Allen & Unwin

Hannah Gadsby’s show Nanette (2017–18) starts out funny but then shifts to long, angry monologues that refuse its audience the release of laughter. By breaking the conventional contract between a comedian and her audience, Gadsby rejected her own former practice of turning her traumatic experiences into jokes. Nanette’s international run and subsequent release as a Netflix special spanned the Australian Marriage Law Postal Survey, which gauged public support for marriage equality, as well as the international #MeToo movement against sexual assault.

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On 9 March 2022, Russian forces at war in Ukraine bombed a maternity hospital in the city of Mariupol, killing three and injuring seventeen. In a confused response to international condemnation, Russia denied responsibility, designating these denunciations ‘information terrorism’ and ‘fake news’. 

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In 2007, on the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Great Ocean Road, a bronze statue was unveiled at Eastern View, near Torquay. The statue, titled ‘The Diggers’, depicts two pick-wielding mates, one handing the other a drink. In name and form, the statue memorialises both the World War I Anzacs the road was built to honour and the repatriated soldiers who began constructing it in 1919. But the statue tells only half the story. As the anniversary date indicates, the Great Ocean Road was completed in 1932, at the height of the Great Depression. It provided work not only for returned servicemen, but also for thousands of unemployed a decade later. Many probably worked under both circumstances.

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Stuart Macintyre was in a league of his own as a historian of communism. That’s not just a comment on his status as a historian of the Communist Party of Australia, whose first volume, The Reds (1999), took the party from its origins in 1920 to brief illegality at the beginning of World War II, and whose second, The Party, covering the period from the 1940s to the end of the 1960s, now appears posthumously. It applies equally to his stature in the international field of the history of communism. There are plenty of Cold War histories of the communist movement, written from outside in severely judgemental mode. There are also laudatory histories, written from within. But when The Reds appeared, it was, to my knowledge, the first history of a communist party anywhere that succeeded in normalising it as a historical topic, that is, writing neither in a spirit of accusation or exculpation but with critical detachment and scrupulous regard for evidence and its contradictions.

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There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen,’ Vladimir Lenin has been credited with saying, with reference to the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s a sentiment that immediately springs to mind when reading Jessica Stanley’s A Great Hope, a début that, while not billed as historical fiction, is deeply concerned with history and its making. 

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Kent State by Derf Backderf & Underground by Mirranda Burton

by
January–February 2022, no. 439

Editorial cartoonists gamble their all on a same-day art, their work created, read, and discarded on the day of publication. The makers of graphic novel journalism use the language of cartooning, too, but in their case it’s a marathon, not a sprint: they spend years arranging thousands of images and tens of thousands of words across hundreds of pages in order to create their books. Two new graphic novels cast a picto-critical eye on the war in Vietnam and show how it came home to roost, bringing death and imprisonment to suburban streets in Australia and the United States.

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Paige Clark’s She Is Haunted (Allen & Unwin, $29.99 pb, 264 pp) opens with the story ‘Elizabeth Kübler-Ross’, a title that alludes to the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance – that inform the rest of her début collection. Clark doesn’t explain why the narrator feels anxious about the survival of her unborn child and its father. The reader is left to assume that the prospect of too much undeserved happiness impels her to embark on a series of amusing and escalating bargains with a capricious God. That the narrator bears the losses with equanimity is indicative of the deadpan humour with which Clark deflects serious matters.

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In 2011, Bernadette Brennan convened a symposium on ‘Narrative and Healing’ at the University of Sydney, an opportunity for specialists in medicine and bereavement to meet writers with comparable interests. Helen Garner, for example, spoke about Joe Cinque’s Consolation. The day included an audiovisual piece about death as a kind of homecoming, with reference to the prodigal son, and exquisite photographs, including a picture of an elderly Irishman wheeling a bicycle with a coffin balanced on the seat and handlebars: austere and moving, a vision of austere and careful final transportation. Since 2011, Bernadette Brennan has written two literary biographies: A Writing Life: Helen Garner and her work (2017); and the wonderfully titled Leaping into Waterfalls: The enigmatic Gillian Mears. As with the Symposium, each biography is a genuine enquiry, a gathering of unexpected elements, and an invitation to later conversation. Brennan writes of Leaping into Waterfalls as an extension of a conversation she had with Mears in 2012. The Mears biography is certain to be a talking point for years to come.

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I guess every reviewer comes to a book with expectations, especially when the author’s reputation precedes him or her. On opening this collection, I knew that Les Carlyon (who died in 2019) wrote well. I remember my parents reading him in The Age and murmuring approval of his lyrical style and, sometimes, the content. I knew he loved horses, the track, and the punt. To me these were disappointments to overlook: I have hated horse racing since I was a kid driving around with my grandfather in his Datsun, windows up and the races on. My grandfather never wound down the windows, presumably so he could hear the call: perhaps it was the lack of fresh air that poisoned me against the sport. And I knew that Carlyon had written huge tomes on war and the Australian experience: Gallipoli (2001) and The Great War (2006) won acclaim, sold well, and left some military historians with reservations about his scholarship. My expectations, mostly, were realised. I sped through A Life in Words, encountering witty and whimsical delights along the way.

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There were divas before Nellie Melba and, given that nowadays any young woman who can hold her career together for a few years while screeching into a microphone has the title bestowed on her, there have been many genuine and ersatz ones since. But Dame Nellie (1861–1931) remains the ne plus ultra, the gold standard of opera divas. Essential attributes include an instantly recognisable voice, an unshakeable faith in one’s ability, and position in the world, and an equally unshakeable determination that no rival will intrude upon one’s limelight. Nellie Mitchell showed these traits from an early age.

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