Biography and Memoirs

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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If Australia during the last century was ‘no place for a nervous lady’, this collection of women’s writings edited by Lucy Frost establishes with simple eloquence that it certainly was no place for a nervous gentleman.

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There are few people on earth I would rather read than Germaine Greer, mad or sane. Whatever reservations I might want to express about Daddy We Hardly Knew You, it is some testament to its compelling power that I read most of it strung-out with fatigue from checking proofs some time towards dawn and I still found it difficult to stop reading.

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Just before I flew to Australia to deliver this year’s HRC Seymour Lecture in Biography, I heard an ABC broadcast on the BBC World Service. The Australian commentator was talking about the centenary of the birth of Donald Bradman, the ‘great Don’ with his famous Test batting average of 99.94 runs. He said that Bradman was a peculiarly Australian role model because he was a sporting hero and because he knocked the hell out of the British bowling. Slightly carried away by the moment, he added: ‘We still need those founding fathers – we’ve had no George Washington, no Abraham Lincoln ... Don Bradman fills a biographical gap.’

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In the penultimate chapter of his memoir, Bernard Smith describes a meeting of the Sydney Teachers College Art Club, an institution he founded and later transformed into the leftist NSW Teachers Federation Art Society. The group was addressed in 1938 by Julian Ashton, then aged eighty-seven and very much the grand old man of Sydney painting and art education. He spoke at great length on the inadequacy of the NSW Education Department’s art teaching practices. Smith adds that Ashton also ‘told his life story (as old men will)’.

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