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Review

The People’s Train, a book that links Queensland to the Russian Revolution, comes with baggage. Not least, there is the mixed critical reaction Tom Keneally has endured over the decades. Perhaps most notably, he is forever to be hailed and damned as the author of Schindler’s Ark (1982). Keneally’s popularity seems double-edged: Simon Sebag Montefiore, a writer of books about Russia, breathlessly lauds The People’s Train as a ‘tremendous read and really exciting’, yet Keneally’s compulsive readability – surely cause for celebration – has somehow dented his reputation as a ‘serious’ writer.

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Cate Kennedy’s début collection, Dark Roots (2006), marked a change in publishers’ thinking about the commercial potential of short stories, and helped create the atmosphere in which Nam Le was signed up for his bestselling collection, The Boat (2008).

Kennedy was well known in literary circles before her book was published; she has won several of Australia’s leading short story competitions, including the Age Short Story competition twice. Dark Roots gained her a public following and cemented her status as one of Australia’s most accomplished writers, regardless of genre. The stories in Dark Roots are master classes in style and precision: a series of lives intimately sketched by way of carefully chosen, closely observed detail and elegant metaphors. Now readers will see how Kennedy manages the tightrope transition to the long form in her first novel, The World Beneath.

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Of all art forms, photography has probably had the most contentious and complex reception. Graduating from the ‘bastard child left on the doorstep of art’ in the 1840s to the darling of the art world for some 170 years, the critical understanding of this quintessentially modern medium is in a constant state of flux.

These thoughts occurred to me as I read this lavishly produced hardcover book. Indeed, as the rather prosaic title, states, this is photography that self-confidently declares itself as art. Blair French, who co-authored Twelve Australian Photo Artists with Daniel Palmer, brings one of the touchiest aspects of the medium to the fore when commenting on the work of Pat Brassington: ‘the relationship between photography and the world may appear transparent, but photography is in fact an opaque medium with its own material qualities ... it is an act of fabrication and construction.’ This is the sticking point that still brings the medium into contention: photography as a reflection of the world or as a construction. Or, to use a more crude conjunction, document verses art.

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Andrew Fisher fares well in the new Museum of Australian Democracy, at Old Parliament House, Canberra. The entrance to the galleries is framed, on one side, by E. Phillips Fox’s dark 1913 portrait of an imposing and resolute Fisher, in contrast to the garish, spreading corpulence of George Lambert’s 1924 Sir George Reid on the other. Inside, in the procession of prime ministers, Fisher is represented more comprehensively and intimately than his peers. There is his miner’s crib – for this leader of Australia’s first majority Labor government definitely came from the working class – and his fountain pen, presented by his granddaughter to Kevin Rudd (who, the caption reads, is a ‘passionate admirer’ of his Queensland predecessor). Elsewhere in the Museum, in commemorating the suffrage movement, the key exhibit is a replica of the hat worn by Fisher’s wife, Margaret, when she marched beside Vida Goldstein in a London protest for women’s franchise in 1911.

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In the epilogue to the latest, massive contribution to his populist and nationalist enterprise, Charles Kingsford Smith and Those Magnificent Men, Peter FitzSimons laments that ‘the true glory days of the pilot are substantially gone’. He charts an heroic, pioneering age of aviation. The ‘magnificent men [in their flying machines]’ include not only the Australians, Kingsford Smith and his partner Charles Ulm, but the German Manfred von Richtofen, the Dutchman Anthony Fokker, the Frenchmen Louis Blériot and Charles Nungesser. Most of them saw service in the first aerial combats, above the trenches of the Western Front in the Great War. Kingsford Smith, a dismounted motor-bike despatch rider at Gallipoli, was accepted into the Royal Flying Corps. He called this ‘the chance of my flying life, and it was a decision I made without a moment’s hesitation’.

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Devotees of the television program Spooks may find Australian history less than exciting, but the Petrov Affair is surely the exception that confounds the cliché. Its ingredients included the Cold War, espionage, agents, a defection (hugely important propaganda for the Menzies government on the eve of the 1954 federal election) and a charming woman, the defector’s wife, who was unceremoniously hustled on to a waiting aeroplane by beefy officials from the Russian Embassy. The poignancy of Evdokia Petrova’s white shoe lying abandoned on the tarmac as the plane took off was only eclipsed by the drama of the refuelling stop in Darwin, where she was prevailed upon by Australian security to remain in this country with her husband, Vladimir. He was quite clear about his defection; Evdokia, in that pivotal moment and long afterwards, was tormented by uncertainty.

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On paper, jazz critic John Shand’s Jazz: The Australian Accent is a welcome intervention, one of the first books to take Australian jazz seriously. Shand’s prose is well paced and easy to read, if slightly glib. There is little obfuscation in his method, which is infinitely preferable to the pretensions of many jazz critics who fail to translate jazz into prose. Shand’s descriptions of music are engaging enough to make you want to listen to the musicians whose work he is describing, if only to confirm or deny the mutedly rhapsodic element of Shand’s descriptors. Unfortunately, they generally don’t live up to his prose, which you’ll discover when listening to the compilation CD that accompanies this book.

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The La Trobe Library Journal began life in 1968 as a modest, even dowdy sixteen-pager produced by the Friends of the (still very new) La Trobe Library. Its purpose was to publicise the Library and its holdings. For the first decade of its existence, the journal was edited by that quiet achiever of Australian letters, Geoffrey Serle. Over the following twenty years it was edited, and largely written, by a succession of librarians, high-lighting not only the riches of the Library’s collections but also the calibre of its staff.

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There are a hundred ways of putting together any anthology, most of which are going to annoy somebody. In the case of that much sought-after beast, Australian literature, editors have a fair chance of turning into the quarry. It is not so long since J.I.M. Stewart said, from his chair of English in Adelaide, that there wasn’t any Australian literature so he was going to lecture on D.H. Lawrence’s Kangaroo instead.

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Janette Turner Hospital is an Australian-born novelist with an international reputation, though Australian readers often have reservations about her work. She has written some brilliant short stories, but her novels can strain for effect, with insistent intellectual allusions and postmodern shifts of fictional status. Perhaps, though, this is a typical Australian response to an expatriate writer whose work is not immediately accessible. Australian critics have not been as willing to praise Hospital as some North American readers, including Joyce Carol Oates, who, on the cover of Rainforest Narratives, describes Hospital as ‘a writer of consummate craft and visionary insight’.

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