2020: A Year in Books

2020 was the year all our plans got massively disrupted. You may recall my ambitious plan at the beginning of the year. Guess how that went.

Surprisingly well, in some regards! My hopes of travel and adventure were dashed, as they should be during a pandemic. I failed utterly at reading the New Testament. There was no one to bake for, working from home, so I didn’t really do much of that. The bushfires ravaged most of the places I was hoping to hike.

So what’s the perfect activity for a chronically ill gal craving mental stimulation? Reading! I read so much as a child, and this year really became the year I embraced that once again. In total, I had a goal of 32 books, and I am very proud to say that I managed it. As lockdowns continue across the globe, I thought it might be good for me to share 30 of the books I read, and maybe spark some ideas for you to add to your list.

Easiest read: ‘Midnight Sun’ by Stephanie Myer

Midnight Sun | BIG W
Image description: the cover of Stephanie Myer’s book, Midnight Sun, which features half a pomegranate with seeds dripping from it on a black background. The title and the author’s name are in white.

If you’re not a Twilight fan, this one is probably not for you. I am an unabashed fan. These books came out in my late teens, and I was the perfect age (and the perfect amount of angsty) to fall in love with them. Whilst I no longer think they’re the pinnacle of literary achievement, my nostalgia and enjoyment remains, and they even featured heavily in my honours thesis.

Accordingly, I was thrilled when Midnight Sun came out. It fills in a lot of gaps in Twilight (why does Edward pull so many weird faces? Does he realise it’s weird to watch girls sleep? How does he find Bella at the end?) and it shows a lot more of Alice’s gift, which involves some fairly clever writing by Myer. It also makes Bella more sympathetic (if not necessarily a better decision-maker). It’s a chunky book, but very easy to read.

Hardest read: ‘The Silmarillion’ by J R R Tolkein

Hard, but worth it. I actually couldn’t get through the written text and switched to the Audible version read by Martin Shaw, who does a stellar job.

The Silmarillion takes a long, long time to get going and can be hard to follow (I constantly forgot who the different subspecies of elves were), but once it picks up, it really picks up. The Lord of the Rings kind of gives the impression that Sauron ruined some nice golden age, but in reality (or canon, I suppose), Middle Earth has been a hot mess from the start. It’s a series of tragedies of Shakespearean proportions, but with Balrogs. If you like LOTR, you should give this one a whirl. Just set aside a lot of time. It’s 14 hours of listening.

Most profound: ‘A Train in Winter’ by Caroline Moorhead

Look, it might be cheating to list a book about the Holocaust as the most profound, but I cannot fail to be touched by the courage, determination and intense suffering of the people who lived through it.

A Train in Winter by Caroline Moorehead - Penguin Books Australia
Image description: the cover of ‘A Train in Winter’, which features three women walking through snow away from the viewer. The left woman has curly brown hair, a brown fur coat, brown trousers and open-heeled brown wedge shoes. The middle woman is a blonde with hair curled at the ends, wearing a blue coat and brown lace-up shows. The right-hand woman has blonde hair, curled at the ends, and wears a red coat over olive trousers, with brown heeled shoes. The title is imposed over their backs, with the subtitle ‘A Story of Resistance, Friendship and Survival in Auschwitz.’

‘A Train in Winter’ follows the stories of the 200 or so women of the French Resistance who were sent to Auschwitz in WW2. Just 49 survived. Reading about the loss, deprivation and cruelty they endured, and the courage and unity that carried the survivors through, made a deep impact on me. Many times I felt like crying as I read. It’s not a cheerful book, but it is an important one.

Most profound (fiction): ‘The Color Purple’ by Alice Walker

This book follows the story of Cece, who has to endure some fairly horrific stuff, but grows and learns and becomes an amazing person. That sounds fairly sappy, but honestly, it’s not a sappy book. It is a tear-jerker, and trigger warning for abuse and sexual assault, but my goodness, what a rollercoaster. Highly recommend.

Most useful: ‘The Barefoot Investor’ by Scott Pape

I’m not normally one for self-help books, or for doing what people tell me to, but I switched banks because of this book. If I really thought about it, I probably knew most of the stuff in it, but I never did think about it. This got me to do that, and then to put it into action.

