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Companion to Women’s Historical Writing edited by Mary Spongberg, Ann Curthoys, and Barbara Caine

by
April 2010, no 320

Do not be put off by the earnest and fusty-sounding title. The Companion to Women’s Historical Writing is not a book to acquire for the reference shelf on the off chance of needing to look up some arcane topic in the future. Quite the contrary. I have found it to be a most enjoyable bedside companion. Arranged alphabetically, with more than one hundred and fifty entries, it offers thumbnail sketches for a quick dip and more substantial essays to hold the attention in a longer engagement. The three editors, like most of the other fifty or so contributors, are distinguished writers in their own fields. Mary Spongberg, at Macquarie University, is the editor of Australian Feminist Studies; Ann Curthoys, from Sydney University, is a doyenne of Australian cultural and political history; and at Monash, Barbara Caine is a leading scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century British history. Drawing on their own research fields, each has provided long and lively analytical pieces, as well as writing a great many of the shorter entries. With some six hundred pages, plus another hundred when the index and bibliography are included, the Companion is a good fat book that will not sell the reader short. The new paperback edition has presumably been issued as a consequence of the success in the last five years of the expensive hardback.

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One of the things I am often called on to do as a bookseller is to make recommendations, particularly when it comes to fiction. This involves making a judgement about what a customer wants from a book, rather than what a book may want from its reader. Many readers declare from the outset that all they want from a novel is a good story they can escape into. They happily admit that they don’t want to be challenged, don’t want to work for their enjoyment.

This is the frequently offered rationale for mass-market fiction: pure escapism. It exists to entertain, not to edify. Hackneyed storylines and wooden dialogue don’t matter, so the argument goes; all that does matter is giving people the kind of uncomplicated enjoyment they crave. The writing might not be stylish, but neither is it pretentious. Fair enough, perhaps. If you are the kind of reader who sees nothing wrong with lines such as ‘a fresh spike of fear gripped him’ or ‘there was only one way to heal his thirst for revenge’ or ‘Iris has always been blindly attracted to people who don’t fit the mould’, then criticism of this book is probably redundant. If, however, mixed metaphors, clichés and melodramatic flourishes make you cringe, be warned that Fiona McIntosh’s Fields of Gold is full of them.

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It is no secret that scholarly publishing is between a rock and a hard place these days. The rock is the proliferation of titles demanded by university research quanta and government assessment exercises. The hard place is the endless tightening of library acquisitions budgets. The result is ever-shrinking print runs, ever-growing covert or explicit publication subsidies and a rational but extreme conservatism in the commissioning habits of those academic presses that strive to remain quasi-commercial. Essay collections, in particular, have a hard time as book proposals, because, as publishers will tell you, people don’t buy them.

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Why do you write?

For the language, for the ideas, for the pleasures of the imagination, for the unorthodox hours, for the solitude.

Are you a vivid dreamer?

To dream you need to sleep, and sleep, like sport, is not a skill I have ...

Alex Miller has been named as a finalist in the 2009 Melbourne Prize for Literature, a rich award given triennially to a Victorian author for a body of work. It is hardly surprising that a writer who has twice won the Miles Franklin Award and frequently been the recipient of, or short-listed for, other prizes should be among ...

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In Peter Temple’s phenomenally successful The Broken Shore (2005), detective Joe Cashin wonders what the right result might be in the case of murdered businessman and philanthropist Charles Bourgoyne. Lawyer and romantic interest Helen Castleman’s answer is succinct: ‘The truth’s the right result.’ The truth of The Broken Shore was murky, disturbing and came with a price ...

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A year ago, I came to Australia prepared to spend the first half of my sabbatical leave completing a book on John Keats. Never having been to Australia, I was eager to spend some time here: five months in all. When I participated in the 2008 Mildura Writers Festival, it became clear to me that something both delightful and extraordinary was at work. There was a fine group of writers, including Les Murray, David Malouf, Alice Pung, Alex Miller, Sarah Day, and Anthony Lawrence. But what made the festival remarkable was the combination of conviviality and serious talk about literature and ideas that surpassed anything in my previous experience, which included far more such events than I could begin to count.

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Kenneth Cook was always a little surprised by the success of Wake in Fright. He dismissed it as a young man’s novel, as indeed it was; he published it in 1961, when he was thirty-two. Among his sixteen other works of fiction he was prouder of Tuna (1967), a partial reimagining of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea set off the coast of South Australia, and The Man Underground (1977), which dealt with opal mining. Perhaps he preferred them because he had enjoyed the research involved. It is true that both are better crafted, more assured, than the novel that made his name. But he could never quite accept that Wake in Fright delineated grim truths about the bush and its inhabitants that his other novels do not capture.

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At the moment, my hero is Rimbaud’s self in his Les Illuminations. Who knows who it will be tomorrow? And my heroine? Always Lo.

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This is not so much a history of Sydney as a tour with a sensitive and alert guide who knows her history. The site is modern Sydney. Although Sydney was only just beginning to develop suburbs when the book ends – in the 1820s – Karskens tours the whole of the Cumberland Plain, the area that metropolitan Sydney now covers.   For the modern suburbs, as everywhere else, Karskens describes the land and how it was used when occupied by the Aborigines and the first Europeans. She points to what remains from earlier times in the routes of roads, remnant vegetation, the built environment and place names.

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