We must all die, but many of us live as though we don't know this fact. When death comes close to us or our loved ones, we may feel totally unprepared. The distance from death many of us feel in Australia is a relatively new phenomenon, made possible by prosperity, improved health care, and the development of residential care facilities. Dying used to be accompanied by an agreed set of customs; guides to the art of dying were once very popular. Ars moriendi, a Christian medieval Latin text from 1415, was reprinted in more than a hundred editions across Europe, the first in a Western literary tradition of guides to death and dying. Other traditions had similar guides. But what about those of us living a contemporary, largely secular life? Has the valedictory memoir come to replace ars moriendi, giving us a way to contemplate death?

In Dying: A memoir, Cory Taylor joins distinguished authors such as Christopher Hitchens, Clive James, and Jenny Diski in doing just this. She guides us into a consideration of death, that 'unmentionable thing, a monstrous silence'. Taylor, the author of two fine novels, is clear about why she wrote this book: it is precisely because we have 'lost our common rituals and common language for dying' and because the dying, she says, 'are probably lonelier now than they've ever been'. She wants to change our agreed communal silence around death and allow the dying more dignity and more choice, less utter loneliness.

Unlike some illness and end-of-life memoirs, Taylor spends little time outlining the history of her cancer diagnosis and treatment. Instead, she focuses on what preoccupies her now that she knows, aged sixty, that her cancer is no longer treatable. She identifies the reasons why she would like to be able to choose the time and manner of her own death, and mounts a powerful personal argument for lawful assisted dying. She also laments the limited public opportunities for discussing dying, noting that, apart from palliative care specialists, none of her doctors ever raised the subject of death with her. It was a relief to attend Exit International meetings because people talked about dying.

There is a funny scene in the book when Taylor visits her GP to obtain a referral to a psychologist for some free counselling sessions. The GP has to name her problem on the referral form. Taylor suggests 'dying', but the GP says that is considered insufficient for a referral and they land on 'adjustment disorder' as an alternative, and eligible, ground for counselling. The young psychologist suggests mindfulness and taking time each day to enjoy the small things; Taylor reflects that perhaps it is unfair to expect her to deliver 'some superior wisdom about the mysteries of life and death'. It is Taylor herself who delivers this wisdom with the writing of her memoir. Later in the same chapter, she answers some of the most common questions people would like to ask the dying: does she have a 'bucket list', is she scared, does she now take more risks, and so on.

 Work (her writing) and family are the two things that matter most to Taylor. She writes about her remarkable grandmother, her family of origin, and the split that her parents' separation caused in the family. She remained close to her mother, but her relationships with her father and brother were fraught. In contrast, she also writes about her own husband and sons and the closeness they all share. She dares to write about what she will miss – her husband, the faces of her children, seeing what happens next to them. This level of honesty is sad and profoundly moving, but it is not hard to read, because Taylor has a high level of control over her own voice and narrative.

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There is humour in this memoir, but not the distancing black humour that is often used to avoid encounters with difficult topics. Instead, the humour is gentle and lightly deployed, like the comment that sometimes she gets 'a bad case of beginner's nerves'. There are also many moments of joy described in the book, especially Taylor's travels in Japan as an adult and memories of living in Fiji with her mother when she was young. Taylor summons up early experiences of pleasure – lying in the sun, the 'hot sweetness' of the first bite of a cake, the light in Fiji causing her body to feel 'replete with brightness'. She reminds us that life is both temporal and simultaneous: 'all our experiences existing in time together, in the flesh. For what are we, if not a body taking a mind for a walk, just to see what's there?'

It takes courage to contemplate one's death and extraordinary clarity and generosity to write about it like this. Dying: A memoir is a gift to us all, a book that is not afraid to navigate darkness and that sees us through to the end, to the 'edge of words ... to the place where they falter and strain in the face of dying's terrifying finality'. It is terrifying, and Taylor renders it both real and bearable. We need books like this, a guide to dying, but also, and especially, a guide to living.

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  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title Rachel Robertson reviews 'Dying: A memoir' by Cory Taylor
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Custom Highlight Text

    We must all die, but many of us live as though we don't know this fact. When death comes close to us or our loved ones, we may feel totally unprepared ...

  • Book Title Dying
  • Book Author Cory Taylor
  • Book Subtitle A memoir
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Text Publishing $24.99 hb, 147 pp, 9781925355772

Shelley Davidow's multi-generational memoir begins in 1913 with her Jewish great-grandfather Jacob escaping the pogroms of tsarist Lithuania for the rigours of life in the American Midwest. The English language eludes Jacob, who struggles to make a decent living in his adopted country. Poverty contributes to his wife's untimely death. Jacob's son and daughter are consigned to a Jewish orphanage. Loss and sorrow seem to afflict Jacob's family, as if hardship is genetically encoded, and can be passed down to future generations along with his innate musicality.

