Penguin

I could begin with a lark stitched into a letter. It’s 2020 and ‘all manner of virulent things’ are simmering. Sixteen-year-old Sacha writes to Hero, a detained refugee. She wants to send ‘an open horizon’. Unsure what to say to someone suffering injustice, she writes about swifts: how far they travel, how they feed – and even sleep – on the wing. The way their presence announces the beginning and ending of summer ‘makes swifts a bit like a flying message in a bottle’. Maybe they even make summer happen.

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On the July afternoon when I first read Intimations, novelist and prolific essayist Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Melbourne registered its highest number of Covid-19 cases – 484 positives, with two deaths. Since then the daily tolls have risen alarmingly. Midway through the city’s second week of Lockdown 2.0, there is a nebulous feeling of dispiritedness. We mark time as belonging to a pre-Covid era or the present reality. Within the present there exist further subdivisions of pasts and presents marked by social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, hopefulness.

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The Last Migration by Charlotte McConaghy

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August 2020, no. 423

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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How the Light Gets In by M.J. Hyland & Tristessa And Lucido by Miriam Zolin

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September 2003, no. 254

One of Frank Moorhouse’s stories in his collection The Americans, Baby (1972) vividly describes two people’s tentative steps across a divide. It is a sexual overture, but also one that defies the constraints of national stereotypes. Carl, an Australian university student, bristles at an American man’s advances. Uneasy about his new sexual identity, he is unable to shake the sense that he is consorting with the enemy, at a time of mass protests against the Vietnam War. At the story’s end, the two men lie together in bed holding hands. The American urges his Australian lover to wipe his tears, then comments obliquely: ‘I guess this is the way it is with us.’

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Okay, I’ll tell you what’s wrong with this country. For a start, we have this profoundly stupid and deeply irritating myth that we’re all irreverent freedom-loving larrikins and easygoing egalitarians, when it is painfully obvious that we have long been a nation of prudes and wowsers, that our collective psyche has been warped by what Patrick Mullins describes, with his characteristic lucidity, as ‘a fear of contaminating international influences’, and that we are not just an insular, conservative, and deeply conformist society, but for some unaccountable reason we take pride in our ignorance and parochialism. And let’s not neglect the fact that we are cringingly deferential and enamoured of hierarchy. Oh yes, it’s all master–slave dialectics and daddy issues around here. Why the hell else would we keep electing entitled, smirking, condescending autocrats?

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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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Lloyd O'Neil, long-time publisher of popular Australian non-fiction, has announced that he has sold his company to Penguin. O'Neil is credited with initiating the growth of the indigenous publishing industry in the postwar period. His decision to print his books overseas in 1963 changed the whole nature of the business: ‘For the first time we could produce Australian books at a standard and price that was comparable with overseas,’ he said.

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The Penguin Best Stories Of D’Arcy Niland by D’Arcy Niland, selected with introduction by Ruth Park

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September 1987, no. 94

There is a lot of work still to be done on the place of the yarn in our culture. Has its pre-eminence to do with the roving outback life, with traditions of taciturnity, with an inability to cope with the size of our land? Or has it more to do with the rapid urbanisation of this country and a need to celebrate and protect myths, an abiding sense of nostalgia? Or are there more pragmatic, economic reasons – the dearth of publishing houses, the lack of a landed gentry, the impossibility of survival as a full-time writer? Whatever the cause – and speculation is interesting – there can be little argument about the fact that the yarn has a central place in our literature, whether firmly embedded in a longer novel as in Such is Life and The Wort Papers, or staring at us from literary magazines or collections of short stories.

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Making the sea passage south to Flinders Island, I began reading this while off-watch, hoping book and destination might augment, but tough weather cancelled free time until after a landfall sleep. I’ve not much enjoyed histories which cast these manuka and granite islands in dismal role, they are shockingly beautiful, but the crowded cemetery wails, the old lath church is empty of joyful song, and the rule of Commandant Jeanneret recalls similar miseries of bonded Malay and Bantamese on Cocos.

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Philip Pullman must be one of the weirdest figures to emerge from the sometimes dark woods of children’s writing. Not the least striking thing about him is that the woods can be very dark, Dante-dark, indeed. At the same time, he does not have the ballast of those two mutually despising inklings to whom he is routinely compared, C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, in having the deeper comforts of anything like the Christian mythology that feeds into the Narnia books, or the way in which The Lord of the Rings summons up a universe of Gothic and Germanic ring-lore and then shows how it works with tremendous moral force and with snow-white magic against all the putative and primeval Nazism in the world.

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