In 2012 the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge time machine travelled from fifteenth century Venice to contemporary Australia. We ventured around the world, dropping in at Mogmog in the Pacific; Bangladesh; Spain; and Mt. Wellington in Tasmania. It demonstrated that Australian women authors are a diverse group of people writing about a broad variety of subjects.
What is history? I take a very broad approach to this question. Basically if it is an attempt to truthfully depict something that actually happened in the past then I embrace it as a history. What is truth? I leave that up to you to decide. A biography or memoir relates the story of what has happened to a person in the past – perhaps only the quite recent past. That is history. Bernadette Bean drew attention to the sub-genre of true crime in her Crime, Mystery, Suspense and Thriller roundup. If the history of crime interests you I suggest you read her post. Some histories and biographies were also included in the Literary Fiction and Non-Fiction wrap-up.
Over one hundred histories, biographies and memoirs were reviewed for the Challenge during 2012. The following overview will only discuss a fraction of them. A survey of the list reveals that Challenge participants prefer to read about the recent past. Most of the books reviewed were about the history of our lifetime, ie post World War II. Understandably most books are about Australian history but this is not limiting. Australian history covers a vast array of topics and includes people from nearly everywhere in the world.
The most reviewed book in this category for the Challenge in 2012 was Am I Black Enough for You?, a personal account of life and identity written by successful Aboriginal author, Anita Heiss. You can read Jessica White’s overview of these reviews in the Diversity wrap-up. Other books by Aboriginal authors that have been reviewed for the Challenge are:
- Kick the Tin by Doris Kartinyeri (reviewed by Marilyn Brady),
- Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington (reviewed by Anne Marie),
- Auntie Rita by Rita and Jackie Huggins (reviewed by Marilyn Brady),
- Too Many Tears by Heather Vicenti and Deborah Dickman (reviewed by Kate Rizzetti),
- My Bundjalung People by Ruby Langford Ginibi (reviewed by Marilyn Brady), and
- My Place by Sally Morgan (reviewed by Marilyn Brady).
These books all focussed on life for Aboriginal people in the twentieth century. In 2013 I am hoping to find some histories of Australia’s early settlement and the nineteenth century written by Aboriginal authors.
I agree with Jessica White who wrote in her 2012 wrap-up about diversity that she would like to see more Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW) reviews of books by Aboriginal authors. Seven histories, biographies and memoirs written by Aboriginal authors have been reviewed for AWW in 2012. If it was not for Marilyn Brady’s reviews there would been only four books by Aboriginal authors reviewed by Challenge participants. I am sure we can read more in 2013.
Australian historians, generally of Anglo-Celtic background, are highly regarded worldwide for their handling the history of indigenous and non-indigenous relations. Inga Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers, reviewed by Marilyn Brady, is a landmark work and is required reading for some university history courses as well as being an enjoyable read. I was surprised that there were not more reviews of books about relations between Aborigines and settlers during the colonial era given that Australian historians have been producing so much work in this area over the last twenty or thirty years.
Other aspects of the history of Europeans in Australia was also covered by AWW reviewers. Paula Grunseit reviewed a book about a bushranger in Carol Baxter’s Captain Thunderbolt and His Lady. Janine Rizzetti carefully analysed Derelie Cherry’s biography of an early Colonial Secretary of New South Wales, Alexander Mcleay. The story of Scottish convicts serving time in the Female Factory on the slopes of Mt. Wellington in Tasmania was reviewed by Lauren Murphy and Paula Grunseit. If you like the air of a mystery then you may enjoy a book reviewed by Jean Bedford about a reclusive woman living in nineteenth century Newtown, Sydney. Alternatively Penny Russell’s book about manners, identity and social status in Australia during the nineteenth century and until the outbreak of World War I might interest you (reviewed by Jenny Schwartz and Paula Grunseit).
Two books provide the bridge between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Stephanie Campisi writes an enticing review of the biography of Melbourne confectioner Macpherson Robertson, the inventor of the Cherry Ripe and Freddo Frog. “If this book were a type of confectionery, its recipe would be one part rags to riches, one part Richard Branson, and one part Willy Wonker” she writes. Marilyn Brady received quite a different view of Australian history while reading Mary Durack’s Kings in Grass Castles. This history about pioneering pastoralists, the Durack family, was written in 1959. The story continued in Brenda Niall’s recently published biography of the Durack sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, which was reviewed by Sue on her Whispering Gums blog.
Challenge participants did not read many books that focussed on the first half of the twentieth century. Narelle Harris reviewed a book about Melbourne when it was the capital city of Australia between 1901 and 1927. Melissa Watts commented that the autobiography of writer, Dulcie Deamer was “a great insight into Sydney of the 1920s”. Katie Holmes’ exploration of Australian women’s diaries in the 1920s and 1930s was recommended by Marilyn Brady.
