Idealism clashes with reality in this thoughtful and revealing memoir.
A Promised Land was supposed to cover Barack Obama’s entire presidency, but it stops after 700 pages at 2011. A second volume is in the wings.
Let it be said at the outset, this is a very fine memoir. Its standout feature is an intellectual honesty that allows Obama to confront his personal limitations and the limitations of US democracy. Everywhere the overarching theme is the clash between idealism and reality. Good policy regularly takes a backseat to pointless political bickering and naked self-interest. US democratic politics doesn’t lend itself to reform and improvement, but is frustratingly weighted to maintain the status quo.
Often Obama fondly remembers his younger idealistic self, romantically wishing he could join progressive global protest movements, but finding himself inert, ironically hamstrung in the world’s most important political office. The US presidency might seem to confer power, but the reality is it is often a straitjacket. For all the personal sacrifices to attain the presidency – family, privacy, a normal life – a question constantly hangs in the air: how much is really being achieved? For the most part, achievement is measured in the ability to stop even worse things happening.
It is this honesty and candour that makes A Promised Land so compelling. The book gives a penetrating view into the presidency (we learn much about how the office actually works) and exposes the limitations of power. Obama remains optimistic about change, but this memoir, while deeply insightful, is also a sobering reminder of blunt political realities.
A Promised Land will go down as one of the great political memoirs.
A Promised Land, by Barack Obama. Vintage. $65
Review by Chris Saliba
Phosphorescence: On Awe, wonder, and things that sustain you when the world goes dark, by Julia baird
Journalist and writer Julia Baird mixes self-help with memoir in this attractive and very readable guide to life.
Phosphorescence aims to make us appreciate what we have in life and offers strategies to cope with grief, disappointment and tragedy. The book opens with a piece on one of Julia Baird’s favourite hobbies, swimming in the ocean and looking with awe and wonder on the varieties of marine life. This opening sets the scene for a series of essays that discusses subjects such as silence, nature, self-worth, friendship and resilience. A lot of the early pieces in Phosphorescence mix commentary with scientific research and, while pleasant to read, can be a bit uninspired. The book, however, gains strength as it goes along and by the end, when Baird writes very personally about issues of faith and acceptance, it's hard not to be moved by her honesty and vulnerability.
I came away quite humbled by Phosphorescence. In many of the book’s pieces Baird discusses the hard times she’s endured, notably multiple surgeries for a recurring cancer, and what has got her through, how illness has changed her perspective and helped to prioritise what’s important. For anyone who grumbles about life and needs a reality check, Phosphorescence is a gentle reminder of how fragile and amazing life is.
Phosphorescence: On Awe, Wonder, and the Things That Sustain You When the World Goes Dark, by Julia Baird. Published by 4th Estate. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
An entertaining memoir from Liberal Party insider Christopher Pyne.
Christopher Pyne entered the Australian parliament at age twenty-five with high hopes of becoming prime minister. He traveled a long road to finally become a minister in the Howard government, and then in the Abbott and Turnbull governments. But he never reached the top job. Rather than indulge in bitterness and self-pity, he accepted his limits and graciously retired. His memoir, The Insider, covers the later years of the Howard government, when he was appointed Minister for Ageing, the opposition years and finally, the tumultuous Abbott and Turnbull years.
Don’t expect much in the way of political philosophy or policy interest in these pages. Pyne espouses an amorphous Liberal party philosophy of the individual rather than the collective, coupled with a blunt opposition to anything Labor. It’s all a case of Liberal equals good, Labor equals bad. Having said that, Pyne is a cheery fellow who relishes the work of parliament, its dynamic personalities and power plays, and all of its attendant bustle and energy. Despite his professed antipathy to Labor policy, he has cultivated many friendships with the non-liberal side of politics. Like a character out of P.G. Wodehouse, Pyne doesn’t hold grudges and sees parliament as ripping good fun.
The Insider is an enjoyable and engaging read. Pyne takes us on a grand tour of the political life, introducing the reader to a large cast of the most important political players from the last twenty years. If anything, his book gives a good idea of how the machinery of politics works, how elections are fought and won, and how reputations are made and lost.
