I always indulge in a little smile of satisfaction when all three aspects of the ‘History Memoir and Biography’ category are covered during a month. April 2021 was such a month, with 15 reviews of 14 books.
Reviews of books already featured in previous round-ups including Ktbookbingo’s Instagram based reviews, one of Larissa Behrendt’s Finding Eliza: Power and Colonial Storytelling (review here) and two books by Bri Lee, Eggshell Skull (a glowing review) and an even more glowing review of Beauty. Ashleigh Meikle reviewed Tanya Bretherton’s The Husband Poisoner, and Jennifer Cameron-Smith read both Sandra Hogan’s With My Little Eye (review here) and Emma Jane Holmes’ One Last Dance (review here). Rebecca Bowyer reviewed Carly Findlay’s edited collection Growing Up Disabled in Australia and Miranda Tapsall’s Top End Girl gathered another review, this time by Veronica Strachan. Louise Milligan’s Witness: An investigation into the brutal cost of seeking justice does have an autobiographical element, but it is also an important contribution to the public conversation about the Australian justice system. Reviews of Milligan’s book by Maureen Helen and Jennifer Cameron-Smith were featured in the Non Fiction Round Up for April and I urge you to look them up there.
In her book Defiant Voices: How Australia’s Female Convicts Challenged Authority (2021) Babette Smith argues that women convicts have traditionally been seen as either incorrigible harridans, or else victims of the patriarchy. In this book, where broad-brush descriptions are interwoven with small case studies, Smith
muddies the distinction. She detects elements of both but most of all emphasizes the agency of women convicts, whether it be by choosing to marry and thus disappear from the record, or by repeatedly challenging authority through their ‘defiant voices’
In her review, which questions the suitability of the title, Janine at Resident Judge notes:
Babette Smith has resisted being dragged into an either/or, strumpet/victim dichotomy. The book is far more nuanced than the title and back-page blurb suggests. It is instructive to hear those voices of defiance, but it is important to recognize those other, more domestic choices as well – as Smith does well, despite the title. (Review here)
Both of the memoirs reviewed this month shed light on societal issues through the writer’s own experience. Emotional Female (2021) is the debut memoir of former- surgeon Yumiko Kadota. In her review, Lauren from Underground Writers writes:
It is a shocking and honest account of what many women, particularly women of colour, have to face when working as doctors in the Australian public health system. …Reading Kadota’s memoir brings to light how ingrained and normalised racism is in many workplaces, especially workplaces dominated by white people. Emotional Female brings to light the reality of working in our public health system and how people of colour are at an unfair disadvantage. (Review here)
Sam Van Zweden’s Eating with my mouth open (2021) was reviewed by Shelley, also at Underground Writers. She writes in her review:
a deeply personal intersection of food writing and memoir, touching on taboo subjects such as eating disorders, fat acceptance, and generational relationships with food. …It is hard to put into words how much I adored this book. Reading van Zweden’s experiences with disordered eating, as well as her parental relationships and her musings about how society treats fat bodies, was like holding up a mirror to my own experiences. It was validating yet deeply affecting, and I feel as though many women will be able to relate to the themes within this book. (Review here)
The lure of family connection has drawn many writers into biography, bringing them into the intersection of memoir and biography. Krissy Kneen’s new book The Three Burials of Lotty Kneen (2021) explores the life of the author’s grandmother, a story that her grandmother strongly resisted telling during her own life. In her review, Jennifer Cameron-Smith writes:
With a box containing her grandmother’s ashes, Krissy Kneen set out to trace her grandmother’s early life in Slovenia and Egypt. Perhaps she would find other family members as well. What follows is a complicated, partial unravelling of Lotty’s life. Three countries, three lives, three burials. Lotty belongs in Slovenia, in Egypt, in Australia. And, as Krissy Kneen undertook her journey, she learns more about her grandmother and her own history. (Review here)
Helen Ennis’ biography of the pioneering modernist photographer in Olive Cotton:A Life in Photography (2019) won the Margary Medal for Biography in 2020, the University of Queensland Non Fiction Book Award, Queensland Literary Awards 2020 and was the winner of the 2020 Canberra Critics’ Circle Award for Biography. Olive Cotton was a childhood friend of the photographer Max Dupain and joined his fledgling photographic studio in c.1935, briefly married him, but spent most of her life on a farm in Cowra with her second husband. A landmark exhibition in 1985 brought her to fame, followed by a major retrospective at the Art Gallery of NSW in 2000, curated by Helen Ennis, the author of this book. Jennifer Cameron-Smith (who has been reading voraciously this month!) writes in her review:
Helen Ennis has pieced together Olive’s story from a variety of sources including her own friendship with the artist, from Olive’s children Sally and Peter McInerney, the private papers of Max Dupain, and the personal items Olive kept in a trunk on the property near Cowra, NSW, where she lived for more than fifty years….I finished the book knowing more about Olive Cotton and with a greater appreciation of her work. (Review here)
Again, another month of wide reading and thoughtful commentary- thank you!
About: I’m Janine Rizzetti and I blog at the immodestly named Resident Judge of Port Phillip where I indulge my love of reading, podcasts, history and seeing films and exhibitions just before they close. I am a historian, interested in Australian and colonial history. I’m officially retired but more occupied than I thought I would be with my local historical society, playing with grandchildren, learning Spanish and now playing ukulele!