Biography and Memoirs

A lover of photography since childhood, by the time Olive Cotton, who was born in Sydney in 1911, was in her twenties she was already creating the pictures that were to define her as one of Australia’s foremost women photographers, although this would not be acknowledged until the 1980s. Apart from the photographs she made, Cotton left little material trace of a life that spanned nine decades (she died in 2003). This lack of physical evidence presented a challenge for biographer Helen Ennis, a former curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia and an art historian, who has nonetheless managed to weave a compelling, if at times diaphanous, narrative.

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The fortieth anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras might have been an occasion for unbridled elation. Held in March of 2018, the celebration came soon after the bitterly fought battle to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia. Dennis Altman, a pre-eminent figure in Gay Liberation, paints a different picture of the Mardi Gras. His new book, Unrequited Love: Diary of an accidental activist, conveys a sense of unease despite the frolicsome charms of such festivities.

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When Geraldine Brooks went through her father’s possessions after his death, she found the bundles of letters which prompted her to write Foreign Correspondence. Lawrie Brooks had been in the habit of writing to politicians and intellectuals with ideas and questions, and he had kept all their replies. Each letter, Brooks reflects, is ‘a small piece of the mosaic of his restless mind’. Because her father hoarded his past in photographs and newspaper clippings as well as letters, she had the makings of an intimate portrait of a reserved and unhappy man.

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Jill Kitson reviews 'The Road from Coorain' by Jill Ker Conway

Jill Kitson
Wednesday, 11 December 2019

In September 1960, Jill Ker, aged twenty-six, left Australia for good. She was off to study history at Harvard and, as it turned out, to make a career as a high-flying academic administrator in the States. The ties she was breaking were those that bound her to her widowed mother and, above all, to Coorain, the thirty-thousand-acre property her father had acquired in 1929 as a soldier settler and where she had spent the first eleven years of her life. The Road from Coorain is her account – all the more moving for being carefully neutral in tone – of how those ties were formed as she grew up and how she reached her decision to break them.

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Peter Craven reviews 'The Puzzles of Childhood' by Manning Clark

Peter Craven
Wednesday, 11 December 2019

Manning Clark will be remembered as a historian long after the last jot and tittle of the facts he amassed have been disputed and every revisionism has had its day, proving for those with the needful faith that he made it all up, that he was a waffler, that the diorama he presented as the history of Australia was nothing but an allegory of the inside of his head, and that it was all vanity and a striving after wind.

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Just over one hundred years ago, Sydney readers were speaking in hushed tones about a shocking new book by a young woman, Zora Cross. A collection of love poems by an unknown would not normally have roused much interest, but because they came from a woman, and were frankly and emphatically erotic, the book was a sensation. It wasn’t, as a Bulletin reviewer said demurely, a set of sonnets to the beloved’s eyebrows. It was ‘well, all of him’. It broke the literary convention that restricted the expression of sexual pleasure to a male lover. Cross took Shakespeare’s sonnets as her inspiration. Her Songs of Love and Life (1917) was a long way from being Shakespearean, but it roused huge admiration. Cross was hailed as a genius, ‘an Australian Sappho’.

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Every biographer has a relationship with their subject, even if they have passed away. A real advantage for biographers of the dead is that the subject cannot say what they think about the book. The relationship between Margaret Simons and Penny Wong was fraught. That this mattered is evident from the opening sentence: ‘Penny Wong did not want this book to be written.’ Simons, a journalist, biographer, and associate professor at Monash University, uses her preface to complain about how difficult it was researching the book without Wong’s assistance and against her will. 

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Brian Toohey reviews 'Permanent Record' by Edward Snowden

Brian Toohey
Friday, 15 November 2019

Edward Snowden was a model employee of the National Security Agency. After realising that the vast electronic surveillance organisation often failed to backup its advanced computerised systems properly, Snowden offered a solution. His bosses readily agreed to let him build and run a comprehensive backup system. He subsequently copied huge amounts of highly sensitive information, which he took with him when he left the NSA in 2013, aged twenty-nine, to become the most important whistleblower in intelligence agency history.

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Michael Sharkey reviews 'Henry Lawson: A life' by Colin Roderick

Michael Sharkey
Thursday, 31 October 2019

Henry Lawson’s death prompted a torrent of lamentation and, despite the distaste of academics and critics, the poet was soon enshrined as a National Treasure. Colin Roderick’s biography is a monument of dedication to the poet.

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Richard Holbrooke was a United States diplomat whose career began during the Vietnam War and ended during the one in Afghanistan, and whose life, according to George Packer, spanned the ‘American century’. He was an Assistant Secretary of State in the Carter and Clinton administrations, and President Obama’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan until his sudden death in 2010. For his role in brokering the Dayton Accords in 1995, he was thought by some (not least himself) to have earned the Nobel Peace Prize. He wasn’t awarded it, nor did he achieve his aim of becoming Secretary of State; his was a life that his biographer describes as ‘almost great’.

Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the end of the American century is told through a distinctive narrative voice, not Packer exactly, but a witness to Holbrooke’s story who editorialises freely in the first person. Alternately confiding and grandiloquent, Packer speaks in arresting sentences of a kind one doesn’t usually encounter in biographies of statesmen and diplomats. I happened to read this one on the Fourth of July: ‘We prefer our wars quick and decisive, concluding with a surrender ceremony, and we like firepower more than we want to admit.’ As the Afghanistan War lurched towards its eighteenth year and tanks took up their positions in Washington, D.C., for President Trump’s military parade, I thought, have Americans ever been shy about liking firepower?

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