NSW contributor

Alastair Blanshard reviews 'The Spartans' by Andrew J. Bayliss

Alastair Blanshard
Monday, 24 August 2020

When the Abbé Michel Fourmont travelled to Sparta in the 1730s, he thought he was going to make his fortune and academic reputation. The depths of Ottoman Greece were largely unknown territory to European travellers at this time. What fabulous discoveries lay in store for him, wondered the Abbé. What treasures had been left behind by this one of the greatest powers that the Greek world had ever known? One can imagine his anguish when, after braving numerous perils to reach Sparta, he discovered that barely anything remained of this great city-state. Indeed, the paucity of material was such that it seems to have driven Fourmont slightly mad. Rather than admit that nothing existed, he invented in his account of Sparta a series of fabulous, non-existent monuments – altars for human sacrifice, elaborate records of treaties between Sparta and Jerusalem, lists of priestesses and kings that stretched back to antiquity. To disguise his act of forgery, lest any later traveller try to find these monuments, he even pretended to have destroyed them, protesting that as a decent Christian he couldn’t allow such pagan works to survive. It would take scholars decades before they could unravel the extent of Fourmont’s deceit.

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Becoming better acquainted with an author may give rise to a surprise, or two. For example, the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft (author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman) and William Godwin (author of Political Justice) is the author of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley met her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, through his devotion to her father’s anarchist political philosophy. Gaining an awareness of the surprisingly complex threads that link one thinker to the next in dynamic webs of influence is one of the deep pleasures of scholarship.

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Nicole Abadee reviews 'The Burning Island' by Jock Serong

Nicole Abadee
Monday, 24 August 2020

Criminal lawyer turned crime/thriller writer Jock Serong has produced five highly successful novels in as many years. His latest, The Burning Island, is probably his most ambitious to date. Set in 1830, it is part revenge tale, part mystery, part historical snapshot of the Furneaux Islands in Bass Strait, in particular the relationship between European settlers and Indigenous women, who became their ‘island wives’, or tyereelore. It is also the moving story of a daughter’s devotion to her father, with a cracking denouement reminiscent of an Hercule Poirot mystery.

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James Bradley reviews 'Utopia Avenue' by David Mitchell

James Bradley
Monday, 24 August 2020

With its cast of freaks and hustlers, damaged souls, and self-proclaimed geniuses, the music world seems custom-made for novelists. Yet while some excellent novels catch more than a whiff of that sweaty, drug-fuelled space where the shared exultance of music becomes something transcendent – Roddy Doyle’s The Commitments (1987), Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad (2010), Dana Spiotta’s dazzling and heartbreaking Stone Arabia (2011), and more recent entries like Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones and the Six (2019) and Australian author Kirsten Krauth’s excellent Almost a Mirror (2020) – the list of novels that take music seriously is surprisingly short.

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Debra Adelaide reviews 'In the Time of Foxes' by Jo Lennan

Debra Adelaide
Monday, 24 August 2020

Wonderful is not a critical word, but that is where I begin. Now that I have made my peace with foxes, I am full of wonder for them. Doubly receptive to these stories, I am quickly seduced after the first few, in which foxes appear either substantially or marginally. There is much wonderment in these stories, though only one of them is what might strictly be called speculative. Throughout the collection, little hints and details loiter in plain sight but are also hidden from the characters, sometimes from us – a bit like foxes themselves. For example, in ‘Animal Behaviour’ there is a small bomb ticking quietly from the start in the form of just one word – ‘offenders’ – linking the protagonist to her rescue dog; its detonation as the story unfolds is a triumph of structural control.

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Kate Grenville’s new novel, her first in almost a decade, is dedicated to ‘all those whose stories have been silenced’, for which, as its ‘memoirist’–narrator heroine is Elizabeth Macarthur, we might read ‘women’. Did she – wife of the notorious John Macarthur, wool baron in early Sydney – write what Grenville’s publishers call ‘a shockingly frank secret memoir’? In her ‘Editor’s Note’, Grenville tells, tongue firmly in cheek, of there being discovered in the ceiling of a historic Parramatta house under renovation a long-hidden box containing that memoir. In an ‘Author’s Note’ at the book’s end, we are assured that ‘No, there was no box of secrets found in the roof of Elizabeth Farm. I didn’t [as she claimed at the beginning, in her Editor’s Note] transcribe and edit what you’ve just read. I wrote it.’ Perhaps those who thought otherwise failed to observe the book’s epigraph from Elizabeth Macarthur – ‘Do not believe too quickly’ – though whether those words were inscribed by the historic Elizabeth or by Grenville’s fictional one may be a matter for discussion. Apropos of previous books, Grenville the novelist has had disputes with historians about matters of fiction and fact.

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Sometime in 2017, one of the world’s largest academic publishers started quietly removing thousands of articles from its websites in China because they covered topics deemed politically sensitive by the Chinse Communist Party (CCP). Much of the offending material related to the three Ts: Taiwan, Tibet, and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. At the time I was a China correspondent for the Financial Times, and an academic who was horrified by this censorship tipped me off. I contacted the publisher, Springer Nature, which admitted that it had begun censoring to comply with ‘local distribution laws’. I naïvely thought that the exposure of such craven behaviour by the owner of Nature, Scientific American, and the Palgrave Macmillan imprint would prompt a huge backlash from academics, universities, and governments.

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A survey conducted in the UK in 2017 asked people whether they trusted the opinions of a variety of experts, such as doctors, scientists, and nutritionists. Economists came second last in a big field, beaten to the bottom only by politicians. How can it be that practitioners of an academic discipline that traces its intellectual history back at least 250 years have sunk so low in popular esteem? It seems that the blame rests not with economists themselves, most of whom are honest and well-intentioned individuals whose main handicap, at least among the males of the species, is their legendary boringness and appalling taste in ties.

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There is a senior partner at my firm who famously harasses young women particularly when he has been drinking at social events. I was groped on two separate occasions. Nothing was done about it the first time I reported it. I did not report it the second time.

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Fiona Wright reviews 'The Fogging' by Luke Horton

Fiona Wright
Friday, 24 July 2020

Luke Horton’s novel The Fogging opens with a panic attack. Tom, the book’s protagonist, begins to tremble and sweat when the flight he is on – from Melbourne to Denpasar – hits turbulence. Tom is travelling with his long-term girlfriend, Clara, on a holiday they have organised more out of duty than from any real desire for travel, having booked their flights to use up his mother’s Frequent Flyer points. The turbulence wakes Tom’s ‘ringing nerves’ and anxiety starts ‘chewing his insides’, making him ‘shimmer’ and ‘pulse’. He panics, or comes close to panicking, a number of times throughout the novel. Horton’s handling of this – directly, sensorially, compassionately – is remarkable. Tom’s panic attacks are always vivid and bodily, and they always feel true to life. It’s rare to see this achieved so well in fiction.

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