Monash contributor

In the early nineteenth century, Sequoyah, a Cherokee man living in Alabama, developed a fundamentally new system of writing Cherokee, which had until then not been a written language. Sequoyah’s system – properly a syllabary rather than an alphabet, in that it represents the eighty-five syllables used in Cherokee – is fascinating, innovative, and remains in use today. But in what order did those fabulous syllables go? Sequoyah provided a chart, but the missionary Samuel Worcester quickly rearranged it to suit English alphabetic order. Language was power, and ‘alphabetic order’ proved not to be neutral.

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Gail Jones’s beautifully crafted narratives invite and reward careful reading. All her work bears the mark of her formidable intellect. Yet her texts don’t show off: they assert the primacy of embodied experience and interpersonal relationships as much as the inner life of the mind. They provoke you to attend to their many layers of meaning, often requiring at least two readings (and some research) to fully grasp their complexity. But the reader’s reward is in the ‘ah’ moments when, for example, an image takes on particular resonance or an idea emerges from the text’s depths. It is to these intricacies that Tanya Dalziell’s monograph, Gail Jones: Word, image, ethics, turns its attention.

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Towards the end of his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Overstory (2018), Richard Powers attempts to articulate why literature, or more precisely the novel, has struggled to encompass climate change: ‘To be human is to confuse a satisfying story with a meaningful one, and to mistake life for something huge with two legs. No: life is mobilized on a vastly larger scale, and the world is failing precisely because no novel can make the contest for the world seem as compelling as the struggles between a few lost people.’

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In a long career talking to and about politicians, I have learned one thing. While many fantasise about being prime minister, the key driver is to get close to the centre. Christopher Pyne captures this immediately in The Insider, comparing the political world to the solar system in which the skill is to know one’s place relative to the sun (the prime minister), and the aim is to get as close to the sun as possible. To be an insider, to know how things work, with privileged information that few others share, is the allure.

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J.R. Burgmann reviews 'Ghost Species' by James Bradley

J.R. Burgmann
Friday, 24 April 2020

James Bradley’s Ghost Species arrives at a time when fiction seems outpaced by the speed with which we humans are changing the planet. Alarmingly, such writerly speculation has been realised during Australia’s tragic summer, when the future finally bore down on us. And there are few writers of climate fiction – or ‘cli-fi’, the term coined by activist blogger Dan Bloom and popularised in a tweet by Margaret Atwood – who so delicately straddle the conceptual divide between present and future as Bradley.

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Valerie Lawson is a balletomane whose writing on dance encompasses newspaper articles and also articles  and editorials for numerous dance companies. Lawson’s lavishly illustrated Dancing Under the Southern Skies, like Arnold Haskell’s mid-twentieth-century popular histories of ballet, substitutes stories about ballet and ballet dancers for a cohesive historical narrative about ballet in Australia. Portraits, images of ballet dancers posing in photographers’ studios, and ephemera are reproduced in the book; but the total sum of stage photos – of dancing – can be counted on one hand.

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Sing This at My Funeral is not your conventional ghost story. Invoking Franz Kafka’s words, ‘Writing letters is actually an intercourse with ghosts, and by no means just the ghost of the addressee but also with one’s own ghost, which secretly evolves inside the letter one is writing or even in a whole series of letters’, this moving memoir by David Slucki gives shape to the ghost of Zaida Jakub, the grandfather he never knew.

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The biography has long been reserved for human subjects. It is a genre largely predicated on the idea that only humans live lives sufficiently rich and complex to be worthy of sustained examination. Countless books have centred on different kinds of animals, yet few have fallen within the biographical category. Most are found in the children’s, zoology, or fiction shelves at bookstores.

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A lover of photography since childhood, by the time Olive Cotton, who was born in Sydney in 1911, was in her twenties she was already creating the pictures that were to define her as one of Australia’s foremost women photographers, although this would not be acknowledged until the 1980s. Apart from the photographs she made, Cotton left little material trace of a life that spanned nine decades (she died in 2003). This lack of physical evidence presented a challenge for biographer Helen Ennis, a former curator of photography at the National Gallery of Australia and an art historian, who has nonetheless managed to weave a compelling, if at times diaphanous, narrative.

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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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