Biography and Memoirs

Monsters by Alison Croggon

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April 2021, no. 430

Alison Croggon has written poetry, fantasy novels, and whip-smart arts criticism for decades, but Monsters is her first book-length work of non-fiction. In this deeply wounded book, Croggon unpacks her shattered relationship with her younger sister (not named in the book), a dynamic that bristles with accusations and resentments. In attempting to understand the wreckage of this relationship, Croggon finds herself going back to the roots of Western patriarchy and colonialism, seeking to frame this fractured relationship as the inexorable consequence of empire.

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Here’s a story about a spy with a wooden leg, another spy who liked to sit around with his penis exposed, and a spy’s daughter who spent decades refusing to believe her father was dead. If this tale of an everyday family of secret agents were a novel or a Netflix drama, we’d laugh, frown, and admire it as a surreal fantasy. But it is real, the children are still alive, and their recollections are proof that truth is nuttier than fiction.

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No Document begins with a description of the opening sequence of Georges Franju’s Le Sang des bêtes (Blood of the Beasts, 1949) in which a horse is led to slaughter – a significant misremembering that Anwen Crawford rectifies later. Franju’s black-and-white documentary actually begins with a collage of scenes shot on the outskirts of Paris; surreal juxtapositions of objects abandoned in a landscape devastated by war and reconstruction.

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He. by Murray Bail

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March 2021, no. 429

In 2005, Murray Bail published Notebooks: 1970–2003. ‘With some corrections’, the contents were transcriptions of entries Bail made in notebooks during that period. Now, in 2021, dozens of these entries – observations, quotations, reflections, scenes – recur in his new book, He. It’s to be assumed that this book, too, is a series of carefully selected transcriptions from the same, and later, notebooks.

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Sir Ninian Stephen: A tribute edited by Timothy L.K. McCormack and Cheryl Saunders

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April 2007, no. 290

The plans for this book were announced at the time of Ninian Stephen’s eightieth birthday, almost four years ago. Each of the ten contributors focuses on one of his public roles in the last thirty-five years – five of them in Australia, and five on the international stage. The last of the Australian positions, ambassador for the environment, is a bridge between the two. Kenneth Keith’s chapter finds another bridge: in Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen (1982), on Stephen’s last day as a High Court judge, his judgment decisively transformed the issue of racial discrimination in Queensland by recognising its international potency.

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The subtitle of Janet Malcolm’s new book (published in Australia by Melbourne University Press) is Gertrude and Alice. Few names of literary couples can be so confidently trimmed. Scott and Zelda, Ted and Sylvia, George and Martha … all those happy couples. Gertrude and Alice has been used before, as the main title of Diana Souyhami’s joint study (1991), and will doubtless be used again. Their fame is an achieved and bankable thing, notwithstanding the fact that Gertrude Stein (1874– 1946) – whose books included Three Lives (1909), The Making of Americans (1925) and the wonderfully titled A Long Gay Book (1932) – remains perhaps the least read of the modernists.

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Soldier. Draftsman. Massacre survivor. Prisoner of war. Veteran. Son. Brother. Uncle. RSL Secretary. Indigenous Man. Activist. Black Scotsman. Celebrity. These are just some of the words used to describe Douglas Grant, an individual who embodied the contradictions of assimilation and the challenges facing Aboriginal people in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Famous during his lifetime, Grant’s reputation has faded since the 1950s but in recent years has attracted the attention of Indigenous Australians and historians of World War I.

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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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David Frith’s slim biography of Archie Jackson reflects his subject’s tragically short life. When Jackson made his Test match début for Australia at Adelaide in the 1928–29 Ashes series, scoring an eye-catching 164, it was he, rather than the young Don Bradman, who instilled the most excitement in this country’s cricket-loving public. When Jackson was included in the 1930 tour of England, one ex-cricketer, Cecil Parkin, remarked that he was ‘a better bat than Bradman’, who had débuted in the same series as Jackson. This is but one example of the lavish praise that the gifted, though inconsistent, young cricketer received during his lifetime.

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At one point in Boy on Fire, music critic Mark Mordue’s strange, hybrid biography and social history of the early years and musical development of singer–songwriter Nick Cave, Mordue describes his subject as ‘the nominal ship’s captain, a drug-spun Ahab running amok on stage and off’. It is a typically sharp image, but it may reveal more than was intended; for all that Cave is Mordue’s Ahab, he is far more like the white whale itself: a great and receding mythical creature that will swallow the world before giving up any of its secrets. For a long while, the reader is cajoled into thinking this work might be the first in an exhaustive series on the artist, but by the end the truth is revealed: the subject simply got the better of his biographer, who languishes still in the belly of the whale. After an unnaturally long gestation, it seems to have become a case of publish or go mad.

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