As always, our March HMB reviews (and reviewers) are a diverse and eclectic bunch. From Irish convicts in Tasmania to the diaries of early voyagers to Australia. From the thought-provoking history of African women in Gogo Mama to the dilemmas of being a modern Aussie mum as defined by well-known blogger, Mrs Woog.
We also reviewed books about the last woman hanged in Australia and explored the endlessly fascinating father-daughter dynamic in Reckoning and Her Father’s Daughter.
However it was a February new release, Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling that really captured our imaginations this past month, with three reviews posted during March.
A vital Aboriginal perspective on colonial storytelling Indigenous lawyer and writer Larissa Behrendt has long been fascinated by the story of Eliza Fraser, who was purportedly captured by the local Butchulla people after she was shipwrecked on their island in 1836. In this deeply personal book, Behrendt uses Eliza’s tale as a starting point to interrogate how Aboriginal people – and indigenous people of other countries – have been portrayed in their colonizers’ stories.
Citing works as diverse as Robinson Crusoe and Coonardoo, she explores the tropes in these accounts, such as the supposed promiscuity of Aboriginal women, the Europeans’ fixation on cannibalism, and the myth of the noble savage. Ultimately, Behrendt shows how these stories not only reflect the values of their storytellers but also reinforce those values – which in Australia led to the dispossession of Aboriginal people and the laws enforced against them.
Michelle @Adventures of Biography found that
Finding Eliza is not without flaws of its own. Behrendt’s scope is so wide that the narrative sometimes feels disjointed, skipping from theme to theme as if ticking topics off a list. Subheadings have replaced the prose that could have led the reader more smoothly from one idea to the next. However the text is also peppered with useful and enlightening illustrations and photos – just black and white reproductions, to be sure, but surely something that could be included far more often in this age of digital publishing. And Behrendt’s prose is always readable and sharp, never getting bogged by complexity at the expense of clarity.
Yvonne @Stumbling Through the Past felt that “many writers and historians have taken a similar approach to all sorts of colonial history and a few have also deconstructed Eliza Fraser’s story. I have previously read about the colonial trope of the ‘savage cannibal’ but Behrendt’s discussion about this is the best I have read.”
Whereas Calzean @goodreads found “that the best part of the book was the Aboriginal Elder’s perspective on Eliza’s treatment. I wanted more of this type of insight.”
All three reviewers were unanimous in the importance of this book in unpacking the inbuilt biases in white history and the insights provided by Behrendt into the Butchulla people’s view of history and what happened to Eliza Fraser in particular.
The one and only memoir on this year’s Stella shortlist, Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays on Hunger by Fiona Wright, received two reviews. I hope to get to this one myself before the judging happens later this month.
Alex @Luvvies Musings tells us that
Wright stops and looks back at the pathology of her illness – looking for clues about how it might have begun, what the triggers might have been. This is not all “Dear Diary” stuff, I hasten to add. Wright informs her reflections with other writing on the topic, scientific, historical and good old literature itself, including writings by Christina Stead, Tim Winton, Dorothy Porter, Carmel Bird and many more. She also analyses the language used by therapists in her treatment – a subject obviously dear to the heart of a wordsmith and a nod to the importance of the “connect” between mind and body.
Sue @Whispering Gums, as is her wont, tackled the form and structure of Wright’s book, but she also summarised her thoughts about the book by stating,
It would be a rare person these days, from Western cultures anyhow, who didn’t have some brush with an eating disorder, whether through a friend, a family member, or personal experience. And yet it is one of our most misunderstood afflictions, which is where Fiona Wright’s Small acts of disappearance: Essays on hunger comes in. Wright, born in 1983, is a published poet. However, in her mid twenties, in her first hospital day program for her seriously low weight, she had to admit to herself that she was, indeed, one of “those women”, one of those women, that is, whom she’d always thought were “vain and selfish, shallow and somehow stupid”.
I wonder what gems will bob up next month?
All of us who love our HMB books are always on the look out for great new reads. A recent trawl through a second hand bookshop unearthed Cassandra Pybus’ memoir Til Apples Grow on an Orange Tree which I can’t wait to dive into. I’m also keen to track down Mary Gilmore’s biography, Bluestocking in Patagonia by Anne Whitehead.
Do you have a HMB favourite that you read before you started reviewing at AWW that you’d like to recommend to us below in the comments? Or is there something tempting on your TBR pile that you’d like to share with us?
A book that continues to haunt me years after first reading it is Inga Clendinnen’s Reading the Holocaust. I now have Dancing With Strangers on my TBR pile as I’m curious to see how Clendinnen dissects Indigenous history. I’m hoping for the same intelligent, in-depth and insightful approach.
About Bronwyn: I have been a book blogger at Brona’s Books since 2009 and a bookseller (specialising in children’s literature) in Sydney since 2008. Prior to this I was as an Early Childhood teacher for 18 years in rural NSW.
I taught myself to read when I was four by memorising my Dr Seuss books. I haven’t stopped reading since.
You can find me on Twitter @bronasbooks.
Thanks for the link Bronwyn, and please don’t hesitate to read Clendinnen’s Dancing with Strangers. It’s probably her best work (and that’s high praise, given how good her other works are). Intelligent insights, fascinating characterizations, nuanced analysis – it’s all there.
I’m delighted to hear that. I’m also keen to tackle her one of the Aztecs when I have a little more time than I do right now!
Great round-up. I’m in the middle of the Wright essays at the moment – very interesting book. Am intrigued by how inward looking she is – I had always understood anorexia to be a lot about control and a condition heavily influenced by one’s relationship with their parents. Whether my perception is right or wrong, I’ve been interested in the fact that there is very little, if any, mention of her illness in relation to her parents. I still have a few essays left so will be keen to see how she ‘finishes’ her story.
I have a friend going through something akin to this with her daughter, so my interest is more than piqued by this book & it sounds like it would have lots to think over…
Ah Brona, you made me laugh with Sue “as is her wont, tackled the form and structure”. Oh to be so obvious! Still, I do think form and structure are important to consider!!
I am keen to read Finding Eliza too. And I’m with Michelle (MST) on Dancing with strangers. It’s one of those books I often think I should read again. (Should and would like to I mean). It’s one of those that I’ve read before the challenge, before blogging. Another is her memoir Tiger’s eye about her experience of illness and organ transplant. Great reading.
I love your form and structure notes Sue as I almost never notice that stuff (unless it has all gone horribly wrong!) So I really appreciate it, for instance, when you note that half of a short story collection was written in first person, the rest in third. It makes me stop and think and wonder why (in a good way 🙂
It looks like I’ll be tracking down Clendinnen’s entire backlist.
Thanks Brona … sometimes I worry that it’s a bit dry, but I want to remember it for myself so I do it anyhow!!
And yes, re Clendinnen, me too. I want to read Reading the Holocaust. I’ve only read three books I think, the two I mentioned plus a collection of essays, called Agamemnon’s kiss I think.
Thank you for a great roundup Bronwyn. Just checking. I’m currently reading Brilliant Careers by Andree Wright (a female) Australian Women in Cinema. I should categorise that as History rather than biography?
Most probably esp if it’s talking about a variety of women and their place in the history of cinema. Or could be more general non-fiction if it’s more about the technical side of cinema?
Hope this helps 😊