Allen & Unwin

‘“I must remember accurately,” I told myself, “remember everything accurately so that when he is gone I can re-create the father who created me.”’ This is Philip Roth exhorting himself while witnessing his declining father bathe in Patrimony: A true story (1991), a memoir that opens when Herman Roth is diagnosed with a brain tumour. The book, tender but also brutal, slips between the present and the past. Philip Roth, after all, is the writer. The matter of accuracy feels particularly perilous when the subject is the writer’s parent, if the intention is not to write a hagiography. It takes a particular kind of courage to countenance a parent’s failings when not motivated by revenge.

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At first glance, this biography does not look especially compelling. Why should we want to know about Australia’s first woman radio pioneer? But David Dufty calmly and quietly shows why Violet McKenzie is well worth celebrating. From her earliest days, Violet, born in 1890, showed great flair for practical science. She became a high school maths teacher but was determined to study electrical engineering. She qualified, but her gender meant that she was refused admission to the university course and also to a technical college diploma. Meanwhile, her elder brother Walter had become an electrical engineer and was running his own business in Sydney. This was 1912: seduced by the new moving-picture craze, Walter had ploughed all his profits into a ‘flickergraph training school’, teaching people to operate cinema projectors.

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While having a child is an act of hope and joy for many, it is also risky. One can heed expert advice, prepare, even throw money at the endeavour, but there is no guarantee that the creation or nurturing of a child will go as planned.

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This month’s survey features three bewitching novels from authors intent on transporting younger readers to other worlds. In Alison Croggon’s latest fantasy novel, The Threads of Magic (Walker Books, $19.95 pb, 380 pp), Pip and his sister El are living in a poor but snug apartment in the city of Clarel, bequeathed to them by Missus Pledge. Pip, always on the lookout for opportunities, scoops up a silver box from the sidelines during a street brawl. The opening of this box burdens Pip with an ancient and grisly relic: the shrivelled black heart of a child.

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Tasmanian writer K.M. Kruimink’s first novel, A Treacherous Country, a witty, cracking tale set in Van Diemen’s Land in the 1840s, has more than a hint of Dickens and Moby-Dick about it. It won The Australian/Vogel’s Literary award, established in 1980 for an unpublished manuscript by an author under thirty-five, which has launched the career of Kate Grenville and Tim Winton, among others. The award sets high standards – it was not awarded in 2019 due to a ‘lack of quality’. Kruimink, who described it as an ‘absolute life-changer’, is a worthy recipient.

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The confusing aspects of this book begin with the title, She I Dare Not Name. Instead, there is a whole book about this person, a self-described spinster. Then there’s the S-word itself, which has carried a heavy negative load since about the seventeenth century. (A minor irritation is the back-cover blurb, which describes this as ‘a book about being human’ – as distinct from being what?)

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Below Deck by Sophie Hardcastle

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April 2020, no. 420

Below Deck is a stunning literary novel. This is a poetic work that can be read aloud just as easily as it can be read in silence. Sophie Hardcastle wrote Below Deck in 2018 when she was a Provost’s Scholar in English Literature at Worcester College at the University of Oxford. As she reveals in the acknowledgments, she read a draft aloud to her professor, an experience that no doubt consolidated the flow of her prose.

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Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse follows the life of the strong Nuenonne woman who lived through the dramatic upheavals of invasion and dispossession and became known around the world as the so-called ‘last Tasmanian’. But the figure at the heart of this book is George Augustus Robinson, the self-styled missionary and chronicler who was charged with ‘conciliating’ with the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples. It is primarily through his journals that historians are able to glimpse and piece together the world fractured by European arrival.

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The Australian Musical from the Beginning by Peter Pinne and Peter Wyllie Johnston

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March 2020, no. 419

What is the musical’s appeal? Performing arts venues in Australia’s capital cities stage them year after year; a lucrative box office seems to be virtually guaranteed. The feel-good mix of song, melodrama, and vibrant dance – not forgetting the bonus of a happy ending – can lift the spirits and entertain the entire family. Recently, Chicago (Melbourne, Brisbane), West Side Story, and Billy Elliot (Adelaide) secured packed houses.

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It’s late July and high over the foggy green waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, a solitary Grey Plover beats its way south. Within sight of Sakhalin Island, the former Russian prison colony documented by Anton Chekhov, she veers west, heading for a vast tidal flat in Ul’banskiy Bay, not far from the rural settlement of Tugur Village. It’s hard to imagine a more isolated situation, and yet even here, in this empty theatre of sky and water, there is an audience. Nestled under the plumage on her back is a small satellite transmitter. An aerial extending beyond her tail feathers broadcasts her progress to the world.

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