I always get a warm inner glow when our reviews cover all three aspects of the history, memoir and biography category in the challenge! So I should be feeling very gratified this month with 17 reviews of 15 books, across all three genres, making August the most active month in some time.
Six of these reviews picked up on books which have appeared in recent round-ups. Tegan Bennett Daylight’s The Details was reviewed by both Cass Moriarty and Kate@Booksaremyfavouriteandbest. Janine Rizzetti (Resident Judge) read Cassandra Pybus’ Truganini and Jennifer Cameron-Smith read Tanya Bretherton’s The Killing Streets: Uncovering Australia’s First Serial Murder. Jennifer also reviewed Clode’s The Wasp and the Orchid and you can read her review here. Digging into the back catalogue, Kate@Booksaremyfavouriteandbest reviewed Anna Funder’s Stasiland (review here), the seventh review it has received on the AWW Challenge since it was released in 2002.
Those of us old enough to remember six o’clock closing of hotels will probably recall hotels as being a male dominated space. But in her book based on her PhD thesis Beyond the Ladies Lounge: Australian Women Publicans (2014, original publication 2003) Clare Wright points out that this was not always the case. In her review, Janine Rizzetti (Resident Judge) writes:
Female publicans have a long history, right back to the earliest days of white settlement, and at the end of the 19th century and early decades of the 20th century, over half of Melbourne’s hotels had a female licensee… [This book] is written with the same warmth and wit of Wright’s later work on Eureka and suffrage, which tie far more into the bigger historical themes of Australian history. It is not just a paean of praise to female publicans, because it has academic ‘grunt’ as well, although some readers may find this off-putting. There are enough personal vignettes for you to remember that you are reading about real people as well, and the sheer number of examples of female publicans drawn from right across Victoria reinforces that she is writing about a widespread, if overlooked, phenomenon. (Review here)
As it happens, two of the memoirs reviewed during August deal with Darwin, from two very different perspectives.
Bloody Bastard Beautiful (2017) is the memoir of a German women, Mocco Wollert, who shifts to Darwin in the 1950s to start a new life with her boyfriend. In her review, Gretchen Bernet-Ward writes:
The book title is a typical Darwin expression with good connotations, and Mocco says she is an optimist, she lives on hope and in hope. Originally from Germany, she worked hard with what she had, overcame obstacles and adapted to Australian life with her Aussie-born daughters Susan and Kim and beloved husband Niclas. The other love in her life is Darwin, 1950s Darwin, at the Top End of Northern Territory. No supermarkets, no fancy restaurants, definitely no air-conditioning, miles and miles of dirt roads, and at that time populated by about 8,000 people. …The strength of a woman when put to the test reverberates powerfully through Mocco Wollert’s narrative. From good, bad and ugly circumstances, Mocco’s words shine. The comes across as forthright in her opinions, honest, funny, emotional, grumpy yet ultimately loveable. (Review here)
A more recent Darwin memoir, comes from actor and Larrakia woman Miranda Tapsell in her Top End Girl (2020). Jennifer Cameron-Smith writes in her review:
In this energetic and engaging memoir, Miranda Tapsell writes of her childhood, her family, her time at NIDA and her work on the stage, on television and on film….I found this a heart-warming read because Ms Tapsell’s enthusiasm is infectious. But there are serious issues addressed here as well …. about reconnecting to family and culture [and…] a reminder too, about what is being lost, especially in terms of Indigenous languages. (Review here).
Memoirs often involve a search for family, and two of the memoirs reviewed this month deal with an adult’s search for lost parents.
Susan Francis’ memoir The Love That Remains (2020) is subtitled ‘An extraordinary memoir about secrets, life’s shocking twists and unconditional love’. Denise Newton reviewed the book:
This is such a beautiful book. Susan Francis’ debut published book, it is a memoir that tells of her lifelong search for her birth parents, her struggle to understand and accept the circumstances of her birth and adoption, her relationship with her adored husband Wayne, and her grief at his untimely and sudden death. But it is also about secrets that are kept by individuals and within families and asks one of the hardest of all questions: How well can we really know another person? …I won’t say more about the events described in this book because I think every reader should come to it without too many preconceptions or prior knowledge. That way it unfolds fresh for each new reading. It is enough to say that it is a compelling debut. (Review here)
Denise also reviewed Betty O’Neill’s The Other Side of Absence (2020) where the author embarks on a search for the story of her father, who disappeared suddenly when she was an infant, with a brief, harrowing reappearance when she was a young adult. Denise writes:
It is with this family background that Betty navigated life as a young adult, but not until later did she begin the search for her father’s story….This memoir, like others I have read (such as Magda Szubanki’s Reckoning or Esther Safran Foer’s I want you to know we’re still here) illuminate the present by examining the past. The Other Side of Absence is a beautifully written, engrossing and heartfelt addition to Australian memoir. (Review here).
