When Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird wrote The Secret Life of Plants (1975), many critics labelled their attempt to prove a spiritual link between people and plants as mystical gibberish, with a New York Times review chiding the authors for pandering to charlatans and amateur psychics. The review noted that although Tompkins and Bird made a fascinating case for plant sentience ‘suspended in the aspic of their blarney, it all looks equally improbable’. In the ensuing decades, more books have been published on the life of trees and their relationship to humans, some of which have sold well and been enthusiastically received by critics. Peter Wohlleben’s The Hidden Life of Trees: What they feel, how they communicate – discoveries from a secret world (2016) topped bestseller lists and earned him a flattering interview in the profile pages of The New York Times.

While an interest in trees has certainly emerged among an educated readership, Sophie Cunningham’s collection of essays could be viewed as a heartfelt and timely postscript to much of this tree talk. It’s all very well to read books on trees, but what are we doing to save them and the animals and ecosystems that rely on them for survival? What will become of the groves that cannot replace their felled compatriots fast enough? What irreparable damage will climate change do?

Naturally, it’s a political book, but it’s also touchingly personal, tracing Cunningham’s encounters with trees as she moves across continents and her hometown of Melbourne. Cunningham’s wide roaming acts as an entry point into stories on the trees, gardens, and plants she discovers during her lengthy constitutionals and sojourns. In ‘Escape to Alcatraz’, Cunningham volunteers as a gardening worker over two bird-breeding seasons on the San Francisco Bay island of Alcatraz. She photographs the snowy egret colony and takes a particular interest in ‘survivor plants’, those two hundred or so species that grew defiantly through the forty-year period between the closure of the prison and the start of the garden’s maintenance program. In ‘Tourists Go Home’, she touches on the deleterious consequences of travel for the trees and the broader environment. Cunningham used to preference travel over everything else – superannuation, sensible purchases, meaningful savings – but now she isn’t so sure. Almost nine million people visit Barcelona each year, and it’s getting harder to find places where the locals don’t want you to leave. Tourists, of course, also come in the form of animals and plants, which can sometimes have a severe impact on the biodiversity of the region. In ‘I Don’t Blame the Trees’, Cunningham displays a talent for great observational detail, noting that the debate as to whether eucalypts should be removed from California’s Angel Island is loaded with inflammatory phrases such as ‘immigrant’, ‘invader’, and ‘refugee’. She resists championing the cutting down of non-native species simply because they don’t support local flora and fauna, wondering instead, quite astutely, what will replace the old trees after they are removed and pointing out that these days all of us are from somewhere else anyway.

Cunningham leavens her firsthand stories with summaries of scientific research and interviews. The result is an intriguing mélange of personal journey and journalism. The giant sequoia, we learn, are among the world’s oldest trees and their final numbers can be found along a belt of the western Sierra Nevada. When Cunningham walks through a grove of them, tears streaming down her face, she thinks, ‘I would lay down my life for you’. Indeed, language often fails Cunningham, an accomplished prose writer, when she would like it the most. Standing before old-growth trees, reaching for description, her mind stalls before their majesty. She sketches the trees instead, but even this proves challenging, with Cunningham left to wonder, ‘Is it possible to draw, or write, a forest?’

Sunlight coming through some redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) in the Muir Woods National Monument in CaliforniaSunlight coming through some redwoods (Sequoia sempervirens) in the Muir Woods National Monument in California (photograph via Wikimedia Commons)

There are a range of statistics deployed throughout the essays to emphasise the threat that trees face, but a handful stand out: almost all of the baobabs from Africa – many of them more than two thousand years old – have died; and it’s estimated that koalas will be gone from the wild by 2050. Australia fares especially poorly in looking after its habitats, with thirty-five per cent of all global mammal extinctions since 1500 occurring in Australia, yet we have not listed a critical habitat for protection for more than a decade. Furthermore, less than two per cent of the mountain ash estate in Australia is now old growth, prompting Cunningham to ask, ‘In what universe would a reasonable person think it was okay to cut down an 800-year-old tree and reduce it to a few hundred dollars’ worth of woodchips? Ours, apparently.’ Trees do grow again, Cunningham notes, but climate change is accelerating climate variation, making it more difficult for organisms to adapt.

