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Vintage Books

In Skin Deep: The inside story of our outer selves, Australian writer Phillipa McGuinness gathers some impressive facts about skin. A square centimetre contains, among other things, six million cells, two hundred pain sensors, and one hundred sweat glands. The skin of an individual weighing seventy kilograms ‘covers two square metres and weighs five kilograms’. A YouTube channel where you can watch a dermatologist popping pimples has amassed more than three billion views. The beauty and personal care industry accrues half a trillion dollars in annual sales, while one major cosmetics company now spends seventy-five per cent of its billion-dollar advertising budget on influencers.

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A detailed timeline prefaces Fire Flood Plague. Stretching from September 2019 to September 2020, it charts events so momentous that Christos Tsiolkas describes them as being ‘imbued with an atavistic, Biblical solemnity’. Sophie Cunningham, the book’s editor, notes in her introduction that many of the contributors (herself included) have found themselves drafting their essays ‘once, twice, thrice, as we’ve progressed from bushfire and smoke-choked skies, to the early days of the pandemic … and into the exhaustion of what is becoming a marathon’.

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It is a cliché to note that Gordon Brown is an enigma as far as contemporary British politics is concerned. A fundamentally decent man of high moral standing, Brown forged with Tony Blair arguably the most successful political partnership the United Kingdom has known ... ... (read more)

For admirers of Clive James’s poetry written since he became terminally ill in 2011 (and this reviewer is certainly one), The River in the Sky will pose something of a quandary. In collections like Sentenced to Life (2015) and Injury Time (2017), the poems were generally tough, vulnerable, well-turned and ...

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I have only been to Harden-Murrumburrah once, the small town where journalist Gabrielle Chan moved in 1996, leaving the Canberra press gallery to live on a farm with her husband. It was on the way back from a football match in Cootamundra, in the middle of another grim Canberra winter ...

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Oddfellows by Nicholas Shakespeare

March 2015, no. 369

Two aggrieved Islamic men follow a foreign cause and wage jihad on their fellow Australians. Shouting Allahu akbar, they stage an ambush, raise a home-made flag and open fire on hundreds of men, women and children. They escape and die in a final shoot-out. They leave four dead and seven wounded.

It could be ripped from today’s headlines – except it happened a hundred years ago. On New Year’s Day in 1915, Gul Mehmet and Molla Abdullah, denizens of Ghantown, the despised Afghan settlement on the outskirts of Broken Hill, took up arms against the town’s citizens as they rode the train to the annual Oddfellows picnic. They did so in the name of the Turkish Sultan, who was calling for resistance to the Anzac invaders in their home territory.

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Some obsessions, present from the start, infiltrate a writer’s pages to the degree that they become synonymous with his body of work. This reaches beyond preoccupation and setting to include matters of style and sensibility. Such a combination allows the reader to discern, often in the space of a single sentence, one writer’s DNA from another’s. We return to certain writers to witness what new insights they reveal, however old their investigations. For more than four decades, readers have returned to David Malouf because we know that his searches, whether in poetry or prose, always proceed with delicate precision, wonder, and a beguiling intelligence whose charge we feel in every line.

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Those who write about poetry these days don’t go in much for lightness. More often their solemnity springs from the need to score research points or from their front-line positions in gang wars. If only the verbal art could have a critic who trod as lightly as the epigrams of Laurie Duggan or the juxtapositional poems of Jennifer Maiden. But wishes are not horses, and we must be grateful for what we’ve got. Recently to hand is an agreeably jaunty book of essays from the Oxford poet John Fuller. He certainly likes to keep it light and clear: pedagogical in the gentlest way. As critic he reads hard, but writes soft: a close reader with a free rein, we might say. And he knows that any modern poem is, metaphorically, a hybrid between layered onion and head of broccoli.

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It is an eerie measure of a movie’s power when you come out at the end of it and sense, however fleetingly, that you’re still a part of its world, or that its world is all but indistinguishable from the everyday one you’ve just re-entered. German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder was grand master of this trick. His compatriot Pina Bau ...

This is a novel about a mother, daughter, and granddaughter. Two of these women are artists, and the third is a medical practitioner. Wendy James explores creativity and the price it exacts, especially if the artist is a woman. James is also interested in biography, its limitations and potentially destructive effects. The title, The Steele Diaries, refers to the journals of a celebrated book-illustrator, Zelda Steele. In the 1960s, Zelda is a young mother of two, temporarily living separately from her husband when, mysteriously, she dies by drowning in the local river. This occurs just as she is fulfilling her potential as an artist. The main narrative is a first-person account by Zelda’s (now adult) daughter, Ruth, a doctor who has spent her life resenting her famous mother and modelling herself on her beloved father, Richard, the respected GP of an outback country town. Ruth’s inner journey towards an adult understanding of her mother and, thence, herself provides the central narrative. The trajectory begins immediately after her father’s death in the late 1990s, when Ruth is contacted by Douglas Grant, an international art critic and biographer of her long dead grandmother, modernist landscape painter Annie Steele. Annie was the first wife of painter Ed Steele, Australia’s most famous modernist artist. Douglas Grant, a lover of Zelda’s when they were young, is aware that she kept a journal and now wants to base a biography upon it. Grant is convinced that it must have been in Richard’s possession during the years since Zelda’s death.

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