Review No.67 – Memoirs of a Showgirl

Memoirs of a Showgirl – Shay Stafford and Bryce Corbett

Hachette Australia, 2010

From a six year old in pink tulle at a Queensland church hall to Paris showgirl at the most famous cabaret in the world, Shay Stafford dances her way from one side of the world to the other in pursuit of her greatest dream. But life under the make-up and sequins isn’t everything she expected. She will have to learn how to cope with quirky colleagues and confusing bureaucracy, injury and isolation, all while fixing on a dazzling smile every night and high-kicking with the best of them.

There is something fascinating for me about a memoir and the insight it gives into an alien life. Stafford quickly strips her world of any glamour, detailing the slog and indignity required to produce that nightly illusion, and the hard work that goes into getting on stage in the first place. Added to the unavoidable sleazy element of the cabaret and the constant demand for physical perfection, it does not come across as an appealing lifestyle, but Stafford’s love for performance shines through. Her writing style is unpolished and rather bland, relying too much on summary rather than the more engaging form of anecdotes. The sheer weirdness of backstage antics, though, can be very funny – a choreographer breaking into an spontaneous solo in Cuban heels, for example – making this an interesting glimpse behind the curtain.

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Review No.21 – The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness

The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness – Brianna Karp

Harlequin, 2011

In 2008 Brianna Karp was an American success story. Overcoming a traumatic childhood in a religious cult, she had a job she loved and a home of her own. Then the company for which she worked started laying off workers. She was one of the unlucky ones. Unable to get steady work again in an increasingly unstable economic climate, she was forced to move back into her abusive mother’s home while she worked out what to do next. By February 2009 she was living in a trailer in a Walmart parking lot. At a friend’s suggestion, she began writing a blog about her experiences called ‘The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness’. She had no idea where it would end up taking her.

Name the worst things that can happen to anyone and they will have happened to this woman. From an intensely abusive childhood to dead end jobs, merciless bureaucracy and oh yes, living in a supermarket parking lot, she’s been through one hell of a wringer and somehow come out the other end intact. The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness is a gut-wrenching read at times. Karp’s style of writing is simple and matter-of-fact, never self-pitying, though if anyone has a right to be it’s her. I am not often awed, but her sheer resilience is nothing less than inspiring. For those interested in reading the blog that started it all, Karp can be found at www.girlsguidetohomelessness.com.

Review No.7 – Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights

 Abu Dhabi Days, Dubai Nights – Jillian Schedneck

Pan Macmillan Australia Pty. Ltd., 2012

The Middle East is for many Westerners a confliction of mental images, a confusing cross between the exotic allure of the Arabian nights and modern terrorist propaganda. So what is the reality? For American university lecturer Jillian Schedneck, her two years in the United Arab Emirates changed her perceptions not only of their culture but of her own. Teaching young men and women in first Abu Dhabi and later Dubai, her day-to-day conversations range between arranged marriages and relationship breakdowns, the delicate negotiation of eating during Ramadan and the sexual allure of a kaffiyeh. Schedneck encounters generosity and humour side by side with intolerance and arrogance, an over-entitled wealthy elite co-existing with passionate activists and talkative taxi-drivers.

So…just like everywhere else, then. That was my general impression on finishing the book, the sheer ordinariness of life in two cities on the other side of the world. The only real difference that struck me was, perhaps inevitably, the position of women. This is a society dominated by tradition, where men are simultaneously possessive of the women in their lives and intensely protective of them. When it works, it works well – when it doesn’t, the women are usually the ones who pay the price. Alternately fascinated and frustrated by her experiences, Schedneck came across to me as a very open-minded woman prepared to re-evaluate her own social norms. She certainly doesn’t profess to have all the answers, but understanding only comes by asking questions, and that’s what this book does.

Review No.3 – Me, Myself and Lord Byron

Me, Myself and Lord Byron – Julietta Jameson

Pier 9 (Murdoch Books Pty. Ltd.), 2011

I am not fond of Lord Byron. I am not a spiritualist. And while I am intrigued by Italy, I am not in love with it. So what made me pick up a book that is part memoir and part travel diary, written by a woman on a quest to rediscover herself through God, Italy and a Romantic poet? It looked interesting. And it was.

In 1816 George Gordon, better known as Lord Byron, left England for Europe in a self-enforced exile from which he would never return. Separated from his wife, outcast by polite English society, the controversial ‘rock star’ of the 19th century was determined to live life on his own terms. Almost 200 years later, Australian journalist and travel writer Julietta Jameson – a woman in self-confessed crisis – sets off to Europe in his footsteps. Emerging from alcoholism to a personal crossroads, she finds inspiration in his troubled but defiantly magnificent life as she tries to reconnect with herself and her past.

There is something magnetic about a memoir. It’s like peering through a stranger’s window, having an unashamed browse through the story of their life at your own leisure. Me, Myself and Lord Byron strikes a good balance between being informative and heartfelt. I do not necessarily agree with Jameson’s world view, and certainly have my doubts about Lord Byron’s. But taking the journey at all, and then sharing it with the world through this book, required a bravery and honesty that I can only admire.