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Scepticism in the ordinary understanding is a doubting disposition, a healthy questioning mistrustfulness of extravagant or suspect claims to knowledge. Philosophical scepticism incorporates the attitude, but is more comprehensive in its objects. A philosophical sceptic may doubt the possibility of all knowledge, as the ancient Pyrrhonists did, or question our ability to obtain specific but fundamental kinds of knowledge. Early twentieth-century philosophy, for example, was much exercised by sceptical challenges to prove the existence of the ‘external world’ and minds other than one’s own. How do I know that there are other minds when all I ever see are bodies and behaviour? How do I know that there are material objects when all I directly apprehend are subjective sense data or perceptions?

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Robert Dessaix and China

During Writers’ Week last month, many of the writers on the program were outraged to learn of the plight of their fellow guest Robert Dessaix. The celebrated author of A Mother’s Disgrace and Arabesques was scheduled to fly to China at the conclusion of Writers’ Week, having been invited by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to take part in Shanghai’s International Literary Festival, along with writers such as Les Murray and Alexis Wright. China then banned Dr Dessaix from entering the country because of his HIV status. Ironically or not (was there a punitive link here, Robert Dessaix wondered in public), he was replacing Frank Moorhouse, who had withdrawn from the festival because of the imprisonment of Chinese writers. Led by Michelle de Kretser and Charlotte Wood, one hundred Australian authors and commentators protested at this offensive and unenlightened decision, as did ABR and the Australian Society of Authors. China’s discriminatory policy was widely criticised, even in China.

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Does the title of this anthology, heralded by its editors as the first collection of Australian gay/lesbian/queer poetry, refer to the myth of Pandora’s pithos? Hesiod’s version of the story, which sees Pandora as the unleasher of all manner of evils on the (‘rational’/patriarchal) world, has been interrogated by feminist scholars who see Pandora in an older incarnation of ‘gift-giver’, bestower of plenitude, crosser of boundaries. Or does ‘Out of the Box’ have a more colloquial sense – ‘exceptional’, ‘surprising’? Whatever the reasoning behind the title, Michael Farrell and Jill Jones have made choices which should provoke debate (among other things) about gay and lesbian identity and community, and about the relationship between poet and reader.

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For many undergraduate students of Australian history in the 1960s (when there were still plenty of them), the set text was not a narrative history but Manning Clark’s Select Documents in Australian History (1950, 1955). Dry but fascinating, the documents covered the period from 1788–1900. First published more than a decade before the opening volume of Clark’s A History of Australia, here were the bones of the research for that work. In his introduction to Documents That Shaped Australia: Records of a Nation’s Heritage, John Thompson acknowledges Clark and Frank Crowley’s Modern Australia in Documents (1973). He has, however, done something different. This book has a smaller number of items than its predecessors, but it is attractively and extensively illustrated (usually, but not always, with photographs of the documents). No doubt Thompson’s publisher, Pier 9, thought of school library sales for the book. It is a hope that deserves to be rewarded.

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From its opening line – ‘It had been a shit of a day for Sister Annunciata and Sister Clavie’ – Marie Munkara’s collection of stories about life on an island mission in northern Australia is a raw, hilarious and penetrating chronicle. The two nuns stare at the sky waiting for the bishop. His plane overshoots the airstrip and lands with a ‘resounding crump’. It is as if the bishop – ‘his Most Handsome and his Most Distinguished’ or ‘his Most Sleazy’, depending on which nun you ask – represents wave after wave of invasion. Apart from God and His earthly representatives, the islanders over the years also confront an anthropologist, Indonesians, a naked French couple, Spanish workers, marijuana, rum, the flu and even John Wayne.

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A Confederacy of Dunces always makes me laugh. The book I’ve read the most number of times is a collection of essays about animals and insects called The Red Hourglass, by Gordon Grice.

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It is a critical truism, if not a cliché, that poetry estranges: it makes things strange, so that we can see the world and ourselves afresh. Defamiliarisation, the uncanny, even metaphor, are all fundamental to poetry’s estranging power. Unsurprisingly, madness, vision and love have also long been poetry’s intimates, each involving the radical reformation – or deformation – of ‘normal’ ways of seeing the world. One might describe poetry as surprisingly antisocial, since poets have from ancient times been associated with social isolation, distance or elevation, as well as with madness.

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In October 2009, Shirley Hazzard spoke at the New York launch of the Macquarie PEN Anthology of Australian Literature. Hazzard read from People in Glass Houses, her early collection of satirical stories about the UN bureaucracy. Her appearance serves to remind Australian readers that Hazzard continues to occupy a defining, if somewhat attenuated, place within the expansive field of what Nicholas Jose described in 2008, on taking up the annual Harvard Chair of Australian Studies, as ‘writing that engage[s] us with the international arena from the Australian perspective’. Jose went on to cite Hazzard’s most recent novel, The Great Fire (2003), as part of ‘a range of material which Americans would not necessarily think of as Australian’.

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Having cut my narrative teeth on Dad and Dave and Martin’s Corner (and my critical molars on the Listener-In), I had high expectations of this book. Night after childhood night, I would wait agog for Wrigley’s Chewing Gum and a burst of rowdy music to usher in the outback doings of Dad and his hayseed family. Martin’s Corner, on the other hand, was brought to our living room by Kellogg’s Corn Flakes, which, we were assured, would ‘provide the essential bulk or roughage your system needs to keep it functioning healthily and regularly’. I didn’t know what this meant, but, such was the persuasive power of commercial radio, I believed it. Just as I believed from Sunday-night listening to the Lux Radio Theatre that ‘nine out of ten Hollywood stars used Lux for their daily active lather facials’, though I did wonder about the arid pores of that misguided ‘tenth’ star. The ABC was there for the news, but it was 3LK for entertainment, including such taxing intellectual games as Quiz Kids and Bob Dyer’s Pick-a-Box.

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Antipodes: A North American Journal of Australian Literature was founded in 1987 as the journal of the American Association of Australian Literary Studies, itself founded the previous year. Both institutions are products of the Hawke era, when the still-simmering question of Australian identity and the Australian film boom of the early 1980s created an ideal state for Australians to be interested in (and to help fund) US literary culture’s own nascent interest in Australia.

From the beginning, it had no problem attracting prestigious contributors. A.D. Hope, Peter Carey, Les Murray, Thea Astley, Rosemary Dobson, and Mudrooroo were all featured in early issues. Even Patrick White consented to be profiled, though not formally interviewed, by our gentlemanly founding fiction editor, Ray Willbanks. Paul Kane, our poetry editor, has always made sure we are vitally engaged with the best and most exciting Australian verse. The journal continues to publish biannually, with most space devoted to refereed academic essays, but also including fiction, poetry, book reviews and the most recent addition – creative non-fiction, a hybrid genre in which regular contributors such as Ouyang Yu, Elizabeth Bernays, and the ‘Trans-Tasman’ figure Stephen Oliver have excelled.

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