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Miriam Cosic

In the current fad for omnibus histories of absolutely everything, designed to replace ancient metaphysics, perhaps, or answer some marketing brainwave, no one has succeeded in quite the way Christine Kenneally has. She approaches her task with a very specific enquiry: what is the interplay between genetics and human history? Searching for an answer, she uncovers worlds within worlds.

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Wilhelm II, German Kaiser and King of Prussia, may be a shadowy figure for Australian readers, better known as the butt of funny-scary caricatures in British World War I propaganda or of black humour in popular soldiers’ songs, than as a political player in his own right. He remains enigmatic even for scholars. Some hand him the burden of responsibility for World War I, despite the immediate trigger being the military standoff between two other states altogether, Austro-Hungary and Serbia. Others see him as an incompetent figurehead who merely rubberstamped the territorial ambitions of the German military.

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When I was a child, comparing the behaviour of two people in my circle was formative. One would turn out to help in any situation, from raking dirt on the local school oval in a working bee to stopping the car late at night to check on an old man hanging over the rail at a city tram stop. He never talked much about these actions, nor dramatised the recipients’ needs, beyond saying, if asked, that it was the ‘right thing to do’. The other person would become so upset by other people’s troubles, and feel their pain so intensely, that she would end up a teary, hand-wringing mess and require calming herself, taking away attention and care from the person in need.

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The ability to situate a work in its context, to praise it without flattery, to argue against it without rancour, to be authoritative without being a know-all, to make difficult matters clear without condescending to the reader – and, of course, to be a good writer in his or her own right.

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When Sheila Fitzpatrick arrived in Oxford in 1964, with a couple of years of Russian language studies at Melbourne University and a Commonwealth Scholarship under her belt, she had more than a passing knowledge of Cold War spying. Her father, Brian Fitzpatrick, was a labour historian and well-known leftist who had advised the Labor Opposition leader H.V. Evatt ...

Here and Now by Paul Auster and J.M. Coetzee & Distant Intimacy by Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein

June 2013, no. 352

The recent publication of Willa Cather’s letters caused a stir in the United States. The American author, surprisingly underrated here, had explicitly and repeatedly said she did not want her letters made public. Some believe her wishes should be respected; others say the demands of history are greater than those of a long-dead individual.

This, of course, points to part of the allure of reading the private letters of famous people. Through them, we glimpse multiple facets of personalities that have been airbrushed by publicists: the grumpy and the affectionate, the outrageous and the encouraging, the truly intelligent and the superficially smug. We get flashes of insight into political and artistic decision-making and delicious celebrity gossip. Half of it would be actionable if everyone involved were not already dead.

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