Scribe

Craig Munro’s latest book shines a spotlight on the work of some very different Australian book editors. It begins in the 1890s, when A.G. Stephens came into prominence as literary editor of The Bulletin’s famous Red Page. It continues through the trials and tribulations of P.R. (‘Inky’) Stephensen in publishing and radical politics in the interwar period and his internment during the war for his association with the Australia First Movement. Literary Lion Tamers then moves on to Beatrice Davis’s long career as a professional book editor with Angus & Robertson after World War II. It concludes with Rosanne Fitzgibbon, with whom Munro developed fiction and poetry lists at the University of Queensland Press.

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To survey concurrent works of art is to take the temperature of a particular time, in a particular place. And the temperature of the time and place in these four début Australian novels? It is searching for a sense of belonging, and, at least in part, it’s coming out of western Sydney in the wake of the 2005 Cronulla riots. All four novels are set in New South Wales, three of them in suburban Sydney. Each is concerned with who is entitled to land and the stories we tell while making ourselves at home in the world, sometimes at the expense of others.

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Monsters by Alison Croggon

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April 2021, no. 430

Alison Croggon has written poetry, fantasy novels, and whip-smart arts criticism for decades, but Monsters is her first book-length work of non-fiction. In this deeply wounded book, Croggon unpacks her shattered relationship with her younger sister (not named in the book), a dynamic that bristles with accusations and resentments. In attempting to understand the wreckage of this relationship, Croggon finds herself going back to the roots of Western patriarchy and colonialism, seeking to frame this fractured relationship as the inexorable consequence of empire.

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Determining connections between books sent as a review bundle is not mandatory, but there is an irresistible tendency to find some common theme. In the case of these three novels, the theme of women’s pain, and hidden pain at that, does not need to be teased out – it leaps out. Since it is unlikely that three different authors would have colluded, the prevalence of this is worth deeper reflection, especially considering recent titles such as Kylie Maslen’s essays on illness, Show Me Where It Hurts, or Kate Middleton’s extraordinary memoir essay ‘The Dolorimeter’, placed second in the 2020 Calibre Prize.

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At the heart of Trevor Shearston’s latest novel, The Beach Caves, is the act of digging. The protagonist, Annette Cooley, is a young archaeology student, thrilled by the allure of her Honours supervisor’s most recent find: the stone remains of an Aboriginal village on the New South Wales south coast that could rewrite the pre-European history of Australia. Intriguing additional sites are soon discovered, but before long the air of excitement is replaced by one of suspicion, jealousy, and dread when a member of the dig team disappears.

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On Getting Off is an attempt to think about sex philosophically, through the lens of personal, literary, and artistic experience. Damon Young, a Melbourne philosopher, is keen on reflective sex and legitimises this fetish with a carrot and stick, seducing readers by arguing for its superior pleasures and threatening us by implying that the alternatives are morally dubious or diminishing. He considers a wide variety of subjects and circumstances along the way, including the power and peculiarity of sexual attraction, the place of humour in sex, ‘teasing’ and suspended pleasure, the bounties and pitfalls of beauty, the stigma of prostitution, the complexities of sexual fantasy, the function of sex robots, and the importance of meaningfulness. He approaches these matters with fluency and an impressive variety of references – literary, artistic, and philosophical – but the insights are often dull.

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The Truth of the Palace Letters by Paul Kelly and Troy Bramston & The Palace Letters by Jenny Hocking

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January–February 2021, no. 428

In April 2011, the landmark High Court victory of four elderly Kenyans revealed a dark episode in British colonial history. Between 1952 and 1960, barbaric practices, including forced removal and torture, were widely employed against ‘Mau Mau’ rebels, real or imagined. Upon the granting of independence in 1963, thousands of files documenting such atrocities were ‘retained’ by the British authorities, eventually coming to rest in the vast, secret Foreign and Commonwealth Office archives at Hanslope Park. Now a small portion of that archive was opened to scrutiny, and a tiny ray of light shone on one of history’s greatest cover-ups.

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The announcement in June 2000 that a first draft of the human genome had been completed was rightly recognised as a landmark in scientific endeavour. Predictions were that the sequencing of the genome would allow for the pinpointing of genes responsible for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease, and lead to finely targeted, even personalised, treatments for a range of disorders. That these ambitions are still some way from being met doesn’t make the discovery any less remarkable. The Human Genome Project (HGP) gave us the capacity to read the basic building blocks of life. Research into the human genome is teaching us that the relationship between our approximately 30,000 genes and who we are is enormously complex, the result not merely of the action of individual genes but also of the ways in which those genes interact with each other and with their environment.

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One of the most bizarre as well as unfortunate deaths in literary history occurred when the playwright Aeschylus was struck by a tortoise dropped on him by a bird. Bizarre, that is, if we don’t consider what the bird involved was doing, which was clever as well as practical. From the bird’s perspective, the tortoise was being dropped on a convenient stone rather than the bald head of a Greek tragedian who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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It began with a request to overturn a controversial bill that would have allowed people to be extradited to mainland China. According to the bill’s many detractors, this was but the latest example of the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. By June 2019, millions of Hong Kong’s residents had taken to the streets. August saw sit-ins at Hong Kong’s International Airport, and by October clashes between police and protestors were characterised by violence and chaos – tear gas, rubber bullets, arrests, and prosecutions, the norm. This was summer in Hong Kong, a city dominated by increasingly violent upheaval with the world watching on.

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