University of Queensland Press

Literary biographies are reputedly more widely read than their subjects’ own works: more people have probably read David Marr’s biography of Patrick White than have tackled The Twyborn Affair or The Aunt’s Story. The same may perhaps can be said for autobiography, and it’s my bet that Geoffrey Dutton’s Out in the Open will attract more attention than, say, his novel, Andy (Flying Low), his collections of poetry, or even his impressive biography of Edward John Eyre.

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This is a dazzling book. A sprawling, sensual, rambunctious marvel of a novel, it drives its readers out of their everyday world and every comfortable preconception. It takes enormous risks, not least that of demanding our understanding for the monstrous.

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What do we do, where do we go to get beyond the routines of the self and the paradoxical alienation it produces in both ourselves and in others? Is it possible to break down the shell of separation and deal with others from a perspective that is neither ‘self- or need-observed’? These are the questions that occupy Bruce Beaver in many of the poems in this collection, and one that he traces through an engaging variety of forms and themes.

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Well I’m damned! Ern Malley of all people! It’s been fifty years since I last laid eyes on him. Seeing him again recalls my vanished youth as nothing else could. Angry Penguins, Cecily Crozier’s valiant Comment magazine, the ‘social realists’ upbraiding everyone like so many Marxist Savonarolas, the Jindyworobakians quarrelling with the ‘cosmopolitans’, the Contemporary Arts Society quarrelling with itself – stirring times! But Ern was the epicentre of our cultural storm in a teacup.

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Connoisseurs of lapidary prose and the fine art of understated narrative are unlikely to enjoy this risky passionate novel. Nor will they enthuse over sentences such as, ‘The agony was so extreme I was numb with it, as if I had fallen into a vat of molten steel and could not immediately feel the enormity of the burn’, or, ‘Flooded with embarrassment, desire, delight, I thought stupidly, no wonder men go so wild over women, no wonder they dream continually of being lapped in that heavenly softness as they go about the hard world.’ However, Rosie Scott has made her own priorities clear in a 1991 essay called ‘Come and see the blood in the streets’.

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Mr Rolls has written an extraordinarily detailed history of the Chinese in Australia, interspersed with much additional related and unrelated matter. It is indeed a labour of love, written over a period of some twenty years, and the author has uncovered a large amount of fascinating and amazing information not readily available elsewhere. Much of this new material relates to the vibrant popular culture the Chinese brought with them: their food, cricket fighting, cock fighting, and other sorts of fairly harmless gambling; their diseases, living conditions and relations with their non-Chinese neighbours. A certain amount of the book concerns immigration acts and other forms of discrimination, of course, but the stronger impression one gets is a more positive one: the Chinese as hard workers and major contributors to Australian life.

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Herb Wharton’s first novel is a highly readable account of the lives of three stockmen in far west Queensland. Sandy is a white man, Bindi a Murri, and Mulga related to both of them through his parents.

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In Boundary Conditions, Jennifer Strauss, taking her title from the Eisenhart poem of that name, points to the centrality of Gwen Harwood’s concern with ‘those littoral regions where the boundary terms that define themselves on either side of us also overlap and interact'. It is here, she claims, that ‘our most intense experiences, for better or worse, occur, and it is here that she correctly and perceptively locates Gwen Harwood’s major preoccupations as well as her recurrent images and settings.

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These five books are about war and are all written by veteran infantrymen (except Making the Legend), a fact which is quite relevant. The fiction is every bit as gritty as the non-fiction. There’s none of the glamour that popular thrillers attach to war, and there’s none of the abject horror that literature generally attributes to war. Instead, there is what can only be described as honesty. These books are truly about the work of winning wars; not the glory or triumph, but the face-in-the-mud labour of it.

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Usher by Matthew Condon

by
September 1991, no. 134

The usher of the book’s title is T. Nelson Downs, long-time resident of Burleigh Heads. (The T. Doesn’t stand for anything; it was a parental whim.) He’s one of those wonderful, original, exasperating people full of impossible ideas (such as marketing gigantic ice sculptures for public occasions using skilled tradesmen brought out especially from Florence).

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