While researching the essays, Cunningham experiences a succession of personal traumas, which become a way of framing the persistent grief she feels for the loss of global species and habitat. Cunningham and her wife, Virginia, return from living in San Francisco at the height of the internecine debate over gay marriage in Australia, ‘which seemed to devolve into the right of LGBTQI teachers to teach and the right of bakers to refuse the supply of wedding cakes’. While she is writing many of these essays, her father, John, who was originally her stepfather before adopting Cunningham and her brother, is in a high-care ward in Melbourne with frontal lobe dementia. She flies home to be by his side at the end, and he dies surrounded by family. Not long after John dies, her biological father, Peter, dies from Parkinson’s disease.

Following these two losses, Cunningham experiences months of insomnia; she takes comfort in animals and the living world. She opens windows around dawn to hear the birds, or rain, or building works, ‘anything other than the sound of nothing at all’. Biologist E.O. Wilson has described the post-extinction landscape as the Eremocene age, or ‘The Age of Loneliness’, and this is what Cunningham really fears: the emptiness that follows when a vital connection – be it with a father or the natural world – is severed.

In this sense, these fine essays convey what factual reporting on the threat of climate change and the loss of habitat cannot: something beautiful is dying, something precious and monumental may be lost forever. The temptation these days is to look away from the sadness, to rant on Twitter about the threat to old growth rather than to visit extant forests, but Cunningham is doing nothing of the sort. The final essay, ‘Mountain Ash’, ends with a visit to ‘Ada’, who has no surviving old-growth companions around her. Cunningham is aware of scientists’ aversion to overstating the consciousness of trees, of how this leads people to jump to conclusions about their supposed personalities. She is, however, unapologetic, telling Ada, ‘I will drive, I will wade, through fields laid waste by clear-felling, through ancient and perfect rainforest, to stand before you, my queen.’ The effect of this highly confessional approach is oddly mesmerising, and while Cunningham’s essays are accounts of her intimate encounters with trees, her gift is in making them feel like they are our stories as well.

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    When Peter Tompkins and Christopher Bird wrote The Secret Life of Plants (1975), many critics labelled their attempt to prove a spiritual link between people and plants as mystical gibberish, with a New York Times review chiding the authors for pandering to charlatans and amateur psychics ...

  • Book Title City of Trees: Essays on life, death and the need for a forest
  • Book Author Sophie Cunningham
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $24.99 hb, 312 pp, 9781925773439
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What does it mean to live in a place but never to fully belong to it? How does our capacity for intimacy alter when we are in exile? How do we forge an identity among haphazard collisions of cultures and histories?

These are the questions that Melanie Cheng has limned with potent and eloquent effect in her acclaimed short story collection Australia Day (2017), which won the Victorian Premier’s Literary Award for an Unpublished Manuscript in 2016 as well as the Prize for Fiction in 2018. The stories in Australia Day chart the baffling cultural and psychic dislocations of a diverse ensemble of characters: people out of place and searching for connection. There is damage and disaffection in these stories, but also unexpected consolations and new configurations of identity. The accretion of experiences in Australia Day gives the collection a powerful cumulative intelligence; read together the stories present a richly tessellated pattern of alienation and connection, of containment and release.

Room for a Stranger explores similar terrain. A young Chinese man is forced to participate in an unusual homeshare program that places students in the homes of the elderly in exchange for companionship and household help. Andy Chan has moved to Melbourne from Hong Kong to study biomedicine; the failure of his family’s cleaning business necessitates his move to the spare bedroom of Meg Hughes’s suburban home. ‘Andy would save money on rent and Meg would sleep more soundly,’ Cheng tells us. ‘It was a win-win situation.’

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  • Book Author Melanie Cheng
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 288 pp, 9781925773545
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Care and compassion, a fair go, freedom, honesty, trustworthiness, respect, and tolerance. These were the nine ‘Australian values’ that former Liberal Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson demanded be taught in schools, especially Islamic schools, across the nation in 2005. How? Partly through the tale of John Simpson and his donkey, Murphy. They clambered selflessly up and down Gallipoli’s Shrapnel Valley with the bodies of Anzacs on their backs like Sisyphus’s boulder, their forty days of toil ended by a sniper’s bullet. Never mind that Simpson’s real surname was Kirkpatrick; that he did the equivalent work of many nameless others; or that Simpson was an illegal Geordie immigrant who had enlisted just for the free ticket back to England. ‘The man with the donkey’ has consistently proven too useful a tool to question for war recruiters and other patriotic tub-thumpers.

