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Graham Seal, author of this invaluable new survey of Australian folklore, hopes this book will ‘explode the pernicious and persistent myth that Australia has no folklore’, a cultural lie he illustrates on the opening page by trotting out a familiar scapegoat in the form of a visiting Englishman carping about the lack of folksong in this country. This seems to me to base the book on an unnecessary and even false premise. Most Australians, I would have thought, are aware either consciously or subconsciously of a national body of folklore – it’s just that assiduous nationalists have hacked away the corpus by single-mindedly promoting the paraphernalia of the bush mythology: the pioneers, the bushrangers, the heroes and anti-heroes of sport and war.

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Niall Lucy reviews 'Christina Stead' by Susan Sheridan

Niall Lucy
Tuesday, 11 February 2020

In male (I do not, just yet, say ‘patriarchal’) discourse, woman is man’s supplement. The feminist’s perennial dilemma, then, is how to intervene in that discourse which is forever reproducing the very hierarchy that suppresses and excludes her, when – by the power of its appropriation of common sense – that discourse operates not as though it were given her by men, but as though it were simply ‘given’.

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On Hydra last year an old grocer wound up his reminiscences of George Johnston and Charmian Clift with a tolerant grin. ‘They both drank a lot,’ he told me. ‘They had to – yia na katevei i skepsi.’ For the thought to be let down: he used the same verb as for a cow letting her milk flow. ‘They drank a lot; they wrote a lot of books.’ He shrugged.

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Susan Ryan reviews 'I am a Boat' by Sally Morrison

Sally Morrison
Tuesday, 11 February 2020

Collections of new Australian short stories by a single author have become a regular feature of Australian literary publishing in recent years. They are a welcome addition to the range of new writing available to the reading public. Collections that have unity of style, are thematically coherent and present a linked set of perceptions from the one creative source offer the reader much more than a light or fragmentary experience. Instead of the sustained characterisation of the novel, they can achieve a dazzling variety of episodes and mood. Robert Drewe’s Body Surfers and Helen Garner’s Postcards from Surfers are outstanding examples of how good the best collections of stories can be. It was a great delight to pick up I am a Boat by Sally Morrison and find that, although it is only her second book, in style, originality and literary quality, Morrison is fast approaching the Drewe and Garner class.

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I was tempted to do a wicked thing when writing about Between the Fish and the Mud Cake: to take its subjects and describe my experiences with them. So I would tell you all about my lunch with Georges Perec at the French Embassy in Canberra. What he said, and I said, and the ambassador said, and what I made of it all. The book mentions touring with Carmel Bird; I could describe my friendship with her. But Andrew Riemer is not that sort of reviewer, and his book is much too interesting in itself to be one-upped like that.

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Melburnians are rightly proud of the great painting by Giambattista Tiepolo in the National Gallery of Victoria, The Banquet of Cleopatra. Now restored to its prominent position in the gallery, it will continue to attract admiration from generations of visitors, though we should hope that its neighbouring masterpiece, Sebastiano Ricci’s The Finding of Moses, is not overlooked when connoisseurs gather beside the Tiepolo. Jaynie Anderson’s handsome book is a whole-hearted and scholarly homage to Tiepolo in general, and to this picture in particular.

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Alan Wearne’s The Lovemakers is a book about overdoing it. Its characters have unwise love affairs, dream foolish dreams, drink too much, engage in criminal activity, amass (and lose) vast wealth, and talk incessantly (usually about themselves). Wearne’s characters usually deal with obsession and with the places you get to in life if you overdo things. Few characters in this second part of Wearne’s epic verse novel age gracefully, and some don’t get to age at all. But The Lovemakers isn’t just about over-doing it: it performs overdoing it. Wearne’s aesthetic is one of excess, of conspicuous idiosyncrasy. Part of its excessiveness and oddity is its oxymoronic status. Wearne’s books are simultaneously poetic and prosy, realistic and outré, stylistically heterogeneous and tonally homogenous.

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The Book of Human Skin details the trials and tribulations of an innocent Venetian noblewoman named Marcella Fasan, a girl ‘so sinned agin tis like Job in a dress’, Gianni delle Boccole, loyal family servant and bad speller, explains. Marcella’s principal antagonist is her older brother Minguillo, who, out of filial jealousy and a desire to be the sole heir to the family’s New World fortune in silver, makes her a prisoner, a cripple, a madwoman, and a nun. Think Jacobean tragedy meets Gothic novel, then add some – namely a crazy Peruvian nun called Sor Loreta, who, in between fasting and self-flagellation marathons, terrorises the saner sisters at the convent of Santa Catalina in Arequipa. It is these four characters – Gianni, Marcella, Minguillo, Sor Loreta, plus the kindly Doctor Santo Aldobrandini, a specialist in skin and its maladies – who, unbeknown to one another, take turns narrating this novel.

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James Ley reviews 'The Ghost Writer' by John Harwood

James Ley
Friday, 07 February 2020

There is a species of Victorian mystery story that is as pure an expression of nineteenth-century rationalism as you are likely to find. A strange event occurs which, at first glance, appears to admit no rational explanation; by the end of the story, it is revealed to have a logical explanation after all. Thus foolish superstition is banished by the pure light of reason. But there is another side to late-Victorian fiction of the unexpected, represented by Henry James’s ghost tale The Turn of the Screw (1898): a darker, slipperier, and far more unsettling narrative in which the supernatural elements are never satisfactorily explained and are charged with menacing psychological overtones.

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José Borghino reviews 'A Private Man' by Malcolm Knox

José Borghino
Friday, 07 February 2020

Gabriel García Márquez once said that all of us lead three different lives simultaneously: public, private, and secret. In his second novel, A Private Man, Malcolm Knox explores two very secret recesses of the modern Australian male’s experience: porn and sport. That both these spheres also have a very public face merely allows for these secret experiences to be played out in front of a paying audience as either tragedy or farce, or sometimes both.

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