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  • Custom Article Title Francesca Sasnaitis reviews 'Whisperings in the Blood: A memoir' by Shelley Davidow
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title Whisperings in the Blood
  • Book Author Shelley Davidow
  • Book Subtitle A Memoir
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio University of Queensland Press $29.95 pb, 266 pp, 9780702253980

Growing up with a violent and controlling father who served in the Vietnam War may be a familiar story, but Ruth Clare's memoir takes us deeper, into the mind of the child and her day-to-day reality, where she is constantly primed for her father's next act of cruelty. Resembling a novel in its sensory detail and riveting narrative, Enemy recreates life in Rockhampton, where Clare grew up in the 1970s and 1980s.

In recent years, the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder has made sense of the psychological damage to Vietnam veterans. But when Clare was a child, there was no such understanding. Her mother bore the brunt of the father's aggression, with devastating effects, but Clare learned to be more resilient. Her strength came at a price. She was in a constant state of hyper-vigilance, not unlike her father's readiness for enemy attack.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Carol Middleton reviews 'Enemy: A daughter's story of how her father brought the Vietnam War home' by Ruth Clare
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title Enemy
  • Book Author Ruth Clare
  • Book Subtitle A Daughter’s Story of How Her Father Brought the Vietnam War Home
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Viking $32.99 pb, 309 pp, 9780670079074

When I heard that there was a new book out on why women run, I assumed I would be reading about women fleeing domestic horrors rather than running marathons. Such a reaction might make Catriona Menzies-Pike sigh with frustration, and the cultural myopia which gave rise to my unthinking assumption is one of the reasons she wrote this book. 'I'd read a lot of books about running, but I struggled to recognise myself in any of them.'

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Gillian Dooley reviews 'The Long Run' by Catriona Menzies-Pike
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title The Long Run
  • Book Author Catriona Menzies-Pike
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Affirm Press $29.99 pb, 268 pp, 9781925344479

After fiddling with the bits of leather designed to curtail a newly bought goshawk, T.H. White grumbled that 'It has never been easy to learn life from books' (The Goshawk, 1963). Helen Macdonald says the same thing, twice: all the books in piles on her desk, designed to help her deal with grief, cannot 'taxonomise the process, order it, make it sensible'. 'The books don't work,' she says. But it is The Goshawk and her own goshawk that pull her back into the world after her father's death, showing that books do work, but not on their own, and not in the way Macdonald imagined.

Each story Macdonald tells – of Mabel the goshawk, of White, of life after her father – wraps around the other like the jesses, swivel, and leash with which White fumbled. The prose has a hushed quality built from patient watching, from observing the hawk's flickering eyelids and the shuffling sounds of her preening. The silence is broken occasionally by the violence and movement of grief and the hunt. Wildness is not quite as separate as we like to imagine, and grief can show a different side of our own nature.

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  • Custom Article Title Daniel Juckes reviews 'H is for Hawk' by Helen Macdonald
  • Contents Category Biography
  • Book Title H is for Hawk
  • Book Author Helen Macdonald
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Vintage, $22.99 pb, 320 pp, 9780099575450

First published in 1969 and out of print for nearly forty years, Journey to Horsehoe Bend is a literary classic that envisions an Australian epic on a grand scale. That epical potential was recognised by composer Andrew Schultz and librettist Gordon Kalton Williams, whose cantata adapted from the book had its world première in 2004.

Journey recounts the desperate and ultimately unsuccessful attempt over a few days in October 1922 to transport by horse-drawn wagon a critically ill German Lutheran pastor named Carl Strehlow from an isolated mission at Hermannsburg in Central Australia to a station where medical care was available. The painfully slow journey is infused by the author – the pastor's son – with myriad complex meanings derived from indigenous culture and his own memories of people and places.

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  • Custom Article Title Simon Caterson reviews 'Journey to Horseshoe Bend' by T.G.H. Strehlow
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title Journey to Horseshoe Bend
  • Book Author T.G.H. Strehlow
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Giramondo Publishing, $26.95 pb, 352 pp, 9791922146779

How has David Plante managed to become as prolific a novelist as he has when so much of his time has been spent in flitting between gallery openings in New York, dinner parties and book launches in London, idyllic holidays in Italy and Greece, and teaching in Tulsa, Oklahoma? And those are just a few of the 'worlds apart' recounted in this so-called memoir – the book is really just a succession of extracts from Plante's diaries, with the dates removed. So are some of his novels, as we learn all but incidentally (The Country 'comes entirely from my diary'). There is no space allowed in these extracts for any sustained reflection on the craft or business of being a novelist: 'I almost never write in my diary about writing fiction.' In truth, there is little space in these pages for reflection on anything, and the only connecting thread between the extracts is provided by the lustrous quality of the names (the 'stellar cast', as he puts it) that seems to populate nearly all of the worlds he straddles.