Wayne Macauley, long one of Australia’s deadliest satirists, has also found it difficult to leave Simpson and Murphy alone. His short story ‘ Simpson and his Donkey Go Looking for the Inland Sea’ first appeared in Westerly back in 2001, before being republished in Macauley’s surreal collection, Other Stories (2010). This new novella expands but does not dramatically alter that story. In both, Simpson has survived Gallipoli thanks to a mysterious vial of water given to him by a wounded soldier named Lasseter. Simpson, back on Australian shores but still committed to his role as ‘helpmate to the dying’, believes that finding more of this magical substance will allow him to save the country’s ailing: ‘I will stand knee-deep in the healing water baptising all our downtrodden.’ Confusingly, this quest leads him not towards Lasseter’s famously misplaced gold reef but to the Inland Sea, the enormous (and non-existent) body of water that once tricked Charles Sturt into dragging a boat from Adelaide to the Simpson Desert and back again. This conglomeration of Aussie myths and legends is slightly disorientating at first – one almost expects Simpson to encounter a drop bunyip-yowie – but it is effective as a broad allegory for the way solutions to this country’s deepest injustices always shimmer just out of reach.

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    Care and compassion, a fair go, freedom, honesty, trustworthiness, respect, and tolerance. These were the nine ‘Australian values’ that former Liberal Opposition Leader Brendan Nelson demanded be taught in schools, especially Islamic schools, across the nation in 2005. How? ...

  • Book Title Simpson Returns: A novella
  • Book Author Wayne Macauley
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $19.99 pb, 144 pp, 9781925773507
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In July 1924, a Tasmanian senator from the conservative Nationalist Party, Herbert Payne, introduced a bill to bring about compulsory voting in Australian national elections. His proposal aroused little discussion. Debate in both the Senate and the House of Representatives – where another forgotten politician, Edward Mann, saw the measure through – was brief. Few spoke in opposition. The House debated the matter for less than an hour and passed Payne’s bill without amendment. Its implementation at the 1925 election caused barely a ripple. It has never been controversial since, although a few Liberal politicians have made its abolition another of their hopeless causes.

Apart from marvelling that the nation’s politicians could have agreed so readily to a measure now widely regarded as the Australian political system’s most distinctive feature, you might be wondering how Judith Brett has managed to spin such an undramatic event into a book of almost two hundred pages. The answer is that she hasn’t. This book is a great deal more than an account of how Australia got compulsory voting. It is a meditation on Australian democracy and society.

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    In July 1924, a Tasmanian senator from the conservative Nationalist Party, Herbert Payne, introduced a bill to bring about compulsory voting in Australian national elections. His proposal aroused little discussion. Debate in both the Senate and the House of Representatives – where another forgotten politician ...

  • Book Title From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia got compulsory voting
  • Book Author Judith Brett
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 199 pp, 9781925603842
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A Season on Earth is the original version of Gerald Murnane’s second published novel, A Lifetime on Clouds, which appeared in 1976. The story behind this book’s publication is now well known, thanks to interviews Murnane has given and the author’s ‘foreword’ to this edition, where he relates how he reluctantly cut his manuscript in half to fit with Heinemann editor Edward Kynaston’s view of it as ‘a comic masterpiece’. Kynaston was probably trying to exploit the publicity surrounding Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, which had become a cause célèbre in Australia after being initially banned in 1970 but then published after its acquittal in an obscenity trial. The ‘sin of self-abuse’ is also central to Murnane’s novel. Towards the end of A Lifetime on Clouds, rewritten by the author especially for that earlier version, central protagonist Adrian Sherd imagines Melbourne to be ‘the Masturbation capital of the world’, but then comes to realise ‘the same problem occurred in every civilized country on earth’.

The first two parts of A Season on Earth, like A Lifetime on Clouds, focus primarily on Sherd’s Catholic schooling and his fantasies of a hedonistic life in America. But the second half of A Season on Earth moves beyond the repressive confines of Victoria in the early 1950s to explore both the possibilities of a religious vocation – in Part Three, Sherd attends a junior seminary run by the Charleroi Fathers; and also, in Part Four, the imaginative potential of literature. Whereas A Lifetime on Clouds was a comic novel in the Roth idiom, with the Catholic environment of Murnane’s suburban Melbourne replacing the claustrophobic Jewish community of Roth’s New Jersey, A Season on Earth manifests itself in its full flowering as more akin to James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, a Künstlerroman about a boy’s growth in consciousness from adolescence to artistic maturity. Murnane characteristically remarked in an interview that he thought his hero wouldn’t be capable of writing anything by the end of the book, but such a sardonic awareness of art’s inherent limitations has always been integral to the author’s own creative consciousness.

