31 January 2024

Review: The Pulling by Adele Dumont

The Pulling by Adele Dumont book cover

* Copy courtesy of Scribe Publications *

Opening with a disclosure about her fingernails, readers picking up The Pulling quickly discover that Australian author Adele Dumont is extending an invitation to join her in exploring her deepest darkest thoughts, warts, fingernails and all. Dumont even tries to warn sensitive readers:
"Before I go on, let me say that the chapters that follow this one may be hard for you to bear; unless you are of my kind, doing what I do would hurt you." Page 49
In a deeply personal memoir that can also be read as a collection of essays and vice versa, author Adele Dumont shares that she has trichotillomania (from the Greek word for hair + pull + mania), however she never uses the word. Instead, she prefers to call it pulling in order to highlight the physical nature of the act and the mental pull of the urge; hence the title of this book.
"The whole process was mysteriously painless: the hairs on my head, I learned quickly, sit as shallowly as birthday candles in a cake, can be removed as effortlessly as a grape can from its stem." Page 49
As you can see, the writing is evocative, yet the private thoughts regarding her upbringing and relationship with her mother and sister often gave me pause on the page as I marvelled at her self awareness and deep level of disclosure. Many reminiscences were tough, but this one made me smile in recognition:
"She scorned the kind of parents who fed their kids anything too processed or frozen or coloured. When my sister wanted devon for her lunches like all the other kids, my mum would screw up her face and tell her: 'They make that stuff out of embryos.' She didn't seem to trust the kind of people who bought play-dough or birthday cakes from the shops instead of making them from scratch..." Page 24-25
The Pulling is an intimate self examination of habit, ritual, compulsion and obsession without slipping into pointless navel gazing or devolving into a pity party. In an intensely personal narrative, Dumont attempts to explain her detailed thought process before, during and after a session of pulling, the affects it has on her physical body, her confidence levels and self esteem.

When describing the feeling of being in the pulling state, Dumont shares:
"So captive is this state that from within it I have watched my phone ring on the carpet beside me, but been incapable of reaching across to pick it up. In my laundry, which adjoins the lounge room, once I accidentally forgot to unplug the sink that the machine drains into, and listened to the sink fill then flood, knowing - at some level - that it must be seeping into the carpet, but helpless to interrupt it. When I've been overtaken, I have stood and watched water in my porridge simmer away into the air, and then the oats turn black and crackle with dryness, and my ears fill with the smoke alarm's shriek." Page 72
I can't even begin to imagine how paralysing this must be and just how debilitating the condition is. Exploring a topic that brings us shame and examining the matter from all sides within the relatively safe confines of our own minds is admirable, but to put pen to paper and share them with the world takes immense courage and I was in awe.

At times reading like a diary or confessional, I did find myself wondering why the aspect of alopecia wasn't explored. If I noticed a friend or colleague with a patch of missing hair or an ill fitting hair piece, I would - incorrectly in this case of course - assume it was alopecia and move on. I wouldn't ask questions to clarify my assumption, judge the person negatively or bring attention to their condition in the same way I wouldn't comment if a person has visible vitiligo or male pattern baldness. I wish the author had considered this as a reason she was never 'confronted' or 'outed' by those close to her; although I'm prepared to accept that perhaps she has and it just didn't make the final edit.

The Pulling was hard going at times, strictly due to the intensely personal nature of the disclosures and the feelings they stirred up. In reading the author's accounts, I found myself better understanding the mental gymnastics underlying other compulsions like gambling which was insightful. Dumont is optimistic about the future, trying to reduce her triggers and pull less:
"Here is the basic truth: I wanted to stop pulling, but I also wanted to pull. And one of these desires was always stronger than the other." Page 183
I can certainly relate to the contradictory nature of our thoughts and how some desires are in direct conflict with others; the desire to be healthy and the desire to eat foods that don't aid in the achievement of that goal. The pleasing introduction of a life partner and their close relationship with the author gives the reader hope M will be able to provide the strength and support she needs:
"I had long thought of the hypervigilance and deception my condition required as being a barrier to intimacy. But now I saw another dimension to my secret: its disclosure could be a means of offering intimacy." Page 239
Dumont shares many personal epiphanies and self discoveries and I applaud her courage in making them public. I also found myself wondering how it will be received by those who know the author well while hoping it aids in her healing. This collection won't be for all readers, but there's much to be gained within the pages of The Pulling by Adele Dumont and I won't be forgetting it in a hurry.

