Essays

Caitlin McGregor reviews 'Blueberries' by Ellena Savage

Caitlin McGregor
Friday, 20 March 2020

The writerly ‘I’ is notoriously fraught and political in non-fiction writing. What are the implications of writing from a biased and limited perspective (as all of us inevitably do)? How to get around – or work within – the constraints of the personal? These questions are ethical ones but also ones of craft. Many memoirists and essayists have grappled explicitly with them on the page.

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Shannon Burns reviews 'Essays One' by Lydia Davis

Shannon Burns
Friday, 20 March 2020

Essays One is the first of two volumes of collected non-fiction drawn from all periods of Lydia Davis’s long career. While the second collection will, according to the author, ‘concentrate more single-mindedly on translation and the experience of reading foreign languages’, this volume has an alternating focus on writing and reading practices, translation, commentary, reviews, and personal essays. It is loosely structured, non-chronological, and doesn’t shy away from repetition or reiteration – particularly throughout the several pieces that share the subtitle ‘Forms and Influences’.

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At the beginning of this wide-ranging collection of criticism by the novelist, critic, and academic Anthony Macris, the author notes wryly that an early candidate for the book’s title was Personality Crisis, such is its diversity of topics and styles. The implication here is that reviews and essays form a kind of autobiography. I’m not sure I would use the word ‘crisis’ to describe it, but certainly the portrait we have in this case is of a writer driven by very different kinds of curiosity: about literature and writing but also the art forms that lie beyond them – and, as centrally, by a social and political curiosity about the ways those forms change when they respond to the world around us.

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In his 1980 bibliography of Bernard Smith’s published works, Australian Art and Architecture (1980), Tony Bradley lists, exclusive of books, well over 200 articles, book reviews, and other miscellaneous items. Allowing for articles written after 1980 and four previously unpublished, The Critic as Advocate contains sixty works from Bradley’s list. Previous collections of Smith’s essays, The Antipodean Manifesto (1976) and The Death of the Artist as Hero (1988) each contains about twenty republished essays – leaving Smith still with over a hundred for future recycling. If this is to be the case it is perhaps well to look at the value or otherwise of this type of enterprise.

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One of the pleasures of reviewing a book is reading it slowly, paying attention to the rhythms and its author’s intentions, impulses, and indulgences. Reading is always a conversation between writer and reader. A major collection like Life: Selected writings takes this experience to a new level. This is not just a conversation between a writer now and a reader now, but a writer then, his choices now, the sum of those choices as arrayed in a substantial blue volume, and the reader with a ‘long now’ to luxuriate in the exchange.

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Tom Carment the artist, writer, and man makes a perfectly integrated whole. Carment is a compact, casually neat figure who looks through round-lensed glasses and has a calm stillness even when he’s on the move, as he often is. His art and writing are also on a small scale, intimately observant, informal, and warmly appealing. He has exhibited his paintings and drawings for more than four decades and has written for almost as long, occasionally for publication and often in private. As he said at his book launch, he used to pour most of his thoughts into letters, including one he found recently that ran to thirty-eight pages.

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The World of Charmian Clift is a selection of the weekly columns she wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald’s women’s pages. They date from 1964, the year that she, George Johnston, and their children returned from Greece, up to her tragic suicide in 1969. Clift herself selected most of the essays for the book, which was first published posthumously in 1970, not long before George Johnston’s death from tuberculosis.

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A young George Seddon smiles boyishly from the cover of his Selected Writings, a mid-twentieth-century nerd with short back and sides and horn-rimmed glasses. This collection of Seddon’s writings on landscape, place, and the environment is the third in the series on Australian thinkers published by La Trobe University Press in conjunction with Black Inc. The other two, Hugh Stretton and Donald Horne, were also on mid-century men.

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Reading good science writing is not just pleasurable and informative: it’s also necessary if we want to live engaged and examined lives in today’s hyper-technological, climate-changing world. The Best Australian Science Writing 2019 offers readers all these things – the delight in good writing, the satisfaction of learning, and the sobering reckoning with our society’s environmental impact and lack of political engagement with science. Yet it’s not afraid to challenge science itself on occasion – showing ‘its flaws as well as its finer moments’, as editor Bianca Nogrady puts it.

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Johanna Leggatt reviews 'Coventry: Essays' by Rachel Cusk

Johanna Leggatt
Friday, 22 November 2019

Two years before Rachel Cusk published the first novel in her acclaimed Outline Trilogy (2014–18), she wrote a searing account of her divorce, entitled ‘Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation’, which ignited a brouhaha in her homeland, the United Kingdom. The dramatic excoriation of marital life aroused apoplexy among critics and readers; they bristled at Cusk’s subjective and one-sided storytelling, as if any other account of divorce were possible. It wasn’t the first time Cusk’s work had raised eyebrows: her memoir, A Life’s Work: On becoming a mother (2001), offended many a book-club member with its frank and unflattering descriptions of motherhood.

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