Archive

When Miranda Ophelia Sinclair, ‘Moss’ to her friends, discovers a document featuring the name of her heretofore unknown father, she sets out to find him and to discover her genetic roots. Her complicated family history is gradually exposed when she finds her father, Finn, living as a near-recluse in a town called Opportunity. Finn’s next-door neighbour is Lily Pargetter: aged, lonely, haunted by memories and ghosts. Her nephew, Sandy, is a middle-aged man-child, ineffectual but harmless. This eccentric cast of characters could easily hold its own against Alexander McCall Smith’s creations; however, Evans sets her protagonists on a predictable and fairly scripted path, resulting in a message-driven narrative.

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In an essay on the poetry of George Crabbe, Peter Porter wrote, ‘It is a great pleasure to me, a man for the littoral any day, to read Crabbe’s description of the East Anglian coast.’ Happily, there is by now a substantial and various array of writings about Porter’s work, and I would like simply to add that his being, metaphorically, ‘a man for the littor ...

Odd to start by quoting P.G. Wodehouse: ‘She was a girl with a wonderful profile, but steeped to the gills in serious purpose.’ Bertie Wooster is complaining, in ‘Jeeves Takes Charge’1, about Honoria Glossop, who has forced upon him ‘Types of Ethical Theory’. ‘Odd’ because anyone steeped to the gills i ...

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

      Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus   (1922)
For what it is worth, my own view is that in contemporary Australia the dialectical quest for truth about the indigenous culture, by open argument and counter-argument, is no less important ...

You’re opening a packet of star anise with a knife
designed for taking the sides from fish, when
two things happen simultaneously: the muscle
below your thumb some call the mound of Venus

Writing a matter of hours after Charles Dickens’s death on 9 June 1870, an obituarist for The Times of London remarked, ‘The story of his life is soon told’. The publication of Dickens’s friend John Forster’s Life of Charles Dickens between 1871 and 1874 soon gave the lie to these words, revealing a far more complex and damaged Dickens than the reading public had ever suspected this novelist, journalist, actor, social reformer and bon viveur to be. Since the 1870s thousands of pages have been devoted to scrutinising the life of the self-styled ‘sparkler of Albion’, including G.K. Chesterton’s Charles Dickens: A critical study (1906), Edgar Johnson’s magisterial Charles Dickens: His tragedy and triumph (1952) and Claire Tomalin’s superbly readable account of Dickens’s infatuation with his mistress, Ellen Ternan, The Invisible Woman (1991).

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Parts of Us by Thomas Shapcott

by
April 2010, no 320

This is Tom Shapcott’s thirteenth individual collection of poetry (two Selected Poems have appeared, in 1978 and 1989) in a writing life that – at least for his readers – began with the publication of Time on Fire in 1961. It continues something of a late poetic flowering, which, to my critical mind, began with The City of Home in 1995. All in all, Parts of Us is no disgrace to its twelve predecessors.

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The subtle beauty of the title of Sarah Day’s new collection of poetry, Grass Notes, epitomises the lightness of touch and intensity that characterises the poems. This is a collection of observing what might otherwise be seen as slight or glancing, yet that offers powerful prisms of insight. In a Whitmanesque mode, Day’s perspective not only looks up from the grass into the vastness of the world, but also looks at the grass itself, the unexceptional yet foundational ground of all perception and experience. Perhaps as the poet scribbles ‘notes’ in that grass, there is also an echo of Wordsworth and post-romantics such as Judith Wright or Mary Oliver. The title also chimes homophonically with the idea of the musical ‘grace note’, that small, quick, note that runs into the next and, in its delicacy, makes that central sound, or image, both more appealing and more complex. In Day’s work, it is the delicacy of such lateral images, often derived from close consideration of the natural world, that complicates and enriches the ideas at work within the poems.

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Let no one say that all travel memoirs fall into the same predictable box. Otherland and Mother Land, two such works from Melbourne writers, may enjoy rhyming titles and pluck similar strings, but their styles could hardly be more dissimilar. The first, a new book from Maria Tumarkin, describes a journey to her Ukrainian/ Russian country of birth with her twelve-year-old daughter in tow; the second, a 2008 evocation by Dmetri Kakmi, follows a revisiting of his childhood on a Turkish-Greek island. Of it I wrote in The Age: ‘Always a beautiful, evocative and carefully crafted reconstruction of a past life generically familiar to many migrants, Mother Land outshines the plethora of similar memoirs because it consciously operates at two levels: the narrow focus, limited characters and humdrum events are transcended and elevated to a universal myth of loss’ (16 August 2008).

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At the moment, there are about 5,000 world languages, and ninety per cent of these languages are spoken by about five per cent of the world’s population. A pessimistic forecast would predict that by 2,100 only 500 of these languages will still exist; an optimistic forecast might put the figure at 2,500, about the same rate as the extinction of mammals. Many of the languages under threat are spoken in countries that are close to Australia: Papua New Guinea has 850, Indonesia 670, and India 380. (Australia is listed as still having 200, but many Australian linguists would put this figure much lower.) It is a relatively easy matter to rally the troops, the money and the organisational forces to attempt to save furry mammals; it is a much more difficult matter to rally support to save languages. This book, by the eminent French linguist Claude Hagège, assesses how and why languages die, what the cost of their deaths is, and whether anything can be done to prevent their annihilation.

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