Biography and Memoirs

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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Primitive accumulation was a brutal process often performed by gentlemen. Not all pastoralists were brutes – unless they had to be. Not all Aboriginals were murdered – unless they had to be. Facades of normality were hurriedly erected to confound Karl Marx. For a moment the Australian pastoralists could build oases of sophistication on the Australian landscape. For a generation or so they managed to impose a uniquely Australian gentility around the waterholes and rivers. That the phenomenon was a passing one is symbolised by the life and death of James Bourke in the Riverina. A secondary pioneer, he died at the age of twenty-four. His brother Thomas, ‘a fine athletic man’ died of the booze aged twenty-six. The body of his step-uncle, James Peter, was found in the river a few days later: he had been in ‘a severe fit of the horrors’. All sorts of disasters of a man-made kind – from fatal flaws to death duties – combined with the elements to wash away the billabong dynasties.

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Ben Bland, a Financial Times correspondent in Indonesia in 2012–15 and currently director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, had a ringside seat to watch the rise of Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi). By his own account, Bland has met him more than a dozen times. Jokowi was a furniture-maker and -exporter, mayor of Solo, and governor of Jakarta before being elected president in 2014. Bland has written a good introduction to the Jokowi era that will appeal to the general reader but may leave the serious student of Indonesia unsatisfied.

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Despite its faults, this book has the merit of being the first biography on the legendary Australian batsman, Victor Trumper (1877–1915). Young cricket lovers of today may well ask what feats of batsmanship Trumper performed to deserve this handsomely produced volume about him. After all, his test average was only 39.04, not to be spoken of in the same breath as Don Bradman’s 99.96.

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To his obvious surprise, John Wood became a household name playing ordinary, reliable Aussie blokes – most memorably Sergeant Tom Croydon on Blue Heelers and magistrate Michael Rafferty on Rafferty’s Rules – two of television’s best-loved everyday heroes. (I confess to writing about the latter in The Bulletin and describing him as ‘the thinking woman’s crumpet’.)

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Reviewing Oliver Stone’s film Salvador for The New Yorker in 1986, Pauline Kael detected a ‘right-wing macho fantasy joined to a left-wing polemic’. That same compound, a politically unstable one, bubbles under the surface of Stone’s autobiography, Chasing the Light. Generally speaking, it is hard to separate judgement about an autobiography from that about its subject, since reading an autobiography is like a long stay at someone’s home, listening to them detail their life story around the dinner table, night after night. The problem is twofold when its author is so politically conflicted. As distinct from a film review, to review Oliver Stone’s autobiography is undeniably to review ‘Oliver Stone’.

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Melburnians above a certain age will remember Coles in Bourke Street. Unknown to most of them, it stood on the site of another Coles, Cole’s Book Arcade, for half a century probably the most famous shop in Australia. Its founder, Edward William Cole, is now the subject of an engaging biography by Richard Broinowski.

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In the garden of a hotel twenty minutes from Yogyakarta, a group of hopeful, middle-aged Westerners gyrate anxiously to the strains of LaBelle’s greatest hit. Unlike their young Balinese instructor, they are fighting a losing battle. Why bother? Robert Dessaix wonders. Next morning, his travelling companion answers in her husky smoker’s growl, ‘It’s death they’re afraid of – or at least dying.’

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Jane Sullivan reviews 'Max' by Alex Miller

Jane Sullivan
Thursday, 24 September 2020

When Alex Miller first thought of writing about Max Blatt, he imagined a celebration of his life. But would Max have wanted that? He was a melancholy, chainsmoking European migrant, quiet and self-effacing, who claimed nothing for himself except defeat and futility.

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Tali Lavi reviews 'The Happiest Man on Earth' by Eddie Jaku

Tali Lavi
Thursday, 24 September 2020

Eddie Jaku looks out benevolently from his memoir’s cover, signs of living etched across his face. The dapper centenarian displays another mark, one distinctly at odds with his beatific expression and the title’s claim: the tattoo on his forearm from Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Less discernible is the badge affixed to his lapel bearing the Hebrew word zachor; ‘remember’. The Happiest Man on Earth blazes with the pursuit of memory, of bearing witness, but it is also determinedly oriented towards the future, its dedication inscribed to ‘future generations’.

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