Biography and Memoirs

When the book arrived for review, a paperback of 656 pages, my heart sank. Americans are the world’s greatest researchers. Reading it would be like drinking from a fire hose. But it began incisively, with a turning point in the 2008 presidential campaign that established Obama’s audacity as a ‘complex, cautious, intelligent, shrewd, young African-American man’ who would project his ambitions and hopes as the aspirations of the United States of America itself. Soon we were in Kenya, with Tom Mboya, Jomo Kenyatta, the Mau Mau uprising, and Barack Hussein Obama Sr, a promising young economist with a rich, musical voice and a confident manner on his way to the University of Hawaii. We also meet the most compelling character in the book, perhaps in Obama’s life: his mother, a seventeen-year-old from Kansas, intrepid and idealistic, who takes up with the dasher from Kenya, becomes pregnant and marries him.

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Even the cover design of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s memoir gave me something to ponder. The title, which signals the father–daughter story, is linked with an engaging seaside photograph of the two of them. The father’s swimming trunks and the daughter’s bathing cap have an authentic 1940s look. Add to that a bland subtitle, Memories of an Australian Childhood, and the tough confrontations of the text may come as a surprise.

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How complex a task it is to write the biography of a writer. For writers, whose daily business is making things up, the truest experience may be one they have imagined. All biographers need to be storytellers and private detectives, but the biographer of a writer must also be a literary critic, must account for how the work relates to the life and escapes the life; beyond this, how the experience of writing it might change how the author apprehends those other parts of experience, called facts.

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‘“I must remember accurately,” I told myself, “remember everything accurately so that when he is gone I can re-create the father who created me.”’ This is Philip Roth exhorting himself while witnessing his declining father bathe in Patrimony: A true story (1991), a memoir that opens when Herman Roth is diagnosed with a brain tumour. The book, tender but also brutal, slips between the present and the past. Philip Roth, after all, is the writer. The matter of accuracy feels particularly perilous when the subject is the writer’s parent, if the intention is not to write a hagiography. It takes a particular kind of courage to countenance a parent’s failings when not motivated by revenge.

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Whatever you think of Woody Allen, you will probably find his memoir, Apropos of Nothing, compelling. It’s likely to convince you that he didn’t molest his adoptive daughter Dylan all those years ago. The resurgence of this accusation, first aired in 1992, has caused such widespread concern that Hachette pulled this book because of vehement objections by Ronan Farrow, Allen’s biological son with Mia Farrow, sometime partner of Allen and the woman who accused him of molesting Dylan. This was in the wake of her discovery that Allen had begun a romance with Farrow’s twenty-one-year-old adoptive daughter Soon-Yi Previn, to whom he has been married since 1997. The immediate context was a widespread office rebellion at Hachette.

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Susan Varga reviews 'Untethered' by Hayley Katzen

Susan Varga
Tuesday, 26 May 2020

What tethers you to your life? For most people it is the filaments of connection – family, place, friends, work. Hayley Katzen becomes untethered in multiple ways in this engaging and highly readable book. Many will identify with that period of life when you are technically a functioning adult, but there remains a long, long journey ahead to real adulthood. Katzen has a sevenfold whammy: a broken family life; the trauma of immigration; losing her Jewish heritage; discovering herself as a lesbian; dropping out of a career; moving to the country; and falling in love with an ‘unsuitable’ woman.

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At first glance, this biography does not look especially compelling. Why should we want to know about Australia’s first woman radio pioneer? But David Dufty calmly and quietly shows why Violet McKenzie is well worth celebrating. From her earliest days, Violet, born in 1890, showed great flair for practical science. She became a high school maths teacher but was determined to study electrical engineering. She qualified, but her gender meant that she was refused admission to the university course and also to a technical college diploma. Meanwhile, her elder brother Walter had become an electrical engineer and was running his own business in Sydney. This was 1912: seduced by the new moving-picture craze, Walter had ploughed all his profits into a ‘flickergraph training school’, teaching people to operate cinema projectors.

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July 1970. A graduate student in English at Columbia University was feeling bogged down in her PhD topic. She was only a year or so in and reckoned that there was still time for her to make a switch from medieval sermons to a modern author. She wrote on index cards the names of numerous writers she liked, including James Joyce, Joseph Conrad, Samuel Beckett, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf. She then arranged them alphabetically. Beckett came out on top (presumably Auden didn’t make the cut). ‘That was how my life in biography began,’ explains Deirdre Bair, who died in April 2020, in time, fortuitously, to see this book published late last year.

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Malcolm Turnbull looks us straight in the eye from the cover of this handsome book, with just a hint of a smile. He looks calm, healthy, and confident; if there are scars from his loss of the prime ministership in August 2018, they don’t show. The book’s voice is the engaging one we heard when Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott in July 2015 and promised a style of leadership that respected people’s intelligence. He takes us from his childhood in a very unhappy marriage, through school and university, his astonishing successes in media, business, and the law, his entry into politics as the member for Wentworth, and ends with his exit from parliament.

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At the end of 1910, Irving Berlin took a winter holiday in Florida. James Kaplan writes, ‘Here we must pause for a moment to consider the miracle of a twenty-two-year-old who in recent memory had sung for pennies in dives and slept in flophouses becoming a prosperous-enough business man to vacation in Palm Beach.’

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