An intriguing and candid look into how parliaments work from an affable guide.
The Insider: The Scoops, the Scandals and the Serious Business within the Canberra Bubble, by Christopher Pyne. Hachette. $34.99
A year in the arctic turns into a spiritual odyssey for Austrian artist Christiane Ritter
In 1934, Austrian artist Christiane Ritter rather gamely decided to join her researcher husband, Hermann, on the remote arctic island of Spitsbergen. Many thought she was foolhardy; seasoned travellers in the area – mainly men – told her she wouldn't last the one year stay. A blithe spirit animated her. Surely it couldn't be all that bad?
When she disembarked from her comfortable ship, with its hot meals, warm cabins and serving staff, the enormity of it all quickly sunk in. The ship would not return for another year. She was greeted by her husband and his colleague, Karl. The first thing that had to be found was water, and so the men trekked off in search of it. Christiane became immediately alarmed. Wasn't there a steady supply of fresh water nearby? No, there wasn't. It was the first of many lessons that she would have to learn about her new – often harsh and unforgiving – environment.
As the months rolled on, many hardships would follow. Especially the winter storms and their unrelenting, howling noise. For several weeks Christiane is left to survive on her own, the wind lashing at her cabin. But amidst the solitude, the cold and the privations, Christiane came to love the arctic.
The chief charm of A Woman in the Polar Night is Christiane Ritter's crystal clear prose, making for a bracing narrative. Ritter's training as an artist has no doubt helped her to sketch out essential and key aspects of her visual experience, to reveal the arctic's many splendours. The passages that describe Ritter's emotional responses are both controlled (avoiding flights of fancy) and revelatory. One really does become jealous at the peace of mind and oneness she achieves in the midst of such turbulence.
At 200 pages, the book doesn't overstay its welcome, leaving you wanting just a little bit more. Beautifully presented by Pushkin Press, with illustrations by the author, this is a curious gem not to be missed.
A Woman in the Polar Night, by Christiane Ritter. Pushkin Press. $24.99
Hisham Matar takes the reader on a spiritual and aesthetic journey
Award winning British-Libyan writer Hisham Matar spent a month in the Tuscan city of Siena, with the aim of immersing himself in the city's great galleries, especially the Sienese School of painting, which had its great period from the 13th to 15th centuries. While Matar did spend a lot of time standing in front of famous paintings by artists such as Lorenzetti and Duccio (the gallery attendants even gave him a chair, seeing him so frequently visit), the writer also made some unexpected friendships and found himself on a voyage of inner discovery.
A Month in Siena, the result of that brief sojourn, is many things. In the main a travelogue, but also a profound meditation on art and life. Matar describes the paintings of the Sienese School in fine detail, but interpolates important events from his own life, fusing art and life into a compelling narrative. Some of the book's meditations are quite moving as death, the loss of partners and the nature of love are discussed in a language that is both intimate and beautifully wrought.
Presented with exquisite colour illustrations, this short book will magically transport you to other places while also opening a window into the soul.
A Month in Siena, by Hisham Matar. Viking $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A lively, candid trip through Malcolm Turnbull's business deals and turbulent career in politics.
Most political memoirs are self-serving affairs, either attempts to set the record straight or dull policy lists of what was achieved in government. Malcolm Turnbull does a bit of both here, that's to be expected. What makes his book stand apart from other memoirs of this type is the lack of venom or bitterness. Nor is Turnbull hamstrung by ideology.
The tone of the book is that of a slightly world-weary philosopher king wading through Sodom and Gomorrah. The former Liberal prime minister's mistake was to trust people and presume that politicians are rational actors. Instead Turnbull finds the reverse: a bunch of ideologically mad right-wingers who would cut off their nose to spite their face. No one can be trusted. Colleagues who professed friendship and solidarity for years would abruptly turn face and secretly plot. When we think of our political leadership, we think of men and women working in a collegiate fashion, striving for best outcomes. A Bigger Picture shows that a huge amount of time and energy is devoted to intrigue, plotting and undermining.