There seems to have been a spate of books released recently that combine memoir with reflection, in a search for a more meaningful life. There were three such memoirs reviewed this month.
The subtitle of Julia Baird’s Phosphorescence (2020) is ‘On awe, wonder and things that sustain you when the world goes dark’. Kate@Booksaremyfavouriteandbest notes that
In one sense, there are not a lot of new ideas in this book – we know that we live in a culture that is increasingly ‘silence-avoiding’; that under-appreciates nature; that is faster and faster and faster – but Baird frames it in a new way – the overarching tenet is awe, with a theme of mindfulness, and a foundation of fascinating research. …The chapters on the need to tell stories are beautifully detailed and multi-faceted. And the chapters on friendship are exquisite. …It’s not a perfect collection. Baird’s letters to her children, while beautifully written, feel slightly out of step with other chapters. Likewise, the chapters on faith didn’t hold my interest as much as the others, although they allow Baird to come full circle. (Review here)
Sarah Wilson, most famous for her wellness site, her series of books I Quit Sugar, and most recently a book about anxiety, has written This one wild and precious life: a hopeful path forward in a fractured world (2020). Cass Moriarty writes that:
Much of the book is punctuated by her own personal travel experiences, especially those when she has stumbled upon something meaningful, sought out a wise or informed expert, chosen the path less travelled, or given in to her frustration and despair only to discover that waiting on the other side was a fresh level of enthusiasm and joy. …Each of the chapters is interspersed with various walks or hikes that she has done – in fact, she says she literally ‘walked this book’. …This is a well-researched book additionally informed by the author’s own lived experience. It perfectly sums up the collective feelings of the world at this time – that 2020 needs a reset button – and she frankly depicts the pervasive sense of ennui, frustration and hopelessness that we are all apt to experience at times. But instead of dwelling on the unfairness and overwhelming feeling of it all, she focuses on small, individual practices that each of us can embrace with the theory that small changes together add up to big revolutions. This is an inspiring and optimistic book. (Review here)
Finally, comedian Judith Lucy searches for her own sense of meaning in Drink, Smoke, Pass Out (2012). Janine Rizzetti (Resident Judge) read it for comic relief after finishing a depressing book, but didn’t find it to be the romp that she expected:
The first third of this book is a subversion of the Eat, Pray, Love phenomenon which fortunately passed me by, and she certainly did drink, smoke and pass out, become too involved with the wrong men, and end up needy and full of fragile bravado. Fortunately Judith Lucy does eventually move on from the alcohol, bongs and unconsciousness. Starting off as a tale of a dissolute life, it ends up as an exploration of spirituality. In this regard, it’s almost like the companion book to her television program Judith Lucy’s Spiritual Journey. I’m not averse to a bit of spiritual tourism myself, but I can imagine that some readers would be rather put off by the change in direction. (Review here)
Both Calzean and Jennifer Cameron-Smith read Danielle Clode’s new book In Search of the Woman Who Sailed the World (2020), the story of Jeanne Baret (27 July 1740- 5 August 1807) recognized as the first woman to have completed a voyage of circumnavigation of the globe as a member of Louis Antoine de Bouganville’s colonial expeditions in 1766-1769.
…I found it fascinating, following Jeanne Baret’s journey through Danielle Clode’s eyes. The challenges of tracking down information: who was Jeanne Baret? How did an impoverished peasant woman from Burgundy come to be part of Bougainville’s expedition? What would the journey have been like and how much of a contribution did Jeanne Baret make? (Jennifer’s review here).
As a zoologist, Clode adds extra insights into her work, the type of flora and fauna found and in the author’s specific interests in sea shells.Her writing is full of enthusiasm for nature, the sea and the unsung heroes of these early voyages. (Calzean’s review here).
Finally, Sue at Whispering Gums reviewed Desley Deacon’s biography of the Australian actress Judith Anderson, whose name may not be familiar in spite of her long and varied career. In reviewing Judith Anderson: Australian Star, First Lady of the American Stage (2019), Sue writes:
Like many of my generation, my first introduction to her was as the terrifying Mrs Danvers in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1939 (no I wasn’t alive then!) Rebecca. …Deacon chronicles the trajectory of her career meticulously, from these early days to her final performances when she was in her eighties. It was a long, and distinguished career which, while centred on the stage, also included film, television, radio and the college speaking circuit. …Deacon is not one of those biographers who psychoanalyses her subject. Her approach is more straight – that is, she presents what is on record, using the occasional “may” or “could” when some fact or other is not known. …Thoroughly researched, and written in a formal but accessible style, it is a positive but non-hagiographical story of an actor who was once described by Variety as achieving “near perfection in the dramatic art”. (Review here)
About: I’m Janine Rizzetti and I blog at the immodestly-named The Resident Judge of Port Phillip where I indulge my love of reading, podcasts 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, playing with grandchildren, learning Spanish and now brandishing a ukulele!