Gerald Murnane (photograph via Text Publishing)

Murnane complains in his foreword about the ‘butchering’ of his original novel and how the Heinemann editors had ‘misread’ it. This reconstituted work certainly has more thematic coherence. Perversion was initially a theological category, designating backsliding from a state of grace – the opposite of conversion, which retains a more explicit religious significance – and the fraught attempts of Murnane’s character to reconcile body and spirit are the axis upon which this entire narrative turns, from the tormented adolescent body of the first section to the fledgling literary intellectual of the last. When Sherd says in the final pages that his ‘perverse human nature seemed to want nothing higher than the contentment of sharing a home ... with a pretty, uncomplicated marriage partner’, it is now easier to recognise this within a framework of ontological perversion, where the limits of the human body necessarily circumscribe any higher inclinations.

This is also the source of Murnane’s scabrous comedy, which delights in a rhetoric of bathos and disavows on principle any ‘so-called abstract idea,’ a term he declares in Landscape with Landscape (1985) to be ‘self-contradictory’.  A Season on Earth cites Thomas Aquinas, Thomas à Kempis, and Thomas Merton, and there is a characteristically Catholic distaste here for what became known scholastically as the ‘angelist’ heresy, whereby man’s humanist ambitions would try to appropriate some of the perfectionist qualities reserved in Church doctrine for angelic spirits. Despite Murnane’s explicit disbelief ‘in any gods or angels or demons’, his fiction preserves a distinctive theological infrastructure, whereby religious ideas are displaced into broader cultural forms. Sherd concludes towards the end of this novel that ‘his monastery was wherever he willed it to be’.  A Season on Earth negotiates paradoxical spaces in between sacred and secular. The book’s title plays intertexually with Arthur Rimbaud’s A Season in Hell (1873) to evoke the attractions and torments of transitory terrestrial incarnation.

There are already a number of distinguished novels in the literary canon that exist in variant versions, including Herman Melville’s Pierre (1852), which his editor insisted on cutting drastically after Moby-Dick had been a commercial failure, and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night (1934), where the author’s preferred back-and-forth time scheme was initially deemed too complicated for the market to bear. Murnane is now generally recognised as a major literary figure, and the excavation of this work from the author’s archives is important for Australian literary history. Michael Heyward, whose initiative is acknowledged in the author’s foreword, and Text Publishing are consequently to be congratulated on making the work available.

There are, however, some oddities about the novel that make it less than totally satisfactory. Whereas in Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist Stephen Dedalus’s solipsism is presented with increasing narrative irony and detachment, the reader of A Season on Earth is locked inside Adrian Sherd’s obsessive consciousness, with only the occasional jolt to make us recognise the partiality of his perspectives. At the end of Part Three, for instance, Father Camillus briskly dispatches Adrian from the seminary, saying that the monastic life ‘is not what God wanted of him’; but this alternative angle on Sherd’s inept performance as a seminarian comes as a surprise because we have been following the contours of this protagonist’s imaginative world for so long. Henry Miller is cited here as a potential prototype for Sherd’s own creative work – he wonders if ‘publishers might be interested in Australian stories with a predominantly sexual content’ – but unlike the first-person picaresques of Miller (or Saul Bellow), Sherd’s imagination is framed, indeed boxed in, by various mentors and idealised figures. These range from Denise McNamara, the schoolgirl on the Melbourne train whom he cherishes as his ‘Earth Angel’, to a subsequent series of intellectual types: Matthew Arnold, Francis Thompson, A.E. Housman, and others. (At one point, Sherd decides ‘he would model himself on Housman as far as was possible’.) This renders Murnane’s hero more passive than those of Miller or Bellow, and it also contributes to the odd sense of a continuous present and a flattened mental landscape. Adrian lurches from one scenario to another, failing to bring his life experiences into any kind of conceptual alignment, and indeed giving us the sense that any such alignment would be illusory. The short, chiselled sentences, while reinforcing Murnane’s emphasis on the immediacy of particular experience and the distortions of conceptual abstraction, also reinforce this sense of a radically disrupted discursive flow: ‘Adrian had a hard ride home from Stepney. The wind that had been behind him in the morning was blowing into his face. His stomach ached.’

