Monash contributor

J.R. Burgmann reviews 'Ghost Species' by James Bradley

J.R. Burgmann
Friday, 24 April 2020

James Bradley’s Ghost Species arrives at a time when fiction seems outpaced by the speed with which we humans are changing the planet. Alarmingly, such writerly speculation has been realised during Australia’s tragic summer, when the future finally bore down on us. And there are few writers of climate fiction – or ‘cli-fi’, the term coined by activist blogger Dan Bloom and popularised in a tweet by Margaret Atwood – who so delicately straddle the conceptual divide between present and future as Bradley.

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Valerie Lawson is a balletomane whose writing on dance encompasses newspaper articles and also articles  and editorials for numerous dance companies. Lawson’s lavishly illustrated Dancing Under the Southern Skies, like Arnold Haskell’s mid-twentieth-century popular histories of ballet, substitutes stories about ballet and ballet dancers for a cohesive historical narrative about ballet in Australia. Portraits, images of ballet dancers posing in photographers’ studios, and ephemera are reproduced in the book; but the total sum of stage photos – of dancing – can be counted on one hand.

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Sing This at My Funeral is not your conventional ghost story. Invoking Franz Kafka’s words, ‘Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts, and by no means just the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters’, this moving memoir by David Slucki gives shape to the ghost of Zaida Jakub, the grandfather he never knew.

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The biography has long been reserved for human subjects. It is a genre largely predicated on the idea that only humans live lives sufficiently rich and complex to be worthy of sustained examination. Countless books have centred on different kinds of animals, yet few have fallen within the biographical category. Most are found in the children’s, zoology, or fiction shelves at bookstores.

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A lover of photography since childhood, by the time Olive Cotton, who was born in Sydney in 1911, was in her twenties she was already creating the pictures that were to define her as one of Australia’s foremost women photographers, although this would not be acknowledged until the 1980s. Apart from the photographs she made, Cotton left little material trace of a life that spanned nine decades (she died in 2003). This lack of physical evidence presented a challenge for biographer Helen Ennis, a former curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia and an art historian, who has nonetheless managed to weave a compelling, if at times diaphanous, narrative.

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Reading good science writing is not just pleasurable and informative: it’s also necessary if we want to live engaged and examined lives in today’s hyper-technological, climate-changing world. The Best Australian Science Writing 2019 offers readers all these things – the delight in good writing, the satisfaction of learning, and the sobering reckoning with our society’s environmental impact and lack of political engagement with science. Yet it’s not afraid to challenge science itself on occasion – showing ‘its flaws as well as its finer moments’, as editor Bianca Nogrady puts it.

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The import of this book is best summed up by pinching one of its section headings: ‘another Europe is possible’. In this other Europe, this better one, the ‘democratic deficit’ that has bedevilled the European project from the outset has finally found a satisfactory resolution. A dream? Not at all. For the authors of this book, it is a ‘realistic utopia’, fully achievable if the right measures are taken. All that is needed is an agreement on a treaty and the dismantling of a Trojan Horse. 

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'Putting the terror in extraterritoriality' by Christina Twomey

Christina Twomey
Friday, 22 November 2019

I am from a very large island, a continent in fact. Yet smaller islands have meant more to me – trips to Bribie Island with my grandmother to drink shandies and eat crab sandwiches; two years living in an expatriate Australian community on the Malaysian island of Penang; an object lesson in the power of oceans while visiting American Samoa, when my then boyfriend and I were carried by the tide beyond the coral reef we were exploring with snorkels. In my part of the world, small islands often connote tourism, but they also serve other objects. There is a vanishing point where paradise becomes isolation, where utility meets strategy and where purpose matters more than people.

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The recent death of Les Murray can be likened in its significance to the passing of Victor Hugo, after which, as Stéphane Mallarmé famously wrote, poetry ‘could fly off, freely scattering its numberless and irreducible elements’. Murray’s subsumption of the Australian nationalist tradition in poetry, including The Bulletin schools of both the 1890s (A.G. Stephens) and 1940s (Douglas Stewart), has delineated an influential pathway in our literature for more than fifty years. Yet the death in 2017 of the American poet John Ashbery might be viewed as equivalent in its effect, given the impact of his work on several generations of local poets, which has in many respects constituted a counter-stream to Murray’s often narrowly defined nationalism. Ashbery’s voice has been infectiously dominant in English-language poetries over several decades, in a manner similar to T.S. Eliot’s impression on poets of the earlier twentieth century. Critic Susan Schultz, the publisher of this volume, has charted the dynamics of its transcultural influence in her aptly titled collection, The Tribe of John (1995)

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In 1942, Elio Vittorini managed to circumvent the Fascist censors and publish Americana, a landmark anthology of thirty-three American authors. The aim of this massive project – over a thousand pages with translations into Italian carried out by ten significant literary figures of the time, including Alberto Moravia, Cesare Pavese, and Nobel Laureate poet Eugenio Montale – was to introduce iconic American voices to Italian readers. In assembling her substantial collection of forty Italian short stories, Jhumpa Lahiri set herself the same objective but in reverse: to introduce Italian authors to American readers. Lahiri declares Vittorini was her ‘guiding light’, not only for the general design of the work but also ‘in writing the brief author biographies – intended as partial sketches and not definitive renderings – that preface each story’.

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