Memoir

David McAllister, known affectionately as ‘Daisy’ to his fellow dancers, completed this memoir just as Covid-19 put paid to the exciting program he had devised for his final year as artistic director of the Australian Ballet. In spite of the cancelled world premières, McAllister makes no complaint about what must surely have been a disappointing finale to a stellar career, but he remains upbeat, turning his hand to modest ‘Dancing with David’ videos, alongside the company’s filmed performances and the Bodytorque.Digital program.

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‘Orange balloons. Orange streamers. Orange shirts.’ Cathy McGowan’s memoir is saturated and literally wrapped in the colour. Cathy Goes to Canberra begins with an account of the election of her independent successor as Member for Indi, Dr Helen Haines, in May 2019 – ‘with orange everywhere’.

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Paul Jennings’s literary career can be traced back to three whispered words from the author Carmel Bird, who taught him writing at an evening class in Melbourne in 1983. ‘You are good,’ she told him. Jennings was an unpublished forty-year-old at the time, yet within two years Penguin had launched his first short story collection, Unreal!

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‘A voyage round my father’, to quote the title of John Mortimer’s autobiographical play of 1963, has been a popular form of personal memoir in Britain from Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) to Michael Parkinson’s just-published Like Father, Like Son. The same form produced some of the best Australian writing in the twentieth century, with two assured classics in the case of Germaine Greer’s Daddy, We Hardly Knew You (1989) and Raimond Gaita’s Romulus, My Father (1998). The tradition has continued into the present century with – to list some of the choicest plums – Richard Freadman’s Shadow of Doubt: My father and myself (2003), Sheila Fitzpatrick’s My Father’s Daughter (2010), Jim Davidson’s A Führer for a Father (2017), and Christopher Raja’s Into the Suburbs: A migrant’s story (2020). Mothers in such sagas are far from absent, and they can emerge, though not always, as the more obviously loveable or loving figures. As signalled by most of those titles, however, mothers loom less large over the unfolding narrative. Fathers may not always know or act best, but, partly because of their often tougher, commanding mien, they become irresistibly the centre of attention.

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Barack Obama has written the best presidential memoir since Ulysses S. Grant in 1885, and since Grant’s was mostly an account of his pre-presidential, Civil War generalship – written at speed, to stave off penury for his family, as he was dying of throat cancer – Obama’s lays some claim to being the greatest, at least so far. This first volume (of two) only reaches the third of his eight years in the White House.

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The cover of this book tells you pretty much what to expect. It shows the dancer Li Cunxin, evidently at rehearsal, facing the camera while over his shoulder peeps his wife, Mary. Add the subtitle, that this is the ‘untold story’ of Li Cunxin’s wife, with a foreword by the man himself, and it’s clear that this book might not have seen the light of day without the phenomenal success of Mao’s Last Dancer, published in 2003 and later made into a well-received film (Bruce Beresford, 2009). Even the title has echoes of its predecessor.

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Geoff Goodfellow is best known as a poet. Out of Copley Street, his first non-verse publication, chronicles his working-class coming of age in Adelaide’s inner-northern suburbs during the 1950s and 1960s.

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The vision was of a brown-skinned child standing by her side. She sensed it so keenly that she could even feel the child’s warmth. It was so striking she wondered about her sanity … but as time went by, she became more comfortable with her vision, accepted it as something precious, a visitation of some sort that only she knew about.’

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Virginia Woolf wrote that when trying to communicate about pain as a sick woman ‘language at once runs dry’. How does one talk about wounds without fetishising their workings, and how in a society where pain is taboo does one speak of it authentically? In Show Me Where it Hurts, writer and journalist Kylie Maslen balances the difficulty of this equation: telling the story of her disability and having that story remain fundamentally unspeakable. The act of telling remains for Maslen ‘a rejection of language’, and yet the thing on the table for those suffering is ‘the desire to make ourselves known’.

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The realisation that our parents are not exactly who we understood them to be can be a profound rite of passage. For some it comes with no forewarning: a random event leads to an accidental disclosure, or substantiates an old rumour. For others this realisation takes shape in a less acute though no less transformative manner. With The Other Side of Absence: Discovering my father’s secrets, Betty O’Neill pieces together her family history in an effort to learn more about her father, a stranger she briefly encountered when she was nineteen. What began as an innocuous exercise at a writers’ retreat would evolve into a three-year research project through which the author uncovers the riveting story of Antoni Jagielski – resistance fighter, Holocaust survivor, unsettled postwar migrant, and absent father.

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