It is valuable to have A Season on Earth in print, but it is not difficult to understand the reservations of the Heinemann editors when this manuscript was first presented to them. There are many sardonic comic observations here of Melbourne in the 1950s – I particularly liked the report of a man staying up ‘till all hours last night trying to put an extra cupboard in his laundry’ – but what is most interesting about Murnane’s work in general is the way it correlates these social scenes with larger metaphysical questions. Exemplifying an idiosyncratic Australian style of late postmodernism, Murnane’s fiction projects a sliding scale between extension and compression, where larger dimensions are refracted obliquely through parochial perspectives. This is not the greatest work in his oeuvre, but it is definitely worth having.

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  • Custom Article Title Paul Giles reviews A Season on Earth by Gerald Murnane
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    A Season on Earth is the original version of Gerald Murnane’s second published novel, A Lifetime on Clouds, which appeared in 1976. The story behind this book’s publication is now well known, thanks to interviews Murnane has given and the author’s ‘foreword’ to this edition, where he relates how he reluctantly cut his ...

  • Book Title A Season on Earth
  • Book Author Gerald Murnane
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $39.99 hb, 485 pp, 9781925773347

Kate Grenville is a brave woman. For some years now, the representation of Aboriginal people by white writers has been hedged about by a thicket of post­colonial anxieties, profoundly problematic and important but too often manifested as hostile, holier-than-thou critique, indulging, at its most inept, in wilfully skewed readings of the fiction in order to fit the thesis. As if that were not enough, there has also been a bit of a backlash over the last year or two against the writing of any kind of historical fiction, on the grounds that contemporary Australia is quite awful enough to be going on with, and badly needs to be addressed by its artists.

Grenville, aware that one way of confronting the present is to interrogate the past, has forged ahead undaunted with a novel that tells a story of the convict system, Australian contact history, and the depredations of white settlement. She will no doubt be branded a black-armband novelist by one side and a cultural appropriator by the other. And in presenting the emotional complexities and moral dilemmas of all the various players, she will get into trouble with almost everybody. But readers with no predetermined case to prove and no ego investment in any particular critical position will take this novel as it comes and will make up their own minds about it.

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  • Custom Article Title Kerryn Goldsworthy reviews 'The Secret River' by Kate Grenville
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    Kate Grenville is a brave woman. For some years now, the representation of Aboriginal people by white writers has been hedged about by a thicket of post­colonial anxieties, profoundly problematic and important but too often manifested as hostile, holier-than-thou critique, indulging, at its most inept ..

  • Book Title The Secret River
  • Book Author Kate Grenville
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $45 pb, 354 pp, 1920885757
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Gilian Best’s début novel, The Last Wave, is a thoughtful narrative that charts the intricacies of one family’s experiences and relationships across three generations, from the postwar period to the present. It makes use of the iconography of the coast and the unpredictability of the sea almost as a dramatis personae that motivates, consoles, and potentially threatens the characters in their proximate lives. Set on the coast of southern England, Best’s imagery is beautiful and evocative: windswept, shingle beaches, the White Cliffs of Dover, Vera Lynn’s haunting song.

Martha and John Roberts live by this grey and unruly sea; for Martha, a swimmer, it has always been an immersive experience of challenge, providing her with a sense of purpose beyond the roles of wife and mother. Her desire to swim the Channel, to feel salt on her skin, is life-defining, offering both independence and emotional connections.

The story is told in multiple voices within the family. This shifting of perspective does allow us to see into the various cross-currents of family life – its rifts as well its opportunities. However, it is also a rather wooden strategy, as it somewhat heavy-handedly stitches together its themes and symbolisms, providing no real rationale as to why we might be privy to each character’s point of view. In narrative terms, these varying currents are brought to a head in the novel’s present in which John descends into a fog of dementia, Martha is dying from cancer, and unspoken things surge and press.

Best nevertheless conveys a powerful sense of the emotional tides sweeping her characters. Her poignant portrayal of the enduring bonds between John and Martha, even in the face of such unravelment, gives insight into how we might all face that last wave when it inevitably comes.