Most exciting: ‘Trail of Lightning’ by Rebecca Roanhorse

The actual most exciting book I read isn’t yet published, so I won’t write about it here, except to say it was an amazing steampunk spy thriller/adventure. ‘Trail of Lightning’ is a decent second place, with Navajo demon hunters, gods and magic. Lots of action scenes and some tense romance makes for a very thrilling book.

Trail of Lightning (The Sixth World, #1) by Rebecca Roanhorse
Image description: The cover of ‘Trail of Lightning’. A woman stands on top of a red car with a white roof. She has short black hair and is wearing black pants and a black leather jacket with a white top. She holds a long knife and a gun. Lightning forks around her, and the title is written in red across her. A man is driving the car.

Honourable mentions:

‘The Colour of Our Sky’ by Amita Trasi – the story of two Indian girls separated by a crime and then a continent, and their journey to find each other again. TW for sexual assault. Heart-rending but very well told. Recommend.

‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata – short, funny, easy to read. Tells the story of an unusual woman who works in a convenience store and doesn’t want to change that.

‘Outlander’ by Diane Gabaldon – it’s a long one but a good one. It’s exciting, with a mostly-likeable main character and mostly-attractive love interest. I loved it, but I take points off for the very casual mentions of sexual assault, and the unnecessary frequency of them.

‘The Pearl that Broke its Shell’ by Nadia Hashimi – the story of two woman from different generations in Afghanistan, both of whom experience violence at the hands of a patriarchal society, and both of whom dress as men to survive at various points. It has some pretty heart-breaking moments, but it’s a fantastic story of strength and courage.

‘Boys will be Boys’, by Clementine Ford. I loved Ford’s first book, Fight Like a Girl, and the sequel did not disappoint. It’s a book to make you rage against injustice, and to make you want to rid the world of unfair stereotypes that harm both boys and girls.

‘The Fall of the Gas-lit Empire’ by Rod Duncan. I love me a good alternative historical fiction. This one was a Steampunk epic that follows a young woman who lives in disguise to keep away from the law during a version of Victorian Britain, whilst trying to avoid officers of the International Patent Office.

‘Daughter of Fortune’ by Isabel Allende. I couldn’t put this novel down, but I warn you: the ending is NOT cathartic. It’s great anyway, though – it follows the journey of Eliza, an adopted daughter of a rich family in the 1840s in Chile, who finds herself pregnant and ends up following her missing lover to California.

‘I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,’ by Maya Angelou. This remarkable woman did not have the easiest life – racism, sexual assault, and a childhood that carried her back and forth across the US. The autobiography is written in an unusual way – thematic, rather than chronological.

‘The Winter People,’ by Jennifer McMahon. This is a horror set in snowy Vermont, spanning a century. It has scary bits, but it’s really horror-lite – minimal gore, and not that much suspense. I enjoyed it, but you’ll see the twist coming.

‘Shameless’, by Nadia Bolz-Weber. Bolz-Weber is a feminist Christian pastor, and ‘Shameless’ looks at how the church treats sex, and how people of all walks of life have dealt with the sexual guilt and shame that conservative Christianity has left them with, whilst still maintaining their faith and their love of God.

‘A Wrinkle in Time’, by Madeleine L’Engle. This is a children’s book, which I didn’t realise when I added it to my to-read list, but I enjoyed it anyway! A good vs evil romp through space and time, about finding your inner courage and strength.

‘Yes Please,’ by Amy Poehler. I haven’t watched Saturday Night Live or Parks and Rec (I tried, but I don’t like Chris Pratt), so a lot of the references went over my head. She’s a good story-teller, though, willing to fess up to her mistakes, and full of a clear passion for theatre. References to her good buddy Harvey Weinstein don’t age well, though.

‘The Boundary’ by Nicole Watson. It’s a murder mystery with magical elements, alcoholism, infidelity, and gambling addition, as well as the racial and historical trauma endured by Indigenous Australians. It’s pretty dark, but I liked it.

Probably won’t read again

‘Fahrenheit 451’, by Ray Bradbury – it just feels like every other piece of 20th century dystopian fiction I’ve read. I’m sure it was revolutionary at the time, but I think I’ve read too many books that felt similar to enjoy it.

‘Great Gatsby’, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It just bored me. None of the characters were particularly interesting, and none of them really had any redeeming features.

‘Catcher in the Rye’, by JD Salinger. It’s just a teenage boy making stupid decisions for several days, and deciding all the people around him suck in the most boring, repetitive language possible. It’s not that deep.

