VIC contributor

One of the most bizarre as well as unfortunate deaths in literary history occurred when the playwright Aeschylus was struck by a tortoise dropped on him by a bird. Bizarre, that is, if we don’t consider what the bird involved was doing, which was clever as well as practical. From the bird’s perspective, the tortoise was being dropped on a convenient stone rather than the bald head of a Greek tragedian who just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

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Queer memoir is particularly given to formal play, to unpacking and upsetting the conventions of genre in order to question women’s roles as both narrator and subject. Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts (2015) mixes scholarship and bodily transformation. Carmen Maria Machado’s In The Dream House (2019) unpacks the nature of narrative itself to reflect on an abusive relationship. Into this field comes Sky Swimming, Sylvia Martin’s ‘memoir that is not quite a memoir, more a series of reflections in which I act as a biographer of my own life’. For Martin, the critical distance of the biographer enables her to consider the resonances that exist between her own experiences.

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It began with a request to overturn a controversial bill that would have allowed people to be extradited to mainland China. According to the bill’s many detractors, this was but the latest example of the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. By June 2019, millions of Hong Kong’s residents had taken to the streets. August saw sit-ins at Hong Kong’s International Airport, and by October clashes between police and protestors were characterised by violence and chaos – tear gas, rubber bullets, arrests, and prosecutions, the norm. This was summer in Hong Kong, a city dominated by increasingly violent upheaval with the world watching on.

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It is a truth universally acknowledged that pride comes before a fall, and ‘Anyone with a historical sense would have realised that the hubristic attempt to make the world into a frontier and culture-free single market would end in tears.’ This opening salvo in Professor Robert Skidelsky’s new book is part of his answer to what is wrong with economics. Besides arrogance, this includes amorality, ahistoricism, sociopathy, over-formalisation, and unscientific dogmatism.

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My first encounter with Daniel Deronda (1876) was during a university undergraduate course in Victorian literature. The novel was almost shocking for its romanticised Jewish eponymous hero and its deep evocation of Judaism and modern Zionism’s stirrings. This was a singular experience when it came to reading Jewish characters by writers who were not themselves Jewish. Fictional Jews of this period were more likely to be permutations of vile stereotypes, Shylock or Fagin-like. They induced a feeling of shame, even when arguments could be made for the work’s nuance and literary brilliance. In Genius and Anxiety: How Jews changed the world, 1847–1947, we meet Daniel Deronda’s unlikely muse along with a profusion of other personalities, some famous, others whose legacies have been unnoticed or suppressed.

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What a title, and what a début novel. Jessie Tu brings us Jena Lin, a twenty-two-year-old Asian Australian sex addict who was once a violin prodigy fêted around the world. She is a character to remember. The reader knows this from the beginning, and the compelling narrative tension is driven by the slow revelation of an event that occurred seven years before the novel begins.

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Towards the end of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory (2018), Richard Powers attempts to articulate why literature, or more precisely the novel, has struggled to encompass climate change: ‘To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.’

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Obituaries for neoliberalism have been coming thick and fast in recent years. Resurgent populist governments appealing to white, middle-class values, with rich subsidies for privileged sectors but austerity for others, might sound the death knell for the self-regulating markets, small government, and economising rationality commonly associated with contemporary neoliberalism. ‘That key voices on the right,’ economist Richard Denniss recently quipped regarding Australia, now ‘devote so much time to advocating the importance of Western culture and Australian values is proof that they have abandoned the fundamental neoliberal tenet that economic growth can solve all social and environmental problems’.

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It is curious the way certain books can insinuate themselves into your consciousness. I am not necessarily talking about favourite books, or formative ones that evoke a particular time and place, but those stray books that seem to have been acquired almost inadvertently (all bibliophiles possess such volumes, I’m sure), and taken up without any particular expectations, books that have something intriguing about them that keeps drawing you back.

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In a long career talking to and about politicians, I have learned one thing. While many fantasise about being prime minister, the key driver is to get close to the centre. Christopher Pyne captures this immediately in The Insider, comparing the political world to the solar system in which the skill is to know one’s place relative to the sun (the prime minister), and the aim is to get as close to the sun as possible. To be an insider, to know how things work, with privileged information that few others share, is the allure.

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