Archive

A reviewer’s summary of this book’s first theme could be accused of political prejudice. That is one good reason for preferring its author’s summary:

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Peter Steele is a meditative poet with a gift for aphorism: joy / has more of gravity than of gaiety’; ‘You cannot find / your way, but it is finding you’. And of God he saysZ: ‘I’m lost for words except for those to ask / He’ll look my way and make me see it his.’

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These writer’s scribblings, handsomely reproduced, cover two distinct periods in Murray Bail’s life: London from 1970 to 1974; and Sydney from 1988 to 2003. The notebooks from the London period, which represent roughly two-thirds of this book, were previously published as Longhand: A Writer’s Notebook (1989). While readers may find some interest in comparing the formative and the mature writer, the older Bail’s reflections on ageing and death represent the most consistently penetrating writing in Notebooks.

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This year I have read too many American political quickies, and large numbers of somewhat more satisfying detective stories. Amid the revelations about Hillary Clinton’s childhood, and the equally fictitious accounts of intrigue in Istanbul and Venice, a couple of books stand out. Andrew Wilson’s The Lying Tongue (Text) and Stephen Eldred-Grigg’s Shanghai Boy (Vintage) are ‘gay books’ that speak to themes other than sexuality, and deserve to be better known. Although ultimately too improbable, Andrew McGahan’s Underground (Allen & Unwin) evokes rather well a left-wing dystopia, centred on a Howard-like government. As for nonfiction, Tony Judt’s Postwar: Europe since 1945 (Heinemann), while telling us more about Poland and less about Spain than we need know, is a fascinating reminder of the Cold War era, evoked for the other side of the Atlantic in Thomas Mallon’s novel Fellow Travellers (Pantheon).

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Sir Ninian Stephen: A tribute edited by Timothy L.K. McCormack and Cheryl Saunders

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April 2007, no. 290

The plans for this book were announced at the time of Ninian Stephen’s eightieth birthday, almost four years ago. Each of the ten contributors focuses on one of his public roles in the last thirty-five years – five of them in Australia, and five on the international stage. The last of the Australian positions, ambassador for the environment, is a bridge between the two. Kenneth Keith’s chapter finds another bridge: in Koowarta v Bjelke-Petersen (1982), on Stephen’s last day as a High Court judge, his judgment decisively transformed the issue of racial discrimination in Queensland by recognising its international potency.

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The immediate virtues of this book are not difficult to see: Andrew Taylor is a skilled poet who understands the workings of syntax and rhythm, and who knows how to shape his poems into unified patterns with an apparent minimum of fuss. The poems tend to have a regular and easy pace; their fluency is considerable. Taylor writes with a genuine confidence and a literary awareness which is for the most part sophisticated and supple. His diction is uniform and he is careful not to overreach himself. There is no visible strain in the whole performance.

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The Best Australian Poems 2007 edited by Peter Rose & The Best Australian Poetry 2007 edited by John Tranter

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December 2007–January 2008, no. 297

Given the Howard government’s recent proposal to include the compulsory study of selected aspects of Australian history for secondary school students, perhaps it is time for more educators to follow the lead of Nicholas Jose and others in urging that Australian literature occupy a more prominent place in the school curriculum. Literature – and poetry in particular – does not have the political buzz that history possesses (especially since the recent ‘history wars’ have worked their way into public discourse), but there is a need for some healthy consciousness-raising about the flourishing state of Australian writing, which is often better understood beyond our shores than it is at home.

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The subtitle of Janet Malcolm’s new book (published in Australia by Melbourne University Press) is Gertrude and Alice. Few names of literary couples can be so confidently trimmed. Scott and Zelda, Ted and Sylvia, George and Martha … all those happy couples. Gertrude and Alice has been used before, as the main title of Diana Souyhami’s joint study (1991), and will doubtless be used again. Their fame is an achieved and bankable thing, notwithstanding the fact that Gertrude Stein (1874– 1946) – whose books included Three Lives (1909), The Making of Americans (1925) and the wonderfully titled A Long Gay Book (1932) – remains perhaps the least read of the modernists.

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Here we have the first intimations of the coming flowering of the Donald Friend diaries, which are to be published by the National Library with support from Morris West’s benefaction. Friendliness was not always the same as ugliness or cleanliness when he was alive. So, it is somehow comforting that two Australian artists, so different from each other in lifestyle, should after their deaths find common cause.

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Not half as nice

Dear Editor,

Nothing jolts a writer like finding that her book has been read in serious discord with her intentions and produced the last effect she’d have wanted. Heather Neilson (ABR, October 2002) thinks I’m ‘preaching’ and condemning to outer darkness those who don’t agree with me. This is disquieting, but also salutary.

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