At 660 pages, A Bigger Picture may seem like a daunting prospect, but the author keeps his narrative lively and interesting. Even the boring bits – the business deals and policy development – run fairly smoothly. Other chapters, such as the one on China, are fascinating and insightful. The most compelling parts are the portraits of Liberal Party colleagues, with lots of the behind scenes dialogue and tell-tale personal traits. None of this is done to provide salacious titillation, but rather is an earnest attempt to explain character and motivation. There's no sense in Turnbull's writing that he's trying to settle scores with political enemies.
I was cheered by A Bigger Picture as I neared the end. His genuine respect for women and gay people is a breath of fresh air. He enforced the “bonking ban” between politicians and staffers in part due to the Barnaby Joyce scandal, but also because he'd seen too many young women compromised by their blokey male bosses. The final words in the marriage equality chapter are uplifting for their humanity and generosity of spirit.
A surprisingly good memoir with insights into how destructive and counter-productive politics can be.
A Bigger Picture, by Malcolm Turnbull. Published by Hardie Grant. $55
Review by Chris Saliba
Tove Ditlevsen (1917 – 1976) was a Danish poet and author. The Copenhagen Trilogy is a three part memoir Ditlevsen wrote at a time of great personal crisis.
Part one, Childhood, covers the poet’s early teen years. Ditlevsen’s family – parents and brother, Edvin – are shamefully poor, often embarrassed by their reduced circumstances and live in a slum-like area of Copenhagen. Young Tove hangs out with the local kids, especially her friend Ruth, gossiping and exchanging lurid stories.
Tove is a sensitive girl, imaginative and introspective. She only feels truly alive and happy when she writes. Her true passion is poetry, compositions she enters in a private journal. Misunderstood by her parents and teachers, Tove plays dumb and hides her feelings. As a young poet she knows she will be ridiculed should her secret writing life be found out. When Edvin discovers her journal, he laughs out loud while reading her poems. Despite this, Tove will extend some forgiveness to her brother, who works as an apprentice printer, a job he hates.
All in all it’s a lonely and alienating existence for young Tove. She feels no love from her parents, who can only see a traditional and unremarkable career for her as a nanny, minding other people’s children. The mean, gossipy world of her friends is limiting as well. Despite this, Tove dares to dream of one day being published as a poet. She continues to write, no matter how bleak her prospects seem.
At one hundred pages, Childhood is a seductive, intimate self-portrait that ends too soon. How the reader longs for more! (Luckily, there are two more volumes, Youth and Dependency). Ditlevsen captures the essence of a troubled childhood – anxieties over belonging, grim expectations for the future and the indifferent adults who are more absorbed by their own worries. All this contributes to make Childhood a subtle work of existential brilliance. Ditlevsen shows the self stripped back to its vulnerable essence. Some of it is so private and revealing it's possible to feel like a trespasser, having almost stumbled onto a private journal.
A moving self-portrait of the poet as young, damaged soul.
Translated by Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman
Childhood, by Tove Ditlevsen. Penguin $22.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Garry Linnell’s portrait of escaped convict William Buckley is a stunning triumph.
William Buckley (1780 – 1856) is surely one of the most intriguing and enigmatic characters of Australian history. He fought Napoleon as a soldier in the King's Own Regiment in 1799, but later came undone for receiving stolen goods - a bolt of cloth. He was given 14 years and sent to New South Wales, arriving upon the Calcutta in 1803. Exhausted and terrified, Buckley soon bolted with three other prisoners. The group separated and Buckley spent weeks on his own, living off shellfish. He probably would have expired, if not for the contact he made with the local Aboriginal people who thought he was a ghost, one of their ancestors who had died, then “jumped up” again as a white man.
Buckley spent the following 32 years living with the Wadawurrung people. He was respected by the Wadawurrung and was influential in trying to preserve the peace between different clans and groups. In 1835, Buckley re-entered European society. He was given a pardon by Governor Arthur and worked as an interpreter. This role as intermediary took its toll on Buckley, who saw many abuses of First Nations people and moved to Van Diemen's Land for the rest of his life.