My Rating:

P.S. The book also touched on a few of my favourite topics: Rapunzel Syndrome, bezoars, hair as identity, the religious and historical significance of hair and more. Those interested in hair might like to check out my review on Hair by Scott Lowe.

24 January 2024

Review: Magic Words by Jonah Berger

Magic Words by Jonah Berger audiobook cover

Magic Words - What to Say to Get Your Way by Jonah Berger was an interesting audiobook and the author's research promises to reveal 'how six types of words can increase your impact in every area from persuading others and building stronger relationships, to boosting creativity and motivating teams'.

According to Berger, digital language processing tools have revolutionised the social sciences, and after analysing countless movie scripts, customer service calls, academic papers, millions of online reviews, song lyrics and more, he has comprised a list of six types of words.

Listening to this audiobook and flipping through the ebook from my library, I'm not left with 6 specific words burned into my brain - like please or thank you - rather the book was more about how to use words more effectively. Here's more in the author's words.
"This book uncovers the hidden science behind how language works. And more importantly how we can use it more effectively to persuade others, deepen relationships and be more successful at home and at work." Introduction
The one magic word I will take away from reading this is the word 'because'. The author tells us of an experiment where the test subject asked if they could push in front of a queue of people waiting in line to print a document. First they asked nicely and then they made the same request and used the word 'because' and followed on with words to the effect they were in a hurry. I was surprised that the word 'because' resulted in the request being met more favourably because it's an approach I already employ. (Pun intended).

Having said that, I thought the success lay in spending more time talking with the person to make a case, hence lessening the rudeness of the request and explaining the reason in an attempt to mitigate blowback. You could argue the word 'because' is a magic word, or in the act of using it, you're also achieving the above.

The second key takeaway for me was the fact that some of us want to claim a desired identity and Berger uses an example whereby young children were asked two questions in order to determine the best approach. Children were asked "can you help clean up the blocks?" or "can you be a helper and clean up the blocks?" Those asked to be helpers were more enthusiastic to help in the task.

Rephrasing the request makes the task of helping seem like an opportunity to claim the desired identity of helper and being a helper is a useful and positive experience that reflects well on the child. This also taps into the naughty/nice and good girl/good boy language that recognises and reinforces good behaviour. Interesting!

Magic Words - What to Say to Get Your Way by Jonah Berger is full of small moments like this, although having read How To Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie and Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott, the majority of the content wasn't new to me. Readers fresh to the topic of language, the art of communication and social sciences will love this!

My Rating:

19 January 2024

Review: The Strangers on Montagu Street (Tradd Street #3) by Karen White

The Strangers on Montagu Street (Tradd Street #3) by Karen White book cover

From one book with a creepy house at sunset on the cover to another, and this is my third visit to the Tradd Street series written by Karen White. Beginning with The House on Tradd Street (#1) and continuing with The Girl on Legare Street (#2), The Strangers on Montagu Street (#3) picks up with the same set of characters and moves us along with their lives and complex relationships.

Melanie Trenholm is a successful realtor in Charleston, South Carolina and continues to work on restoring her historic home. Love interest Jack is still on the scene but he's shocked early on to discover he has a daughter he didn't know about. Oh, and Melanie is also psychic but she keeps it on the down low.

Not sure why it is that I enjoy this series so much, is it the frequent mention of architecture, restoration and antiques? Melanie's ability to see/sense ghosts or the tension brewing between Melanie and Jack? I don't usually enjoy the romance elements of a plot but here it works. The Southern location and sultry heat along with unearthing family secrets containing betrayal and loss kept the pages turning with enthusiasm. And there's even a haunted dollhouse, need I say more?

With so much time elapsing since reading the first two books in 2011 and 2015 respectively and with the third in 2024, I'm surprised I was able to immediately dive straight back into the series with such ease and relish. It shouldn't have come as a surprise that while I was off reading other things, the author continued on with the series, ultimately choosing to end it with book #7 in 2021.

It's rare for me to be able to read a series right through to its conclusion - either losing interest, prioritising elsewhere or abandoning the task due to diminishing reading returns - but I'm excited to give it a try this time, and now have the following books to look forward to.

