In the allegory of the cave, Plato hypothesised the birth of the philosopher as one who emerged from the darkness of illusion into the light of truth. In the dark days of the Covid-19 pandemic, philosophers are finding a platform, mostly in the press, indicative perhaps that we need an interpretation of what is happening around us beyond that offered by the media and daily conferences. As with Plato’s philosopher, what they have brought back is not necessarily what we wanted to hear, and some have been threatened with pariah-like status for views that sometimes run counter to the prescribed consensus. This was certainly the case with Italian political philosopher Giorgio Agamben.
Black and Blue: A memoir of racism and survival by Veronica Gorrie
Aunty Ronnie is a Kurnai and Gunditjmara woman. She is also a mother of three, a grandmother of two, and one of Australia’s most underrated comedians. Black and Blue, her autobiography, is an enthralling book set primarily in three places: Bung Yarnda, Morwell (Black), and the Queensland Police Service (Blue), where Aunty Ronnie served as a member for ten years. The title is a play on the old saying ‘black and blue’, which commonly refers to someone covered in bruises.
After the Tampa: From Afghanistan to New Zealand by Abbas Nazari
In late August, it took only a few days for the Taliban to secure control of Kabul in the wake of the final withdrawal of Western troops from Afghanistan. The breakneck speed of the takeover was accompanied by images of mass terror, alongside a profound sense of betrayal. As in the closing days of the Vietnam War in 1975, the international airport quickly became the epicentre of scenes of chaos and collective panic, as thousands rushed onto the tarmac in desperate attempts to board the last planes out of the country. Queues stretched for kilometres outside the country’s only passport office. It is still too early to tell whether the Taliban’s promises of a more ‘inclusive’ government and amnesty for former collaborators of the Western forces will be met. What is certain is that Western governments owe them safe passage, though, from the announcements coming from Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s office in late August, it seems unlikely this will be properly honoured.
Permafrost by S.J. Norman
Ambiguity, done well, has a bifurcating momentum that can floor you. The late Argentinian writer Julio Cortázar, a master of unsettling short stories shot through with ambiguity, knew this and used it to pugilistic advantage, declaring that ‘the novel wins by points, the short story by knockout’. Ambiguity is likewise central to S.J. Norman’s début collection, Permafrost, seven eerily affecting stories that traverse and update gothic and romantic literary traditions, incorporating horror, queer, and folk elements to hair-raising effect. No matter how often you read these spectral tales, they simply refuse to resolve themselves definitively. It could be that things have gone spectacularly wrong and that, simultaneously, everything is okay – a see-saw in constant motion, made all the creepier by the fact nobody is sitting on either side.
Because my background is academic (and in English studies), certain disciplinary conventions still find their way into my review writing. In fact, it’s hard for me to think of my reviewing as reviewing rather than as criticism in that more university-bound sense: that is, as having something to do with the art of interpretation. It may help that most of the books I review – works of contemporary poetry and literary criticism – are considered ‘hard’ or at least esoteric, and thus in need of a little explaining. The persona I hear most recognisably in my journalistic prose is that of my former lecturer-self (a good lecture, like a good review, strikes the right balance between granular analysis and makeshift generalisation). I suppose I still think of the primary goal of my reviewing as teaching something about how to read.
Barry Jones is a proud member of the Awkward Squad, one who follows his own convictions rather than the exigencies of day-to-day government. He confesses that in Parliament, ‘I was always aiming for objectives that were seen as beyond the reach of conventional politics’. The memo about ‘the art of the possible’ clearly never reached Jones’s desk. His time as a minister between 1983 and 1990 was a strain for both him and the then prime minister, Bob Hawke. Jones recounts with some glee that Hawke once referred to him as ‘Barry Fucking Jones’.
Fishing for Lightning: The spark of poetry by Sarah Holland-Batt
Sarah Holland-Batt’s Fishing for Lightning is a book about Australian poetry. As such, it is a rare, and welcome, bird in the literary ecology of our country. It is welcome because poetry, like any other art form, requires a supportive culture that educates and promulgates. Not that Holland-Batt, herself one of our leading poets, is ‘merely’ didactic, or a shill for the muses. Holland-Batt, who is also an academic, writes with great authority and insight, and she is a fine stylist, penning essays that are packed with humour and playfulness. These essays cater for all kinds of audiences, from newcomers to poetry experts, which is no small feat.