At one point, describing a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, he comes close to a serious engagement with questions of religious faith and of the nature of God, whom he doesn't – yet at another level does – believe in. It is a moving, impassioned passage for the paragraph or so it lasts. Yet what finally seems to matter to him in these spiritual agonisings, or in his recounting of them, is that someone famous should be there to share them with him: 'It was important to me that something should come over me and that I should tell Philip what it was ... How to explain to Philip ...' It is not Philip Anybody, of course; from earlier anecdotes in the book we know it can only be his fellow novelist, of even greater prolificity and distinction, Philip Roth. And the challenge to readers, in our celebrity-hungry culture, is whether we, too, would be so interested if it were not a famous name.

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  • Free Article No
  • Custom Article Title Ian Britain reviews 'Worlds Apart' by David Plante
  • Contents Category Biography
  • Book Title Worlds Apart
  • Book Author David Plante
  • Book Subtitle A Memoir
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Bloomsbury, $35 hb, 372 pp, 9781408854808

Western Australian novelist and academic Liz Byrski has written a memoir that explores the reality behind a World War II myth: the ground-breaking work done by plastic surgeon Archibald McIndoe to repair the disfigured faces, hands, and lives of fighter pilots and crews. Byrski grew up during the war in East Grinstead, Sussex, near the hospital where McIndoe worked, and was haunted by the sight of the Guinea Pigs, as the men were called.

As the sixty-fifth reunion of the Guinea Pig Club approaches, Byrski decides to revisit her childhood home on a research trip for this book. Her intention is to uncover the female aspect of the story: how the nurses coped in the extraordinary Ward III. She also needs to put her childhood demons to rest.

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  • Custom Article Title Carol Middleton reviews 'In Love and War' by Liz Byrski
  • Contents Category Memoirs
  • Book Title In Love and War
  • Book Author Liz Byrski
  • Book Subtitle Nursing Heroes
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Fremantle Press, $24.99 pb, 216 pp, 9781925161458

The writer is a conductor, opines the 'vaguely handsome, intensely laconic' cowpoke who speaks to Patti Smith as she lingers at 'the frame of a dream'. His words shape Smith's days. 'It's not so easy writing about nothing,' this companion tells her, and she scratches these words over and over onto a wall in her home with a chunk of red chalk.

Writing about nothing is partly the work of mourning that Smith undertakes, remembering her relationship with husband Fred 'Sonic' Smith, with whom she brought up their two children and collaborated musically, as well as her mother, brother, and others who have died. M Train is a melancholy, moody journey through fourteen stations, which are almost like the Stations of the Cross, as Smith trawls associated stories and explores relics in a kind of pilgrimage.

Forty years ago, Patti Smith's acclaimed first album, Horses (1975), blended poetic lyrics with a proto-punk aesthetic. As her National Book Award-winning memoir, Just Kids (2010), reveals, though, this early success sprang from seeds of creative work assiduously tended for years before, many of these in the company of friend, muse, and sometimes-lover, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose memory is central to the book's anatomy of creative beginnings.

A conductor channels energy, and the idea of transmuted ideas and inspiration is at the heart of this work. Dorothy Porter used the same metaphor, describing poetry as 'a lightning rod for the sacred, the extreme and the daemonic'. Smith's art conducts energy, but she is also a conductor in the sense of orchestrating the array of influences her work remembers and the art forms her work encompasses. 'I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll,' she writes in Just Kids.

Just Kids memorialises the loss of friends and artists such as Janis Joplin and Mapplethorpe himself, while Horses contains homages to Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, who died at twenty-eight in 1970 and twenty-seven in 1971, respectively. The vigorous incantatory repetitions and stream of consciousness of Horses embody the equine energy Sylvia Plath saw as powering poetry's 'indefatigable hooftaps'. Plath's posthumous collection Ariel (1965), named after the poet's own horse, was 'the book of my life' when Smith was twenty. A sense of lineage and homage are crucial to Smith's practice, as they were to Plath.

