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.
Self-created pop and rock icon Debbie Harry tells her story in this punchy memoir.
Debbie Harry was at the centre of New York's 1970s punk scene. It was a time of frenetic creative energy, when musicians and artists maintained a vibrant street life and everyone seemed to know everyone, one way or another.
During the 70s Debbie Harry was trying to form an identity and artistic persona, immersing herself in art, fashion and music, hurtling herself forward, as she writes it, and trying to survive. When she met musician Chris Stein they became immediate friends and artistic collaborators. Together they created Blondie, recruited other band mates, and wrote a string of hits. Blondie sold millions of records, but due to dodgy management they were deeply in debt by the time the band broke up. Debbie would eventually resurface as a solo artist, survive drug dependency and agree to re-forming Blondie in the 1990s.
Face It has been pieced together from a series of interviews with music journalist Sylvie Simmons. As a consequence it has a punchy, direct quality. There isn't much in the way of deep introspection or reflection, although Harry is often candid and revealing. She openly discusses sex, drug use and risky living. Her philosophy of life is to keep surviving and creating and pushing forward. Mistakes are often made, it's a part of living, but not worth dwelling on.
For Blondie fans, there's lots of fascinating information about how the band's classic albums were made and the meaning behind some of the songs. One lovely aspect of the book is Harry's continued closeness to Chris Stein. As she maintains, they started out as friends and it is that close bond that has held them together over the decades, even once they parted as lovers.
Part scrap book (Face It is jam packed with photos and fan art) and part memoir, Debbie Harry gives her own unique twist on music, sex, drugs and 70s New York. It's a survivor's tale, told by an adopted child who never met her parents, someone who has come to accept life's highs and lows with equanimity.
Face It: A Memoir, by Debbie Harry. HarperCollins $45.
Review by Chris Saliba
New historical material coupled with biographer Troy Bramston's meticulous research makes for a worthy re-appraisal of Robert Menzies, Australia's longest serving prime minister.
Journalist and former political advisor Troy Bramston’s new biography of Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving prime minister, aims to refocus the historical lens. Too often Menzies is written off as an antediluvian character, hopelessly devoted to Queen and Empire, while his ardent supporters keep him on an unrealistic pedestal. Using newly released material and a broad range of author interviews with friends, family and colleagues, a portrait emerges of a brilliant yet flawed man.
Menzies’ best qualities were his ability for personal reflection and change. After the crushing failure of his first prime ministership (1939-1941) he managed to re-invent himself and create a new political force, the Australian Liberal Party. Philosophically gifted, he fashioned an appealing narrative of progressive values based on the rights of the individual. There were also serious missteps: his support, in 1938, for Hitler’s Germany; his attitudes towards race; the testing of nuclear bombs on Australian soil; a lax attitude towards apartheid; volunteering our troops for the Vietnam war.
Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics is always judicious and balanced, providing a multifaceted portrait of a key figure of Australian history. Essential reading for students of politics and history, or anyone interested in the Liberal Party and its deep national influence.
Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics, by Troy Bramston. Published by Scribe. RRP: $49.99
Review by Chris Saliba
This review was first published at Books + Publishing. The original article can be seen here.
An absorbing new collection of autobiographical pieces by African-diaspora Australians.
Growing Up African in Australia (edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke, Magan Magan and Ahmed Yussuf ) is a collection of autobiographical essays by African-diaspora Australians. Most of the pieces collected here are fairly short in length and cover a broad spectrum of nationalities and experiences. There are stories of leaving war-torn countries, the pain of being separated from family, the difficulties of cultural adjustment in a new land, the feeling of not belonging anywhere.
The inevitable experience of racism, in all its forms, whether it be a misguided but well-meaning remark, the cruelty of children in the playground, or the more sinister type, are all candidly discussed. The most common fault of white Australians is to ask: where do you come from? The onus always on the person of colour to validate their identity; the underlying assumption of the question being: you don't belong here.
While there are stories of struggle, pain and suffering, there are also inspiring stories of achievement and personal success, of finding friendships, love, place and community. A large number of the contributors are artists, performers and writers, and their stories are also a testament to the power of creativity to give solace and empowerment.
There is much to learn from this engaging and enjoyable collection. Growing Up African in Australia highlights the power of the word to create empathy and understanding.
Growing Up African in Australia, edited by Maxine Beneba Clarke. Published by Black Inc. RRP: $29.99
Release date: 2nd April 2019
Review by Chris Saliba
Susan Orlean examines every aspect of the library in this entertaining and humane book.
On April 29, 1986, a terrible fire broke out at the Los Angeles Public Library. It caused great devastation. Some 400,000 books were destroyed; another 700,000 experienced smoke or water damage. It took the fire department seven hours to put out the flames. The rebuilding took years and cost millions of dollars.
