Don’t let anyone tell you that long-lists don’t count! During February, three of the history/memoir/biography books that appeared on the Stella Prize long-list were reviewed by Australian Women Writers Challenge participants. But that’s not all – a total of 18 books were reviewed by 21 readers over February, across both memoir and history genres.
Stella Prize Longlisted Books
Maxine Beneba Clarke’s book The Hate Race was reviewed twice during February, and will no doubt garner more reviews now that it has been shortlisted for the Stella Prize. In her review, Kali Myers described The Hate Race as “a meditation on a singular experience of black girlhood, and – most importantly for a nation and national imaginary that still conceives of itself as largely white – the experience of an Australian black girlhood.” Kali’s review draws on a musical motif:
Running through The Hate Race is a contrapuntal rhythm that reminds us of the insidious, visceral violence that racism – and other forms of bigotry and hatred – does to those who bear the brunt of it….. This rhythm – a disturbing undercurrent that directs the entire tale – becomes more and more urgent as the narrative unfolds….…Taken together – its refrain, its rhythm of danger and anger, and its melody of joy – The Hate Race sings a fully-fleshed, incredibly moving tale of one Australian black girl’s experience of contemporary Australia. (review here)
In her review of The Hate Race, Glaiza at Paperwanderer wrote that:
The writing vividly evokes memories of boiling school playgrounds in summer, tenuous friendships, and the music of that time. Clarke draws an immersive memoir that explores how both casual and institutionalised racism sits side by side these experiences of Australian school life…
She found it “an engrossing memoir that I wish was standard reading across all schools here”.
Another longlisted book, Julia Leigh’s Avalanche: A Love Story, was also reviewed twice during February. Kate W at Books Are My Favourite and Best described it as “a realistic and honest account of the gruelling and frequently unrewarding IVF process” and noted that the book, remarkably, was without bitterness. Kate wrote:
Her thoughts on the ethical issues, as well as the interface between the ‘formulaic’ and emotional decisions inherent in the IVF process were interesting but brief – I would have liked more although I appreciate that we’re talking about extremely complex issues” (review here)
Brona at Brona’s Books, who also reviewed it, found herself connecting “instantly and intensely” with the author. While respecting her “attempts to take other people’s perspective into account and to analyse some of her own behaviours and actions thoughtfully” she wondered if the author “fully appreciates the searing indictment on the IVF industry that emerges through her story.”
Finally, Elspeth Muir’s long-listed book Wasted: A story of alcohol, grief and a death in Brisbane was also reviewed during February. Kimbofo at Reading Matters found this investigation into Australia’s drinking culture “a deeply personal book, written in a frank, forthright – and highly readable- manner”. She note:
It’s not particularly comprehensive though (there’s little or no discussion of the long-term impacts on health or domestic violence, for instance), but it does raise important issues about the way binge drinking has been normalised.
Many writers of both fiction and non-fiction turn their hand to memoir. Two books of memoir by published authors were reviewed in February. Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed Rebellious Daughters: True Stories from Australia’s finest female writers, a compilation of true stories about “that universal life experience” – the rebellion against parents – edited by Maria Katsonis and Lee Kofman, who had written their own stories about “conservative upbringings and subsequent rebellions”. Sue describes the volume as an “engaging, sometimes shocking, but thoroughly generous and warm-hearted book”.
Debbie Robson turned to an older book: Charmian Clift’s small travel memoir, Peel Me A Lotus, first published in 1959. Wondering why it had taken her so long to read this “beautifully written memoir set in Hydra, Greece”, Debbie was struck by the “skilfully wrought evocation of place and the quality of writing”. Her knowledge of the sadness of Clift’s final years made it “painful to embrace, as a reader, her hopeful enthusiasm for this new life”.
Another very different memoir about generational secrets, murder, sexual assault and domestic violence is Renee McBride’s The House of Lies. It was reviewed by Laura Keegan who was “was impressed by the author’s ability to structure the story in a narrative format and portray a younger viewpoint without the influence of later adult analysis.” Although normally steering clear of such memoirs, Laura was quickly immersed: “Rather than feeling solemn, it left me feeling hopeful and I think this is owed to the author’s infectious need to see light in the darkness and the lessons in the pain.”
What shines in this memoir is Munkara’s positive attitude – don’t feel sorry for yourself, look forward, experience things, be yourself. The story of her own birth and the death of her real mother are especial highlights in this excellent insight into one family affected by the Stolen Generation, as well as the respect of Aborigines with their land, forebears and families. It is a beautiful hopeful story of admirable Aboriginal women. (review here)
Two books reviewed during February were set in colonial Australia. Janine at Resident Judge reviewed Hunt Them, Hang Them, the account of the execution of two indigenous men, Tunnerminnerwait and Maulboyheener, in Port Phillip in January 1842. Based on primary sources, the book also engages in the present-day debate over marking and commemorating the frontier wars in Port Phillip.
as I devoured every page, I kept hearing a voice in the back of my head that kept saying things like, “how can this possibly be known”, and pondering just what Lindsay’s sources were for certain events before checking the back of the book and discovering these events and conversations had been completely invented…. It was enough to make me wonder whether a completely fictionalised version of Mary Ann’s story would have worked better, or at least been more suited to my tastes (review here)
The centenary commemorations of WWI have spawned many thick books about particular battles by male writers, but during February two reviewers wrote about books which explored women’s roles during war-time, extending their analysis to the current day. Janine at Resident Judge of Port Phillip reviewed Jeannine Baker’s Australian Women War Reporters: Boer War to Vietnam. More than thirty Australian women reporters wrote for a range of Australian and London-based publications, but they have been largely overlooked. The book extends even beyond the time frame of the title, covering female journalists – many of whom are familiar to us through the ABC – sent to conflict zones ostensibly under the watch of Australian troops as peacekeepers and ‘trainers’
Deb Lee-Talbot’s review looked at Melanie Oppenheimer’s history of the Australian Red Cross in The Power of Humanity: 100 Years of Australian Red Cross 1914-2014, a study which the author qualifies as not the history but a history of an immense and complex organisation. She notes that while archival research guides the narrative, Oppenheimer has worked diligently to capture the ‘personal’ element. She concludes that “The Power of Humanity is an outstanding book if simply for its ability to highlight the role of women and volunteerism, a history otherwise largely forgotten in contemporary Australia”.
Finally, Claire Corbett reviewed Atomic Thunder: The Maralinga Story by Elizabeth Tynan, which she describes as “a clear-eyed, meticulously researched and powerful account of Australia’s long and shameful history of colluding with the UK in permanently contaminating vast tracts of Aboriginal land in South Australia with plutonium, to put it bluntly.” This “extremely timely” book was “clearly written and handles a complex story with a large cast of characters over a long period of time with seeming ease”. Claire writes:
…not only is it vitally important history for every Australian to know but it reminds us never, ever to believe anything the government tells us without some independent corroboration from a fearless and objective media.” (review here)
A warning that seems particularly apposite in these times.
I’m Janine Rizzetti and I blog at the immodestly-named The Resident Judge of Port Phillip where I indulge my love of reading and history. I am a historian, interested in Australian and colonial history, officially retired but more occupied than I thought I would be with my local historical society. After posting to the Australian Women Writers Challenge since its inception, I was happy to accept the offer to write round-ups, initially for Non-Fiction, but after swapping with Brona, I’m now writing the roundups for History, Memoir and Biography.