In year four of their respective terms, George W. Bush and Barack Obama enjoyed a mixed press. Some accounts lauded them, others were sceptical. The assessments were uniformly partisan. The titles of contemporary books reflected how Republicans backed Bush (he was ‘The Right Man’), Democrats Obama (for successfully ‘Bending History’). Donald Trump, on the other hand, stands as one of the most vilified presidents in American history, from all points of the spectrum. Indeed, these books together make the case that the forty-fifth president is a man so psychologically flawed he poses a clear and present danger to American democracy.
Our Shadows by Gail Jones
Gail Jones’s new novel, Our Shadows, provides readers with another virtuoso performance, showing a writer fully in control of her medium. It is a poetic and beautifully crafted evocation of shadowy pasts whose traumatic effects (in the world and in individual lives) stretch deep into the present and the future.
In early August, deep in the winter of Melbourne’s stage-four discontent, journalist Rachel Baxendale became the story. The Victorian political reporter for The Australian newspaper was attacked online for questioning Premier Daniel Andrews on his government’s hotel quarantine program, as an explosion of new coronavirus infections caused unprecedented economic shutdown and the curtailment of civil liberties. As thousands of people watched the premier’s live press briefings from their living rooms, Baxendale assiduously probed Andrews about the use of security guards instead of Australian Defence Force personnel to guard returned travellers.
‘Healthy People Gather for Your Freedom.’ So read the sign held proudly aloft by a young woman at a protest against coronavirus restrictions on ‘Freedom Day’ in Melbourne. Drawn to the Shrine in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with those other ‘diggers’ who defended Australia against the threat of authoritarianism, she was part of a small crowd with a big message: ‘Freedom is under threat’. A bit like coronavirus itself, perhaps, ‘Freedom Day’ was an accident waiting to happen – not least of all in Victoria. No democratic government can expect to curtail freedoms without stirring up the civil libertarians (both the sane and the crazy), and the restrictions devised and enforced by the Andrews government have been more severe than most. If one is to believe former prime minister Tony Abbott, the premier of Victoria now heads up a ‘health dictatorship’ that holds five million Melburnians under ‘house arrest’. Daniel Andrews, though in truth a champion of social justice, has of late acquired the disagreeable moniker of ‘Dictator Dan’ for putting a plague city into lockdown.
From the Issue
Those of us who work in classical music will be familiar with the accusation that our chosen art form lacks contemporary social relevance. It is one with a long pedigree. ‘Sonata, what do you want of me?’ asked an exasperated Fontenelle in 1751, according to Rousseau. But you will find no widespread or heightened disdain for worldly affairs among classical musicians on the whole. Rather, any apparent reticence they may have describing how their art connects with the world at large stems from the fact that it is notoriously difficult to do. As the well-known quip goes, ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.’ This is not a love that dare not speak its name so much as one that struggles to be put into words at all.
What we read at difficult times in our lives – plague, insurrection, divorce, major root canal work, etc. – is always telling. Carlyle, miserable and unwell at Kirkcaldy, read the whole of Gibbon straight through – twelve volumes in twelve days – with a kind of horrified fascination. I recall one friend who, at a time of ineffable tension, calmly read Les Misérables, one thousand pages long, in a single week. (I would have been incapable of reading a tabloid.) Another time, lovelorn in Siena, I stayed in my ghastly hotel room and read The Aunt’s Story right through while the handsome Sienese sunned themselves in the companionable Campo.
After Australia by Michael Mohammed Ahmad
Acknowledging the limits of Acknowledgments of Country, the Wiradjuri artist Jazz Money once wrote:
whitefellas try to acknowledge things
but they do it wrong
before we begin I’d like to pay my respects
that there isn’t a time before it begins
it has all already begun
Ordinary Matter by Laura Elvery
Laura Elvery’s second short story collection, Ordinary Matters, shows the same talent for precise observation, pathos, and humour as her accomplished début collection, Trick of the Light (2018). It differs in its creation of a greater range of narrators and voices, and in its use of a specific ideological framework through which to unify the collection: each of its twenty stories is prefaced by the name of a Nobel Prize-winning female scientist and the ‘prize motivation’ for her award. This device might be read as subverting the sexist stereotype that, denying women the capacity for rational thought, consigns them to the ‘softer’ realms of emotion and artistic endeavour. It also encourages an interesting way of thinking about female desire as it pertains to a range of experiences, including creativity, ambition, motherhood, sexuality, and political activism.