Memoir

It’s perhaps a dubious thought, but the life of an actor invariably triggers something prurient in the audience, some desperate need to peer past the mask, to see beyond the curtain. Books by and about actors indulge this prurience, whether or not they are intended to. Works like Konstantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares (1936) or Stella Adler’s The Art of Acting (2000) deal academically with the interiority and motivations of acting, but they still offer a glimpse into the process and the perceived trickery of creation. The most fun are the intentionally salacious ones, like David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon (1971) or Scotty Bowers’s Full Service (2017), which detailed the sexual proclivities of Hollywood’s closeted élite. Anything to get us closer, to get us into the inner sanctum.

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‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,’ writes Annie Dillard in The Writing Life, her timely appeal for presence over productivity in modern life. Turning the page on a new year reminds us of the seasonality of time, its familiar cycles of life, death, and rebirth. But flipping through the empty pages of a calendar can also remind us that time is a human construct designed to regulate our lives for maximum efficiency and output. In today’s attention economy, where time is treated as a currency by the technologies we use to satisfy our animal need for connection, how might we rediscover the joy of being present in a moment, a body, a community, a place? In other words, how are we to live?

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Six years after the ‘transgender tipping point’ proclaimed by Time magazine in 2014, the trans and gender-diverse (TGD) community continues to surge into the spotlight. From Netflix and Neighbours to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (which named ‘they’ its 2019 word of the year), transgender experience is enjoying well-deserved recognition and representation. Visibility, however, is not without its problems. Internationally, growing awareness has triggered an anti-trans backlash, with the TGD community becoming a conservative scapegoat du jour. The United States is experiencing a spate of anti-trans violence, while ‘bathroom bills’ proliferate in red states. In Australia, the 2016 moral panic over Safe Schools was followed in 2019 by The Australian’s anti-trans campaign (with sixty-eight articles, ninety-two per cent of them negative, published in six months), as well as the transphobic fearmongering of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) over Victoria’s birth certificate reforms – not to mention Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attacks on ‘gender whisperers’.

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The opening dedication in Carmen Maria Machado’s ground-breaking memoir In The Dream House reads: ‘If you need this book, it is for you.’ Here, Machado offers a gift but also a clue. She wrote this book because she needed to. For close to two years, she was in a lesbian relationship in which her partner was abusive to her. In making sense of it, Machado found a few books here and there, but mostly there was nothing – a meaningful silence. In deft strokes that should humble historians and other theorists of the archive, Machado contemplates the ghosts that haunt it. The ‘abused woman’ only became a ‘generally understood concept’ fifty or so years ago. Since then, other ‘ghosts’, including the female perpetrator and the queer abused, have become legible, while remaining shadows. She offers her own memoir – by design, ‘an act of resurrection’ – to the archive of domestic abuse, placing herself and others into ‘necessary context’.

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Sing This at My Funeral is not your conventional ghost story. Invoking Franz Kafka’s words, ‘Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts, and by no means just the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters’, this moving memoir by David Slucki gives shape to the ghost of Zaida Jakub, the grandfather he never knew.

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For two and a half decades, Samantha Power has been an advocate for US intervention to prevent genocide around the world – as a war correspondent, as an author, and as a member of the Obama administration (2009–17). The Education of an Idealist is a deeply personal memoir of that experience.

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The fortieth anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras might have been an occasion for unbridled elation. Held in March of 2018, the celebration came soon after the bitterly fought battle to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia. Dennis Altman, a pre-eminent figure in Gay Liberation, paints a different picture of the Mardi Gras. His new book, Unrequited Love: Diary of an accidental activist, conveys a sense of unease despite the frolicsome charms of such festivities.

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Edward Snowden was a model employee of the National Security Agency. After realising that the vast electronic surveillance organisation often failed to backup its advanced computerised systems properly, Snowden offered a solution. His bosses readily agreed to let him build and run a comprehensive backup system. He subsequently copied huge amounts of highly sensitive information, which he took with him when he left the NSA in 2013, aged twenty-nine, to become the most important whistleblower in intelligence agency history.

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At first glance, the premise of this book seems dubious. Katharine Smyth, an American woman in her mid-twenties, turns to the life and work of Virginia Woolf for solace after the death of her father. There is no doubt that Woolf writes brilliantly about death, particularly in the novel Smyth focuses on, To the Lighthouse (1927), which fictionalises the death of Woolf’s mother, Julia Stephen. But what comfort could Smyth hope to find in the work of a writer who herself refuses any of the usual consolations? After losing her mother and her elder half-sister, Stella, in her early teens, and then her father, Leslie, and her elder brother, Thoby, in her twenties, Woolf knew that there was no solace to be found. Her only comfort was that at least ‘the gods (as I used to phrase it) were taking one seriously’.

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In the spring of 2003, a person from Hilary McPhee’s past got in touch with her. McPhee did not remember the woman’s name but recognised her immediately when they met for coffee. At high school they had played hockey together for a team called the Colac Battlers. The woman had been working for years as a personal assistant at a palace in Jordan ...

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