Black Inc

Critic of the Month with Paul Giles

Australian Book Review
Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Besides a capacity to write well, critics need to be well-informed. I sometimes get exasperated by reviewers without sufficient expertise in the topics they are considering. On the other hand, academic pedantry can also be off-putting, particularly when couched in a clunky style. In general, I’ve found the most memorable pieces to be those which say something about the reviewer as well as the author under review, like portraits which work through a kind of double vision, offering insights into the painter as well as the sitter. There was a very good essay on Les Murray by J.M. Coetzee in the New York Review of Books a few years ago which had this double-edged quality.

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Frank Bongiorno reviews 'Watsonia: A writing life' by Don Watson

Frank Bongiorno
Wednesday, 25 November 2020

In the frantic days after the recent US presidential election, Donald Trump’s team – led by his attorney Rudy Giuliani – held a media conference in a suburban Philadelphia carpark. The establishment that formed the backdrop to this unusual performance is called Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Neighbouring businesses included a crematorium and an adult entertainment store (soon translated on social media into a ‘dildo shop’). At the time of writing, the explanation for how this had happened is still not forthcoming, but most commentators assumed a mix-up with one of the city’s major hotels, also called Four Seasons.

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In her essay On Beverley Farmer, Josephine Rowe recounts a 2013 visit to Melbourne’s Heide Museum of Modern Art to see an exhibition of Louise Bourgeois’s Late Works. Among the drawings and sculptures on display was The Waiting Hours, described by Rowe as ‘a series of twelve small oceanscapes’ each of which shifts fluidly, a ‘darkening whorl around the small white axis of a singular source of light shrunk to a pinhole … at once a pivot point and a vanishing point’. The effect on Rowe of this encounter was ‘one of powerful undercurrent. I felt not much and then, abruptly, disconsolate. Swept out of depth. A plunge, a plummet: the inrush towards that oceanic sense of recognition experienced most commonly in dreams, but sometimes spilling over into waking life – encounters in art and music, in nature or, more rarely, in meeting (as though hello, again).’

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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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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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In 1977, in three consecutive issues, the New Yorker published Hannah Arendt’s ‘Thinking’. Each part was called an ‘article’, a strangely modest, journalistic word in the face of the length of each part of the essay and the profound subject. Thirty-two years ago, the magazine showed curmudgeonly modesty: writers were named in small print at the foot of each ‘piece’, there was never, god forbid, a sub-editor’s catch-all under the title, no short biographies of the writers were printed, and there were never, ever, visual illustrations or photographs to accompany the text. The issue in which the first of Arendt’s ‘articles’ appeared included poetry by Mark Strand; the long book review was by George Steiner; Pauline Kael was the film reviewer; there were four Saul Steinberg drawings; and Andrew Porter reported on classical music. The list of names we revere could go on.

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The dual crises of the recent bushfires and the Covid-19 pandemic have exposed structural weakness in Australia’s economy. Our export income is dominated by a few commodities, with coal and gas near the top, the production of which employs relatively few people (only around 1.9 per cent of the workforce is employed in mining). The unprecedented fires, exacerbated by a warming climate, were a visceral demonstration that fossil fuels have no role in an environmentally and socially secure future. Global investors are abandoning coal and, in some cases, Australia. Meanwhile, industries that generate many jobs – education, tourism, hospitality, arts, and entertainment – have been hit hard by efforts to reduce the spread of the virus.

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John Hirst is a distinctive figure in Australian intellectual life. As an academic, he has had a distinguished career at La Trobe University in teaching, supervision, and research. He developed new subjects and methodologies with which to teach them. In addition to those concerning Australian history, there was his pioneering subject designed to inform students about Australia’s European cultural heritage, with some of the lectures recently published as The Shortest History of Europe (2009).

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Neal Blewett reviews three books on Kevin Rudd

Neal Blewett
Friday, 10 July 2020

The political assassination of Kevin Rudd will fascinate for a long time to come. As with Duncan’s murder in Shakespeare’s play it was done, as Lady Macbeth cautioned, under ‘the blanket of the dark’, literally the night of 23–24 June 2010. The assassins heeded Macbeth’s advice: ‘if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.’ And as in Macbeth, the assassins were in the shadow of the throne. Even the old king approved: Bob Hawke, himself deposed in 1991, recognised at last that the removal of a Labor prime minister is sometimes necessary.

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From a clutch of novels including the award-winning Camille’s Bread (1996), Amanda Lohrey has now turned to shorter literary forms, notably two Quarterly Essays (2002, 2006), a novella (Vertigo, 2008) and this new collection of short stories. At the 2009 Sydney Writers’ Festival she publicly confessed her new leaning, arguing the benefits of genres more easily completed by both writer and reader and less likely to produce guilt if cast aside unfinished.

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