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NewSouth

The Best Australian Science Writing (BASW) anthology is here again, and readers are in for a treat: a wide-ranging selection of easy-to-read articles describing some of the amazing science that is happening right now.

Of course, it is an impossible task, choosing the ‘best’ writing, and in her introduction editor Donna Lu acknowledges her subjectivity. It is the same for a reviewer, and since I don’t have room to name everyone, I won’t single out my own favourites.

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In August 1943, John F. Kennedy, then aged twenty-six, was rescued from the threat of Japanese captivity – or worse – by a few brave Solomon Islanders, in an operation coordinated by the Australian naval officer Reg Evans. Evans was one of the Royal Australian Navy’s ‘Coastwatchers’, intelligence collectors based perilously behind Japanese lines.

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Tiwi Story by Mavis Kerinaiua and Laura Rademaker & The Old Songs Are Always New by Genevieve Campbell with Tiwi Elders and knowledge holders

by
October 2023, no. 458

Just to north of Darwin is the country of the Tiwi people, spread over Bathurst and Melville Islands. These two new books give voice to Tiwi oral traditions and to the power and resonance within that tradition of orality that encompasses song, narrative, and the ways in which they sustain family and relationships to ancestors and to kin.

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As I read Everything You Need to Know about the Voice, I was acutely conscious of the significance of the timing – just weeks before Australians are due to vote in a referendum on whether we should establish a constitutionally enshrined First Nations Voice to parliament or not. Over the months leading up to the referendum, we have witnessed a significant rise in lies, disinformation, and misinformation, all intended to influence voters, and hence the outcome. This book provides timely and essential reading that rebuts the tide of misinformation.

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A confession: I was a child actor. Never a child star, although certainly that was the intention. For years I endured the three-hour drive from Canberra to Sydney, preparing for my five-minute meeting with some Surry Hills casting director, whose first question would inevitably be ‘How’s your American accent?’ The zenith of my career was a thirty-second commercial for the orange-flavoured soft drink Mirinda, a merchandising tie-in with the release of Spider-Man 2, shot at Fox Studios on a full-sized replica of a New York subway carriage. On the soundstage next door, Baz Luhrmann was directing Nicole Kidman in their famously extravagant campaign for Chanel No. 5. There we all were: Australians in Australia, pretending to be Americans for America. Even at that early age, I sensed that Australian cinema existed in the long shadow of Hollywood, and that there has always been, as Sam Twyford-Moore expertly describes in his new book, ‘some kind of psychic gangway between Sydney and Los Angeles’. 

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Herbariums are strange places. Part archive, part library, part museum collection, they hover in a space of plant, paper, print, and preservative. Time and space are pressed between pages representing far more than their often unprepossessing appearance suggests – complex interwoven stories of evolution, ecology, and scientific history. The herbarium is a compactus of shared and public scientific knowledge created by the collected efforts of men and women from diverse cultures, backgrounds and countries often unacknowledged and unknown, their identities subsumed to the multigenerational task of revealing the taxonomic architecture of plants, fungi, and algae.

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In the months leading up to the 2022 federal election, as the two major parties duked it out over the cost of living, integrity, and the climate crisis, one issue barely rated a mention amid the barrage of leaders’ debates, press conferences, and doorstops: the Covid-19 pandemic. Having raged in Australia for more than two years, resulting in once-in-a-generation disruption to daily life, including the world’s longest lockdown, the virus had become all but untouchable on both sides of the political divide. Labor and the Coalition obviously reasoned that the best position on Covid electorally was not to have a position at all. Neither party articulated a strategy to manage the virus, or its ever-expanding roll-call of variants, into the future. For the most part, journalists – more interested it seemed in the then Opposition leader’s ‘gaffes’ – could not bring themselves to mention the C-word either.

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Bomber Command operations cost about 3,500 Australian lives in World War II. This was more than five times the number of Australians who died in the Battle of Kokoda from July to November 1942. Yet the strategic bombing offensive over Germany has never held a comparable place in the national memory of war. 

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When the Whitlam government was elected in 1972, women across Australia responded with elation. The Women’s Liberation Movement had helped bring Labor to power and was in turn galvanised by the programs, reforms, and appointments that began to be put in place. In Women and Whitlam: Revisiting the revolution, Michelle Arrow has assembled a splendid range of memoirs, reminiscences, and short essays that document twenty-five women’s perspectives on this much mythologised era. The collection will be of great interest to those who lived through these momentous times and to readers of Australian social and political history more generally. It will also serve as a useful teaching text.

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'Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, / But to be young was very heaven.’ William Wordsworth was writing about the French Revolution, but the sentiment could have applied to the three McDonagh sisters in 1920s Sydney. Isabel (born in 1899), Phyllis (1900), and Paulette (1901) were the beneficiaries of two intertwined revolutions – modernism and feminism – that encouraged them to develop skills outside the domestic sphere and to become experts in their field. Daringly, they chose filmmaking, the great obsession of the period; and they were very good at it.

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