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Late in 2005, after months of delicate negotiations, the National Library of Australia announced a remarkable coup: the purchase of a previously unknown collection of fifty-six watercolours of botanical and ornithological subjects drawn and painted in Sydney in the years 1788–90, the cradle period of European settlement in Port Jackson. The significance of these paintings, unsigned and undated, had for many years gone unrecognised. The watercolours, apparently acquired as early as 1792, had been held in England over several generations by the Moreton family, the Earls of Ducie. Over several generations, their significance had apparently been overlooked or simply not understood; in time, the portfolio, though safely held, had been forgotten. It came to light in 2004 during a routine valuation of the estate of Basil Moreton, sixth Earl of Ducie. The eventual sale was negotiated with representatives of the present and seventh Earl, David Moreton, who was committed to honouring his family’s long connection with Australia on properties in Queensland. But before that, it was necessary to identify the works more definitively beyond their (then) presumed Australian subject matter.

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Self-evidently, the short story demands precision. The term ‘short story’ more than likely brings to mind the magazine-length sprint or the rapidly delivered epiphany. John Updike was a master of this demanding form. In his Olinger and Tarbox tales, characters are assembled quickly and sent to their fate with little delay. Never cursory, this was writing performed under haiku-like restraint. In the short stories of Wendy James and Tom Cho, we are presented with similarly brief and precise tales of two different Australian landscapes: one as small as a kitchen, the other as capacious as an arena. Why She Loves Him is James’s first story collection after two well-received novels. For the most part, the stories are quiet and domestic affairs. Her characters are frequently repressed and restrained, filled with rage that is rarely given voice. If the short fiction of some novelists feels too constrained, James’s evocation of despair is perfectly suited to these short bursts.

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If the history of ornithology seems esoteric, of interest only to specialists, this is the book to open your eyes. Tim Birkhead is an eminent field ornithologist and a gifted and passionate science communicator. Each of these elements shines from this book, a wonderful distillation of the vast ornithological literature that has accumulated over the past four centuries. Effectively a history of natural history, it is a delight to read.

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Ken Knight reviews 'The Shallow End' by Ashley Sievwright

Ken Knight
Thursday, 29 October 2020

Ashley Sievwright’s The Shallow End, an often entertaining début, casts a wry gaze over a steamy Melbourne summer. Narrated by an unnamed observer, the novel attempts to capture an authentically idiosyncratic gay male voice while traversing a myriad of issues, such as heartbreak, sex, media sensationalism, love, cruising and happiness. Both witty and easy to read, the novel, though largely superficial, is filled with moments of droll sagacity.

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Movie Of The Week. The MacNeil–Lehrer Newshour. Helen Vatsikopoulos. Andrea Stretton. Tales From a Suitcase. Pria Viswalingam. Italian Serie A Football. Annette Sun Wah. These are just a few examples of SBS programs and personalities that helped me – and no doubt many others – negotiate the fetid swamp that was Australian television in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, the swamp is a lot bigger and the stench even worse, but does SBS still provide an effective alternative?

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Christina Hill reviews 'The Great Arch' by Vicki Hastrich

Christina Hill
Thursday, 29 October 2020

The Great Arch has considerable if unlikely charm. It is a history of the building of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in a novel about real and imagined people living near its construction site. Hastrich brings to life (potentially dry) detail about huge steel plates, creeping cranes, rivets and cables. We see this mostly in the writings and photographs of her central character, an Anglican vicar who records the progress of the bridge-building in his parish paper and also writes a two-volume book about it. The Reverend Ralph Anderson Cage, rector at St Christopher’s at Lavender Bay (based on a real person, Frank Cash), is an endearingly hapless yet decent man who becomes obsessed with the unfolding engineering marvel that reshapes the population and topography of his once-thriving parish.

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David Malouf, one of the subjects interviewed by Margaret Throsby in Talking with Margaret Throsby, recounts his childhood experiences as an eavesdropper. He reveals that by listening in on conversations between his mother and her women friends he learnt about a world that was otherwise off-limits to him. For devotees of Mornings with Margaret Throsby on ABC Classic FM, the experience might sound familiar as they tune in to live conversations between the host and her distinguished guests; conversations which, although obviously public in that they are broadcast on national radio, frequently open a window onto the private world of the subject. Paul Keating, in Talking with Margaret Throsby, reveals that he would often prepare for cabinet sessions by listening to music (‘Start off slow, you know, and finish on something big’), conductor Jeffrey Tate discusses the ways in which he has coped with spina bifida, and writer and restaurateur Pauline Nguyen, who arrived in Australia as a ‘boat person’, talks about the difficulties of growing up in a household marked by fear and violence.

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J.M. Coetzee and Philip Roth on Screen

Brian McFarlane
Wednesday, 28 October 2020

‘It wasn’t like that in the book’ is one of the commonest and most irritating responses to film versions of famous novels. Adaptation of literature to film seems to be a topic of enduring interest at every level, from foyer gossip to the most learned exegesis. Sometimes, it must be said, the former is the more entertaining, but this is no place for such frivolity.

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Gillian Dooley reviews 'Matthew Flinders' Cat' by Bryce Courtenay

Gillian Dooley
Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Halfway through Matthew Flinders’ Cat, the protagonist admits that, when writing, he finds it ‘almost impossible to leave out what others might think of as superfluous detail. It was, he knew, self-indulgence.’ Is this a moment of self-directed irony on Bryce Courtenay’s part, or a case of the pot calling the kettle black? This novel brims with ‘superfluous detail’, and there is little attempt to curb the flow of information.

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Don Grant reviews 'Borderline' by Janette Turner Hospital

Don Grant
Wednesday, 28 October 2020

Janette Turner Hospital was born in Melbourne, but has lived and travelled abroad in recent years. Borderline, her third novel, is set for the most part in Boston and Montreal. It is a mystery story which contains many of the conventional ingredients of the genre: disappearances, murder and violence, mysterious messages. However, these things are subsidiary to its dominating theme which is an exploration of the nature of reality. In this it achieves mixed results, but on the whole favourable ones.

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