Gay Bilson

‘The past only comes into being from the vantage point of the future,’ the novelist Michelle de Kretser told an interviewer recently. History is written in a present that is inexorably moving forward, while historians explore as far back as their interests take them. All the while they are backstitching, a step forward, a half step back. Post hoc ergo propter hoc?

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In a review of several books on motherhood (LRB, 14 June 2014), Jacqueline Rose – feminist, writer on psychoanalysis, English professor, ‘public intellectual’ – interprets Adrienne Rich’s belief that to give birth is to testify to the possibilities of humanity, as a variation on Hannah Arendt’s formulation, in an essay on totalitarianism, that ‘freedom is identical with the capacity to begin’. As bearers of new lives, women are thus the repositories of tremendous power, which is undermined by the patriarchy. Arendt’s collection of essays Men in Dark Times (1968) provided the framework for Rose’s exhilarating, disturbing, ‘scandalous’ (Rose calls for a ‘scandalous feminism’ in the preface) book, Women in Dark Times.

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In the first volume of Virginia Woolf’s diary (1915–19), an entry in June 1919 mentions England’s possibly ruined strawberry crop. ‘This is a serious matter for us as we have just bought 60 lbs. of sugar, & had arranged a great jam making. Strawberries are 2/ a lb. at this moment. Asparagus 6d & 7d, & yesterday at Ray’s I ate my first green pea ...

Not everyone’s father sends his daughter a brace of pheasants while she is studying economics at Cambridge. With a choice of two gas rings on which to cook them, Anne Willan eviscerated and plucked the birds, then used one gas ring to cook a pheasant casserole and the other to make a caramel custard that she ‘steamed over a galvanised tin laundry bucket’. She was, I’d guess, nineteen.

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If Michael Pollan were a terminal illness, I’d be in the fourth stage of grieving. He has had a brilliant and successful run until now, producing seven books in just over twenty years, taking up a university teaching position (yes, food-related), writing long articles, mostly for the New York Times, and all the while cooking and thinking his way to se ...

‘Hello, my name is Tony. I’m your waiter, and I’ll be dining with you tonight.’

One subspecies of cartoon in the New Yorker addresses the balance of power between diners and waiters. The caption above, from a cartoon by P.C. Vey, accompanies a drawing of a bemused couple holding menus, and looking at a waiter who is s ...

Fernando Nottebohm has been interested in birdsong since early childhood. By 2001 he had spent thirty years at Rockefeller University in New York studying how birds learn to sing, concentrating on canaries who are capable of learning new songs each year. His interest has been to study birdsong as ‘a model for the brain’. He studied the brains of caged birds and birds in the wild. The birds that needed to forage and escape predators produced more neurons in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is essential to memory.

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A Cook’s Life by Stephanie Alexander

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April 2012, no. 340

Most present-day Australian chefs (that is to say, cooks who earn a living through their training, practice, and culinary skills) who have written cookbooks are at the same time telling us about themselves. Is it not curious that, in general, cooks repeatedly praise the table for its central role in hospitality, conviviality, generosity, and equality, yet seem so needful of, so greedy for, praise?

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Adelaide by Kerryn Goldsworthy

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October 2011, no. 335

This year is the 175th anniversary of European settlement in South Australia. The University of Adelaide presented a series of public lectures collectively called Turning Points in South Australian History. Bill Gammage gave the first and showed by an accretion of primary sources that, prior to white settlement in 1836, Aborigines kept a tidy landscape thanks to the controlled use of fire. First Adelaidians exclaimed that the landscape was close to an English garden. Henry Reynolds gave the second lecture, and made much of the political and social timing of the settlement, after the abolition of slavery in London and just before the Treaty of Waitangi in New Zealand. The idea of terra nullius was in its preliminary colonial tatters.

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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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