University of Queensland Press

‘I never thought Australia needed culture of any kind,’ drawls Barry Humphries in Not Quite Hollywood, Mark Hartley’s recent documentary on Australian ‘trash’ cinema of the 1970s and 1980s. Perverse aesthete that he is, Humphries cannot resist the idea that lack of refinement might be a sign of vitality: ‘Culture is yoghurt, isn’t it, or mould? It grows on decaying things.’

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In these litigious days, should I declare a tenuous bias in favour of David Brooks (whom I know not at all)? According to an extensive list of previous publications, which includes poetry, short fiction, essays and one earlier novel, he has devoted several editorial enterprises to the poet A.D. Hope. I too admired Hope, for his passionate admiration for Russian literature, which he sometimes lectured on and which made him a complimentary examiner of my own PhD thesis. Otherwise, the slate is blank: I tried to locate Brooks’s previous novel, The House of Balthus (1995) as preparatory reading for this review, but the local library system could not help.

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The Best Australian Poems 2007 edited by Peter Rose & The Best Australian Poetry 2007 edited by John Tranter

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December 2007–January 2008, no. 297

Given the Howard government’s recent proposal to include the compulsory study of selected aspects of Australian history for secondary school students, perhaps it is time for more educators to follow the lead of Nicholas Jose and others in urging that Australian literature occupy a more prominent place in the school curriculum. Literature – and poetry in particular – does not have the political buzz that history possesses (especially since the recent ‘history wars’ have worked their way into public discourse), but there is a need for some healthy consciousness-raising about the flourishing state of Australian writing, which is often better understood beyond our shores than it is at home.

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Peter Skrzynecki’s substantial Old/New World comprises selected work from his eight previous collections plus a new collection. From it we could extract his autobiography. We find the youthful son of Polish migrants; his growing awareness of his migrant ‘otherness’; his employment as a teacher in New England; the birth of his first child; the ageing and death of his parents; his passage through middle age and growing sense of his own mortality. Halfway through, ‘Letters from New England’ posits the poet as ‘the stranger from Europe’ – a surrogate title for this often moving compilation. Skrzynecki’s Polish parents came to Australia from Germany in 1949, and exile, for their four-year-old son, would be a recurring theme.

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A review is more like a conversation than an overview from an Academy, and conversations often start with a salient point leading on to judgement. I suggest readers of David Malouf’s new collection should turn straight to page twenty-five and encounter a spray of short poems, titled ‘Seven Last Words of the Emperor Hadrian’ ... ... (read more)

In 2005, Lisa Gorton, writing in ABR, named Paddy O’Reilly’s The Factory one of the best books of the year. It was O’Reilly’s first novel, but she was already well established as a prize-winning writer of short stories. The End of the World is a collection of those stories, and should secure her reputation as one of our most interesting, if not best-known, literary talents.

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When it was first published, Tasmanian army nurse and prisoner of war Jessie Simons entitled her memoir of captivity While History Passed (1954). It was reissued as In Japanese Hands (1985). This was one of the numerous autobiographical works produced after their ordeal by POW survivors, whether they were driven by an enduring hatred of their captors (Rohan Rivett, Russell Braddon) or by a striving for forgiveness (Ray Parkin). In his study of ‘Literary imagination and the prisoner-of-war experience’, Roger Bourke has turned instead to what he regards as the neglected area of fiction (sometimes autobiographically tinged) of captivity by the Japanese in World War II. His range encompasses British as well as Australian authors. He is particularly concerned with what the film industry made of such novels as Neville Shute’s A Town Like Alice (book 1950, film 1956), Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge on the River Kwai (1954, 1957), James Clavell’s King Rat (1962, 1965) and J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1984, 1987).

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Swallow the Air by Tara June Winch

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June-July 2006, no. 282

Swallow the Air won the 2004 David Unaipon Award for Indigenous Writers. Judging by this slender volume of work, the choice was a judicious one. Thematically, Tara June Winch’s début effort travels along the well-worn path of fiction based on personal experiences, with the protagonist propelling the narrative through a journey of self-discovery. In this respect, Swallow the Air nestles snugly in the semi-autobiographical framework favoured by first novelists, but the sophistication and subtlety of the prose belie Winch’s age; she is twenty-two, but writes with the élan of those much more accomplished. Swallow the Air can either be read as a novel with short chapters or as a series of interlinked short stories.

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This novel is about the redemption of a man believed to have committed murder. E. Annie Proulx, in her discontinuous novel Postcards (1993), sympathetically traces the tragic life of a protagonist who raped and accidentally killed his lover. Heather Rose poses a similar ethical question about a protagonist who was a real person; she imagines a post-murder existence for the infamous Lord Lucan, who in 1974 was accused of murdering his children’s nanny and of violently attacking his estranged wife.

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The Sydney poet Bruce Beaver died in February 2004 after a long struggle with kidney failure that kept him on dialysis for more than a decade. He was seventy-six years old. Beaver was seen as a sympathetic older figure by many poets of my generation, born a dozen years later. I met him when I was in my twenties, and found him to be a generous friend. When the poet Michael Dransfield, younger still, called on him in the early 1970s, it was a natural meeting of minds. In one poem in The Long Game and Other Poems, Beaver says that ‘poor Dransfield draped / me with a necklet of dandelions / once and kissed my forehead / in what must have been / a satirical salute’. I have a feeling that the salute was heartfelt, but Bruce was painfully modest.

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