The remaining books in the series are:
  • Return to Tradd Street (#4)
  • The Guests on South Battery (#5)
  • The Christmas Spirits on Tradd Street (#6)
  • The Attic on Queen Street (#7)
Any prediction as to when I'll finish reading the series? 😆

My Rating:

16 January 2024

Review: The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor

The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor book cover

* Copy courtesy of Simon & Schuster *

An author struggling to write her next bestseller receives a request from a famous billionaire in Malibu to ghost write his family's story. Our protagonist Olivia Fitzgerald has enjoyed publishing success in the past although her latest re-telling of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier hasn't sold well and now she's struggling to deliver her next manuscript. Without any progress or prospects, Olivia is unable to refuse the offer and agrees to meet billionaire and People’s Sexiest Man Alive Henry (Ash) Asherwood to discuss the project.

Olivia isn't sure whether to believe the story that Daphne Du Maurier plagiarised the story of Rebecca, and that the 'original' story was a first person account written by Ash's ancestor.

Readers familiar with the plot of Rebecca should fall in love with The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor. We have multiple 'book within a book' references with a little of Olivia's Rebecca re-telling making its way into the novel, along with the story that inspired the original Rebecca novel that somehow seems to mirror Ash's life.

In this way, the book becomes a little like Inception with a layered plot containing multitudes of Rebecca references making The Fiction Writer novel itself seem like another gothic mystery in the making.

That said, some of the descriptions gave me pause for all of the wrong reasons, like this one:
"As I walked in the sand, staring off at the gray mist encapsulating the water, I grew more determined to focus on work, on the project today." Page 72
Last I checked, mist can't enclose the water or it ceases to be mist and these moments distracted me from the story at hand.

Olivia's work situation and attraction to Ash reminded me a little of Verity by Colleen Hoover, in that a writer is staying at their employer's house in their personal space with attraction sizzling and a growing sense of unease building.

The Fiction Writer by Jillian Cantor is definitely recommended for fans of Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier, which I enjoyed back in 2019 as much as this modern offering.

My Rating:

14 January 2024

2024 Reading Challenge Sign Ups

It's a new year and a fresh start for annual challenges and I'm signing up for two reading challenges this year.

Non Fiction Reading Challenge 2024

First up is the Non Fiction Reading Challenge hosted by fellow Aussie book blogger Shelleyrae at Book'd Out, but I'll be increasing the difficulty level this year.

Instead of committing to read 6 books from any 6 categories, I'm tackling the highest level of the challenge to complete the Nonfiction Nosher level. For this, I will need to read and review 12 books, one book for each category in the list below.
2024 Non Fiction Reading Challenge logo by Book'd Out

Here are the categories:
True Crime
The Future
Published in 2024

Some of these are going to be hard, so if you have any suggestions I'm happily accepting recommendations. In the meantime I have plans to read The Pulling by Adele Dumont for the biography/memoir or health challenge prompt.

You can join in too! Social media tags: #ReadNonFicChal @bookdout (Twitter) @shelleyrae_bookdout (Instagram).

Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2024

Hosted by Marg at The Intrepid Reader, today I'm signing up to complete the Medieval Reader level of the challenge, one level higher than previous years. 
Historical Fiction Reading Challenge 2024 logo by The Intrepid Reader

Last year I aimed to read 10 books but this year I'll need to read and review 15 historical fiction books in order to successfully complete the challenge.

So far, I'm planning to read The Bee and the Orange Tree by Melissa Ashley and The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See.


Are you challenging yourself in 2024? Do you plan to borrow more books from the library, read more or less about a certain topic or spend more time reading? I'd love to know and feel free to track my progress through the year over on the Challenges 2024 page.

10 January 2024

Review: The Secret History of Christmas by Bill Bryson

The Secret History of Christmas by Bill Bryson audiobook cover

I didn't expect to close out my year of reading in 2023 with a book by Bill Bryson or a book about Christmas, yet both of these coalesced when I came across the irresistibly titled The Secret History of Christmas by Bill Bryson last month.

Bill Bryson always manages to entertain me with curious facts from history and has a warm and merry narrating voice making this the perfect non fiction book for the month of December.

This Audible freebie was delightful and I enjoyed following Bryson through the history of Christmas and various yuletide traditions in this heartwarming yet brief spotlight on a very jolly time of year.

When it comes to gift giving, Bryson points out that some presents cost more to the giver than they are worth to the receiver, however he balances this by making the following counterpoint:
"The very act of giving a gift automatically adds value to the gift, because it expresses qualities of affection and friendship that cannot be priced. There's also value to the giver because it makes them feel loved or appreciated..." Chapter 6 - Let's Shop!
Yes, this is why I love gift giving so much! The effort and thought behind a gift means so much more than buying the item yourself. It adds sentiment and meaning to the recipient and serves as a reminder whenever you see/use/wear that item. The author goes on to mention that gifts include 'sentiment and good will and lots of other qualities that cannot be measured economically.' I couldn't agree more.