Journalist and writer Susan Orlean stumbled across these facts only recently, amazed that the fire wasn’t better known. A reason could be that the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster occurred a few days before the library fire, eclipsing it in newsworthiness.
How did the fire start? To this day it remains a mystery. The prime suspect was an attractive young man, Harry Peak, a fantasist and compulsive liar who dreamed of being an actor. He was seen at the library on the day of the fire, and he even told friends he had lit it, but then chopped and changed his story so much it was impossible to know what to believe. He was imprisoned for three days, but then the charges were dropped as it was felt the case against him wouldn’t stand up in court.
The eccentric Harry Peak is just one character among many in this multi-faceted, kaleidoscope-like book that looks at the history, development and workings of the Los Angeles Library. Orlean also chronicles the broader story of the library, from its early American pioneers (there were many eccentrics and true originals in this class) to today, where the library incorporates the latest in technology and sometimes struggles to remain an institution that is open to all, including the city’s many homeless seeking warmth and comfort.
The Library Book is a deeply satisfying book, explaining in entertaining language every aspect of how a big, modern library works. It’s also a story with heart and soul, the library being a vital and humane place, somewhere to find refuge from a world of ceaseless troubles. It’s also a book that pays due homage to the work of the librarians, those precursors to the Google search engine, ever ready to answer questions.
The Library Book, by Susan Orlean. Atlantic $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Biographer Elizabeth Kleinhenz tells the fascinating and complex story of Germaine Greer.
In 2013, Germaine Greer sold her archives – some 500 boxes - to the University of Melbourne. Academic and educator Elizabeth Kleinhenz has spent several years going through this rich resource on Greer’s life to produce a new biography. This is the second book on Greer's life – a notoriously unwilling subject – following Christine Wallace’s 1997 Untamed Shrew.
Kleinhenz produces a fairly straight forward biography here, something most readers will find easily accessible. The book doesn’t examine in critical detail Greer’s literary and intellectual output, which is fair enough (all the major works are discussed, however). That is really the task for another book.
What the biographer concentrates on is Greer the brilliant, complex and often contradictory woman. We get a portrait of someone who is generous, prodigiously intelligent and blessed with a sharp sense of humour, but also quick to anger, difficult and sometimes downright mean. Greer appears in these pages as a strangely isolated figure, yet surrounded by plenty of people. One almost feels sorry for her inability to forge strong, lasting relationships.
“Her behaviour can be as puzzling as it is annoying. Despite her singular intelligence, she can be as inconsistent and irrational as she is insulting. Her apparent lack of emotional empathy is strangely at odds with her literary sensibility. It is amazing to see how a bruising clumsiness in personal relations sits beside the almost pitch-perfect refinement of the best of her writing. A complete contradiction.”
Or as Salman Rushdie noted, after her refusal to sign a petition defending him during The Satanic Verses controversy, “...her determination to be out of step leads her into batty positions.”
I very much enjoyed this fascinating biography, reading it in a couple of days. It goes a long way to explaining some of the more unexplainable aspects of Germaine Greer’s personality, while also lauding her role as a public intellectual and feminist of considerable stature.
Germaine: The Life of Germaine Greer, by Elizabeth Kleinhenz. Vintage. RRP: $39.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Financial journalist Damon Kitney has written a compelling biography of James Packer, a complex and troubled man haunted by his father’s legacy.
James Packer, one of Australia’s richest men, guards his privacy jealously. Surprisingly, after several requests from financial journalist Damon Kitney (The Australian Financial Review, The Australian), he decided to co-operate in the writing of this biography. What ensued was six months of interviews, conducted at various locations across the globe, plus plenty of additional email material from Packer himself. Kitney also interviewed a wide range of Packer’s friends, business associates and even ex-wives.
The result is a measured, almost sympathetic portrait of a deeply divided and troubled man. Kitney has some two decades experience covering business and he brings his knowledge and communication skills to the fore when outlining James Packer’s chequered business history. He chronicles the devastating failures (the One.Tel collapse; the failed US casino investments; the selling of cherished family assets to pay off debts) with clarity, avoiding complex jargon.
At the centre of the James Packer story, though, is his relationship with his father, Kerry. Kerry Packer’s toughness and brutality were legendary, qualities drummed into him by his own father, Sir Frank Packer. James was especially traumatised by the colossal failure of One.Tel, losing his father’s business some 300 million dollars. Packer senior humiliated his son over the matter. When James inherited the family business, he set himself a goal of trying to live up to his father’s business legacy. This meant achieving profits in the billions, a Herculean task. Such a high benchmark has meant a constant feeling of failure. It’s also led to poor decision making, trusting the wrong people, alcohol abuse and a dependence on prescription drugs. His life seems a misery, despite the lush homes, luxury boats and jet-set lifestyle.
