VIC contributor

The world evoked by British nature writer and historian Helen Macdonald in her new collection of essays is haunted by no end of unsettling and shrouded presences. The sight of a flock of starlings gives her a shiver of fear. Why? Because in her imagination the flock connects with a mass of refugees. The sight of falcon eggs in an incubator makes her unaccountably upset. Then she remembers that she, too, as a very premature baby, was once kept alive in just such a box. And on it goes.

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While climbing in British Columbia, Canadian writer and journalist Eva Holland becomes paralysed by fear. She has long been troubled by exposed heights, but this is different. What she experiences is an ‘irrational force’ that prevents her from moving. It is only the dogged encouragement of friends that allows her to make her tentative way back down the mountain.

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Adrian Martin’s Mysteries of Cinema is, above all, an impassioned love letter to film, a written record of a life defined and driven by the pleasures, ambiguities, and indeed mysteries inherent in what André Bazin, co-founder of Cahiers du Cinéma, called the ‘seventh art’. In the author’s own words, the book ‘covers 34 years of a writing life’. It charts both his ephemeral and enduring fixations and obsessions, many of which converge on cinema, film form, the role of the critic, pockets of film culture, and the psychological, emotional, and intellectual responses that cinema elicits. Mirroring much of Martin’s oeuvre, Mysteries of Cinema is not easily classifiable; it cuts across different strands of film theory and thought by employing ‘a mode of synthetic film analysis attuned to … the mysteries of cinema’. Martin’s devotees will devour Mysteries of Cinema, savouring its details, imagery, and linguistic flourishes. At more than 430 pages in length, it might prove a formidable undertaking for the more casual reader.

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In the early nineteenth century, Sequoyah, a Cherokee man living in Alabama, developed a fundamentally new system of writing Cherokee, which had until then not been a written language. Sequoyah’s system – properly a syllabary rather than an alphabet, in that it represents the eighty-five syllables used in Cherokee – is fascinating, innovative, and remains in use today. But in what order did those fabulous syllables go? Sequoyah provided a chart, but the missionary Samuel Worcester quickly rearranged it to suit English alphabetic order. Language was power, and ‘alphabetic order’ proved not to be neutral.

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In an early episode of the cult Canadian television series Slings & Arrows (2003), the director of the ‘Burbage Festival’ finds himself addressing a corporate audience, forced to teach management strategy through Shakespeare: ‘Do any of you seriously believe that you’re going to sell more plastics products to the construction industry by studying, say, the crisis management techniques of Claudius?’ Fortunately, Scott Newstok wouldn’t be answering that question in the affirmative. His How to Think Like Shakespeare doesn’t strain analogies or instrumentalise Shakespeare’s plays and characters to make Shakespeare seem relevant to patently unrelated contexts; rather, it explores both Shakespeare’s thinking and the ‘educational assumptions that shaped Shakespeare’ (since these frequently differ from our own system of education). At the heart of this book is Newstok’s conviction that ‘education must be about thinking – not training a set of specific skills’. After all, there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

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Gail Jones’s beautifully crafted narratives invite and reward careful reading. All her work bears the mark of her formidable intellect. Yet her texts don’t show off: they assert the primacy of embodied experience and interpersonal relationships as much as the inner life of the mind. They provoke you to attend to their many layers of meaning, often requiring at least two readings (and some research) to fully grasp their complexity. But the reader’s reward is in the ‘ah’ moments when, for example, an image takes on particular resonance or an idea emerges from the text’s depths. It is to these intricacies that Tanya Dalziell’s monograph, Gail Jones: Word, image, ethics, turns its attention.

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Near the beginning of Bruno Lloret’s stark, unvarnished first novel, Nancy, the cancer-riddled protagonist discovers that her husband has died in a workplace accident, sucked into the tuna processor while drunk. With no body to bury, she imagines having ‘a moment alone with the 2,500 tins containing [him]’.

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Morag Fraser reviews 'The Labyrinth' by Amanda Lohrey

Morag Fraser
Monday, 24 August 2020

In a 1954 letter to his niece Pippa, artist-nomad Ian Fairweather lamented that he could not write with sufficient analytic detachment to look back at his life and ‘see a pattern in it’. (Ian Fairweather: A life in letters, Text Publishing, 2019). The irony – that one of Australian art’s most profound, intuitive pattern-makers should be ruefully unable to ‘see’ the formative structures and repetitions of his fraught life – would not be lost on Amanda Lohrey. Labyrinth, her haunting new novel, is a meditation on fundamental patterns in nature and in familial relations, and our experience of them in time. But this is a novel, not a treatise, its narrative so bracing – like salt spray stinging your face – that one is borne forward inexorably, as if caught in the coastal rip that is one of the novel’s darker motifs. It is a work to read slowly, and reread, so that its metaphorical patterns can come into focus, and the intricate knots of structure loosen and unwind.

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The cultural critic, poet, and musician Wayne Koestenbaum is pooped. He is ready for his writing to assume its ‘corpse pose’, to expire and become obsolete. Over the course of a thirty-year writing career marked by a lively enthusiasm for culture and celebrity, the author has often shown his attraction to acts of disappearance – his admiration, for example, of artists who retire relatively young (e.g. Audrey Hepburn and Brigitte Bardot, or poets Arthur Rimbaud and pre-comeback George Oppen). Perhaps more compelling to Koestenbaum, though, are those cultural figures who retire into careers; those who make work of indolence.

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On the July afternoon when I first read Intimations, novelist and prolific essayist Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Melbourne registered its highest number of Covid-19 cases – 484 positives, with two deaths. Since then the daily tolls have risen alarmingly. Midway through the city’s second week of Lockdown 2.0, there is a nebulous feeling of dispiritedness. We mark time as belonging to a pre-Covid era or the present reality. Within the present there exist further subdivisions of pasts and presents marked by social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, hopefulness.

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