NSW contributor

‘When I first began reading Nam Le’s Love and honour and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice, I was sceptical: a story about a writer writing a story? A writer at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, no less? Isn’t this a little self-indulgent? Hasn’t this been done before?’

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Love Objects by Emily Maguire

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May 2021, no. 431

At the core of Love Objects, Emily Maguire’s sixth novel, is a delicate exploration of the responsibility that comes with love and what it means to care for others in both the emotional and practical senses of the word. The book’s protagonist, Nic, is a caustic but kind-hearted woman, positioned, in many ways, so as to be overlooked by the world. Middle-aged, childless, and living alone in her childhood home, she works as a cashier in a low-end department store. She is the kind of woman who often becomes invisible in our society, so it seems fitting that she has an affinity for the forgotten and the overlooked.

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‘What is so good about Dickens’s novels?’ It is a question ‘oddly evaded by many who have written about him’, in John Mullan’s reckoning. ‘Gosh he is good – though so careless,’ Iris Murdoch wrote to Brigid Brophy in 1962. Many writers before and since have found Dickens not only improvisatory and self-indulgently digressive but also sentimental, melodramatic, and sermonising – a great entertainer rather than a good writer. Mullan undertakes to demonstrate that what appears to be carelessness is as often as not ‘technical boldness and experimental verve’. Composing ‘on the wings of inspiration’, in response to the exigencies of serial publication, Dickens essentially revised as he wrote. Yet, consulting the manuscripts of the novels, Mullan notes how meticulously he adjusted his diction and phrasing. Like Oliver Twist’s companion in crime, the Artful Dodger, who comes alive through his sleights of hand and language, the Artful Dickens is a magician in prose and a talented conjurer: ‘his feats of legerdemain might equally apply to his writing’.

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Sylvia Pankhurst was unquestionably the most interesting of the Pankhurst women and the only one who continues to be thought of with admiration and respect. Her life certainly deserves to be known. A talented painter, she gave up the possibility of an artist’s life for one as an activist, not only as a suffragette, but also in the labour movement and for a time as a communist, an anti-fascist, and an anti-imperialist fighting for independence for Ethiopia, where she lived for her last five years (she died in 1960 aged seventy-eight).

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In 1969, an Anzac veteran visiting Gallipoli fell into conversation with a retired Turkish school teacher. The teacher had with him a guidebook featuring a quote from Şükrü Kaya, the former head of the Ottoman Directorate for the Settlement of Tribes and Immigrants. The quote came from a 1953 interview Kaya gave, in which he recalled a 1934 speech he made on behalf of Mustafa Kemal, a sentimental entreaty to Anzac mothers to ‘wipe away’ their tears. The teacher shared Kemal’s supposed words with the Australian visitor, who returned to Brisbane and passed them on to Alan J. Campbell, a Gallipoli veteran. Campbell, who was involved in the creation of a Gallipoli memorial in Brisbane, contacted the Turkish Historical Society to verify the quote. They could only confirm Kaya’s 1953 interview, but this was considered good enough. In this convoluted way, ‘the most iconic refrain of Anzac Day’ ended up on the memorial’s plaque, attributed to Kemal, with one addition. Campbell invented the now well-worn line about ‘the Johnnies and the Mehmets [lying] side by side’.

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The history of art history in the West over the past five hundred years is rich and complex and yet rests on clear historiographical foundations, themselves grounded in inescapable historical realities. Authors and artists in the Renaissance looked back to the civilisation of Greco-Roman antiquity, all but lost in the catastrophe of the fall of the Roman Empire and succeeded by centuries of dramatic cultural regression. They sought to regain the greatness of antiquity, and the bolder even hoped to surpass it.

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Lucy Delap, Reader in Modern British and Gender History at the University of Cambridge, is a consummate historian and not one to privilege her own experience. Indeed, one of her chief aims in her innovative new global history of ‘feminisms’ – the plural is important, no matter how inelegant – is to bring to the fore feminists and other activists for women’s rights who are less well known, but hardly less significant, than the usual suspects. In this aim, and from the very first page, Delap succeeds admirably. Feminisms: A global history opens with an ‘incendiary letter’ published in 1886 in a local newspaper in the British-ruled Gold Coast (now Ghana), written by an anonymous author on behalf of ‘We Ladies of Africa’. At once a protest against the sexual violence of colonial incursion, and an assertion of cultural power and defiance, the letter also flags to a present-day audience that this history will not be the standard White Feminist narrative – and hooray for that.

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Into the Loneliness is the story of two Australian women, opposites in temperament, who eschewed the conventional roles expected of women of their eras, lived unconventional lives, and produced books that influenced the culture and imagination of twentieth-century Australia. The book focuses on their complicated friendship, and on Ernestine Hill’s role in assisting Daisy Bates to produce the manuscript that was published in 1938 as The Passing of the Aborigines, which became a bestseller in Australia and Britain. Hill, a successful and popular journalist, organised the anthropological material and ghost-wrote much of the book, for which Bates privately expressed her gratitude, while not acknowledging it publicly.

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Killing Sydney by Elizabeth Farrelly & Sydney (Second Edition) by Delia Falconer

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March 2021, no. 429

Poor old Sydney. If it isn’t being described as crass and culturally superficial, it’s being condemned for allowing developers to obliterate whatever natural beauty it ever had. Is it doomed, will it survive, and if so, what kind of city is it likely to be?

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Late January 2021 brought a moment of anger and anguish for many liberal Australians. Margaret Court, the erstwhile tennis champion turned Pentecostal Christian preacher, had just received Australia’s top honour. Court may have won more grand slam tournaments than any other player, but her record cannot erase a history of derogatory comments about gay and transgender Australians. And yet, I wonder if most Australians didn’t just mentally check out of this latest chapter in a thirty-year kulturkampf over sexual identity. This is a country increasingly willing to live and let live – but not obsess – over such matters.

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