Along the way, Bryson bursts some festive myths and even goes as far as introducing the reader to a website dutifully listing the ever increasing number of Black Friday fatalities around the world. On a more positive and intriguing note, Bryson shares another surprising quirk of Christmas:
"One of the most endearing aspects of Christmas is how it has spread to other lands, often with a novel twist. In Japan for instance, it is now a fixed tradition among millions of people to have a meal of Kentucky Fried Chicken at Christmas time." Chapter 6 - Let's Shop!
Don't believe me? Have a listen to this festive gem for yourself.

You can also check out my review of At Home - A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
or The Body - A Guide for Occupants by Bill Bryson.

My Rating:

08 January 2024

Top 5 Books of 2023

2023 was an excellent reading year overall, and I read a total of 76 books with (weirdly) the same amount of 5 star reads as last year, with 19 books earning a 5 star rating. In previous years, my top five list has covered a range of genres, whereas this year they're drawn from just two. Three of the books featured were requested from the respective publisher, one was my own copy and another borrowed from the library.

Here are my Top 5 Books of 2023 in the order I read them:

1. The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell
The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell book cover

This is an atmospheric novel about class, ambition, loyalty, envy, power and obsession and I was truly gripped as I flipped the pages to witness the slow destruction of certain characters.

Set at the Mercury Theatre in Victorian London, Miss Jennifer Wilcox has been brought low by her circumstances and accepts a job offer from the wife of the theatre's owner in return for a favour she can't refuse. Jennifer will need to make and mend all of the costumes, style hair and organise the accessories for the leading actress at the Mercury while spying on her.

The theatre setting, the backstory and suspicious and deadly accidents at the Mercury along with nods to the era (a young brother pasting together matchboxes to earn his keep and another working in a hat factory) were the icing on this creepy Victorian cake. The Whispering Muse by Laura Purcell was a gothic triumph!

2. Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See
Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See book cover

Set in 15th century China during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), this is the fictional account of the life of Tan Yunxian, a woman who became a practicing doctor in China at a time it was extremely rare and severely frowned upon. Yunxian was so successful looking after her female patients, she published a book of medical cases in 1511 and to date, it's the oldest known medical book written by a woman in China.

We follow Yunxian from 1469, through her Milk Days, Hair-Pinning Days, Rice and Salt Days right through to her Sitting Quietly days, which formed a wonderful structure for her story and life progression. The relationships Yunxian has with her mother Respectful Lady, mother-in-law Lady Kuo, her father's concubine Miss Zhao, and her friend Meiling drive the character development and plot forward in an unforgettable narrative.

Lady Tan's Circle of Women by Lisa See was a complete surprise and I loved the content around foot binding.

3. The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge
The Widow of Walcha by Emma Partridge book cover

Walcha is a small town in NSW and in 2017, Natasha Darcy murdered her partner Mathew Dunbar and tried to make it look like suicide so that she could inherit his multi-million dollar farm. Australian journalist Emma Partridge is the Senior Crime Editor for Nine News, and in penning Mathew Dunbar's story in The Widow of Walcha, exposes the greedy and despicable behaviour of one of the most cold and calculating women in Australia.

Mathew Dunbar was a kind and generous sheep grazier looking for love and a family, making him the perfect target for Natasha Darcy. The case, arrest and subsequent trial outlined in the book showed Darcy to be a compulsive liar and an evil, manipulative woman. There was so much damning evidence in this case it was mind-blowing and I found it hard to fathom how a woman could be so cold and cruel.

Narrated by Jo Van Es, The Widow of Walcha gives us a shocking glimpse into the sordid mind of a self-serving, unfeeling, greedy and manipulative woman prepared to do anything to further her financial position at the expense of all others. Sentenced to 40 years in prison with a non-parole period of 30 years, thankfully Darcy's black widow days are well and truly over. The Widow of Walcha is one of the best Australian true crime accounts I've ever read and I found myself talking to many people about it afterwards.

4. Everyone on this Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson
Everyone on this Train is a Suspect by Benjamin Stevenson book cover

After the events in the last book (Everyone in My Family Has Killed Someone, which made my Top 2022 list) Ernie Cunningham is enjoying his publishing success when he receives an invitation to attend a crime writer's festival held on The Ghan.

