Books in review

By Colleen Cook

In this issue:

On the front line: Real life stories of spying, escaping and surviving war

Cover illustration of Front Line

Michael Hambrook
New Holland $40

Nothing brings history to life like first-hand accounts. This book is a collection of 20 stories set against a backdrop of 20th-century wars and conflicts throughout the world, told by people who had been in the thick of the action. Michael Hambrook provides the context, along with photos and documents, but the survivors, all now living in Australia, tell their own tales.

One World War II account describes the effect of the bomb dropped on Nagasaki, witnessed from a Japanese prison camp. Another recalls the marathon journey of a young Polish man who found a Hitler youth uniform which enabled him to escape from a prison camp and be accidentally reunited with his brother at a distant border.

The only woman in the book tells of her secret work gleaning information from German prisoners at Latimer House in Buckinghamshire, England. Also included are accounts from the more recent wars in Cambodia and Vietnam, the United Nations intervention in the Congo, patrolling the Tibetan border, and the last days of Rhodesia.

Many of the storytellers were remarkably young when they were first exposed to front-line combat. They talk of fear, death, uncertainty and confusion, but also of camaraderie and quick thinking. Universally, they acknowledge that luck played a significant part in their remarkable tales of survival.


A most generous scholar: Joan Kerr, art and architectural historian

Cover image of A Most Generous Scholar

Susan Steggall
LhR Press $35

Joan Kerr was a rigorous academic researcher, but also an irreverent, witty intellectual who loved spirited debate. She uncovered Australia’s cultural traditions like a detective, piecing together the unexplored fragments of our artistic past.

As a professor at several universities including Sydney, ANU and the College of Fine Arts (UNSW), Kerr is fondly remembered for her engaging and lively lectures. As a historian, she sleuthed out forgotten artists from the early colony, and gave women artists just recognition, often by reinventing the definitions by which they should be assessed.

Her early years were no indication of what she would become. Well into her marriage, she and husband Jim Kerr both switched to an academic career path in art and architectural history. Jim became a steadfast supporter of her many challenging pursuits.

Author and art historian Susan Steggall is a fan of Kerr’s, but her biography is also able to show how a personality as forthright and determined as Kerr’s would come up against opposition and difficulties. She describes the almost impossible task of compiling the two enormous works – The Dictionary of Australian Artists and then Heritage. In both publications, Kerr believed that the real story lies within the artwork and not the text, and insisted that Australian art must be valued on its own terms.


Norman Haire: The study of sex

Cover image of Norman Haire

Diana Wyndham
Sydney University Press $35

Diana Wyndham was awarded a Norman Haire Fellowship from the University’s Faculty of Medicine, and now she offers us a complete picture of the man himself.

Norman Haire was one of the many Australians who achieved fame and prominence throughout the world, but not in their homeland. His executors burned controversial diary entries, and his personal life was kept very private. Haire was remarkable. He was a consummate actor, his French was fluent, he furnished his homes with fine collections of Chinoiserie, and he was a gourmand who could throw a brilliant dinner party.

He was also a thoroughly skilled professional, setting up his medical practice in Harley Street, London in the 1920s where he advocated birth control, enabled healthy pregnancies, and was a leading expert in ‘rejuvenation’ surgery (vasectomies). He understood the importance of diet in a healthy lifestyle and was a member of the Eugenics Society.

Haire spoke openly about sex and published broadly on the subject. He gained respect from his peers in spite of the prudish attitudes of the time and in spite of his Jewish background and the fact that he was homosexual. At his death, he bequeathed his vast library to the University of Sydney, along with a substantial sum of money to be used for the study of sexology.

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Sacking the principal: Freda Whitlam and PLC

Image of Sacking the Principal cover

William McKeith
SAWW $19.95

William McKeith was Principal of PLC Sydney for over two decades, so in writing this book, he has more than a well-researched understanding of the facts. His predecessor Freda Whitlam was sacked short of her 20th year in the mid-1970s.

It was a time of dramatic social and political change, and the school was at the crossroads between the old world of management and the new. The male-dominated School Council influenced and often overrode decisions, ex-students voiced their opinions, and the newly formed Parents and Friends Association was split into supporting and opposing factions.

Adding to this turmoil, PLC Croydon chose to remain Presbyterian when Whitlam joined those who supported the Uniting Church. But the greatest catalyst in bringing all this unrest to a head was the influence on the school of the election and then dismissal of her beloved brother Gough Whitlam as Prime Minister.

In the context of our present day world of CEOs, contracts and awards, and strict procedures of governance, this book examines another era, when a principal could run a school by intuition, compassion, wit, intelligence and a deep religious belief.


Poppy Day

Image of Poppy Day

Solveig Foss
Ginninderra Press $27.50

These delicately tantalising short stories touch on loss, mental illness, love, death, childhood, education and more. They address diverse issues such as domestic violence, an Indigenous child’s future, the life of a spy, a convict girl in Van Diemen’s Land. Author Solveig Foss is equally at home writing in first and third person. Either way, her characters are convincing.

Several stories seem to have repetitious themes around Irish life, English war heroes, estrangement and Catholic schooling; and this makes us wonder about the author’s own background. Since no such information exists in the book, the tales that she has dreamt up take on their own reality.


The life cycles revolution: Travel further, learn more

Image of Life Cycles cover

Neil Killion
Strategic Book Publishing and Rights Co. $22.97

This is the second book in which Neil Killion illustrates the recurring patterns in our lives through his theory of “Life Cycles”. His style is motivational, informal, chatty. He examines the notion that something significant happens every 12 years in our lives, which he terms the Year of Revolution. He also explains and names the significance of each of the intervening years.

The book is awash with support for his theories in examples old and new: JK Rowling, Mary Queen of Scots, JF Kennedy, Ghandi, Darwin, Einstein, a host of TV stars and even winners of American Idol and Britain’s Got Talent. This biographic record, he argues, is sound proof that his system of self-knowledge really works.