Viking

Writing this review of John F. Kennedy’s formative years soon after the end of the Trump regime has evoked some surprising parallels between these two one-term American presidents (and perennial womanisers). They were both second sons born into wealthy families dominated by powerful patriarchs. Against the odds, they emerged as their fathers’ favourites and were groomed for success. Thanks not just to their wealth but to their televisual celebrity and telegenic families, they managed to eke out close election victories at a time when just enough disenchanted voters were looking for a change of direction in the White House. Despite their administrations’ profound disparities in competence and their differences in political outlook, they shared a deep distrust of senior bureaucrats and military officials, as well as an inability to work effectively with Congress. Bullets and ballots, respectively, ended Kennedy’s and Donald Trump’s presidencies, but not the cults of personality they had inspired. In the space of just over half a century, they have tilted the trajectory of American democracy and diplomacy from the tragic to the tragicomic.

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After surviving two perilous boat journeys when he thought he would die, Jaivet Ealom is taken into the control of Australian authorities and given the designation EML019 on an identification card that manages to misspell his name. He will be referred as EML019 for the next three years, having arrived in Australian waters just five days after 19 July 2013, when a policy change meant that asylum seekers coming by boat would be transferred to the Manus Island or Nauru ‘regional processing centres’ to face indefinite detention and with no hope of resettlement in Australia.

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It was obvious that Nick Bryant’s insightful new book would be a requiem for American greatness. More revealing is its history of Trumpism, which long predated the man’s presidency.

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The cover of this book tells you pretty much what to expect. It shows the dancer Li Cunxin, evidently at rehearsal, facing the camera while over his shoulder peeps his wife, Mary. Add the subtitle, that this is the ‘untold story’ of Li Cunxin’s wife, with a foreword by the man himself, and it’s clear that this book might not have seen the light of day without the phenomenal success of Mao’s Last Dancer, published in 2003 and later made into a well-received film (Bruce Beresford, 2009). Even the title has echoes of its predecessor.

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The vision was of a brown-skinned child standing by her side. She sensed it so keenly that she could even feel the child’s warmth. It was so striking she wondered about her sanity … but as time went by, she became more comfortable with her vision, accepted it as something precious, a visitation of some sort that only she knew about.’

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To his obvious surprise, John Wood became a household name playing ordinary, reliable Aussie blokes – most memorably Sergeant Tom Croydon on Blue Heelers and magistrate Michael Rafferty on Rafferty’s Rules – two of television’s best-loved everyday heroes. (I confess to writing about the latter in The Bulletin and describing him as ‘the thinking woman’s crumpet’.)

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Miles Franklin used to delight in relating an anecdote about a librarian friend who, when asked why a less competent colleague was paid more, replied succinctly: ‘He has the genital organs of the male; they’re not used in library work, but men are paid more for having them.’

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Trio by William Boyd

by
October 2020, no. 425

The first three chapters of William Boyd’s beguiling new novel, Trio, are devoted to the waking habits of three people: a novelist called Elfrida Wing, stirred from slumber by the brightening morning sun; a film producer called Talbot Kydd, jolted into a new day by an erotic dream taking place on a beach; and an American actress called Anny Viklund, who, it seems, hasn’t had the time to consider sunrays or reverie. Anny, the only one of the trio not to wake up alone, has spent a vigorous night with a younger man called Troy Blaze.

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There seems to be an ever-growing – I almost wrote market, but think I mean obsession – these days for the family history, the personal memoir, the parading of how I spent my childhood/adolescence/ protest years/personal and economic growth decades, before-finally-contributing-to-the-joy-of-past-and-future-generations-by-listing-my-achievements. Many of these are self-published. Kristin Williamson’s biography of her playwright husband is not, but perhaps should have been.

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There seem to be fewer post-election books doing the rounds after the 2019 federal campaign than has been the case in recent decades. Why is this? The 2019 campaign may have been achingly bland, but the result shocked pollsters, voters, and a news media that had long predicted a Labor win. Morrison’s ‘miracle’ victory is probably Australia’s most historically significant one since the last ‘unlosable’ election, back in 1993, when another cocksure opposition took its own ‘big target’ tax package to the people.

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