Biography and Memoirs

Brian Toohey reviews 'Permanent Record' by Edward Snowden

Brian Toohey
Friday, 15 November 2019

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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Michael Sharkey reviews 'Henry Lawson: A life' by Colin Roderick

Michael Sharkey
Thursday, 31 October 2019

Henry Lawson’s death prompted a torrent of lamentation and, despite the distaste of academics and critics, the poet was soon enshrined as a National Treasure. Colin Roderick’s biography is a monument of dedication to the poet.

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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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A year after her death, Mirka Mora is still regarded as a ‘phenomenon’ in the Melbourne art world, not least for her vibrant personality and provocative behaviour. Now Sabine Cotte, a French-Australian painting conservator, in this modest account of her research into the artist’s methods and materials, offers a new perspective on Mora’s creative process and the significance of her work.

Mora – a creative innovator until her death at the age of ninety – was a dedicated, self-taught artist who studied the Old Masters and refined her painting techniques. She is widely known for her dolls (soft sculptures), her tapestries, and her murals. People who took part in her textile workshops often report that she changed their lives. Her public art is still visible in cafés, bookshops, railway stations, and on St Kilda Pier, guaranteeing her a continuing presence in Melbourne’s cultural and social life.

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Galileo and Kepler went down in history for prising European science from the jaws of medieval mysticism and religion. But where was England’s equivalent? Newton would not make his mark for another century. Surely the free-thinking Elizabethans also had a scientific star?

They did: Thomas Harriot (c.1560–1621). Most of us have never heard of him, for Harriot did not publish his findings. His day job was teaching navigation to Sir Walter Raleigh’s ship captains. Queen Elizabeth’s favourite was intent on colonising North America for the Crown. But it was also down to Harriot’s personality: retiring, cautious, and meticulous.

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Australian classical music. Not quite an oxymoron, but certainly an unfamiliar phrase. Yet Australian literature has been promoted by a battery of university courses overseas, following the beachhead established by Patrick White’s Nobel Prize. Similarly, Australian art has twice had great moments of impact: the Whitechapel exhibition of 1961 for the Nolan–Boyd generation, and now the continuing worldwide interest in Aboriginal art. Our rock stars have repeatedly made worldwide reputations; in classical music, Australian singers have regularly risen to the top. But classical composition has been something else. Apart from the quirky Percy Grainger – deftly working in small forms, sometimes with large resources – no Australian composer has had a significant influence overseas (though Brett Dean is shaping up as a contender). Grainger had to abandon Australia to do so, eventually taking out American citizenship.

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In Israel’s recent election, Benjamin Netanyahu desperately defended his position as Israel’s prime minister, but perhaps also as a free man, because he may soon face trial for corruption charges. As Israelis learn more about his lavish life style, many yearn for the days of David Ben-Gurion (1886–1973), whom they recall as an ascetic statesman of vision and integrity. Netanyahu is seen as the opposite of Ben-Gurion.

So mused Israeli historian and journalist Tom Segev, author of this important biography of Israel’s first prime minister, in Haaretz newspaper. But, he added, Netanyahu has in many ways followed in Ben-Gurion’s footsteps, especially in his view that Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians can at best be managed, not solved.

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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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Paul Kildea reviews 'Sontag: Her life' by Benjamin Moser

Paul Kildea
Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Sam Leith, literary editor of Spectator magazine, recently put author Benjamin Moser on the spot. ‘Do you think her work will last?’ he asked, referring to the writings of Susan Sontag, whose biography Moser had not long finished. ‘And if so, which of it?’ Moser dissembled bravely. ‘Well, I hope so ...

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It is an eerie measure of a movie’s power when you come out at the end of it and sense, however fleetingly, that you’re still a part of its world, or that its world is all but indistinguishable from the everyday one you’ve just re-entered. German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was grand master of this trick. His compatriot Pina Bau ...