A breezy yet well informed journey through the Australian landscape.
Academic and writer Belinda Probert moved from the UK to Australia in the late 1970s. She travelled around the country taking up various teaching posts, mainly between Western Australia, South Australia and Victoria, finally settling in Melbourne.
Imaginative Possession describes Probert's decision to buy a property in the Otways, rural Victoria. Her aim was to get a better grip on the Australian landscape by studying and living with it at close quarters. Taking inspiration from writers such as Don Watson (The Bush), Charles Massy (Call of the Reed Warbler), Kim Mahood (Position Doubtful), Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) and Tim Winton, Probert explores notions of belonging and meaning. How do Australians of European ancestry relate to the land, if at all? Why do First Australians have such strong ties to Country?
Part memoir, part essay, part literary appreciation, Imaginative Possession is a fascinating and thought provoking book that will get you thinking about what the Australian environment means to you.
Imaginative Possession: Learning to Live in the Antipodes, by Belinda Probert. Published by Upswell. $26.99
From street hustler and jailbird to powerful Black leader, the story of Malcolm X has a lot to teach about race in America.
Born in 1925 in Omaha, Nebraska, Malcolm Little grew up rough. His mother, while pregnant with the future leader, would find herself harassed by the Ku Klux Klan, knocking on her door one night searching for her husband. It was an era where lynchings were almost routine and segregation was law. Malcolm's parents Earl and Louise were both supporters of the activist, Marcus Garvey, who promoted Black separatism and Pan Africanism. Earl Little would die relatively young, run over by a tram car, and Malcolm would forever maintain he was murdered by white supremacists. Louise Little, left without a husband and seven children to look after, couldn't cope and was institutionalised. Malcolm grew up hustling on the streets, got involved in petty crime and ended up in prison.
In prison, Malcolm became a voracious reader and autodidact. At this time his brothers introduced him to the Nation of Islam (NOI), nominally a Muslim organisation, but in reality a Black nationalist group that espoused Black separtism. With a changed name Malcolm was soon a prominent and charismatic leader, a much sought after speaker and interview subject. Despite this success, the contradictions of Nation of Islam chipped away at his conscience, especially its separatist stance. In 1961, Malcolm attended a secret meeting with members of the Ku Klux Klan. The two groups believed in keeping the races separate, a key point they agreed on, although for different reasons. The contradictions came brutally to the fore when the KKK members wanted information on Dr. Martin Luther King, so they could assassinate him. King being an integrationist made him an anathema to both parties. Malcolm X withdrew from the meeting, deeply shaken. It remained harder and harder to maintain ideological purity, faced with so many wild contradictions.
Malcolm X would leave Nation of Islam when it was proven without a doubt that its leader, Elijah Muhammad, was a fraud and hypocrite, siring half a dozen children with different women and using his position to accumulate obscene levels of wealth. The break with NOI would make Malcolm an enemy and target for assassination, from his own people.
Journalist Les Payne has conducted hundreds of interviews with friends, relatives and colleagues of Malcolm X, giving an extraordinarily well researched portrait of a complex, evolving figure. Against the background of a racist America, with white supremacist terror groups making daily life a nightmare for African-Americans, it is easy to see the appeal of a philosophically bankrupt group like NOI. What makes Malcolm X such a compelling character is how a man with little education and fewer prospects could transform himself into a thought provoking leader on the question of race, but also one who was willing to admit when he had got it wrong. He could remake himself. Unfortunately, that remaking resulted in his death, helped along by police and spy agencies turning a blind eye and not marshaling enough resources for his protection.
The Dead Are Arising helps explain so much, particularly to a white or non-American audience. The harrowing, detailed descriptions of the lynchings of Black men are a horror to read. The blood is soaked on the pages. Les Payne doesn't hold back on illustrating the many contradictions of Black politics and race – the prejudice within the community against darker skin, the bizarre fact that NOI was started by a white man named Wallace D. Fard, a convicted felon who posed as mixed race and mysteriously disappeared in 1934.
An elegantly written book, one that strives for truth and moral clarity.
The Dead are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X, by Les Payne and Tamara Payne. Published by Vintage. $65
Review by Chris Saliba
An unforgettable memoir of growing up in Nazi Germany.
First published in Germany in 1966, The Broken House is a memoir of growing up in Nazi Germany. Born in 1919, novelist and journalist Horst Kruger was fourteen when Hitler came to power. He was part of a resistance movement, escaped serious punishment and eventually was conscripted into the German army. When all was lost, he surrendered prematurely to the Americans and gave them vital coordinates, helping close down a battlefront early.
Kruger looks back to his youth in Eichkamp, Berlin, to try and figure out what the appeal of Hitler was. The enigma of the century, why was Hitler so popular, how did he get away with the murder of six million Jews? The irony, as he writes it, is that the sentimental, suburban, middle-class Germans who adored Hitler were not paid up Nazi members. Although in one passage Kruger describes his mother buying him a “pretty” swastika to put on his bicycle. It was this broad cohort of non-political Germans, Kruger maintains, who created Hitler. Without them Hitler couldn’t have existed. Indeed, it’s easy to see how respectable middle-class Germans turned a blind eye to the looming Holocaust. Jewish neighbours were disappearing left, right and centre, yet no alarm bells went off. People merely shrugged their shoulders.
In other chapters Kruger describes the strange middle class preoccupation with respectability. When his sister commits suicide, what seems more important, to his mother at least, is that appearances are kept up. They lie to the neighbours about her sudden and dramatic ambulance journey and Mrs Kruger is relieved that she died a virgin, her sacredness intact.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing and compelling chapters is the description of the trials for war crimes. A parade of unremarkable men – doctors, academics, public servants – are assembled in court. A seemingly innocuous bunch. It’s hard to put these respectable images next to the hideous crimes they performed. A perfect example of Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil.
For anyone trying to understand this incomprehensible period of history, The Broken House offers the feel, smell and mood of a Germany that thinks itself innocent, having emerged from the humiliations of the 1918 Versaille Treaty. Hitler offers the country self-esteem, hope and a bright future. But anti-semitism is everywhere around these simple German folk. It’s essential to Hitler’s madness. Failure to see these wrongs will form a large part of Germany’s downfall.
For some reason this fascinating time capsule has only recently been re-discovered in Germany, republished in 2019. It appears now in English for the first time. With the novelist’s gift for narrative, lyrical description and compelling character studies, Horst Kruger’s memoir is both aesthetically pleasing and of deep historical value.
The Broken House: Growing Up Under Hitler, by Horst Kruger. Published by Jonathan Cape. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
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
North Melbourne Books