Penguin

‘To choose the best, among many good,’ says Dr Johnson in his ‘Life of Cowley’, ‘is one of the most hazardous attempts of criticism.’ The truth of this maxim is borne out nicely in the controversy surrounding – or perhaps emanating from – Rita Dove’s new selection of twentieth-century American poetry. That The Weekend Australian should have felt moved to comment on the situation (Frank Furedi, ‘Culture War Highlights the Banal Message of Politically Sanctioned Art’, 7–8 January 2012) is a good indicator of just how hot the issue has become. As a result, it is no longer possible simply to review the book; you have to review the controversy as well. The literary world is always set a-twitter by dust-ups between luminaries, and this one is a doozy: it features the former Poet Laureate Rita Dove, defending herself against the redoubtable literary scholar and critic Helen Vendler. Vendler attacked Dove’s anthology (and Dove herself) in the New York Review of Books of 24 November 2011, and Dove returned the favour in the 22 December issue. Thereafter, the controversy spread like algae bloom in the press and blogosphere.

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Twinings has recently introduced a new tea flavour called ‘Australian Afternoon Tea’. On the box is an image of kangaroos silhouetted against a red rocky background, which is a sort of amalgam, or perhaps amalgum, of Uluru and Kata Tjuta. This book is like that tea – more Australian than Australia, in a packaged, labelled form that relies heavily on recognition, stereotype, and sentiment. I have to admit that when I started reading the Introduction I thought it might be a parody, but perhaps that just shows jaded sensibilities. Nevertheless, I am not convinced that as ‘Australians we carry a certain vague longing for the bush’. Perhaps I am not drinking the right tea.

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Ryle Winn was a rural valuer and jack of all trades before being laid low by a brain tumour in the mid-1990s. He turned to writing and produced a string of successful titles, including a memoir of his illness, Out of the Blue (2009), and numerous collections of bush yarns and personal anecdotes.

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Imagine a bookshop or library whose contents were shelved in a cross-generic way to include a section for Anthologies: this surely would be the largest division, encompassing all of the subsections of literature, science, music, philosophy ... The anthology (‘gathering of flowers’), with its impeccable classical pedigree, is the most comprehensive kind of book, catering in the contemporary reading economy to every conceivable market, from astral travelling, through gay fiction, ghost stories, long/short/tall stories, poetry of all persuasions, to travel in Turkey and Great Zoos of the World. There is a burgeoning publishers’ trade for the literary anthology – a ‘safe’ book, the serious reader’s stocking-filler, something with at least a few contributions calculated to entertain or edify.

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While many journals and anthologies are moving away from themed editions, the theme of this anthology is urgent and worthy. The royalties from Thanks for the Mammaries will go to the National Breast Cancer Foundation (NBCF). Editor and NBCF ambassador Sarah Darmody writes eloquently in both the introduction and her autobiographical piece, ‘Frankenboob’, about her decision to have a prophylactic double mastectomy after discovering that she carried the gene that gave her an eighty-five per cent chance of developing breast cancer.

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Margaret Simons is a writer familiar to her readers. There she was in Fit to Print: Inside the Canberra press gallery (1999), first driving with her husband and young children to the national capital, then following Michelle Grattan’s blue dress around Parliament House. Here she is again in The Content Makers: Understanding the media in Australia, telling us about her experiences in daily journalism, her move into freelance journalism, writing for the e-mail news service Crikey, and attending last year’s infamous 2006 Walkley Awards dinner.

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The Defence and Fall of Singapore 1940–1942 by Brian P. F & Singapore Burning by Colin Smith

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October 2006, no. 285

It is rare that two books of such quality should appear at the same time, especially on a subject as tragic but absorbing as the fall of Singapore. The reader is reminded immediately of films about the maiden voyage of the Titanic. You know that at the end of the film the ship has to sink: you also know that Singapore must fall with equally dramatic suddenness. Worse, in the case of Singapore, the systematic massacre (sook ching) of much of its overseas Chinese population by the Japanese kempetai (secret police) adds a huge dimension of tragedy to what is already a disaster; as does the fact that the Japanese, unlike most Western armies of the period, had no plans to deal effectively with more than 130,000 Allied prisoners, who were then dispersed and incarcerated in prisoner-of-war camps across South-East Asia and Japan itself. Every so often, these scenes are revisited by sympathetic writing, and also by new evidence and analysis, which is the case here.

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Wagner’s Creek is a rundown seaside village full of fibro shacks, rubbish and the ‘dirt poor’: ‘Their boredom and despair was as high as the dry grass in their yards and as deep as the ruts in the road – and their hearts seemed as broken as their hanging gates and peeling fences.’ Elizabeth Stead’s other novel, The Fishcastle (2000), was also set in a seaside village where, as in Wagner’s Creek, strange things happen. Time goes more slowly in Wagner’s Creek, and the weather is different from everywhere else.

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Moral Hazard by Kate Jennings & Judgement Rock by Joanna Murray-Smith

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May 2002, no. 241

From at least the mid-1980s, it has been almost obligatory for Australian reviewers to bemoan the dearth of contemporary political novels in this country. In some ways, this is a predictable backlash against the flowering of postmodern fabulist novels of ‘beautiful lies’ (by such writers as Peter Carey, Elizabeth Jolley, and Brian Castro) in the past two decades ...

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Best of Friends by Suzy Baldwin & Friends and Enemies by Dorothy Rowe

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May 2001, no. 230

A collection of interviews with women about friendship? Well, we are all experts on the topic, and all have stories to tell. The women interviewed by Suzy Baldwin for this collection all speak fluently on the topic of friendships present and past: with women, sexual and not; with men, gay and straight; and with their partners, mothers, sisters, brothers, and children. Baldwin’s elegant introductory essay begins and ends autobiographically, but also ranges historically and philosophically amongst a number of writers about friendship, male and female, asking what is specific to women’s friendships.

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