Scribe

Were you one of those reluctant mathematics students who complained, ‘What’s the point of all this?’ If so, rest assured: Michael Brooks has made a compelling case for the role mathematics has played in making ‘civilisation’ possible. If you still need convincing, he also discusses research suggesting that doing maths is good for your brain.

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Barry Jones is a proud member of the Awkward Squad, one who follows his own convictions rather than the exigencies of day-to-day government. He confesses that in Parliament, ‘I was always aiming for objectives that were seen as beyond the reach of conventional politics’. The memo about ‘the art of the possible’ clearly never reached Jones’s desk. His time as a minister between 1983 and 1990 was a strain for both him and the then prime minister, Bob Hawke. Jones recounts with some glee that Hawke once referred to him as ‘Barry Fucking Jones’.

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Dennis Altman recently published a slice of autobiography, Unrequited Love: Diary of an accidental activist, addressing ‘his long obsession with the United States’. Now, as if to remind us that his training has been in political science, Altman presents us with this lively survey of monarchies old and new, constitutional and absolute, European and Asian. It has its origins in the Economist democracy index, according to which seven of the ten most democratic nations were constitutional monarchies. The list is dominated by the Scandinavian kingdoms, with Norway at the top, and former dominions of the British Empire, with Australia just scraping into the list at equal ninth with the Netherlands. As a committed republican, Altman was set thinking by this apparent alliance of monarchy and democracy.

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Aunty Ronnie is a Kurnai and Gunditjmara woman. She is also a mother of three, a grandmother of two, and one of Australia’s most underrated comedians. Black and Blue, her autobiography, is an enthralling book set primarily in three places: Bung Yarnda, Morwell (Black), and the Queensland Police Service (Blue), where Aunty Ronnie served as a member for ten years. The title is a play on the old saying ‘black and blue’, which commonly refers to someone covered in bruises.

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In an ABC interview to promote his previous novel, Fever of Animals (2015), Miles Allinson shares a brief anecdote. When Allinson was aged sixteen or seventeen, a teacher told him that everyone turns conservative eventually. Allinson recalls his repulsion at the notion of this inevitable slide towards orthodoxy. His new novel, In Moonland, feels like a rebuttal. Joe, the narrator of the first part of the book, is caught somewhere between consent and revolt: though ambitious, he feels trapped by the flickering lights of his own computer, by the suburbs, and by his run-of-the-mill job. Orbiting him is a coterie of questions relating to his new status as a father, coupled with one more profoundly unanswerable question: why did his father, Vincent, kill himself? Only some of these questions are answered across a narrative that uses four different perspectives and three different timelines, from the present back to the 1970s and into the near future.

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Writers seeking publication are often advised to have an ‘elevator pitch’ ready. These succinct book-hooks are designed to jag a trapped publisher in the wink between a lift door closing and reopening. Has this insane tactic ever actually worked? No idea. But it’s fun to imagine the CEO of Big Sales Books, on their way up to another corner-office day of tallying cricket memoir profits, blindsided by three of the looniest elevator pitches imaginable. A novel narrated by Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles! A faux political memoir about a prime minister and his shark vendetta! An academic satire cum historical mystery mashup told largely through the – wait, wait, wait! – footnotes of a PhD thesis! That CEO will probably take the stairs next time, but kudos to the independent publishers who saw the potential in these experimental works and their début authors. Whatever the path of weird Australian writing, long may it find its way to these pages.

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Three recent novels by Australian women deal with current and increasingly urgent political questions about female identity and embodiment. They each use the conventions of popular realist fiction to provoke thought about the causes of female disempowerment and the struggle for self-determination. Coincidentally, they are also set, or partially set, in Australian country towns, although their locations are markedly different, and their plots culminate in the revelation of disturbing secrets.

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The Newcomer by Laura Elizabeth Woollett

by
July 2021, no. 433

The title character of Laura Elizabeth Woollett’s second novel, The Newcomer, is Paulina Novak, who has arrived on Fairfolk Island after leaving a finance career in Sydney. If she is wanting to make a new start, then she’s mistaken; Paulina’s life seems perpetually sullied by alcoholism, an eating disorder, and a tendency to fall for callous men. Acquaintances say that her head is ‘messy’. Paulina herself remarks: ‘My whole life’s a fuck-up.’

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Craig Munro’s latest book shines a spotlight on the work of some very different Australian book editors. It begins in the 1890s, when A.G. Stephens came into prominence as literary editor of The Bulletin’s famous Red Page. It continues through the trials and tribulations of P.R. (‘Inky’) Stephensen in publishing and radical politics in the interwar period and his internment during the war for his association with the Australia First Movement. Literary Lion Tamers then moves on to Beatrice Davis’s long career as a professional book editor with Angus & Robertson after World War II. It concludes with Rosanne Fitzgibbon, with whom Munro developed fiction and poetry lists at the University of Queensland Press.

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To survey concurrent works of art is to take the temperature of a particular time, in a particular place. And the temperature of the time and place in these four début Australian novels? It is searching for a sense of belonging, and, at least in part, it’s coming out of western Sydney in the wake of the 2005 Cronulla riots. All four novels are set in New South Wales, three of them in suburban Sydney. Each is concerned with who is entitled to land and the stories we tell while making ourselves at home in the world, sometimes at the expense of others.

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