into my book club, because I know it will lead to all sorts of discussions.

Reviewed by Felicity Murray

A Crime in the Family
by  Sacha Batthyany
Published by Quercus
ISBN 9781786480552

Book Review: 101 Ways to Live Well, by Victoria Joy and Karla Zimmerman

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_101_ways_to_live_wellDoes the world need another little self-care book? I’m not entirely convinced, although if you’d like something positive to dip into during somewhat turbulent times (Quakes! Deadlines! Trump!) this book might appeal.

The authors suggest that these bite-size tips are perfect for commute time, a lunch break, or even the checkout queue. There’s a tiny wee clock on each page indicating how long each activity is likely to take. Times range from 30 seconds – to take a deep mindful breath and refocus – to 2 hours to ‘watch a mindful movie’. Mix it up a bit: take 1 minute (to wash your hands and ‘win the germ war’!), 20 minutes, for a Sun Salutation yoga practice to ‘get the blood flowing…and awaken the whole body’, or a leisurely 30 minutes to listen to music to ‘improve your mood and confidence’. Most activities take around 5 minutes: realistic and manageable. My favourite tip? How to ease a headache by a gentle hair-pulling technique that reduces tension.

The page layout takes you straight to the point – a snappy title at the top of each page, followed by a summary of the activity or tip, within a circle. Below, a single paragraph telling you everything else you need to know. If you’d like to learn more about a particular topic, some pages have web links. Simple line drawings provide additional information about activities such as the yoga poses. (I wasn’t quite supple enough to master the Camel…)

There are several simple recipes (eg for smoothies, fruit and herb infusions, and ‘low-cal’ hot chocolate), as well as affirmations, encouragement, and acupressure advice. There are suggestions for improving posture, easing neck pain and even feigning self-confidence – and many other topics too.

However, although the pages are numbered, there is no index. This may frustrate readers looking for a particular exercise or activity. And the Table of Contents is sparse – offering only a choice of Home, Work, Play, Relationships and Travel.

My impression is that the book is primarily aimed at office-based women in paid work. But not all readers will sit at desks all day, or need alternatives to ‘weekly office cupcake runs’. (Nor will everyone need tips claiming to ease menstrual pain and reduce PMS symptoms – or want to engage in a tickle battle.)

The cover is a tranquil aqua colour. It has folds at either side that could be used for bookmarking favourite pages.

The book would, perhaps, be a useful gift for a colleague, a recuperating friend, or a new parent – someone who’s time-poor but motivated to make small incremental changes to set them on a path to improved wellbeing.

Reviewed  by Anne Kerslake-Hendricks

101 Ways to Live Well: Mindfulness, Yoga and nutrition tips for busy people
by Victoria Joy and Karla Zimmerman
Published by Lonely Planet, 2016
ISBN 9781786572127

Book Review: One Woman’s War and Peace, by Wing Commander Sharon Bown

Available now in bookshops nationwide.

cv_one_womans_war_and_peaceWhen Sharon Bown, nee Cooper, a young Registered Nurse from Tasmania joined the Royal Australian Air Force it was with the goal of providing humanitarian aid to the world, as a Nursing Officer. During her eleven years of service she served in East Timor, Bali and Afghanistan working to save the lives of others, but almost losing her own.

Her autobiography is a very powerful, courageous story of a very determined young woman who survived a helicopter crash that left her with a shattered jaw and broken back, while deployed in Timor.

“On the ninth day of my hospital admission I was finally allowed out of bed and introduced to the ‘old lady body’ that was now mine as I had to learn to walk again”. With grit and determination Sharon worked hard with her own rehabilitation and after five months, was able to stop wearing the back brace which had supported her for months.

When the Air force was asked to provide AME support to the evacuation of Australians following the Bali bombing in 2005, Sharon was relieved to be asked if she was ‘available to deploy’?

Following this she spent a year as an Aide-de–camp to the Chief of the Defence Force working in Canberra for Dr Brendan Nelson, during which time she received promotion to Squadron Leader.

Back in Townsville, Bown worked as a Military Support Officer, providing specific advice to ADF members and their families such as bereavement support, arrangement of military funerals and assisting with the deceased estates administration. A year into this two-year posting, Bown was asked to return to Air Force Health where her leadership skills saw her deployed to Tarin Kot, Afghanistan

Bown has written with great honesty sharing her inner-most feelings of despair, especially when children could not be saved, as well as the physical and mental effects of her accident. Some time after her return home to Australia, she was diagnosed with post –traumatic stress disorder. In 2015, Bown was discharged from the Royal Australian Air Force as medically unfit from a job she loved and which had seen her rise to the rank of Wing Commander.

I thoroughly enjoyed this inspirational story which is well written and beautifully presented on glossy pages. The inclusion of a number of quality photographs compliments the story and the last photo introduces the reader to Bown’s husband Conway, and her two sons Tiberius and Austin.

Bown continues to live in Townsville and is highly sought after to speak of her unique experiences during her service career.

Reviewed by Lesley McIntosh

One Woman’s and Peace
by Wing Commander Sharon Bown
Published by Exisle Publishing
ISBN 9781925335316