Biography and Memoirs

In Recollections of a Bleeding Heart (2002), Don Watson wrote that Lowitja O’Donoghue ‘seemed then and has seemed ever since to be a person of such transcendent warmth, if Australians ever got to know her they would want her as their Queen’. Robert Manne, in the first-ever Quarterly Essay (2001), portrayed her as ‘a woman of scrupulous honesty and great beauty of soul’. These qualities gleam in Stuart Rintoul’s handsomely produced biography.

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Here we have the first intimations of the coming flowering of the Donald Friend diaries, which are to be published by the National Library with support from Morris West’s benefaction. Friendliness was not always the same as ugliness or cleanliness when he was alive. So, it is somehow comforting that two Australian artists, so different from each other in lifestyle, should after their deaths find common cause.

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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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To start with the broadest of generalisations, artists’ biographies can be divided into three types: those that concentrate on the work; those that take the life as their focus; and the ‘life and times’ volumes that attempt to place the artist in her social and political context.

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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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A tantalising ‘what if?’ emerges from the opening chapters of Hermione Lee’s immense, intricately researched life of Tom Stoppard. On the day in 1939 when the Germans invaded Czechoslovakia, the future playwright’s assimilated Jewish parents were obliged to flee the Moravian town where they lived. They made it to Singapore, only to endure Japanese invasion soon afterward. Stoppard’s mother, Martha, had to move again, and swiftly, with her two sons while her beloved husband, Eugen, a doctor, remained behind to aid with civilian defence. His evacuation ship was destroyed, and he was lost, presumably drowned, a little later. But when Stoppard’s mother boarded her own ship, earlier in 1941, she thought it was headed for Australia. Only later did she learn that India was their destination.

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One of the frustrating things about being a historian is the number of times you are told by others that surely everything in your specialty must already have been ‘done’. After so many decades or centuries, what more could there possibly be to discover? One of the answers is that what interests scholars, and what topics are considered worthy of examination, changes over time. This explains how ‘new’ material – often sitting in the archives for centuries – comes to light. It also explains why women have not always made the cut, a problem compounded, as recent Twitter discussions have highlighted, by how often research about women by female scholars still goes unpublished.

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The ‘land of smiles’ was what they called Prague under German occupation during World War II – at least the Germans did. Few locals. Fresh vegetables and meat were available (to Germans) in quantities unknown back in Germany. Until close to the end, there were more than a hundred cinemas operating in the city, as well as theatres, concert halls, and numerous other places of entertainment. After all, Goebbels was not only passionate about culture in general, but keen, he said, to initiate a ‘lively cultural exchange’ with Czechoslovakia in particular.

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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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