Garry Linnell takes an interesting approach in Buckley's Chance, presenting the narrative in an almost fictional form. In some ways the structure of the book is like an 18th century epistolatory novel, with Linnell addressing himself to an imaginary Buckley, posing questions about his emotional state and responses to key events. Almost like speculative fiction, this style of writing gives the book a tone of intimacy and humanity, asking the reader to imagine Buckley's personal conflicts and psychological states of being. The narrative is interweaved with thorough research and quotes from key contemporaries, making the book invaluable as an early history of New South Wales, Tasmania and most notably, Victoria.
The portrait that emerges of Buckley himself is of a sad and tortured soul, caught between two cultures, one exterminating the other. His two years working with the Port Phillip Association, most notably with John Batman, was extremely painful as he assisted the land grab that saw widespread dispossession of the Wadawurrung and other peoples. Yet for all that we have on the record, plus Buckley's own memoir, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley written by journalist John Morgan (Buckley was illiterate), the man himself remains frustratingly distant and mysterious. He was often portrayed as a dolt, but surely knew more than he let on.
Buckley's Chance is a tremendous achievement. Engaging, passionate and fascinating it's a book that invited the reader to re-imagine Australia's formative years, a time that was harsh and often horrific.
Buckley's Chance, by Garry Linnell. Published by Michael Joseph. $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A great biography of one the twentieth century's towering intellectual figures.
Susan Sontag is best known for her essays such as “Notes on Camp” and “Against Interpretation”, published in the late 1960s. Her 1977 book, On Photography, a collection of essays originally published in the New York Review of Books, is considered the seminal text on the subject. Sontag also wrote fiction, with mixed results. Early novels such as The Benefactor and Death Kit are considered opaque and difficult, while in the early 1990s Sontag had a best seller with The Volcano Lover.
In Sontag, by American writer and translator Benjamin Moser, the reader is treated to a first class biography. It mixes cultural and political history, philosophy, literary analysis and of course, the complex and divided character of Susan Sontag herself. She emerges as a troubled, difficult, cantankerous, hypocritical, generous and vulnerable woman. Determined to present herself in an idealised aspect – as a thinker, intellectual and cultural warrior – Sontag often hid her true self, keeping her 15 year relationship with Annie Leibovitz a secret, even from her sister. This friction between real self and self as brassy persona meant the writer was a “house divided”. Relationships – friends and lovers alike – were never stable, always subject to Susan's unreasonable and explosive personality.
Fascinating, absorbing and intellectually rigorous, Sontag provides a window on a key cultural figure of the last 50 years, summing up an age, its art and literature.
Sontag: Her Life, by Benjamin Moser. Allen Lane. $59.99
Review by Chris Saliba
David Day brings to life an important figure in Australian history.
Maurice Blackburn (1880 – 1944) was an influential member of the Australian Labor Party and a barrister, specialising in cases defending socialist causes. He held seats at both the state and federal levels, was heavily involved in the divisive conscription debates during the First World War and could at times be a controversial figure, due mainly to his intellectual independence and dogged integrity. His relationship with the Labor Party was often strained as he differed on party policy and would not compromise his beliefs for political expediency. The Labor Party twice expelled him.
Esteemed historian David Day brings to life the rowdy and theatrical politics of the time: street meetings in Melbourne's inner suburbs; rousing speeches on the Yarra; and dodgy political and business characters, such as Prime Minister Billy Hughes and thuggish businessman John Wren. Against this backdrop Maurice Blackburn emerges as a rare beast, a politician and activist who was broadly esteemed for his integrity and consistency.
David Day writes a splendid history of Australia's nascent Labour movement and one of its major figures, distilling the complex social and economic issues of the time into a bracing narrative. Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People will appeal to the general reader and history buff alike.
Maurice Blackburn: Champion of the People, published by Scribe. $49.99
Review by Chris Saliba.
This review first published at Books + Publishing. Click here.
North Melbourne Books