‘Mrs Dalloway’, by Virginia Woolf. Pretty and lyrical, but not riveting. A re-read is unlikely. I had to listen to this one, because Woolf’s hatred of the full stop makes reading it on paper quite hard.

‘Call of the Wild’, by Jack London. Too sad. A dog gets kidnapped and forced to become a tough, rugged sled dog, goes through all sorts of bad things, and when good things start to happen, it gets worse again.

‘Wide Sargasso Sea’, by Jean Rhys. It’s a version of the events leading up to Bronte’s ‘Jane Eyre’ from the perspective of Bertha, the mad wife. It’s barely comprehensible, and the only reason you’d know it had anything to do with ‘Jane Eyre’ is because Rochester is in it. It’s got no real plot and a bunch of unreliable narrators. I wanted to love it and was really excited to read it, but I ended up hating it.

‘Internment’, by Samira Ahmed. Another one I wanted to love – a speculative fiction about America putting its Muslim population in internment camps, and a young Muslim girl fighting back. Unfortunately, whilst topical, it just didn’t thrill me. The stakes never felt that high, even though they were (death and torture were very possible consequences in the book). Maybe I’m just too old for it?

‘Jesus Feminist’, by Sarah Bessey. This book is hailed in Christian feminist circles as something of a must-read. Unfortunately, I was hoping for something a bit more critical that engaged more heavily with the Bible; this was more of a “the vibe of thing” text. It might be useful for someone just beginning to consider whether their faith can also be feminist, but it was just overly simplistic for me (and unnecessarily wordy).

‘The Communist Manifesto’ by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels. I am very sympathetic to the aims of Communism, if not necessarily the methods, but the manifesto itself makes some sweeping assumptions, and I feel like a lot of it doesn’t really hold up in today’s society.

‘The Hedge of Mist’ by Patricia Keannealy-Morrison. It’s book three of the Arthurian legends set in space. It’s very dense, very flowery, and just not that exciting. I loved the first book, ‘The Hawk’s Grey Feather,’ but unfortunately the trilogy got less awesome as it went on, I think.

‘Medea and other plays’ by Euripedes. They’re very easy to read – I got through all four plays in a couple of hours – and I’m glad I read them once, but I don’t think I’ll do it again.

Image description: A person wearing a grey jumper holds a book open on a brown duvet. There is a pair of glasses to their right, and a pair of pumpkins to their left.

That’s my thirty! I’ve got 24 on the list for this year (a new job means less time to read, I suspect), and I’m exciting to keep trying new things. What did you read this year? What did you love or hate? What’s on the list for 2021? Let me know in the comments!

Book Review: Eggshell Skull

Eggshell Skull by Bri Lee is not a book I would recommend reading unless your mental health is in tip-top order and you don’t have trauma around sexual assault, self-harm or eating disorders, because that is what the book is about (and consequently also this review).  

The title refers to the Eggshell Skull principle of criminal law – that if you hit a man with an eggshell-thin skull and it shatters, killing him, the fact that you didn’t know about his skull being so thin is not a defence to murder.  The book itself is about flipping that principle and making victims of abuse and assault strong, and forcing their abusers and attackers to face them.

It is an incredibly hard read, emotionally speaking.  It’s biographical, and from the outset Lee is a very relatable character, particularly to me.  She’s fresh out of law school and has landed a coveted associateship with a District Court judge, and spends a goodly portion of her time doubting whether she is good enough for the job, struggling to keep up with its pressures, and envying her Type-A colleagues.  I’ve certainly felt that.  Regardless of career field, I suspect we all have.

From there Ms Lee is thrown headlong into the world of criminal trials – almost entirely sexual assault.  There is a depressing monotony to the cycle of abuse victims reliving their trauma in the witness box and men whom Lee is sure are guilty being let off because the victim is portrayed as insufficiently virtuous or attractive to be raped – she was either definitely just a slut having sex and then regretting it, or she was lying outright because who would succumb to uncontrollable passion for someone who looked like that?  It’s a damning indictment of how women are too often not believed, whether it is medical conditions or rape trials.

Almost as bad is when Lee does see men convicted; one is Aboriginal, and it is clear that there is a racial factor at play because the white man the day before gets away clean.  Another is revealed to be a truly evil man, but his little boy loves him.  Yet another is a violent rapist with two convictions whose girlfriend has his side completely.  It’s another slice of heartbreak and just shows how few winners there are in the criminal justice system.  It’s messy and horrible, and a good reason why I don’t practice criminal law.

