Each month the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge reveals the depth of writing and the wide range of topics and themes covered by Australian women writing histories, biographies and memoirs. This field is vast, a world within the larger world of Australian women’s writing.
There are many ways in which life writing and history can be presented and reviews for the Challenge over the last month reflected this. My attention was captured by Magdalena Ball’s review of Liquid Nitrogen by Jennifer Maiden. “There’s something deeply original about Jennifer Maiden’s poetry”, comments Ball. Reading the review I felt that here was a work that challenged the concept of genre; which did not adhere to traditional writing styles or conceptions of time.
The Stella Prize highlights excellence in Australian women’s writing, both fiction and nonfiction. Last month the long list for the Stella Prize was announced. This month Melissa Phillips wrote the first review for the Challenge of a memoir that is on the long list, The Mind of a Thief by Patti Miller. “One cannot fault Miller’s gift as a writer who weaves words and evokes images of the land and the many people who tell her its stories” remarks Phillips. “Yet I felt less comfortable with Miller’s role as interpreter of stories and quasi-historian.”
A book cannot be judged by one review alone. If you are looking for a book to read I encourage you to read a book from the Stella Longlist and review it for the Challenge. We are only two days away from the announcement of the short list for the Stella Prize. It will be interesting to see if the The Mind of a Thief and the other nonfiction book on the long list, The People Smuggler by Robin de Crespigny (also reviewed by Melissa Phillips) will make it onto the shortlist.
The Mind of a Thief is one of five memoirs and biographies about indigenous issues which were reviewed for the Challenge over the last month. Challenge reviewer, Mindy is focussing on Aboriginal authors for her Australian Women Writers’ Challenge reading. After reading the memoir, Mum Shirl, she reflected that “[r]eading this book is like having a cosy chat with MumShirl”.
Debbie Robson’s review of Margaret Michaelis: Love, Loss and Photography by Ennis Helen left me wishing I could sneak this book into my ever-growing reading pile. It is a biography of an Austrian-Australian photographer and her two lives, one in the upheaval that enveloped Europe during the first half of the twentieth century and the other after the war in Australia. This is not just a coffee table book of stunning images. “It is a quest taking twenty years embarked upon by a curator of photography to understand the nature and personality of the photographer bequeathing photos to the National Gallery of Australia”, says Robson in her review.
One of the delights of involvement in the Challenge is reading some well-written and considered reviews. Perfection is elusive in writing and many Challenge reviewers recognise this by including measured criticism as well as praise for the books they read. Lara, also known as ‘This Charming Mum’ enjoyed the memoir of former Vogue Australia editor, The Vogue Factor, saying, “Clements’ writing style is a pleasure to read; sparse and unsentimental”. After critiquing the attitudes displayed in the book she concludes, “[t]his is a captivating memoir by a formidable woman but it’s not without some troubling values.” Yet your opinion may differ. Read it and share what you think about it in a review for the Challenge.
Finally I must mention the series of reviews that Pauline has written about the three memoirs written by actress, Merridy Eastman. “I’ve heartily enjoyed reading about Merridy Eastman’s life over the last few weeks” she remarks in her review of Eastman’s third memoir, How Now Brown Frau. “I’ve also discovered that funny autobiography is a great genre for the breastfeeding mother. Every now and then the little fella will pop off and smile up at his chuckling mother. You just don’t get that with Richard Flanagan.” No, I suppose you don’t!
There are many good reviews that I have been unable to include in this overview. Over twenty histories, biographies and memoirs were reviewed in the last month. You can find them here.
Are any of you wondering what you should read next? If you have finally exhausted your reading pile I have a couple of suggestions.
Firstly you could get stuck into the books on the long list for the Stella Prize. It would be great to have a number of reviews for each book thus promoting discussion and debate about the merits of each book.
Alternatively (or as well, if you have time on your hands) I encourage you to delve into the world of war histories written by Australian women. Thanks to the assistance of a number of historians online I have compiled a list of nearly thirty books written by Australian women about war. The list can be found in the Challenge’s GoodReads bookshelves. There is something for everyone in this list ranging from general histories of particular wars, to books about prisoners of war to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander involvement in wars. The list includes histories of the home front, political alliances, biographies of soldiers and feminist perspectives of war. Perhaps you can suggest a book that I should add to this list?
Next month we commemorate Anzac Day and there will be an explosion of interest in war history. Overwhelmingly this will be history written by men, but the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge can make a contribution by bringing attention to the histories of war written by women.
The beauty of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge is that everyone can be a participant; it does not favour one type of book over another. Whatever your reading interest may be your contribution to the Challenge is helping to build a wonderful library of reviews. I’m looking forward to having my reading world expanded by Challenge participants in the coming month!
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.