The Non-Fiction Challenge – We of the Never Never – Jeannie Gunn

2016 Nonfiction Challenge

Genre: Autobiography / memoir

Narrative Style: First person, chronological

Rating: 3/5

Published: 1908Unknown

Format: Kindle

Synopsis: Jeannie Gunn is newly married and has moved out to Elsey Station with her husband. This is an account of the first year. Although published as a novel, the work is recognised as being autobiographical. Jeannie changed the names of the principal characters to keep their identity secret.

I must admit, I thought I might enjoy this more than I did. It does give a strong impression of what life must have been like in the Never Never. The difficulties are described vividly and I know that I would not have been able to cope. Jeannie herself is a strong character who faces all challenges head on including the attitudes of the men already at the station.

The problem is there is no real tension. Events never build to a climax nor is there any sense of real danger. Jeannie is unrelentingly cheerful no matter what is thrown at her and that is a little wearing as well.

I found it hard to keep in my head who was who and I would have preferred it if the others had real names rather than the Dandy, the Quiet Stockman and so on. I found I couldn’t distinguish between them or get a handle on what they were like.

Finally, there is a liberal use of the N-word and that was a little hard to take even when I know that it wasn’t racially charged in the same way it is now. Events such as the ‘nigger-hunt’ are described as if it were merely a picnic and not a potentially lethal clash between white and black.

As a historical document, this is interesting and shows what life was like at that time. As a casual read, it wasn’t a lot of fun.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Memoir – It’s Only A Movie – Mark Kermode.

There were a couple of reasons for picking up this book. First of all, it fulfilled the memoir category for the Eclectic Reader Challenge but, as the last couple of books I have read have been a bit rubbish (Yes, Tell No One by Harlan Coben, I do mean you”) I knew I wouldn’t be disappointed.

And of course, I wasn’t. In this book, Kermode imagines his life as a made for TV movie – a very funny idea which sees him detailing who would play him – Jason Isaacs – and his family members. It does seem as if spending so much time in front of a cinema screen has left Kermode with an odd view of reality and a lot of the episodes he recounts wouldn’t be out of place in a (slightly dubious) biopic. Maybe that is the point.

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The story starts with Kermode’s early cinematic experiences, moves through his love of horror, particularly The Exorcist, through his early experiences as a critic to the celebrity status he has today. The early experiences were the most interesting, I thought. Recalling as they do, a different era when going to the cinema was a more intimate experience. Y’know when cinemas had two screens and ran two features. It made me think about going to the cinema in the early eighties and I began to recall my own experiences. Although unlike Kermode, who seems to be able remember which cinema and when for every film he has ever seen, I can’t remember what I went to see first although it was undoubtedly a Disney rerun, this being back in the days before Pixar and Dreamworks and a whole business aiming to sell cinema to small kids.

There is no doubt that Kermode is a geek – and I say this as a compliment – and a particularly grumpy geek, at that. (Amusingly a review of this, or possibly The Good, The Bad and the Multiplex, on Goodreads complained about this grumpiness as though it was a surprise. As if he had happened upon the book by sheer chance, knowing nothing about Kermode. It reminded me of when a friend went to see Billy Bragg and afterwards complained that he was too political. Well, duh.) He gamely outlines the number of people he was annoyed and irritated over the years including being put on the spot by Dame Helen Mirren after saying The Queen wasn’t a  proper film and, my own personal favourite, getting punched in the arm by Benedict Cumberbatch on behalf of Kiera Knightley who resented being called Ikea Knightley on account of her plank-like acting style. A very apt description, if you ask me.

Ultimately, this is a book about obsession and I think this is why Kermode can get away with his rants and raves. He loves cinema with his whole heart and hates the fact that some people do not give it the respect it deserves. It is only possible to remain calm about things that do not matter. Cinema matters an awful lot to Mark Kermode and thank goodness for that.

Eclectic Reader Challenge – Memoir – Girl Interrupted – Susanna Kaysen

I have always been interested in reading about madness so when I signed up to do the Eclectic Reader Challenge, I decided to use Girl Interrupted for the memoir category as I had been meaning to read it for a bit. I had re-read The Bell Jar not so long ago and was interested to see what comparisons there would be in Kaysen’s memoir of the same hospital, in roughly the same era.

And there were some similarities. Both Plath and Kaysen seem distanced IMG_0045from life, unable to envisage the future or find joy in the things that were supposed to be joyful for girls their age. The difference came in the fact that Kaysen’s life outside of the asylum is not shown, simply the time she spent in hospital and, of course, in the fact that Kaysen survived to be able to look back on this period of her life.

Kaysen does not seem particularly insane. A lot of the time, her voice is reasonable with the odd descent into hysteria. Even then, like when she demands to know how long she has been unconscious during a tooth extraction and no one will tell her, there is something understandable about it. Maybe you or I wouldn’t continue to obsess about it but it was surely a reasonable request.

The ward is described in unrelenting detail and it is possible to imagine the horror of it. Every minute of their lives are accounted for. But what really comes across is the relationships between the women and the way they help each other. There are casualties along the way but there is no time to mourn and perhaps dwelling on it would be too difficult.

Towards the end of the book, Kaysen includes the description of her diagnosis – Borderline Personality – from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders III and reflects on whether it was apt and whether she has recovered. For me, this was the most interesting part of the book. She is finally allowed to leave the hospital, not because she is cured, but because she has a marriage proposal. It does seem that a lot of the problem was to do with the narrow opportunities for women at that time. One of the symptoms of Borderline Personality is social contrariness which seems to point to social causes rather than medical ones. The fact that she is released in order to get married reinforces this fact.

Kaysen’s conclusions about her own madness reflect how I imagine a lot of people feel about themselves, a constant checking to make sure that we are not that crazy, an internal questioning and striving for normality that may evade us to a greater or lesser extent. She didn’t seem out and out crazy, more like there but for the grace of god type crazy. The sort of crazy you could imagine going.