History is for all age groups. Two children’s histories were reviewed for AWW in 2012. Paula Grunseit praised Christobel Mattingley’s book, My Father’s Islands: Abel Tasman’s heroic voyages, which is written for children. Louise enjoyed Who Explored Australia? Blaxland, Lawson, Wentworth, Evans and Strzelecki. There are many children’s histories published in Australia. It would be good to see more of them reviewed in 2013.
History of the Living Memory
History is what happened yesterday, literally. The history of our time is well represented in the books that were reviewed in 2012. I will mention only a few here. Marieke Hardy’s You’ll be Sorry When I am Dead attracted four favourable AWW reviews (Kate Rizzetti, Mareelouise, Maggie Dad and Sue Luus). Jessica White reviewed a memoir by Krissy Kneen through which mores about female sexuality are explored. Tim McGuire enjoyed the account of Brisbane during the 1980s and 1990s in Sally Breen’s The Casuals.
Diversity is an important element in the fabric of Australian society and Challenge participants recognised this. Jo Tamar reviewed Alice Pung’s memoir, Unpolished Gem, about growing up as an Australian of Asian descent. Tamar praised Pung’s “impeccable” writing and found that it helped her to understand her Asian friends better.
Australia has been a refuge for many people who suffered the horrors of the twentieth century. AWW reviewers Maree Kimberley and James Tierney were moved by Pung’s subsequent book, Her Father’s Daughter, which explored her family history in the killing fields of Cambodia. Readers can learn about the experiences of Vietnamese making the dangerous journey to Australia in Boat People: Personal Stories from the Vietnam Exodus 1975-96 which was reviewed by Monique Mulligan (scroll down). Last year Holocaust survivor, Halina Wagowska, published The Testimony, an account of surviving the Holocaust and her subsequent life. This attracted the attention of three AWW reviewers, Maree, Janine Fitzpatrick and Stephanie Campisi.
Challenge participants also read about the lives of Australian Muslims. AWW reviewers, Amra Pajalic and Sally, enjoyed Arwa El Masri’s memoir and felt that her book helped to clarify some misunderstandings about Islam. Kevin Rennie reviewed the memoir of Somali Muslim, Mariam Issa, who writes about her life in Africa and the events that led her to settle in the Melbourne bayside suburb of Brighton.
The Australian Women Writers Challenge has something for everybody. If reading books about entertainers is something you enjoy then you can read reviews about entertainers such as the comedian from Alice Springs, Fiona O’Loughlin (reviewed by Shelleyrae). The books of another comedian, Judith Lucy, were reviewed by Shelleyrae and Paula Grunseit (review of audiobook version). Simone found Dannii Minogue’s memoir easy to read and absorbing. If you enjoyed the television series, The Farmer Wants a Wife, then you might want to read the memoir written by a participant on that show, Jo Fincham (reviewed by Helen McKenna). Perhaps punk rock is more your idea of entertainment? If so, you might be interested in reading The Ballroom: The Melbourne Punk And Post Punk Scene: A Tell All Memoir, reviewed by Adam Ford. You can find more books about entertainers by browsing through the list of AWW reviews of histories, biographies and memoirs.
Australian Women Write about the World
Of the books reviewed it is not surprising that the most common subject was Australians living in Australia. However, Australian writers also like to explore the world in their writing. Amra Pajalic reviewed Hanifa Deen’s biography about Bangladeshi human rights activist, Taslima Masreen, who had to flee her country and resettle in Sweden. Other books were memoirs of Australians who moved to another country. AWW reviewer Helen McKenna read about a West Australian family who set sail for a world tour only to crash on the island of Mogmog in the Pacific. It was Nellie Bennet’s passion for flamenco dancing that led her to move from Australia to Spain. Her memoir, Only in Spain, was reviewed by Jody Lee who thoroughly enjoyed it. In an unusual conclusion to her review of the same book Paula Grunseit advises readers to avoid practising the castanets while driving!
History of science is a thriving field but there were very few AWW reviews of books from this sub-genre. I reviewed two books that were shortlisted for many literary awards. Robin Arianrhod’s book, Seduced by Logic, is an account of two female mathematicians who were important to the Newtonian revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Double Entry, Jane Gleeson-White’s exploration of the history of double-entry book-keeping, focuses on fifteenth century Venetian merchants before tracing this system of accounting to modern times. Double-Entry earned Jane Gleeson-White the Waverley Library Award for literature. My reviews of these books are here and here.
The strength of the Challenge is not only the number of reviews that have been written but the number of reviewers who participate. Sixty seven Challenge participants reviewed one hundred histories, biographies and memoirs in 2012. This creates a wonderful online community where people who enjoy reading books can find someone else to share their interest with, whether it be on Twitter, Facebook or Goodreads. There is a niche for everyone in the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge.
