When some years ago I read Jim Davidson’s outstanding biography, Lyrebird Rising (1994), I was initially concerned by what seemed to be his potentially distorting fascination with the scene-stealing Louise Hanson-Dyer. But I soon discovered I needn’t have worried. Jim Davidson is not the sort of biographer whose obsession with his subject overcomes proportion. On the contrary, his sense of humour, his alertness to the fallible, the ridiculous, and the noble reinforce rather than compete with his respect for, and absorption in, the recorded life. A style full of elegance, wit, and, when called for, irony, ranging from gentle to corrosive, constantly works sharply against any temptation to be over-impressed. In A Führer for a Father, however, this armoury is strained to its limits.

The title stands as an early warning: either it is ironic, pointing a little bleakly to an overbearing, uncompromising, but broadly acceptable tendency in the father, or it is meant to slide away from metaphor towards the meaning that the ordinary German word ‘führer’ has inevitably taken on since World War II: Führer und Reichskanzler des deutschen Volkes – a title only ever accorded to, and assumed by, one man. Any doubt or equivocation on this point that we may entertain as we begin reading A Führer for a Father, Davidson clears up in the first sentence of the first paragraph:

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  • Custom Article Title Brian Matthews reviews 'A Führer for a Father: The Domestic Face of Colonialism' by Jim Davidson
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title A Führer for a Father
  • Book Author Jim Davidson
  • Book Subtitle The Domestic Face of Colonialism
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio NewSouth, $29.99 pb, 264 pp, 9781742235462

As Nadine Gordimer once mused, ‘Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.’ Sheila Kohler’s site of personal haunting is the murder of her sister Maxine in South Africa more than three decades ago. Once We Were Sisters is not, however, a maudlin memoir. Whilst the book readily enters dark territory, it also resuscitates the writer’s adored older sibling and their interwoven lives with a golden patina of nostalgia.

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  • Custom Article Title Tali Lavi reviews 'Once We Were Sisters' by Sheila Kocher
  • Contents Category Memoir
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    As Nadine Gordimer once mused, ‘Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.’ Sheila Kohler’s site of personal haunting is the murder of her sister Maxine in South Africa more than three decades ago ...

  • Book Title Once We Were Sisters
  • Book Author Sheila Kocher
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Allen & Unwin, $27.99 pb, 244 pp, 9781782119982

‘Coming out’ stories remain one of the most potent sources for young people to understand their own relationship to sex, gender, and sexuality. Living in a largely heteronormative society, many young people find a place in these stories to validate and challenge their thoughts and experiences. Nevo Zisin’s memoir, written at the age of twenty, covers these areas but also speaks to those living outside sex and gender binaries. In recent years there has been a wealth of resources developed for people who resist such classification, and it has become a burgeoning and popular field in independent publishing. Zisin’s preferred pronouns are ‘they’, ‘them’, and ‘their’. It has been some time since ‘they’ has become the preferred singular pronoun in common English usage, yet many people are still surprised when someone adopts ‘they’ as a singular pronoun.

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  • Custom Article Title Crusader Hillis reviews 'Finding Nevo' by Nevo Zisin
  • Contents Category Fiction
  • Book Title Finding Nevo
  • Book Author Nevo Zisin
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Black Dog Books, $18.99 pb, 224 pp, 9781925381184

'Our parents intimately link us, closeted as we are in our lives, to a thing we’re not, forging a joined separateness and a useful mystery, so that even together with them we are also alone,’ writes Richard Ford early in ‘My Mother, In Memory’, the first of the two memoirs that comprise Between Them, the Pulitzer Prize winner’s bewitching first book-length work of non-fiction.

Born fifteen years into his parents’ marriage, Ford was both a late and an only child. This instilled in him what he deems the ‘luxury’ of being able to ponder what came before, namely, as he writes, ‘the parents’ long life you had no part in’. In these recollections of Edna and Parker Ford’s lives as a couple and as parents, Ford consigns to the page a lifetime of such speculation. Over the years, he writes, ‘I’ve written down memories, disguised salient events into novels, told stories again and again to keep them within my reach.’ Now, Ford writes of his parents’ lives as a seasoned and master storyteller. Here we find a different side of the acclaimed novelist, one who delves into the mysteries of his family’s past.

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  • Custom Article Title Kevin Rabalais reviews 'Between Them: Remembering my parents' by Richard Ford
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title Between Them
  • Book Author Richard Ford
  • Book Subtitle Remembering my parents
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Bloomsbury, $18.99 hb, 179 pp, 9781408884690

When Oliver Sacks began seeing Bill Hayes in 2009, he had never been in a relationship. He wasn’t out as a gay man and hadn’t had sex for thirty-five years. Sacks, the celebrated author and neurologist, was almost thirty years older than Hayes, who had moved to New York from San Francisco after the sudden death of his partner. The two visited the Museum of Natural History and went for walks in the Bronx botanical garden, where Sacks could expatiate on every species of fern. When Hayes gave Sacks a long, exploratory kiss on his seventy-sixth birthday, the older man looked utterly surprised. ‘Is that what kissing is?’ he asked. ‘Or is that something you’ve invented?’

Hayes’s luminous memoir, Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and me, is full of such startling questions. For Sacks’s mind – erudite, deeply scientific, yet with a childlike sense of wonder – must now process the mysteries of love. He caresses his lover’s biceps: ‘they’re like ... beautiful tumours’. As he watches Hayes do his daily push-ups, he counts them by naming the elements: titanium, vanadium, chromium. ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if we could dream together?’ he asks Hayes one night in bed.