French Connection: Australia’s cosmopolitan ambitions by Alexis Bergantz
While France provided a relative trickle of immigrants – the French in Australia numbered only four thousand at the end of the nineteenth century – its influence in Australia was surprisingly pervasive. Some years ago, an exhibition entitled The French Presence in Victoria 1800–1901 drew together an extraordinary range of materials, including French opera libretti and school textbooks printed here, together with original Marseille tiles and sumptuous fabrics. But Alexis Bergantz’s new book, French Connection, is not concerned with the spread, or penetration, of French goods. Rather, it is a careful examination of the idea of France. It is typical of its verve and elegance that the cover captures this nicely: Fragonard’s frilly beauty swings high at the top, a world away from the bottom-left corner, where Frederick McCubbin’s bushman sits Down on His Luck. (Tom Roberts got it in one: his well-known painting of Bourke Street includes the French tricolor, flapping from a shopfront.)
The Art of More: How mathematics created civilisation by Michael Brooks
Were you one of those reluctant mathematics students who complained, ‘What’s the point of all this?’ If so, rest assured: Michael Brooks has made a compelling case for the role mathematics has played in making ‘civilisation’ possible. If you still need convincing, he also discusses research suggesting that doing maths is good for your brain.
Farmers or Hunter-gatherers?: The Dark Emu debate by Peter Sutton and Keryn Walshe
For anyone who has spent substantial time recording Aboriginal cultural traditions in remote areas of Australia with its most senior living knowledge holders, bestselling writer Bruce Pascoe’s view that Aboriginal people were agriculturalists has never rung true. Farmers or Hunter-gatherers? The Dark Emu Debate – co-authored by veteran Australian anthropologist Peter Sutton and archaeologist Keryn Walshe – has already been welcomed by Aboriginal academics Hannah McGlade and Victoria Grieve-Williams, who reject Dark Emu’s hypothesis that their ancestors were farmers (like Pascoe himself).
An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s battle for domination by Sheera Frenkel and Cecilia Kang
Sealand calls itself a micronation. No one else does. It’s easy to see why: the ‘kingdom’ is little more than a glorified helipad. It rises from the North Sea off the coast of Suffolk like a Greek version of the letter π rendered out of concrete and steel – the sole survivor of a series of Maunsell forts built to shoot down Nazi Kriegsmarine aircraft during World War II. Abandoned by Britain in the 1950s, the fort was hijacked by pirate radio broadcaster Paddy Roy Bates in the 1960s and renamed the Principality of Sealand. Bates crowned himself ‘prince regent’ and – besides firing warning shots at the Royal Navy and fighting off a coup attempt by German mercenaries – entered into a series of sketchy schemes to stay afloat. One enterprise, launched in 2000 with the help of cypherpunk Ryan Lackey, was for the Bates family to turn Sealand into the world’s first data haven: an unbreakable digital lockbox beyond the clutches of law enforcement agencies and copyright lawyers.
Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
Back when it was all beginning, when everything was new and makeshift and oddly tentative; when the sounds of Faye Wong echoed through Tower Records; when the media could channel a message via magazines bearing Fiona Apple’s face, and television sets, those ancient conduits, mainlined Friends and Seinfeld and NYPD Blue; when everything was tuned to the suffering channel, The X-Files was concluding its third season, and Jackie Chan was launching his fourth Police Story; when all of this seemed obscurely relevant, three men – Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, and Mark Leyner – sat down to talk with Charlie Rose. Their topic? The future of fiction.
Sydney Spleen by Toby Fitch
Sydney-based poet and editor Toby Fitch has spent much of the last decade traversing the field of radical French modernist poets, especially Arthur Rimbaud and Guillaume Apollinaire. That engagement ignited Fitch’s imagination. He began inverting, recombining, mistranslating, and mimicking their techniques in his own poetry. In his new collection, Sydney Spleen, he has made a sophisticated, fresh move that enhances his signature playfulness and tongue-in-cheek poetic antics.