Woven throughout this is Lee’s own story – her horror at what she sees in court everyday as it bleeds into her own traumatic experiences and growing self-harm.  We find these out both slowly and suddenly.  There’s no hint of her own traumatic background, and then suddenly she is talking about a trampoline in the back garden and you realise, “Oh my goodness.  Someone raped her there.”

The story from there is Lee’s battle with self-harm, bulimia and alcoholism and her own fears.  It’s heartrending to hear her thoughts about her perceived lack of self-worth, and how that drives her to purge, to cut and to drink.  In her mind at the time, it was logical and necessary, and it comes from a desire to make her “spoiled” self perfect for the people around her.

Lee makes it, though, and she makes it to the point of reporting her trauma and taking on her abuser in the courtroom.  She learns from the horrors she witnesses in the courtroom and is determined to be the strong victim who fights back against her abuser, years after the event, in the only way she can.

The book is very hard to read on a number of levels.  For me, as a lawyer, seeing the flaws in the system I’ve sworn to uphold is always painful.  It’s imperfect and the desire to see people convicted for their crimes is in tension with the knowledge that everyone is entitled to a good defence and that anyone accused is innocent until proven guilty.  I also know that the vast majority of criminal matters never make it to trial, because the cases are black and white and the defendant pleads guilty to get a better deal on sentencing.  I also know that sexual assault cases are rarely black and white, as the book discusses.  Establishing sex occurred is the easy part.  Consent, that barrier between sex and rape, is harder.  There’s no forensic evidence in most cases to help establish it.  Most rapes don’t involve physical violence.  If they did, we’d have a much higher conviction rate.

It’s also hard to see a young woman labouring under the horrible pressures of the legal system as one of its workers.  I’m lucky in that I’m not a Type-A, overachieving, highly ambitious person.  I realised relatively young that my sister is cleverer and a harder worker than me, and that I’d kill myself trying to equal her, so I learned to sit back a bit and prioritise my happiness over my marks (somewhat.  Marks still mattered to me, just not as much).  That attitude carried over into my career.  I want to do well and be the best I can be, but I’m not competing against anyone, and I don’t need to be a top barrister or partner of a huge firm.  I don’t need stacks of money and I’m not willing to work 14-hour days to get it.  In other words, I’m a bit unusual amongst the legal profession.

In law school I saw a lot of people who were the complete opposite.  They are willing to take the absolute punishment of body, soul and mind that is required to get to the top as quickly as possible and distinguish themselves.  There are some people who are born for that kind of competition and labour.  There are others who have simply been told they are, and break themselves trying.  Given Lee’s circumstances during the book, she ends up being one of the latter.  She does amazingly well considering, but the pressure is clearly killing her.  I know that the legal profession can do that and that we have stunningly high rates of suicide and substance abuse, and Lee’s experience is a good explanation of why.

Hardest of all, though, is reading this book as a woman and knowing that if I were ever raped, this is what I’d come up against.  I’d have to hope that the assault was a violent, stranger-danger attack rather than someone I know well.  I’d have to be completely sober, wearing a long skirt or trousers, and not at a party.  On my side is the fact that I’m white, in a professional job, married, Christian, and don’t have a long history of partners.  No one can call me a “slut”.  I’m a “good girl,” and if I end up as someone’s victim one day, that might be the thing that convicts him.  On top of that, I’d have to demonstrate impossible strength in the face of horrible trauma, and relive it again and again as a witness.

Bri Lee is an incredibly strong, brave young woman, and this book should be read by everyone.  However, I don’t know if everyone will be able to.  It will leave your heart raw.

Book Review: Fight Like a Girl

Today I want to take a short break from endometriosis (don’t we all) and review a book I finished recently: Clementine Ford’s Fight Like a Girl. It was published in 2016, so I’m a little behind the 8-ball on this one, but I enjoyed it so much I just have to discuss it.

You may know Clementine Ford as the outspoken and controversial Sydney Morning Herald columnist.  Well, I say controversial – she’s mostly controversial to the men that she calls out for a variety of awful behaviours.  She rocketed onto the Australian public sphere in 2015, when she posted a topless photo of herself with the words “Hey #Sunrise, get f***ed” written across her chest.   This was in response to Sunrise writing, “What’s it going to take for women to get the message about taking and sending nude photos?”, as opposed to asking the far more appropriate question, “What’s it going to take to get men to not to share intimate photos given to them in confidence by women who trust them?”  Or, as Ms Ford put it, “why do men continue to view women as objects they can defile and violate while the world watches and tut-tuts?”