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  • Custom Article Title Suzy Freeman-Greene reviews 'Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and me' by Bill Hayes
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title Insomiac City
  • Book Author Bill Hayes
  • Book Subtitle New York, Oliver, and me
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Bloomsbury $29.99 hb, 304 pp, 9781620404935

Looking back on his career, Noel Tovey writes: ‘I could work in three languages. I had dined in the finest restaurants in Europe and America with pop stars and royalty and I had a career in the theatre that most Australians would envy.’ The man who wrote these words grew up an abused and neglected child. When he was seventeen, he served time in Melbourne’s Pentridge Prison for ‘the abominable crime of buggery’, a fact not always mentioned in online references.

Tovey began life as a dancer in Melbourne. In 1960 he went to London where he became a successful performer, director, and art dealer. Tovey is also Aboriginal. Part of London’s appeal for him was the relief it offered from the relentless racism of the Australia of his youth. His own reconciliation, with his return to Australia in 1990, and his exploration of his own Aboriginal ancestry, is central to his story. Thirteen years ago Tovey published a memoir, Little Black Bastard (Hodder, 2004) which became the basis for a one-man show, staged in a number of cities. (Aged eighty-two, Tovey will reprise it at La Mama Theatre in early May 2017.) And Then I Found Me, a sequel to that book, covers the thirty years during which Tovey built a successful career in London.

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  • Custom Article Title Dennis Altman reviews 'And Then I Found Me' by Noel Tovey
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title And Then I Found Me
  • Book Author Noel Tovey
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Magabala Books $33 pb, 241 pp, 9781925360479

Beyond the Vapour Trail, a memoir-cum-travel book spanning six continents, concerns the author’s experiences as an aid worker for non-government organisations such as World Vision. Brett Pierce’s work involves researching and setting up community projects, and adapting and remodelling child sponsorship programs. He describes it as ‘sitting down with these communities to explore the causes of poverty and to pursue their dreams for a better life’.

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  • Custom Article Title Katy Gerner reviews 'Beyond the Vapour Trail: The beauty, horror and humour of life: An aid worker’s story' by Brett Pierce
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title Beyond the Vapour Trail
  • Book Author Brett Pierce
  • Book Subtitle The beauty, horror and humour of life: An aid worker’s story
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Transit Lounge $29.99 pb, 272 pp, 9780994395740

It is rare to read a memoir as joyfully insouciant about sex as Judith Buckrich’s The Political Is Personal. She describes the delicious state of discovering it, at seventeen, as ‘a sex haze’. At nineteen, she has an intense, dark-eyed boyfriend but is also sleeping with Morry, whose chief merit is his staying power in bed. ‘Once, to prove the point, he read a book while fucking me,’ she writes. ‘Somehow we both found this hilarious.’ A year later, when she is engaged to Charles, her friend David climbs into bed with them, ‘wearing a new pair of red flannel pyjamas that left a red stain forever on our sheets.’

Marriage is a far less pleasurable activity. She weds Charles, a handsome American, in April 1970, in Melbourne. By October they have split up. Her second marriage in 1988, to a Hungarian social worker, has the air of a train wreck before the vows are exchanged. ‘As the date of our wedding drew closer,’ she confides, ‘I really wondered if I had lost my mind.’ It happens anyway and Buckrich falls pregnant. Later, she learns that while she was in hospital recovering from their daughter’s birth, her husband was sleeping with another woman.

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  • Custom Article Title Suzy Freeman-Greene reviews 'The Political is Personal: A 20th century memoir' by Judith Buckrich
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title The Political is Personal
  • Book Author Judith Buckrich
  • Book Subtitle A 20th century memoir
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Lauranton Books $30 pb, 420 pp, 9780994250728

Opposite a handsome portrait of him by Louis Kahan, Bruce Grant introduces his memoir of a ‘life’s journey’ by proposing that it is also a biography of Australia, and promising to revisit that on the last page. There, he summarises the plots of ‘Love in the Asian Century’, his recent trilogy of e-books, in which affairs between older men and younger women, Australian and Asian, start with enthusiasm, but are doomed to fail. The metaphor for the relationship between Australia and Asia is overt.

Stories about Australians abroad on what Grant calls a ‘crusade,’ clashing with Asian cultures and identities, and having affairs that end unhappily, are themes that prevailed when he began writing his novel Cherry Bloom (1980). The eponymous young Australian wife of a stuffy British diplomat in Singapore wants ‘desperately to connect’. Knowing no Asian language or history, she finds an American lover and learns about life and ‘ancient Chinese wisdom’, but eventually leaves for home.

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  • Custom Article Title Alison Broinowski reviews 'Subtle Moments: Scenes on a life’s journey' by Bruce Grant
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title Subtle Moments
  • Book Author Bruce Grant
  • Book Subtitle Scenes on a life’s journey
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Monash University Publishing $34.95 pb, 448 pp, 9781925495355

In 2015, Nikki Gemmell’s mother, Elayn, took an overdose of painkillers. Gemmell’s new book, After, chronicles the difficult process of confronting her mother’s death and resolving the anguish it brought to her and her children. It is also an impassioned appeal for changes in Australia’s laws on the right to die.

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  • Custom Article Title Gillian Dooley reviews 'After' by Nikki Gemmell
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title After
  • Book Author Nikki Gemmell
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Fourth Estate $29.95 pb, 300 pp, 9780999162316