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Anyone who keeps a diary day in, day out for decades knows why Helen Garner, a few years ago, destroyed her early ones, deeming them boring and self-obsessed. Incineration has a long, proud history: think of Henry James, late in life, at his incinerator in Rye, burning all his letters and private papers – that lamentable blaze. The sheer misery and tedium of our early journals can be dejecting. ‘What is the point of this diary?’ Garner asks herself in 1981. ‘There is always something deeper, that I don’t write, even when I think I’m saying everything.’

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Lucy Ellmann’s ambitious seventh novel stages the workings of a mind as it digests – or fails to digest – life-altering experiences. Ducks, Newburyport is, for the most part, the ruminating inner monologue of a bewildered and frightened woman. It spans a thousand mostly artful pages and is an undeniably impressive accomplishment. However, for readers who relished Ellmann’s brilliant comic novels, Ducks may lack the energising charge – absurd, erotic, and darkly funny – that is so satisfyingly prominent in her earlier work.

Its chief narrator is a well-educated American mother of four afflicted by sharp anxiety. Her concerns include: the existence of President Trump; repeated  mass shootings; the threat of nuclear war or climate catastrophe; male violence; and precarious health care. Her inner life is expansive but oriented around  a handful of personal wounds, many of which are recast in the parallel story of a hunted lioness in search of her babes. Leaving aside a memorable sexual encounter, the latter resembles a children’s fable, a similarity that is knowingly signalled when the narrator recalls ‘some Disney movie about an escaped lion that wonders around some town’.

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Lucky Ticket is a brave and haunting début collection of short stories by Vietnamese-Australian writer Joey Bui. In erudite stories of the displaced and dislocated, Bui’s characters are glistering survivors. Many of their voices ring out against the bleak political backdrop of Saigon, making the reader aware of the tyrannical government control and the lack of basic civil and political rights. Bui’s memorable characters are a testament to the deft way she crafts dialogue and to the interviews she undertook with a range of Vietnamese people from refugee backgrounds to better understand the intricacies of their existence.

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Thanks to the internet, the 24/7 news cycle, and social media, certain books are preceded by their reputations. They arrive freighted with so much publicity hype that reading them with fresh eyes is almost impossible. A Constant Hum is one such book, very much the product of a reputation established well before publication, due to the airing of individual stories in places like Seizure and Meanjin, along with several prizes and shortlistings.

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Ian Fairweather: A life in letters edited by Claire Roberts and John Thompson

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November 2019, no. 416

Artist, hermit, instinctive communicator, a nomad who built studio nests for himself all over the globe, Ian Fairweather is a consistent paradox – and an enduring one. In an art world of fragile and fluctuating reputations, his work retains the esteem with which it was received – by his peers – when he landed in Australia in 1934 and, with their help, exhibited almost immediately. His way of life – eccentric, solitary, obsessive – was extraordinary then, and continued so until his death in 1974. Success never sanded off his diffident, abrasive edges. When presented with the International Cooperation Art Award in 1973, he mused, in a letter to his niece, Helga (‘Pippa’) Macnamara:

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It is commonly accepted that the modern European novel begins with Don Quixote. Lionel Trilling went so far as to claim that the entire history of the modern novel could be interpreted as variations on themes set out in Cervantes’s great originating work. And the quality that is usually taken to mark Don Quixote as ... ... (read more)

The enchanting of rats has a long history. The Pied Piper, who enchanted first the rats then the children of Hamelin, is familiar to European readers. Here, Tim Bonyhady brings us a new story of rat enchantment by the Diyari and the Yandruwandha people in the eastern Lake Eyre basin. According to explorer Edwin Welch, they sang ‘in low, weird and dirge-like tones ...

One of the few advantages a contemporary writer of historical fiction has derives from working in a context with laxer censorship laws. Representations of sexuality and violence once proscribed can be incorporated to better approach the social conditions of the period. With regard to narratives about Australia’s convict history ...  

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Everyone knows about the final days of Adolf Hitler – his abject suicide in a clammy Berlin bunker. Many prominent Nazis followed suit, including the master propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who broadcast messages to the public espousing the virtue of death over defeat. His wife, Magdalena, wrote ...

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Animalia by Jean-Baptiste Del Amo, translated by Frank Wynne

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August 2019, no. 413

If you’re squeamish, this book probably isn’t for you. Each page delivers shocking or mundane violence and descriptions of guts and gore so frank they become a kind of poetry. There is clear relish in Del Amo’s depictions, and there is nothing gratuitous about them; he brings us rivetingly close to each fold of decrepit skin, the agonies of labour ...

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