Monica Dux comes to terms with her Catholic means
Writer and columnist Monica Dux grew up Catholic during a time of social upheaval. At home and at school, she was taught about Jesus, Mary and the Apostles. It was a way of life, and a very specific identity, being Catholic, one that never left you. But as young Monica grew up she became sceptical and left the church's teachings way behind. The thing about Catholicism, however, is that you may leave it, but it never leaves you. Lapsed is Dux's attempt to come to terms with what influence Catholicism continues to exert over her life, looking back from middle age.
The result is a mix of humour (lots of laugh-out-loud moments, in fact), memoir and Catholic history, examining in detail the church's many weird beliefs and practices. The section on child abuse scandals covered up by senior clergy burns with rage and indignation.
A highly entertaining book, chock full of gags and zingers, but with a serious core of self-examination.
Lapsed, by Monica Dux. Published by ABC Books. $34.99
Release date 7th April
Review by Chris Saliba
Novelist Nick Gadd remembers his wife Lynne through their many walks through inner city Melbourne.
Nick Gadd and his wife, Lynne, spent two years circling Melbourne's inner-city suburbs. “Psychojogging”, they called it, walking and exploring, theorising and researching the many odd and uncanny places they visited. When Nick's wife died from cancer, he decided to write up their expeditions as a way of dealing with his grief. Throughout the book an intimate portrait of Lynne is built up through remembered conversations and shared experiences.
In many ways, Melbourne Circle is a quirky and enchanting history of inner Melbourne, from the working class suburbs of Yarraville and Footscray, to the glamour of South Yarra's 1930's outre apartments, as designed by architect Howard Lawson. Many will be surprised to read about Maribrynong's once bustling bomb factory, the Yarraville retirement flats built on toxic waste that sank and that masterpiece of modern architecture, the ETA Peanut Butter Factory in Braybrook (its design was internationally recognised.)
For those who like to absorb their history on the streets – pondering the life of former arcades and post offices, piecing together “ghost signs” faded on old brick walls and staring in wonder at our architectural curios – there is much to delight in Melbourne Circle.
Melbourne Circle: Walking, Memory and Loss, by Nick Gadd. Published by Australian Scholarly Publishing. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Lech Blaine revisits a deeply traumatising event from his youth.
In 2009, Lech Blaine and six of his friends were involved in a horrific car crash in Toowoomba, Queensland. No drink-driving or breaking of speed limits was involved, although the car was clearly overloaded (two were travelling in the boot). The group was still in their teens, just boys. They were travelling at 95 kilometres an hour, five kilometres under the limit. When a back tyre hit some gravel the car spun out of control. People at the accident site later commented that Lech was hysterical, crawling out of the car despite being told to sit still until help arrived. Being young and fit, Lech presumed everyone would pull through. Death never entered his head. But over the coming days the seriousness of the injuries would provide a harsh dose of reality. Three of his friends died. One close friend suffered permanent brain damage, unable to walk or talk.
Car Crash, a memoir of this grief stricken time, describes the author stumbling numb and confused through the aftermath. It covers an hallucinatory, nightmare year and paints an emotionally complicated portrait of a group of young teenagers, ill equipped to deal with sudden, inexplicable death.
Lech Blaine is a preternaturally gifted young writer, still in his twenties. His prose shows an easy sophistication and surreal wit, constantly throwing out pleasant surprises. While the book is ostensibly about a group of young Toowoomba teenagers, describing their culture of sex, sport and alcohol, Blaine also spends much of the memoir concentrating on his relationship with his separated parents. His father is a sports loving, Labor voting union man, while his mother is the sensitive lover of literature, burdened with mental health issues. These sections brilliantly evoke complicated familial relationships, how children are formed by their parents, but also act to counter their influence.
Grief and confusion as experienced by young men, leavened with a smart sense of humour and a true writer's gift for subtle observation.
Car Crash: A Memoir, by Lech Blaine. Published by Black Inc. $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A lost kitten comes to symbolise all the love that we find so hard to grasp in life.
While at a writers retreat in Tuscany, Italy, American writer Mary Gaitskill adopted a stray cat. The kitten was one of a litter, scrawny and blind in one eye, that presented itself for patting. It seemed to have chosen the writer, even though she didn't want a kitten, especially one with special needs that would have to be brought back to the US. Despite all this, Gaitskill took the kitten to the vet, looked after it, got its shots so it could travel, and took it home. She first named the kitten “Chance”, but finally decided on Gattino. She settled Gattino into her new house, letting the kitten outside under supervision, but one day when she rushed inside to attend to something, he went missing.
Gattino was just seven months old. Gaitskill was heartbroken and went to extraordinary lengths to find her kitten, even employing psychics. There were a few suspected sightings, from less than reliable witnesses, but in the end it was accepted that Gattino must have died. A none too happy ending to a story about a pitiful kitten.
Interwoven through this story of Gattino is a series of personal dramas involving family members and adopted children, especially Gaitskill's emotionally complicated relationship with her father. Lost Cat works more as an extended autobiographical essay and asks the question, is it wrong to invest so much love in a small kitten, when our human relationships are so difficult?
“...the metaphor for love that I feel more deeply is a lost, hungry little animal dying as it tries to find its way back home in the cold. It isn’t truer. But I feel it more. “
A bracing, honest piece of autobiography, one that has an ineffable sadness about it.
Lost Cat, by Mary Gaitskill. Published by Daunt Books. $19.99
Review by Chris Saliba
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
North Melbourne Books