With a title like “Fight Like a Girl,” it probably isn’t much of a surprise that this is a feminist book, and it carries on from Ms Ford’s facebook protest in fighting back against victim blaming.  It also does a whole lot more besides.

The book more or less follows the arc of Ms Ford’s life to date, starting with her childhood, and my goodness, are those first few chapters relatable to me.  She talks about a childhood in which she was a little too tall and not very girl-shaped.  She talks about how the first time she learned to start hating her body was when another child teased her.  She talks about the sting of realising you are not conventionally attractive, measuring your worth but how desirable you are to boys, and projecting a facade of “one of the lads” to make it seem like you don’t care that you’ll never really be a “proper” girl.

Whilst I never went as far down the rabbit hole of self-loathing as Ms Ford, who developed bulimia, I shared those thoughts and feelings.  I distinctly remember the time in year 8 when two of my classmates told me my legs were hairy and I should shave them.  That’s when I became conscious of how “ugly” and “bad” body hair is, and learned to hate and be ashamed of it whenever it appeared.  I don’t recall what made me start to worry about my (perfectly healthy) weight.  Probably a magazine.  I can’t recall when I realised my teeth were quite yellow, but I expect someone pointed it out to me.  That’s one I’ve never been able to get rid of, to the point where I’m planning on having them professionally whitened.

I remember in year 9, realising that I was a good four or five inches taller than most of my friends, and that I loomed awkwardly over them in photos.  My feet were too long for my body and I felt like a clumsy clodhopper in my ugly, practical school shoes.  I resented not being allowed to wear makeup to hide the smattering of teenage spots that bloomed on my face.   I was driving by this overwhelming need to look pretty, pretty, pretty, and burdened by a constant sense of not being good enough.

I think this was part of what drove me to make a really stupid hair decision in year 10 that I maintained right through year 11, by cutting into what could have been a sexy pixie but on me was an awkward pageboy.  I adopted a slightly emo style, because I admired the “don’t care what you think” vibe and wanted to pretend that I genuinely felt that way too.  I never really managed it (the style or the attitude.  I was a dag).

Anyway, like Ms Ford, I found feminism in university and learned to stop putting down other women for being too girly, too high maintenance or too shallow, and actually started to love my gender.  It’s brought me a lot of happiness and made my brain a much nicer place to be.  I now have four beautiful female best friends who have been massively influential in getting me there, and I owe them my undying love for that.  It was at that point, and since, that I’ve been slowly waking up to the world that Ms Ford paints so beautifully in Fight Like a Girl.

I don’t think I’ve ever read anyone who makes me go, “I wish I’d thought to say it like that,” the way Clementine Ford does.  She is unerringly accurate at hitting the nail on the head and holds the microscope up to the myriad of ways in which a patriarchal society shames, oppresses and stifles women.  She talks about the thousands of vile, abusive messages she has received for daring to criticise men, and how she deals with it.  She discusses the absurd excuses that allow such a culture to flourish.  She validates the feelings of every woman who has ever felt the helpless fury that comes from being objectified, put down, sexualised or humiliated simply because of their gender.

It’s an incredibly empowering book for that very reason.  My views don’t always mesh perfectly with hers – I’m a Christian, and whilst I’m a very left-wing one, it still informs my feminism.  Ms Ford doesn’t have that particular influence.  But, despite that, I can respect and understand every single thing she writes, and I agree with the overwhelming majority of it.

Fight Like a Girl is a very funny read, but it also made me want to cry and rage.  Clementine Ford has mastered the art of a witty, bantering tone that exposes some very unpalatable truths in a way that just hits you right in the heart.  If you aren’t sure if you’ll like her style, have a read of any of her Sydney Morning Herald articles, or take a peek at her facebook.  I’d start with this article on the victim blaming following the murder of Eurydice Dixon, or this one on the ridiculousness that is #notallmen.  They are very like her book, but with a touch less humour (given the subject matter, not surprising) and a lot less swearing (if swearing bothers you, Fight Like a Girl will probably be hard for you to read).

TL;DR: Fight Like a Girl is touching, funny and amazing and all people should read it.