Rose Lucas

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    Gilian Best’s début novel, The Last Wave, is a thoughtful narrative that charts the intricacies of one family’s experiences and relationships across three generations, from the postwar period to the present. It makes use of the iconography of the coast and the unpredictability of the sea almost as a dramatis personae ...

  • Book Title The Last Wave
  • Book Author Gillian Best
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 304 pp, 9781925773378

The term ‘exploded view’ refers to an image in a technical manual that shows all the individual parts of a machine, separates them out, but arranges them on the page so that you can see how they fit together. As the title of Carrie Tiffany’s new novel, it can be interpreted as a definitive metaphor and perhaps, in a somewhat looser sense, an analogy for her evocative technique. Various things happen over the course of Exploded View, some of them dramatic, but the novel has little in the way of a conventional plot. Its characters exist in relation to one another, but they barely interact. There is almost no dialogue. It is the kind of novel in which the psychological and emotional unease is displaced or buried beneath the matter-of-fact narration.

What makes it distinctive is that much of this unease is not conveyed via insinuating moments of dramatic tension; it is approached figuratively and analytically, disassembled using the the novel’s central metaphor as a mechanism. Exploded View draws out the multiple implications of the idea that a nuclear family can be understood as kind of machine, consisting of separate but interlocking parts. It develops this simple analogy into the kind of extended conceit one associates with the metaphysical poets. It reflects on how the individual components fit together, how they function as a single entity, and, more to the point, what might cause such a finely attuned piece of machinery to break down.

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  • Book Title Exploded View
  • Book Author Carrie Tiffany
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $29.99 pb, 192 pp, 9781925773415

In his analysis of Australia’s growing urban inequality, Peter Mares recounts a conversation with a homeless man outside a train station while Mares was walking his dog. The dog is well fed and has a warm place to sleep, but Mares can only give the man a few coins. These are implicit priorities we all share. Why, asks Mares, do Australians unhesitatingly spend $750 million annually on a ‘flutter on the neddies’ at the Melbourne Cup rather than on housing our fellow citizens? The policy discussions, political posturing, and expert advice on Australia’s housing crisis are hard to follow and often contradictory. ‘I am surely not alone,’ he writes, ‘in being perplexed by the radically divergent views in this debate.’ No Place Like Home is a compassionate, clear-eyed unpicking of one of contemporary Australia’s ‘wicked problems’.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), 116,000 people were homeless on census night. Yet, of a larger group of people who move in and out of a cycle of homelessness, ‘rough sleepers’ are only the most visible. Others might stay with friends or family, couch surf, or find temporary accommodation in hostels or refuges. Homelessness is compounded by wider social problems, and it is not just about a lack of housing. In 2016–17, forty per cent of people seeking assistance from specialist homelessness services were doing so to escape family violence. In total, two and a half million Australians have experienced homelessness at some time in their lives, according to ABS figures.

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    In his analysis of Australia’s growing urban inequality, Peter Mares recounts a conversation with a homeless man outside a train station while Mares was walking his dog. The dog is well fed and has a warm place to sleep, but Mares can only give the man a few coins. These are implicit priorities we all share. Why, asks Mares, do Australians unhesitatingly spend $750 million annually on ...

  • Book Title No Place Like Home: Repairing Australia’s housing crisis
  • Book Author Peter Mares
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  • Biblio Text Publishing, $32.99 pb, 318 pp, 9781925603873
Tuesday, 18 December 2018 15:11

2018 Publisher Picks

To complement our ‘Books of the Year’ feature, which appeared in the December 2018 issue, we invited some senior publishers to nominate their favourite books of 2018 – all published by other companies.

 

Nathan Hollier

Deep Time Dreaming by Billy GriffithsDeep Time Dreaming by Billy Griffiths (Black Inc.)Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia (Black Inc., reviewed in ABR, 4/18) relates the physical and intellectual challenges, adventures, innovations, and discoveries of modern Australian archaeology. In telling this story, commencing in the late 1950s, Billy Griffiths also discusses the social, political, and philosophical changes and issues that this archaeological activity has subsequently contributed to, or been affected by. Great knowledge, clear thinking, careful evaluation, and stylish exposition bring to light questions of existential significance: ‘To dream of deep time … propels us into a global perspective and allows us to see ourselves as a species. It also asks us to respect the deep past as a living heritage.’

Nathan Hollier is Director of Monash University Publishing.