Paula Grunseit was the most prolific reviewer of histories, biographies and memoirs, writing thirteen reviews. Marilyn Brady, who lives in the United States, wrote nine AWW reviews despite facing some difficulties in getting her hands on some Australian books. Other reviewers who enjoyed reviewing books in this category during 2012 were Yvonne Perkins (six reviews), Helen McKenna and Heidi Reads (five reviews each).
Reviewing books is an opportunity to work on our craft of writing. A review can be bland or riveting. The best reviewers can entice people to read the review even if they have no interest in the book being reviewed. Recognition for passionate reviews must be given to Heidi Reads for her review of The Confession of an Unrepentant Lesbian Ex-Mormon by Sue-Ann Post and Elizabeth Lhuede’s review of The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement by Virginia Lloyd. Heidi demonstrates that a reader can be infuriated by a book, yet conclude that it is a wonderful read. Elizabeth wrote beautifully about a book that “sings of love and grief” and how she wept on the bus while reading it.
Australian women are very productive writers of histories, memoirs and biographies. I wish I could have discussed all the books that were reviewed. I encourage you to read some of the reviews that I did not include in this roundup by browsing through the list of books reviewed in 2012. This list has made the Australian Women Writers Challenge website a useful database for those who want to see what Australian women are writing in this genre. Twenty six of the books reviewed were published in 2012, yet there are many more published last year that still have not been reviewed. In the monthly posts about histories, biographies and memoirs which I will be writing this year I will bring your attention to new publications as well as those books that have been shortlisted for awards and books written by indigenous authors. I am looking forward to reading your reviews this year!
I’m Yvonne Perkins. For the last few years I have been working as a research assistant on a variety of historical projects one of which was an investigation of the history of teaching reading in Australia. Currently I am researching the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of soldiers who served in World War I. In my spare time I enjoy reading history and writing about it on my blog, Stumbling Through the Past. I can also be found @perkinsy on twitter.
I am so enjoying the wrap ups and this is another fascinating one about a topic that is dear to my heart too. I’ve read a few of the books reviewed here before 2012, including the two Pung memoirs and the women’s diaries one, Spaces in her day. This last one, reviewed by Marilyn as you say, is well worth reading. Although I read it, probably 10 years ago, I find myself still thinking about it. It’s great to see it here and being brought to people’s attentions years after it was published.
Yes, the book drawing on women’s diaries looks fascinating and interesting because it takes a different approach to presenting history. My TBR pile has enough reading for the rest of year, but I would like to squeeze this in.
It’s well worth it … but I know that many others are too!
I’m loving the wrap ups too. I have vowed to read at least one book from this category this year despite not liking biographies/memoirs that much and having been turned off the study of Australian history by a succession of poor teachers during high school. I shall be referring back to this for some ideas of a book or two to track down.
That is such a common story. I also was massively turned off Australian history because of school. At uni we had a tutorial about the gold rush. Our tutorial group decided to finish early because none of us had the least interest in the gold rush because of our experience with the topic at school.
Which makes me think that the lot of history teachers is tough. I was totally revolted by the tales of depravity in convict Tasmania that our grade 4 teacher related to us. Yet there might have been some children in that class who loved it?
Thank you, Yvonne. That was an excellent overview–with yet more suggestions for books I want to read in 2013. And thanks for all your assistance to me as an outsider.
I think history has become easier to teach and more interesting to casual readers as historians have focused less on politics and more on people enough like ourselves for us to have some empathy for them and their lives.
I’m glad that the overview helped you find some more books to add to your reading pile Marilyn! Thankyou so much for your support over the last year.
I think you are spot on with your comment about people being more interested in history now that the focus is more on ordinary people.
Am I allowed to say “me too”!?
Reblogged this on debbierobson.
Not that I needed more books to read!
I think local histories can often give make ordinary lives interesting and can show how several factors overlap and intersect. I hope to find some good Australian ones.
A question to consider. Why does AWW put history, biography, autobiography, and memoir together? Today when most personal life stories that get published are more private and less about public leadership, I’d argue for separating them. The line is blurry wherever you draw it, but to make history separate would define what historians do more clearly. For example, Clendinnen’s memoir is very different from her historical writing.
An interesting question! We have decided to place all life writing together which is why memoirs are with biographies, and then of course that is historical. As history is about private lives as well as public lives now especially in the area of women’s history then this makes added sense.
As you note categories are always fluid and overlapping.
This is a wonderful wrap-up, Yvonne – very comprehensive. I’ve ordered Virginia Lloyd’s book from the library – the context reminds me of Debra Adelaide’s The Household Guide to Dying – which is fiction, & had me in a flood of tears by the end – it was a beautifully crafted book.
Thankyou Jessica. It is great to see readers finding exciting books to read as a result of the AWW 2012 overviews.