Monash contributor

‘If you want peace, prepare for war,’ Vegetius wrote in a fourth-century CE Roman military manual. From the classical world to the twenty-first-century Sino-American cold war, Margaret MacMillan’s book is broad in its sweep. Judging by the content, one might gain the impression that war is a purely European invention, but that would be erroneous; it is only because Europeans spent 2,400 years carefully archiving their literary, artistic, and technological endeavours in ‘the art of war’ that so much survives – except the victims. The soldiers and civilians are long gone, their names largely forgotten; what lives on is the representation of war in text, the visual arts, cinema, and oral history.

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‘Exile is a profound stimulus to the human anxiety for literary representation,’ writes Harold Bloom. Whether voluntary or involuntary, this impetus is the driving force behind the works in The Penguin Book of Migration Literature.

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Smokehouse by Melissa Manning

by
April 2021, no. 430

Smokehouse is an engagingly constructed collection of interlinked stories set in small-town, yet globally connected, settler Tasmania. The volume, which is focused on personal crises and family breakdown, is bookended by the two parts of the novella that lends the collection its name. This splicing is an inspired decision: the end of Part One keeps us turning the pages through the subsequent, fully realised short stories; with Part Two we feel rewarded whenever we spot a character first encountered in a story that seemed discrete.

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A boy appears at school early
to lick the flagpole and speak different.
Scratch the ‘g’ from ‘listening’ ...

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The Climate Cure should have been on every Australian federal politician’s Christmas list. As Tim Flannery explains, our federal politicians, stymied by Coalition climate change denialists and the fossil fuel lobby, have failed the climate challenge of the past two decades, so that we have ‘sleepwalked deep into the world that exists just seconds before the climate clock strikes a catastrophic midnight’. But ‘at the last moment, between megafires and Covid-19, governments are at last getting serious about the business of governance’.

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At the heart of Trevor Shearston’s latest novel, The Beach Caves, is the act of digging. The protagonist, Annette Cooley, is a young archaeology student, thrilled by the allure of her Honours supervisor’s most recent find: the stone remains of an Aboriginal village on the New South Wales south coast that could rewrite the pre-European history of Australia. Intriguing additional sites are soon discovered, but before long the air of excitement is replaced by one of suspicion, jealousy, and dread when a member of the dig team disappears.

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This book addresses one fundamental question: is nationalism a transformative force in politics? Nationalism is usually seen as an offshoot of ‘identity politics’, which in turn is the product of long-term social change, notably access to higher education. Such an analysis can be found in David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The new tribes shaping British politics (2017) and Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford’s Brexitland: Identity, diversity and the reshaping of British politics (2020). There is of course merit to such positions, but it is unusual for any research-based analysis to see nationalism as the driver of political change: it is the symptom rather than the cause.

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Comparison, when it comes to historical study, is rarely devoid of ambition. The aim is to identify patterns that are global in their significance and to overcome the tendency to see a unique trajectory for particular places or nations. Yet such work frequently founders when it becomes apparent that the author’s knowledge of alternative cases is thin or that the claim to comparison is made to hide a focus that is in fact quite narrow. Not so in this co-authored book, which builds upon its three authors’ areas of expertise – the Anglosphere (Martin Crotty), Asia (Neil J. Diamant), and Europe (Mark Edele) – to deliver a compelling argument about veteran benefits in the twentieth century.

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In the novel Demons, Dostoevsky’s narrator describes the character Shatov as ‘one of those ideal Russian beings who can suddenly be so struck by some strong idea that it seems to crush them then and there, sometimes even forever’. This ideal person is one whose ‘whole life afterwards is spent in some last writhings, as it were, under the stone that has fallen on them’. The people who populate Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism are Americans rather than Russians, but they too are living in the last writhings of the strong idea that dominates their lives: the idea of Stalinist communism.

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This is a strange time to be reading a book about risk, especially one in which the risk of a pandemic is a central concern. Many of us have been worrying about, and attempting to manage, risks every time we have left the house. One of the lessons of this experience has been just how bad we are at thinking about risk. In particular, we struggle to reckon with small risks that may have disastrous outcomes.

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