Archive

The Inconvenient Child by Sharyn Killens and Lindsay Lewis

by
September 2010, no. 324

Sharyn Killens is no stranger to the spotlight. After a long career as an entertainer, she is used to appearing in make-up and gown, pouring out a song. She is also a veteran of interviews and media stories, with a different song: that of her own extraordinary life. In The Inconvenient Child, written with her friend Lindsay Lewis, Killens (known on the stage as Sharyn Crystal) relates a wrenching and finally satisfying story of abject misery and triumphant emotion. In the paradigm of classic Australian memoir, her tale needs no bells and whistles to ring true. It is a transfixing performance.

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Edward Sugden was the first master of Melbourne University’s Queen’s College, a position he held for forty years. One needs to provide this identification, because although in his day Sugden was regarded as one of Melbourne’s best-known citizens, his is one of those names that has dropped from view. Along with his contemporaries Alexander Leeper of Trinity College and John MacFarland of Ormond, he contributed to what Wilfrid Prest calls ‘the golden age’ of Melbourne University’s colleges.

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The Body in the Clouds, Ashley Hay’s scintillating and accomplished first novel, is in fact her fifth book, its predecessors all being non-fiction. There was the Lord Byron book, The Secret: The Strange Marriage of Annabella Milbanke and Lord Byron (2000), Gum: The story of eucalypts and their champions (2002), Herbarium (2004) and Museum: The Macleays, their collections and the search for order (2007).

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Dance is an ephemeral art. This is just one reason, among many, why Alan Brissenden and Keith Glennon’s beautifully designed and presented Australia Dances: Creating Australian Dance 1945–1965 is an important contribution to the light industry of dance historiography. Its eye-catching cover, with a Walter Stringer photograph of dancer William Harvey in a soaring leap above an Australian landscape, will attract bookshop browsers. A perusal of its contents will encourage purchase, as a special gift or for one’s personal library.

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Smithy is a retired shearer turned vineyard worker. His days are spent among the vines, where minutiae become conversational talking points and the lives of others are dissected with dogged patience. Smithy, a recovering alcoholic, still haunts the bars he used to call home, but no longer drinks in them. As a consequence, memories are resurfacing: a past up north, his wife Florrie, and days when his son still regarded him as his father. Charlotte also lives in the town. She shares a common bond with Smithy, following the events of a particular night. Fearing the emotion of that night and without alcohol to numb his fears, Smithy decides to seek redemption in the only way he knows.

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Australian Literary Studies is a journal of the old school, independent of the international academic publishers that have absorbed so many others, and difficult to obtain for casual reading. It has maintained a solid reputation among scholars. From the evidence presented here, it is easy to see why.

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Even the name is confusing: think of it as Belgian Congo/Zaire/Congo DRC to avoid confusing it with the Republic of Congo/Congo Brazzaville across the river. Officially, the name is Democratic Republic of Congo – DRC – so you could roll out the usually accurate cliché that any country with ‘Democratic’ in the name definitely isn’t that. In fact, the DRC had an election a few years back which was reasonably democratic and certainly inspired an impressive voter rollout.

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On the shelves of Australia’s bookshops colonial history follows military history in popularity, though a distant second. While, say, Allen & Unwin has made brave efforts with a succession of books about the convict period – Hamish Maxwell-Stewart’s Closing Hell’s Gates (2008), Babette Smith’s Australia’s Birthstain (2008) or Grace Karskens’s The Colony (2009) – not one (not even Thomas Keneally with his Australians: Origins to Eureka, 2009) has sold as well as Robert Hughes’s The Fatal Shore (1987). Hughes spoiled the Bicentennial celebrations for a generation of scholars, piqued at such a sensational popular book, one that outsold their academic books combined.

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The pretext of this book is as simple as it is delightful. In 1982, at the ripe old age of nineteen, Sandy Mackinnon found himself on the windswept island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Iona is one of those places, familiar in the world of spiritual tourism, that is layered in irony. In ancient times it became home to a community of monks, most notably St Columba, for the simple reason that nobody in his right mind would follow them there. Now, of course, it is a popular destination for those who value more than their right minds. Iona, like Santiago de Compostella, has a small but cogent literature of its own. It weaves a spell. There is very little to buy there. It creates debt in other ways.

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The Well in the Shadow, whose title is drawn from Katharine Susannah Prichard’s Coonardoo (1929), is an unconventional book, shaped entirely by Chester Eagle’s idiosyncratic responses to certain writers and their work. Eagle’s engagement with, and enthusiasm for, the texts he considers are undeniable. So too is his close knowledge of the books and writers discussed. The range of subjects is broad and reasonably inclusive, but I did wonder, given the book’s subtitle, about the absence of well-known writers such as Peter Carey, Tim Winton, David Malouf, and Christina Stead. Nonetheless, the choice is diverse.

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