 

Michael Heyward

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past,’ said William Faulkner. He might have been speaking of Billy Griffiths’s Deep Time Dreaming, an utterly compelling mixture of memoir, biography, history, and science. Griffiths tells the tale of how, thanks to the work of some brilliant archaeologists and their guides and collaborators, we have been able to glimpse not just the ancient human history of this continent, but its living signature, too. Each time Griffiths’s story got older, it found new ways to begin. 

Michael Heyward is Publisher at Text Publishing.

 

Nikki Christer

The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein (Text Publishing)The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein (Text Publishing)The first thing to say about Sarah Krasnostein’s The Trauma Cleaner (Text Publishing) – an unforgettable book – is how striking it is. It has the sort of cover that spawns a zillion copies with its powerful simplicity. Hats off to the publishers for that. The second thing to say about this book is that it’s absolutely brilliant. The writing is clear-eyed, filled with humanity, subtlety, and grace. Krasnostein loves her subject and this shines through on every page. I would have loved to have published it; we were one of the bidders but lost out to Text, which published it impeccably. I was cheering from the sidelines to see Sarah pick up a swag of awards.

Nikki Christer is Group Publishing Director at Penguin Random House.

 

Terri-ann White

Blakwork by Alison Whittaker (Magabala Books)Blakwork by Alison Whittaker (Magabala Books)Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork (Magabala Books), even in its more benign moments, is an intense thump to the body. This is because, through poetry and observation, Whittaker unmakes and remakes so much in her narratives by working the language hard. The interposing within a framework of ‘work’ categories yields erudition, worn lightly, alongside experimentation and irony and tenderness. I had to read slowly, so richly dense was it with history and family and people’s lives; encompassing how language assists in oppressing people and how it can also recover worlds of hope and self-determination. A delight, by a young writer of distinction.

Terri-ann White is Director of UWA Publishing.

 

Alice Grundy

Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett (Scribe)Beautiful Revolutionary by Laura Elizabeth Woollett (Scribe)In Beautiful Revolutionary (Scribe, 10/18), Laura Elizabeth Woollett creates unforgettable characters. Months later, I can still see and hear them vividly. Beautiful Revolutionary is the story of the cult that lead to the Jonestown Massacre, the largest intentional loss of American life in one event until 9/11. The research and writing are impeccable, yet still warm and immediate, especially her depiction of Evelyn, a young woman drawn into the inner circle of the People’s Temple.

Alice Grundy is an associate publisher at Brio Books.

 

 

Phillipa McGuinness

On Disruption by Katharine Murphy (Melbourne University Publishing)On Disruption by Katharine Murphy (Melbourne University Publishing)One tiny book, a long essay really, punched above its weight and has not left me since I read it. ‘Timely’ is a standby word for blurb writers, but Katharine Murphy’s On Disruption (Melbourne University Press) really is just that, an intervention for our ‘post-truth age’. Not all journalists are great writers, but Murphy is, and she’s not afraid to turn the searchlight on herself and her profession. Pressure from without is also pressure from within, and this book shows how high the stakes are. That she is able to serve as ‘a river guide in white water’ is to all our benefits.

Phillipa McGuinness is Publisher at NewSouth Publishing/UNSW Press.

 

Catherine Milne

The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman (Text Publishing)The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman (Text Publishing)The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted (Text Publishing), by Robert Hillman, is an Australian gem: wise, tender, melancholy, gentle – simple yet undeniably powerful. The story of decent Tom Hope and haunted Hannah Babel rang as pure and true as a bell. While the novel doesn’t shy away from showing the darkness of history and the inexplicable cruelty of people, it also shows us that love can help us through – love and books. Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives (Hamish Hamilton, 3/18) is, in a way, its polar opposite: a bravura achievement, dazzling, complex, layered, thought-provoking and mind-stretchingly clever – but equally compelling.

Catherine Milne is Publisher and Head of Fiction at HarperCollins Publishers Australia.

 

Aviva Tuffield

Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales (Hamish Hamilton)Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales (Hamish Hamilton)I’m choosing two books that affected me deeply – divergent in style and approach, but both challenging us to imaginatively consider the lives of others. Alison Whittaker’s Blakwork proves, yet again, that she is one of the sharpest minds around. This coruscating collection plays with form and style, throughout centring Indigenous voices and experiences, and decolonising language. It’s bold and unapologetic, slicing through the hypocrisies of settler colonialism. Leigh Sales’s Any Ordinary Day (Hamish Hamilton, 10/18) undid me repeatedly with its empathetic stories of how people cope when ‘the worst thing happens’. Sales turns the spotlight on her own personal life as well as her professional one, interrogating the role of journalists in reporting tragedy and trauma.

