Text Publishing

oubtless there will come a time when one’s more disciplined reading self requires nourishment from serious books that offer sustained intellectual, creative, and moral challenges. In the meantime, books – in particular the contemporary urban novel – may continue to satisfy by being charming, delightful, witty, heart-warming, hilarious, astringently refreshing, sharply observed, and deliciously original.

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Few traits typify the mythology of the Aussie bloke quite as strongly as a love of water and a laid-back attitude. Increasingly acknowledged is the role violence plays in shaping our laconic beach-lovers. Three Young Adult novels tackle this sinister undercurrent of male identity, but in different ways and to different effects. In Kate Hendrick’s Fish Out of Water (Text Publishing, $19.99 pb, 288 pp), swimmer Finn aspires to be a ‘top bloke’ like his father, but does he really? Philip Gwynne’s Taj just wants to surf, but he must deal with a foreign government intent on executing his father in The Break (Penguin Books, $19.99 pb, 384 pp). In If Not Us (Text Publishing, $19.99 pb, 272 pp), by Mark Smith, surfer Hesse is trying to save the environment but soon discovers that taking a public stand on a controversial issue can have dangerous consequences.

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The Grass Hotel by Craig Sherborne

by
April 2022, no. 441

In How Fiction Works (2008), James Wood examines how novelists write characters and allow us to sympathise with them. He refers to the philosopher Thomas Nagel’s now famous question, ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ Nagel reckoned we cannot know, can only imagine what it would be like to behave like a bat. We can’t know ‘what it is like for a bat to be a bat’.

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It’s always interesting to see biographers decide to turn the spotlight upon themselves, and to ask why. Will it be another case of ‘now it’s my turn’? The need to confess, even to enter into the Land of Too Much Information?

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When Anne Shirley dreamed of finding a ‘bosom friend’ in Avonlea, she did more than conjure Diana Barry into existence. The heroine of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables (1908) imprinted on us an almost impossible standard for what to expect from our earliest female friendships: a lifelong source of joy sustained by a mutual devotion to each other’s best interests. More often than not, however – as the popularity of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels attests – childhood friendships are as complicated as any other. And when they rupture, whether through accident, argument, or design, the aftershocks can last well into adulthood.

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The first two volumes of Helen Garner’s diaries – Yellow Notebook (2019) and One Day I’ll Remember This (2020) – cover eight years apiece. This one covers three. It is an intense, even claustrophobic story of the breakup of a marriage – a story told in the incidental, fragmentary form of a diary.

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We academic philosophers get annoyed when people suppose that the purpose of philosophy is therapeutic. But we need not deny that philosophical enquiries into the nature of mind, knowledge, and the good can be sources of personal inspiration or solace. In his earlier work, Books That Saved My Life (2018), Michael McGirr, teacher, aid worker, and former priest, explained how literature and poetry can enrich our lives. Now it’s the turn of philosophy.

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Judith Brett, historian and La Trobe University emeritus professor of politics, is characteristically direct – in her questioning, her analysis, and her engagement with readers. If there is something declarative about ‘Going Public’, the title of Doing Politics’s introductory chapter, that is exactly what Brett intends: to go public, to offer a general reader her considered reflections on Australian political and cultural life. This is not an assemblage of opinion pieces, though her writings have a related journalistic conciseness and impact – they speak to the times. What distinguishes Brett’s collection of essays is their scholarly depth and habit of enquiry. They prompt thought before they invite agreement, or conclusions. Even the bad actors, the political obstructors, the wreckers in Brett’s political analysis, are psychologically intriguing. Why are our politicians like this? What’s going on? Judith Brett studied literature and philosophy as well as politics as an undergraduate. Perhaps Hamlet drills away in her consciousness: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

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A year before his death in 2015 following a cancer diagnosis, the writer–playwright Henning Mankell responded to a question about his love of the crime genre. He stated that his objective was ‘to use the mirror of crime to look at contradictions in society’. Mankell’s mirror was evident in his Kurt Wallander series (1991–2009), in which the detective was faced with contradictions not only in the landscape of crime and murder but also in his own domestic life. Great crime fiction does not need to focus a lens on the overlapping worlds of the private and the public. But well written, the genre’s interconnected spheres address the moral complexities that drove Mankell’s passion for crime fiction.

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Nicolas Rothwell is perhaps best known as a critic of art and culture for The Australian, though he has also published several non-fiction books, one of which, Quicksilver, won a Prime Minister’s Literary Award in 2016. Red Heaven, subtitled a ‘fiction’, is only the second of Rothwell’s books not to be classified as non-fiction. Always straddling the boundary between different genres, Rothwell has cited in Quicksilver Les Murray’s similar defence of generic hybridity in Australia: the novel ‘may not be the best or only form which extended prose fiction here requires’. Working from northern Australia, and intent upon exploring how landscape interacts obliquely with established social customs, Rothwell, in his narratives, consistently fractures traditional fictional forms so as to realign the conventional world of human society with more enigmatic temporal and spatial dimensions.

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