One wonders: why not sell it all and simply live off the interest? But as the ghost of Kerry Packer looms, demanding that the family legacy be preserved, James continues to take on the enormous stress of big debts and big business gambles. He appears to be utterly trapped, unable to re-create his life in his own image. By his own admission, Packer has no real interest in the gaming industry. He simply sees it as a stable, dependable income stream. One friend in the book wisely suggests once James finds a business he’s really passionate about, then he’ll be successful. (To the author’s credit, he raises the question of the ethics of the casino industry with Packer.)
James Packer is often described by his friends and business associates as being an essentially soft, gentle, generous soul. His bad moods, volatility and rudeness are often put down to the pressure he constantly finds himself under, rather than an innate part of his personality. The business life he has chosen, or rather inherited, seems a bad fit.
It’s hard to feel sorry for a multi billionaire, yet Damon Kitney does a good job of trying to walk in someone else’s shoes. The reader does come some way to understanding the complex motivations Packer has due to his family legacy and fortune. It weighs like a ton of bricks on his shoulders. The simple fact that Packer has agreed to have his life laid bare like this shows how much he must be suffering an existential crisis. This is an exasperated and confused middle-aged man asking out loud what he should do.
The lesson we learn from The Price of Fortune is that wealth, what we all strive for, may be limited in the happiness it can provide. Business leaders, media talking heads and politicians fete James Packer as the apogee of success, a man to be emulated. Maybe they got their business model wrong.
The Price of Fortune: The Untold Story of Being James Packer, by Damon Kitney. Published by HarperCollins RRP: $45.
Review by Chris Saliba
Leigh Sales has written a deeply humane book about loss and suffering.
How do people cope when a sudden disaster hits? It’s like any ordinary day, nothing could go wrong, but out of nowhere a freak accident happens and you’re plunged into the most extraordinary circumstances. Tragedy strikes, a loved one is killed and your world is turned upside down. ABC journalist and 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales has often pondered the question of how people cope when random events tap them on the shoulder. In 2014, Sales herself came close to death when she was hospitalised with complications from her second pregnancy. Such a major life changing experience prompted her to face one of her major fears: the fact that we are not in control of life and cannot protect ourselves from random events.
Any Ordinary Day is Sales’s quest to find out how we cope when tragedy suddenly claims the lives of those we love. It is also the author’s attempt to confront her personal fears about life’s terrifying uncertainty. The book mainly focuses on interviewing famous survivors of Australian disasters, events we have all watched horrified on our television sets. People like Stuart Diver, Thredbo landslide survivor; Walter Mikac, who lost his family at the Port Arthur massacre; and Louisa Hope, who was held hostage by Man Horin Monis at the Lindt Cafe siege. There is also plenty of interesting interview material with first responders, priests, police and other professionals who provide help and assistance to the bereaved.
What the interviews mostly reveal is that, despite thinking we could never cope with extreme and unexpected tragedy, cope we do. Not only that, but with suffering often comes growth. Those who have been through so much learn the value of kindness and try to enjoy every day for its own sake. Long term planning can be futile, as we will all have to face the death of a loved one at some stage.
Leigh Sales has written a wise, gentle, insightful and humane book. It’s a book of great honesty, as Sales confesses to journalistic mistakes she’s made in the past and reveals her own biases during the interview process. This mixture of thoughtfulness, vulnerability and a striving to be earnest, makes for an unexpectedly transformative read. Any Ordinary Day takes for its subject grief and suffering, yet its major revelation is that people are kind, we are more resilient than we think and that the sun continues to shine despite so much darkness. Leigh Sales confronts the hardest challenges that we all face in life, yet leaves the reader feeling light and at peace.
Any Ordinary Day, by Leigh Sales. Published by Hamish Hamilton. ISBN: 9780143789963 RRP: $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Gillian Triggs examines Australia's human rights record.
Gillian Triggs, former President of the Human Rights commission, uses her years of experience and learning to discuss at length a range of human rights issues that she cares deeply about, everything from the treatment of asylum seekers right through to the marriage equality vote.
The main concern of Speaking Up is how Australian parliaments are encroaching upon the liberties that we have inherited over the centuries as part of the common law. For example, the federal parliament has laws that allows asylum seekers to be detained indefinitely and yet the Magna Carta (drafted in 1215 to put a check on the executive power of kings) prohibits imprisonment without charge. Writes Triggs, “The common law has become an insubstantial spectre with little capacity to restrain parliamentary excesses.”
Speaking Up puts its case calmly and confidently. It provides a thorough and reasoned survey of Australia's human rights record, finding that further vigilance is required to meet the country's obligations.
Whether you agree with Triggs's analysis or not, this is a formidable book that can't be ignored. Important and timely, Speaking Up is mandatory reading for those interested in the law, democracy and human rights.
Speaking Up, by Gillian Triggs. Published by Melbourne University Press. ISBN: 9780522873511 RRP: $45
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books