Penguin

In this first volume of autobiography, Ruth Park covers her New Zealand years – childhood, adolescence and early challenges of adult life. Episodic and frequently leapfrogging in its chronology, the book is firmly held together by a number of recurring and interweaving themes: the urge to write and the difficulty of acquiring an appropriate education; family relationships, at once close and hedged about with barriers; poverty and the Great Depression; and finally the problem of being ‘different’ combined with the joy of discovering kindred spirits.

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Penguin’s publication of Helen Daniel’s critical book on the fiction of David Ireland is their first venture into Australian criticism, and one which I hope will be the beginning of a series on Australian writers.

David Ireland is an obvious choice for the launching of such a venture. As Daniel points out, he does not have the international reputation or readership of White or Keneally; she seems to suggest that this is because he is a far more ‘adventurous’ and ‘elusive’ writer. He has always been a controversial author in Australia, winner of many major awards, placed on some school/university reading lists, while barred as ‘obscene’ by other institutions.

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Now over seventy, Benoîte Groult of the fierce name and fiercer disposition, has written a delightful story about sex and desire that is sure to turn heads. Its central character is a woman named George – as in Sand, and she is small and chic like that writer. (If you thought that George Sand was a formidable hulk of a woman with coarse hair and thin lips, this book points out that she was a little woman, with tiny feet, apparently.) The other half of the story is Gavin Lozerech, or at least that’s what he’s called for the purposes of this retelling of their passionate, life-long love affair. George toyed with Kevin, Tugdual and Brian Boru before she chose the pseudonym Gavin, as in the Gawain of the Breton cycle.

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Wildlife film-makers Richard Southeby and his wife Nicole Vander are filming a duck hunt at Great Dismal Swamp, North Carolina, where Greenpeace demonstrators plan to make their presence felt. Their fanatical leader, Simon Rosenberg, has a flowing beard and deeply troubled eyes. His idea is to get his troops in front of the guns, really provoke the shooters and obtain maximum publicity. Remind you of anyone? But then in the early stages of filming, Nicole is blown away into the swamp by an unseen assassin. Who’s responsible? Greenpeace crazies? Duck hunters? Or an international hired hitman known as the Jaguar? You guessed right.

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Few traits typify the mythology of the Aussie bloke quite as strongly as a love of water and a laid-back attitude. Increasingly acknowledged is the role violence plays in shaping our laconic beach-lovers. Three Young Adult novels tackle this sinister undercurrent of male identity, but in different ways and to different effects. In Kate Hendrick’s Fish Out of Water (Text Publishing, $19.99 pb, 288 pp), swimmer Finn aspires to be a ‘top bloke’ like his father, but does he really? Philip Gwynne’s Taj just wants to surf, but he must deal with a foreign government intent on executing his father in The Break (Penguin Books, $19.99 pb, 384 pp). In If Not Us (Text Publishing, $19.99 pb, 272 pp), by Mark Smith, surfer Hesse is trying to save the environment but soon discovers that taking a public stand on a controversial issue can have dangerous consequences.

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Elizabeth Jolley is quoted in this volume saying that ‘Writing for me is a ragged and restless activity with scattered fragments to be pieced together rather like a patchwork quilt.’ To a degree this is an apt metaphor, suggesting as it does careful attention to the particular and the gradual accumulation of the discrete parts into a whole. It also suggests the contrast between light and dark that is the feature of many quilts and of Jolley’s writing. However, patchwork is altogether too domestic an activity to contain the driving intelligence and iconoclasm that are dominant elements in Jolley’ s work.

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Helgoland by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell

by
September 2021, no. 435

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli has a gift for writing short, conversational, popular physics books. His earlier works, notably Seven Brief Lessons in Physics (2015) and The Order of Time (2018), have been bestsellers, and Helgoland is continuing the trend.

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On 8 November 2015, a year after his death, a celebration was held for Mike Nichols in the IAC building in New York. The audience included the likes of Anna Wintour, Stephen Sondheim, Tom Stoppard, Steven Spielberg, Oprah Winfrey, and Meryl Streep. Seventy-six years earlier, less than a mile away, seven-year-old Igor Mikhail Peschkowsky walked down the SS Bremen’s gangplank into America and a new life. The transformation of the angry, bewildered immigrant Peschkowski into the outwardly charming, debonair, outrageously talented Nichols is at the heart of Mark Harris’s comprehensive, compulsively entertaining biography.

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Lucy Delap, Reader in Modern British and Gender History at the University of Cambridge, is a consummate historian and not one to privilege her own experience. Indeed, one of her chief aims in her innovative new global history of ‘feminisms’ – the plural is important, no matter how inelegant – is to bring to the fore feminists and other activists for women’s rights who are less well known, but hardly less significant, than the usual suspects. In this aim, and from the very first page, Delap succeeds admirably. Feminisms: A global history opens with an ‘incendiary letter’ published in 1886 in a local newspaper in the British-ruled Gold Coast (now Ghana), written by an anonymous author on behalf of ‘We Ladies of Africa’. At once a protest against the sexual violence of colonial incursion, and an assertion of cultural power and defiance, the letter also flags to a present-day audience that this history will not be the standard White Feminist narrative – and hooray for that.

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Ben Bland, a Financial Times correspondent in Indonesia in 2012–15 and currently director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, had a ringside seat to watch the rise of Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi). By his own account, Bland has met him more than a dozen times. Jokowi was a furniture-maker and -exporter, mayor of Solo, and governor of Jakarta before being elected president in 2014. Bland has written a good introduction to the Jokowi era that will appeal to the general reader but may leave the serious student of Indonesia unsatisfied.

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