Ernie regularly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly, like telling us up front that we can safely assume he survives the tour given he's writing about it. Openly giving us a list of suspects and divulging his findings, this is another brain teasing, mind stimulating laugh out loud slap to the face of a book and I couldn't get enough. Stevenson readily gives the reader clues the entire way, yet still manages to surprise us.

Full of insightful yet funny character observations - the author is also a comedian - booklovers will relish the publishing jargon and observations from the characters during their train journey on The Ghan.

5. Maphead by Ken Jennings
Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks by Ken Jennings book cover

Maps are such a big part of our lives and in Maphead - Charting the Wide, Weird World of Geography Wonks, Ken Jennings is the ultimate tour guide on this journey, readily providing all manner of info about geonerds and their love of maps. If you enjoy quirky facts in quick succession, this is for you.

The author has been an enthusiastic toponymist - a student of place-names - for as long as he's loved maps and it shows. We move on to the market for collectors of ancient maps and globes that stretches as far back as the Renaissance, but for readers who would rather leave history in the past, the section on maps in fantasy fiction was illuminating. Jennings weighs in on the 'map gap' between the genders, leading me to make peace with my map preference of 'forward is up' instead of 'north is up'.

I was excited to read about Roadgeeks - the highway scholars of mapheads - who take photos of road signs to clock their routes and discover more about systematic travel, while the chapter on geocaching had me checking for geocache locations near me. Maphead by Ken Jennings is endlessly engaging with sections on confluence hunting, Google Earth and street view being of key interest.

It's great to see a combination of my two favourite genres, historical fiction and non fiction dominating the list and two Australian authors represented. Honourable mention to The Puzzler by A.J. Jacobs.

Have you read any of these or plan to?

Carpe Librum!
Top 5 Books of 2023 image by Carpe Librum

02 January 2024

Review: The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath book cover

I finally read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and I'm sad to say it was a disappointing experience. Esther Greenwood is a 19 year old student from Boston and the first half of this slim modern classic is a rather pedestrian coming of age story centring around the search for purpose and direction in life.

Knowing The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical is part of the appeal and part of the problem. Sylvia Plath famously committed suicide just a month after The Bell Jar was published - under a pseudonym - by gassing herself in the kitchen with her children in the next room.

In The Bell Jar, Esther is paralysed by the possible futures, giving rise to my favourite passage from the book:
"I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig-tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was... and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig-tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet." Page 73
The fig tree metaphor was insightful but where other readers saw hope and optimism, I saw helpless misery. Plath uses her writing to provide insight into Esther's mental health, although we never learn of a specific diagnosis:
"Every time I tried to concentrate, my mind glided off, like a skater, into a large empty space, and pirouetted there, absently." Page 140
Esther's sudden and unexplained decline dominates the narrative in The Bell Jar as she deals with a failed romance, equivocates over whether to attend summer school and even fancies she'll spend the summer writing a novel.

Eventually Esther hasn't slept for seven nights, has worn the same clothes for three weeks without bathing or washing her hair, and doesn't see the point anymore because, in Esther's words: "everything people did seemed so silly, because they only died in the end." Oh save me!

While Plath's mother didn't want The Bell Jar published, Esther's mother helps her to seek medical advice and intervention which leads to a series of shock therapy treatments in private hospitals.

There were some moments of writing I enjoyed, like this one:
"I stepped from the air-conditioned compartment on to the station platform, and the motherly breath of the suburbs enfolded me. It smelt of lawn sprinklers and station-wagons and tennis rackets and dogs and babies." Page 109
However, these moments - of wondering what tennis rackets smell like - were few and far between, and when accompanying a narrative like this: "I might go and drown myself in the sea, or perhaps cut myself with razors," I found The Bell Jar to be an emotionally draining downer of a book.

Then there was the weird visit to see a doctor for a diaphragm fitting (it's the 1950s after all), and later Esther suffers from excessive haemorrhaging after losing her virginity in a scene that isn't adequately explained.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath now joins the Carpe Librum Disappointing Classics Club and is in good company, along with Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury, The Plague by Albert Camus, Breakfast at Tiffany's by Truman Capote, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

If this is a beloved classic of yours or you think I've completely missed the point about how groundbreaking this novel was for its time, I'd love to hear from you in the comments below. Let me have it!

My Rating: