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
Child prodigy Barbara Newhall Follett wrote The House Without Windows, a song in praise of nature, at the age of twelve.
A young girl, Eepersip, finds living in a house – restrictive doors, windows, rooms and their attendant rules for living – repugnant to her. She decides to leave her parents' house and live in the wild. At first Eepersip roams the woods and meadows, making friends with animals and exulting in the plant life. She eats berries and roots, drinks freshly gathered water and makes comfortable beds in the wild for sleeping. Eepersip lives in a kind of ecstasy; a pure joy inhabits every waking minute of the day. She can't imagine going back to living in a house. Her parents, Mr and Mrs Eigleen, have different ideas. In a comic game of cat-and-mouse, they try to capture Eepersip and bring her back. But their half-hearted, ill conceived strategies always fail, often farcically. In one episode Eepersip actually jumps over her father and runs in the opposite direct.
Having experienced the wonders of the woods, Eepersip decides to discover the delights of the sea. For the third part of the novel, Eepersip treks to the mountain tops, where she experiences a near transformation, giving the novel a mesmerising, glittering finish.
Barbara Newhall Follett began writing The House Without Windows when she was eight and finished it at age nine. The manuscript was destroyed in a fire and so she began re-writing it from memory. Where memory failed her, she recreated, letting her writing go off in new directions. She was only twelve years old when her novel was published in 1927.
The House Without Windows is certainly an astonishing feat, for a writer at any age. The book is suffused with a magic and wonder; the descriptions of fish, animals, plants, insects all convey an utter ecstasy of experience. The book also offers psychological lessons. Eepersip eschews identity – there are sections where she doesn't even like to be called by her name – in favour of merging with the natural world. To achieve happiness and oneness with all things, the ego must be erased. By the novel's end, Eepersip, as a solid personality, with name, family history and place in society, has almost disappeared, replaced with a humming presence, a oneness with the world.
A book of mind boggling originality from a preternaturally gifted writer.
The House Without Windows, by Barbara Newhall-Follett. Hamish Hamilton $22.99
Staff review by Chris Saliba
Adventure – and some danger – looms for young Stuart Horten when he finds a box of old coins that hold the clue to his great-uncle Tony's mysterious disappearance.
Ten-year-old Stuart Horten has his fair share of troubles. His family has recently moved to the town of Beeton due to his mother's work. It's hard making new friends, especially when you're anxious about your height. Stuart is short, and he fears he's inherited the short genes in his family. His name doesn't help matters: S.Horten, or Shorty Shorten as he was teased at his old school.
Stuart's father grew up in Beeton and the Hortens have quite a bit of history in the town. Things start to get interesting when Stuart learns that his great-uncle, known by his stage name as Teeny-Tiny Tony Horten, was a famous magician who mysteriously went missing. Stuart also learns that the Horten family ran a factory, Horten's Miraculous Mechanisms, which was integral to developing some of Uncle Tony's greatest illusions. When Stuart discovers some old coins, they lead him on an adventure to find out what exactly happened to Uncle Tony.
Lissa Evans' first novel for children, Small Change for Stuart, (now re-printed) is a brilliantly constructed adventure story with plenty of magic, wonder and just a touch of nostalgia. Looking back to the 1940s, it's a time when technology was clunky yet magical nonetheless. Stuart must use his outdated coins, found in an old box belonging to Uncle Tony, to activate a series of coin operated machines - a toffee dispenser, a weighing machine etc. - which give him clues to find Uncle Tony's magic workshop and find out what happened to him. Comic relief comes in the form of the Kingsley triplets – April, May and June – who live next door and run their own newspaper. The girls are delightfully bossy and April, who has a real bent for sleuthing, ends up performing some heroic duties. There is also some danger in the form of the ruthless Jeannie (with her hopeless flunky Clifford in tow), who wants Uncle Tony's workshop for herself.
This is classic family holiday reading, the kind of adventure you want to keep coming back to.
Small Change for Stuart, by Lissa Evans. Published by David Fickling. $16.99
Book review by Chris Saliba
A Swedish classic of psychological drama.
Swedish novelist Stig Dagerman's A Moth to the Flame (1948) opens with a funeral. Twenty-year-old Bengt's mother, Alma, is to be buried. It's a time of guilt, anger and mixed emotions as the family remembers the often neglected Alma. Bengt tries to cope with the loss of his mother, and he has his sympathetic and gentle fiancée, Berit, to help. But things take a dark turn when he discovers that his father, Knut, has been seeing another woman, Gun, a cashier at the local theatre. Bengt becomes both attracted to and repulsed by Gun. His emotions bounce violently between love and hate, keeping him in a state of permanent, unresolved distress.
Stig Dagerman wrote a series of highly regarded novels in his early twenties, suddenly stopped writing, and five years later tragically committed suicide at the age of thirty-one. A Moth to the Flame, a work of staggering emotional maturity, was published when the author was in his mid twenties. It's a brooding, dreamlike work of psychological interiors. The novel has no real centre of gravity and rather floats like a miasma, drenched in Freudian gloom, with its themes of guilt, desire and traumatic family relationships. The deeply conflicted Bengt has much in common with Shakepeare's Hamlet as he tries to avenge his mother's memory but is unable to set out on any definite course.
A mini masterpiece from a gifted writer who died too young.
A Moth to the Flame, by Stig Dagerman. Penguin Classics. $22.99
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.
When a mysterious letter appears promising good luck, 12-year-old Emma finds her world turned upside down.
12-year-old Emma Macintyre is going through some tough times. Recently she lost her Aunt Jenny to cancer and her best friend, Savvy, has turned on her. Savvy is now running with a popular but mean set of school kids. Emma tries to fit in and accommodate everyone at school, but her best intentions backfire. It seems she just can't get a lucky break. But then a mysterious, unsigned letter is hand delivered to her home.
The letter promises that ten lucky things will happen during the next month if Emma will only wish for them. As Emma's wishes start to come true, she starts to realise she wants different things in life. The popular kids she thought she wanted to be friends with, she now wants to avoid. Emma finds that her attitude to luck also changes and she develops a new philosophy, accepting the random good and bad that comes her way.
Janice Erlbaum's first novel for children (she is known for her memoirs and adult fiction) is a sassy, engaging story told from Emma's point of view. The dialogue is lively and often humorous, with plenty of sharp observations. The story reaches a dramatic peak when Emma's best friend Savvy is trapped into sending a topless photo to a boy she thinks she's in love with, opening the story up to contemporary themes of bullying and teen pornography. It's hard to think of a better book to put into the hands of young readers just about to enter their teens, with its cautionary tale about the dangers of mobile phones and cliquey in-groups.
Funny, page-turning and with a diverse cast (there are gay characters and single mums), Lucky Little Things is an enjoyable ride through the dramas of middle school.
Lucky Little Things, by Janice Erlbaum. Square Fish $11.99
Review by Chris Saliba
A sweet story about friendship and community.
Zanzibar the crow is enjoying his dinner at home when there is a knock at the door. The surprise visitor is a lizard wearing glasses. His name is Achille LeBlab, a reporter for The Voice of the Forest. He wants to know if Zanzibar has ever done anything extraordinary. The crow thinks for a while, but can't come up with anything. Unimpressed, Achille LeBlab caps his reporter's pen and leaves. Zanzibar thinks about this and decides to lift a camel with a single wing. He asks the postman, Monsieur Seagull, where he can find a camel. In the desert, comes the answer, and so Zanzibar flies off. When he arrives in the desert, he meets Sidi the fox and Cheb the dromedary. A dromedary is similar to a camel, so he decides to lift Cheb. But can a crow lift such a large animal?
French illustrator and writer Catharina Valckx's charming chapter book for early readers concentrates on the sweetness of friendship and community. There is a wonderfully gentle tone to the writing and a delightful cast of characters, including Paulette (a mole), Ginette (a frog) and Madame Adele (a moth). Zanzibar will leave you feeling cheerful for days.
Zanzibar, by Catharina Valckx. Gecko Press. $16.99
Review by Chris Saliba
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
Life's bitter sweet for Merci Suarez as she deals with trouble at home and school in this realistic, yet heart-warming children's novel.
Mercedes (Merci) Suárez is an eleven-year-old scholarship student, living with her large family in three modest houses (Las Casitas – the little houses) that sit side by side. Besides her parents and brother, Roli, there are her grandparents, Lolo and Abuela, her aunt Tía Inés and cousins Tomas and Axel.
Life as a scholarship student presents its own special demands: Merci must make sure her behaviour and grades are exceptional. A major challenge comes in the form of Edna Santos, a bossy, rich girl who runs the social life of her class. Edna's catchphrase is “no offence”, which she uses to preface her put downs. (“No offence is what Edna says before taking a hatchet to your feelings.”) When Merci is assigned tall, handsome Michael Clark as her Sunshine Buddy (school policy assigns new students with a buddy to help with orientation) Edna gets jealous and starts to cause havoc.
If school problems aren't enough, then there are secrets being kept at home. Merci's grandfather, Lolo, has been acting strangely. He is becoming forgetful and causing much stress in the tight knit family. Merci senses something is not quite right and when all is finally revealed, she feels betrayed.
Cuban-American children's writer Meg Medina has created a realistic, funny, heart-warming story about family and the dramas of school. The large cast of characters are well drawn and the dialogue is punchy and smart, without being brassy. The pushy Edna Santos is an absolute hoot, somewhat like Lucy Van Pelt out of the Peanuts cartoons. Despite her jealousy and deviousness, she's also a consummate socialite who is easy to like. Even Merci admits to her charms.
Merci manages to get through her difficult year and celebrate Christmas with her family at Las Casitas. Life may be difficult, full of unwanted change, but the closeness of her family, with its celebration of food, song and togetherness, ensures life will always have a certain sweetness.
Merci Suarez Changes Gears, by Meg Medina. Candlewick Press $24.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Niki Savva examines in forensic detail the 2019 election of the Morrison government.
Who were the plotters in Malcolm Turnbull's downfall, and why did they want him gone? And how did Scott Morrison come up the middle, surprising everyone to win the Liberal Party leadership? These questions and more are answered in Plots and Prayers, a detailed account of the tumultuous leadership challenges of 2018.
Author Niki Savva has worked both as a political journalist and as a Liberal staffer, giving her unique insights and a broad range of insider contacts. She brings all this into play, painting a drama of almost Shakespearean proportions, with a cast of ego driven, ambitious men and women, all sharpening their knives and either plotting or planning. The book is a stark, if ugly, reminder that politics is primarily about personalities, with policy coming a poor second.
What went wrong? A decade long war between two of the party's titans, Abbott and Turnbull, meant the Liberals were in constant turmoil. Turnbull didn't help. Brilliant, yes, difficult according to his friends, he was a poor communicator with a Quixotic streak who couldn't see what was happening around him.
Comprehensive and with a wealth of fascinating interview material, Niki Savva has given us a definitive document of the times.
Plots and Prayers, by Niki Savva. Scribe $35
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books