VIC contributor

Oliver Driscoll’s note on his first book I Don’t Know How That Happened (Recent Work Press, $19.95 pb, 74 pp) praises the inclusive flatness of David Hockney’s still life paintings, and it is to this inclusiveness that his poems and prose pieces aspire. Droll reported speech creates a comic atmosphere but also moves into Kafkaesque alienation where nothing seems to follow any pattern.

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To survey concurrent works of art is to take the temperature of a particular time, in a particular place. And the temperature of the time and place in these four début Australian novels? It is searching for a sense of belonging, and, at least in part, it’s coming out of western Sydney in the wake of the 2005 Cronulla riots. All four novels are set in New South Wales, three of them in suburban Sydney. Each is concerned with who is entitled to land and the stories we tell while making ourselves at home in the world, sometimes at the expense of others.

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Pushing Back by John Kinsella

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April 2021, no. 430

Comprising more than thirty works of poetry, fiction, memoir, and criticism, John Kinsella’s prolific output is impressive, and this figure doesn’t include his collaborations with other artists. Here is a writer who swims between boundaries, experiments with form and content, and eludes easy categorisation. His most recent novel, Hollow Earth (2019), was a foray into science fiction and fantasy, and his most recent poetry volume The Weave (2020), was co-written with Thurston Moore, founder of NYC rock group Sonic Youth.

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More than twenty-five years ago, I wrote an essay on the work of Oliver Sacks (Island Magazine, Autumn 1993). Entitled ‘Anthropologist of Mind’, it ranged across several of Sacks’s books; but it was Seeing Voices, published in 1989, that was the main impetus for the essay. In Seeing Voices, Sacks explored American deaf communities, past and present. He exposed the stringent and often punishing attempts to ‘normalise’ deaf people by forcing them to communicate orally, and he simultaneously deplored the denigration and widespread outlawing of sign language. Drawing on the work of Erving Goffman, Sacks showed how deaf people were stigmatised and marginalised from mainstream culture, and he revealed, contrary to prevailing opinion in the hearing world, the richness and complexities of American Sign Language.

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Monsters by Alison Croggon

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April 2021, no. 430

Alison Croggon has written poetry, fantasy novels, and whip-smart arts criticism for decades, but Monsters is her first book-length work of non-fiction. In this deeply wounded book, Croggon unpacks her shattered relationship with her younger sister (not named in the book), a dynamic that bristles with accusations and resentments. In attempting to understand the wreckage of this relationship, Croggon finds herself going back to the roots of Western patriarchy and colonialism, seeking to frame this fractured relationship as the inexorable consequence of empire.

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Here’s a story about a spy with a wooden leg, another spy who liked to sit around with his penis exposed, and a spy’s daughter who spent decades refusing to believe her father was dead. If this tale of an everyday family of secret agents were a novel or a Netflix drama, we’d laugh, frown, and admire it as a surreal fantasy. But it is real, the children are still alive, and their recollections are proof that truth is nuttier than fiction.

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What kinds of stories are possible now about a mission community at the height of the assimilation era? How might scholars narrate the lives of religious women who ran an institution for Indigenous children?

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Is there a profession on Earth more mythologised than journalism? It’s hard to think of one. All that talk about the principles of the Fourth Estate, of keeping the powerful in check and guarding the public interest. In the days of well-funded journalism, university graduates were ushered into weekly shorthand training and could not advance further until their hand flew across the page at an unlikely 140 words per minute. Distinct from other forms of employment, the newspaper ‘profession’ (or is it a trade?) developed a weird and delightful lexicon around its daily production: page layouts were ‘furniture’, sub-editors were taught to avoid ungainly paragraph breaks known as ‘widows’ and ‘orphans’, while copy that was spaced out too sparsely was deemed to be ‘windy’. Meanwhile, many journalists, myself included, were seduced by the clubbish and contrarian quality of the profession, with offices resembling pool halls after 10 pm, rather than formal workspaces. There were certainly no key performance indicators to abide by, let alone an annual performance review.

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The distinguished historian Mark McKenna has written an elegant and hungry book about the pull of Uluru, that place of mysterious significance to Australians, black and white. Of course, in recent times, the Uluru Statement from the Heart – the heart that had a stake driven through it the moment it was entrusted to the most powerful whites in Canberra – is a complicated domain of passion and polemic. McKenna’s work, pro-Aboriginal and postcolonial in spirit, is itself an addition to the long history of romancing Uluru, albeit with a focus on a hero who seems like an anti-hero by the time this book is done.

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There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness by Carlo Rovelli, translated by Erica Segre and Simon Carnell

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March 2021, no. 429

In a recent interview, Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli confessed that the book he would most like to be remembered for is The Order of Time (2018), a work in which time, as it is commonly understood, ‘melts [like a snowflake] between your fingers and vanishes’. The Order of Time, Rovelli admits, only pretends to be about physics. Ultimately, it’s a book about the meaning of life and the complexity of being human.

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