Aviva Tuffield is a publisher at the University of Queensland Press.

 

Meredith Curnow

Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss (Black Inc.)Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss (Black Inc.)Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia (Black Inc.), edited by Anita Heiss, is a revelation, and it shouldn’t be. Bringing together experiences from voices new and old, young and mature, this is a collection to return to, not only because we cannot change what we ignore, but also for inspiration. We See the Stars (Allen & Unwin), a début from Kate van Hooft, deftly explores my favourite trait, kindness, as a young boy attempts to broaden his engagement with the small, disturbing, and noisy world in which he lives. Tension builds and the reader is lead to an open ending, or is it?

Meredith Curnow is a publisher at Penguin Random House Australia.

 

Barry Scott

Blue Lake by David Sornig (Scribe)Blue Lake by David Sornig (Scribe)David Sornig’s Blue Lake: Finding Dudley Flats and the West Melbourne Swamp (Scribe), absorbed me on so many levels. Sornig brings a novelist’s eye to his acute portrait of Elsie and the other fringe dwellers living on the edge of Melbourne. During the Great Depression, such outcasts built humpies and scavenged from rubbish tips. Like Janet Frame in Owls Do Cry (1961), Sornig understands the treasures of the spirit to be found in the compromised wastelands of our cities. In fiction, Angela Meyer’s A Superior Spectre (Ventura) grappled beautifully with the dilemma of longevity versus soul.

Barry Scott is Publisher at Transit Lounge.

 

David Musgrave

I Love Poetry by Michael Farrell (Giramondo)I Love Poetry by Michael Farrell (Giramondo)As a publisher, teacher, and writer, I have little time to read for pleasure, so I’m fairly choosy about what I read. Michael Farrell’s I Love Poetry (Giramondo) is one of the stronger books to have come out recently. Farrell’s last few books have shown a real maturation in his voice. Paradoxically enough, it is his more personal and less characteristically playful poems that mark this development in his work. I also enjoyed Maria Tumarkin’s collection of essays Axiomatic (Brow Books, 9/18) for their intensity, honesty, and the Eastern European sensibility from which they derive.

David Musgrave is Publisher at Puncher & Wattmann.

 

Mathilda Imlah

In the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen Dovey (Hamish Hamilton)In the Garden of the Fugitives by Ceridwen Dovey (Hamish Hamilton)I seem to be taken with all things igneous this year. I devoured Ceridwen Dovey’s In the Garden of the Fugitives: rich, strange, mesmerising. Startling, in fact, as Dovey always seems to be. I note now that it’s sitting on my shelf beside Anna Burns’s Milkman, Sally Rooney’s Normal People, and Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry, all having a gentle conversation in the way they do. I also read Chloe Hooper’s The Arsonist: A mind on fire (Hamish Hamilton, 10/18) in a single sitting and at arm’s length. The ability to bear such forensic witness must exert a terrific toll: it is a harrowing read and utterly riveting.

On a personal note, I think we all suffered a great loss in the poet and activist Candy Royalle, who died suddenly, and far, far too soon, in June 2018. Her first muscular and uncompromising collection, A trillion tiny awakenings, towards which she had been working for many years, was published posthumously by UWAP. Vale, Candy.

Mathilda Imlah is the Picador Publisher. 

 

Sam Cooney

The Lebs by Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Hachette)The Lebs by Michael Mohammed Ahmad (Hachette)The locally published book that most knocked me sideways this year was Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Lebs (Hachette, 3/18). We recognise the characters of this book – these Western Sydney boys and girls and men and women, these ‘lebs’ and ‘fobs’ – and feel as though we know them. Yet most of us don’t know them or their stories. Michael Mohammed Ahmad drags us inside the worlds of these characters. I just wish all realist fiction were as unapologetic in its approach.

Sam Cooney is Publisher at Brow Books.

Additional Info

  • Free Article Yes
  • Custom Article Title 2018 Publisher Picks
  • Contents Category Highlights of the Year
  • Custom Highlight Text

    To complement our ‘Books of the Year’ feature, which appeared in the December 2018 issue, we invited some senior publishers to nominate their favourite books of 2018 – all published by other companies.

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