In M Train, Smith recalls several visits to Plath's Heptonstall grave, where a strange shimmering light momentarily creates the vision of Plath in a 'cream-colored sweater and straight skirt, shading her eyes from the mischievous sun, walking on into the great return'. In Japan, Smith tries to channel the writer Osamu Dazai, asking him: 'What is nothing?' and receiving the answer: 'It is what you can see of your eyes without a mirror.'

'Writing about nothing is partly the work of mourning that Smith undertakes'

'You write with your hand,' sing Crass lyrics of Patti Smith in 'Punk is Dead', 'but it's Rimbaud's arm'. I'm not sure Smith would object. In Just Kids she describes Rimbaud as her archangel, adding: 'The knowledge of him added swagger to my step and this could not be stripped away.' Steeped in poetry, and fascinated by creativity's infectious spread from artist to artist, her writing is attentive to serendipity, bibliomancy, and the inheritance of artistic drive. When she covers Nirvana's 1991 hit single 'Smells Like Teen Spirit', she might as well be channelling its original singer, Kurt Cobain, even as she makes it her own with the gravel of her voice, bare banjo-jangle instrumentation, and the pluck and swagger of syncopation.

800px-Carl Solomon Patti Smith Allen Ginsberg and William S. BurroughsCarl Solomon, Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs (photograph by Marcelo Noah via Wikimedia Commons)

The stations of M Train include Frida Kahlo's house and the graves of Jean Genet and Rimbaud. Included are Polaroid photographs of treasured artists' relics – Virginia Woolf's walking stick, and Roberto Bolaño's writing chair. From her favourite table at a New York café – and fuelled, it seems, almost exclusively by black coffee and an occasional piece of toast – she writes about artists, television detective series, memories, dreams, and Dr Who ('the David Tennant configuration, the only Dr Who for me').

She delivers a lecture from notes scribbled on a handful of paper serviettes, crushed into her pocket. When she later throws them into the fire, they are closed like fists that reopen 'like petals of small cabbage roses'. She invents games of chance to kindle her work, such as playing an 'interior hopscotch' that starts with uttering a series of words starting with a chosen letter: 'Madrigal minuet master mister monster magnet maestro mayhem.' She evokes the textures of her life of reading, writing, and wandering in streams of unpunctuated witness: 'silence black coffee olive oil fresh mint brown bread.'

'The stations of M Train include Frida Kahlo's house and the graves of Jean Genet and Rimbaud'

Verbally and aesthetically, the effect is fast and associative, like graffiti. Smith is the artist as bricoleuse, drawing together textures, impressions, and found objects. From Brecht's grave to the stone angels that attend it, from Mother Courage and Her Children to her own mother burying her son, Smith's mind alights and returns as memory's train loops through its stations. 'Everything pours forth,' she writes, 'Photographs their history. Books their words. Walls their sounds.' Of the objects she studies she writes: 'They are all stories now.' Amidst the 'genies and hustlers and mythic travellers – my vagabondia', Smith channels the icons that shape her own art, itself iconic for its itinerant energy, its patterns of eclectic influence and the splinter and swagger of its expression.

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  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title Felicity Plunkett reviews 'M Train' by Patti Smith
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title M Train
  • Book Author Patti Smith
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Bloomsbury, $32.99 pb, 272 pp, 9781408867693

Beth Yahp's beautifully crafted memoir of her ancestors, her parents, and herself is shaped around journeys criss-crossing the Malay Peninsula where her Siamese-speaking Eurasian mother and her Hakka Chinese father met and married in 1961. A photograph seems to have triggered the project – perhaps the lovely sepia cover shot of her parents on their honeymoon, sitting on a wall somewhere in Malaya before Independence. Yahp persuades her ageing parents to return home to Kuala Lumpur from Honolulu for a road trip around their country so that she can begin to decode their lives and, along the way, bring her own into focus. She illuminates a world where Malaysian politics are increasingly corrupt, where censorship is rife and activism dangerous. Most people keep their heads down, much as they do back home in Yahp's Sydney, where both sides of politics are ruthlessly turning back boats and controlling borders.

The Yahp family mantra, Eat First, Talk Later, acts as a kind of buffer for a more conservative generation preferring privacy and security to the unfamiliar literary excavations and exposés of contemporary memoir-making. Her mother, Mara, glares when her daughter keeps prodding her to tell her stories.

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  • Custom Article Title Hilary McPhee reviews 'Eat First, Talk Later' by Beth Yahp
  • Contents Category Memoir
  • Book Title Eat first, talk later
  • Book Author Beth Yahp
  • Book Subtitle a memoir of food, family and home
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Vintage, $34.99 pb, 350 pp, 9780857986863