Black Inc

Even the name is confusing: think of it as Belgian Congo/Zaire/Congo DRC to avoid confusing it with the Republic of Congo/Congo Brazzaville across the river. Officially, the name is Democratic Republic of Congo – DRC – so you could roll out the usually accurate cliché that any country with ‘Democratic’ in the name definitely isn’t that. In fact, the DRC had an election a few years back which was reasonably democratic and certainly inspired an impressive voter rollout.

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The pretext of this book is as simple as it is delightful. In 1982, at the ripe old age of nineteen, Sandy Mackinnon found himself on the windswept island of Iona, off the west coast of Scotland. Iona is one of those places, familiar in the world of spiritual tourism, that is layered in irony. In ancient times it became home to a community of monks, most notably St Columba, for the simple reason that nobody in his right mind would follow them there. Now, of course, it is a popular destination for those who value more than their right minds. Iona, like Santiago de Compostella, has a small but cogent literature of its own. It weaves a spell. There is very little to buy there. It creates debt in other ways.

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John Hirst is a distinctive figure in Australian intellectual life. As an academic, he has had a distinguished career at La Trobe University in teaching, supervision, and research. He developed new subjects and methodologies with which to teach them. In addition to those concerning Australian history, there was his pioneering subject designed to inform students about Australia’s European cultural heritage, with some of the lectures recently published as The Shortest History of Europe (2009).

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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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Up from the Mission is a powerhouse of a book. One would expect no less from Noel Pearson. This collection of thirty-eight essays combines to provide multiple overarching narratives: Pearson’s personal trajectory from the mission on Cape York, where he grew up; his intellectual development; and his political efforts at regional and national levels to redevelop Cape York communities and to influence the nation. The writings date from 1987 to 2009, from his first essay as a radical graduate student to his latest pronouncements.

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The Best American Essays 2008 edited by Adam Gopnik & The Best Australian Essays 2008 edited by David Marr

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February 2009, no. 308

In 1977, in three consecutive issues, the New Yorker published Hannah Arendt’s ‘Thinking’. Each part was called an ‘article’, a strangely modest, journalistic word in the face of the length of each part of the essay and the profound subject. Thirty-two years ago, the magazine showed curmudgeonly modesty: writers were named in small print at the foot of each ‘piece’, there was never, god forbid, a sub-editor’s catch-all under the title, no short biographies of the writers were printed, and there were never, ever, visual illustrations or photographs to accompany the text. The issue in which the first of Arendt’s ‘articles’ appeared included poetry by Mark Strand; the long book review was by George Steiner; Pauline Kael was the film reviewer; there were four Saul Steinberg drawings; and Andrew Porter reported on classical music. The list of names we revere could go on.

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Exit Right by Judith Brett & Poll Dancing by Mungo MacCallum

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February 2008, no. 298

Since the November federal election, kicking John Howard while he’s down has become something of a national pastime. While Howard’s take no-prisoners-except-on-Nauru behaviour has now exposed him to gleeful mass taunting, the idea that the end of his resilient political career has instantly created a noble Australia, its citizens and institutions cleansed and renew ed, is wishful thinking. In this context, Judith Brett’s new Quarterly Essay injects some welcome clear-headedness. Brett rains blows on Howard, but she is not a Howard-hater in the counterproductive and grandiose style of, say, Phillip Adams. Instead, she takes aim at the former prime minister in a characteristically nuanced and astute way. She bridges a gap – too often in Australia, a gulf – between scholars and interested laypeople, offering prose that is accessible and lively but that avoids dumbing down complex issues.

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Back in 1981, Richard White, in his seminal study Inventing Australia, dubbed the Australian concern with defining national identity ‘a national obsession’. It was a time when ‘the new nationalism’ associated with John Gorton and Gough Whitlam had reignited debate about anthems, flags and the paraphernalia of nationhood. The converse of this fixation has been the recurrent fear that the ‘cultural cringe’ has still not been laid to rest.

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What can we make of the fact that, of the forty-seven stories selected by Robert Drewe for this year’s The Best Australian Stories collection, thirty-three are written in the first person? The influence of Creative Writing classes has to figure in any stab at an answer. It would be interesting to do the rounds of the universities to discover whether the teachers of such courses actively encourage the use of ‘I’, or if it happens obliquely, resulting from the way that writing exercises are structured. One wonders, too, if that old saw, ‘write what you know’, is discussed in the first week of these courses, and if such a practice contributes to the writer’s feeling more comfortable and secure when deploying the first person.

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Muck by Craig Sherborne

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October 2007, no. 295

If the central, not-made-much-of miracle in Craig Sherborne’s remarkable memoir Hoi Polloi (2005) is the disappearance of the narrator’s childhood stutter after a blow to the head, then the equivalent motif in Muck, Hoi Polloi’s equally fine sequel, is his voice.

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