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Melbourne University Press

At the first Australian Conference on Transsexualism, convened in 1979, a Dr Michael Ross declared that Australia had the highest incidence of transsexualism in the world. Whatever proportion the good doctor was observing, it must be immeasurably higher today; and yet until now there has been no formal history of gender-diverse Australians. 

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Twenty years after the publication of their ‘inclusive Australian literary history’, The New Diversity: Australian Fiction 1970–1988, Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman have returned with a ‘sequel’, After the Celebration: Australian Fiction 1989–2007. One leaden title succeeds another, although the tone of the second book is angrier. More of that later. As the authors note in their preface, The New Diversity was published by McPhee Gribble, an independent outfit that would largely be subsumed by Penguin in 1989, the year in which that book appeared. This observation prepares for the consistently impressive aspect of After the Celebration: its detailed, incisive, intelligently informed account of the changes in the circumstances of publishing, and especially fiction publishing, in Australia during the last two decades. One might take counsels of hope or despair from their analysis (particularly if one were a novelist), but still be grateful for it.

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Journalist Peter Rees’s biography of Tim Fischer was originally published by Allen & Unwin in 2001 with the title The Boy from Boree Creek. Reviewing the volume in this magazine, fellow journalist Shaun Carney had many kind words for Fischer, but said that the book was ‘either a lesson in the wonders of our democracy or a cautionary tale demonstrating the mediocrity of our public figures’ (ABR, June 2001). The subject was a ‘decent, determined, and hardworking person’, Carney wrote, but one who left the National Party in ‘a seemingly permanent existential crisis’.

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War and Punishment by Mikhail Zygar & Russia's War Against Ukraine by Mark Edele

by
September 2023, no. 457

The political scientist Karl Deutsch once said that a nation is a group of people united by a mistaken view about the past. These two new accounts of the history of relations between Russia and Ukraine, and the nationalist distortions of that history, would seem to bear him out. Vladimir Putin’s historical arguments for the war against Ukraine are widely accepted by his fellow countrymen and women, prompting the Russian journalist Mikhail Zygar to argue, in War and Punishment, that this ‘imperialist’ history is ‘inherently addictive’ and ‘our disease’. But this is not a vice unique to Russians: the Australian historian Mark Edele points out, in Russia’s War Against Ukraine, that Ukrainian governments have also indulged in a ‘clumsy politics of memory’ by celebrating anti-Semitic, anti-Polish, and anti-Russian nationalists.

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If the Australian government had banned books about Indonesia, it could hardly have been more successful in removing them from bookshops and library shelves than is presently the case. Even when such books appear in catalogues, retailers seem convinced that the public is not interested.

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Literary study tends to be characterised by bipolar episodes, swinging between enjoyment and judgement. There is reading for pleasure and learning to be critical, or making up your mind about how good, bad, or indifferent a literary work is. This way of thinking about literature still pervades all levels of the cultural and social scenes where readers talk to one another. We discuss with our friends or communities whether we like a work of literature or not, but when things get formal or seminar-serious the conversation shifts to whether we think that work is any good – a different thing. The Saturday review pages wobble between these two modes, between chat about whether readers will like a book or film, and whether it’s any good or not. Some texts that have become good over time, canonical in other words, we might not like. ‘Like’, here, of course, is a very fuzzy notion, although you would have to be delusional to think a book is automatically good because you like it. And liking certain texts, Ern Malley’s poetry or Stephenie Meyer’s fiction for example, might be evidence, in some people’s view, of a lack of taste, or bad judgement. But as we say, there’s no accounting for that.

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Eminent ecological historian Libby Robin has produced a curious book that examines the changing interests and roles played by those Australians who ‘notice birds and feel they need our help’. She aims to examine the rise of the nature conservation movement in Australia, using ‘Australia’s bird-people’ as a sample of Australians with a love of nature.

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Jillian Graham begins her biography of Margaret Sutherland (1897–1984) with a story that vividly captures two themes that recur throughout the book: Sutherland’s activism, and her sometime exclusion from Australia’s institutional musical life as it developed through her lifetime.

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According to its author, Who Cares? offers ‘an up-close, humane and grounded ethnographic account of life on welfare’. Eve Vincent foregrounds the perspectives of people who are subjected to ‘an endlessly reforming welfare system’. Vincent spent substantial time in the field, building relationships with her subjects, and while the history of welfare in Australia is neatly sketched and the social and political theories underpinning the study are worthy of interest, the voices of her subjects – those who live in poverty while being subjected to strict (and sometimes nonsensical) conditions – are the book’s most vital and captivating features.

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Journalist, editor, and publisher, Michael Cannon rose to prominence in print during its golden age of boundless advertising dollars, when those ‘rivers of gold’ paid for high salaries, fully staffed beats, and morning and evening newspaper editions. This was not a world of shrinking pages and newsroom cuts, of ‘digital-first’ mantras, click bait and Murdoch domination – not yet. But newspapers were not necessarily more sophisticated places either, which makes Cannon’s memoir as much a rejoinder to the lionising of lost newspaper culture – a challenge to the notion that things were always better back then – as the story of a remarkable career.

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