Monash contributor

This book addresses one fundamental question: is nationalism a transformative force in politics? Nationalism is usually seen as an offshoot of ‘identity politics’, which in turn is the product of long-term social change, notably access to higher education. Such an analysis can be found in David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The new tribes shaping British politics (2017) and Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford’s Brexitland: Identity, diversity and the reshaping of British politics (2020). There is of course merit to such positions, but it is unusual for any research-based analysis to see nationalism as the driver of political change: it is the symptom rather than the cause.

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Comparison, when it comes to historical study, is rarely devoid of ambition. The aim is to identify patterns that are global in their significance and to overcome the tendency to see a unique trajectory for particular places or nations. Yet such work frequently founders when it becomes apparent that the author’s knowledge of alternative cases is thin or that the claim to comparison is made to hide a focus that is in fact quite narrow. Not so in this co-authored book, which builds upon its three authors’ areas of expertise – the Anglosphere (Martin Crotty), Asia (Neil J. Diamant), and Europe (Mark Edele) – to deliver a compelling argument about veteran benefits in the twentieth century.

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In the novel Demons, Dostoevsky’s narrator describes the character Shatov as ‘one of those ideal Russian beings who can suddenly be so struck by some strong idea that it seems to crush them then and there, sometimes even forever’. This ideal person is one whose ‘whole life afterwards is spent in some last writhings, as it were, under the stone that has fallen on them’. The people who populate Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism are Americans rather than Russians, but they too are living in the last writhings of the strong idea that dominates their lives: the idea of Stalinist communism.

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This is a strange time to be reading a book about risk, especially one in which the risk of a pandemic is a central concern. Many of us have been worrying about, and attempting to manage, risks every time we have left the house. One of the lessons of this experience has been just how bad we are at thinking about risk. In particular, we struggle to reckon with small risks that may have disastrous outcomes.

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Thucydides once said, ‘In a democracy, someone who fails to get elected to office can always console himself with the thought that there was something not quite fair about it.’ Chris Wallace is not inclined to agree with the Greek historian, particularly when dissecting the Labor Party’s shock federal election loss in 2019. In her latest book, How to Win an Election, Wallace nominates the ten things that Labor must get right to succeed at the next federal election, and self-pity is nowhere among them. This approach appears simplistic, even tongue-in-cheek at times, but she has captured the key elements of electoral success and makes a strong case that Australia cannot afford another ALP loss.

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Flyaway by Kathleen Jennings

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November 2020, no. 426

At the heart of every fairy tale, there is violence: Snow White’s stepmother calling for her heart on a platter, Cinderella’s sisters mutilating their feet to fit the silver shoe. ‘All the better to eat you with, my dear,’ says the wolf, his belly already stuffed with grandmother’s flesh. From this bloodletting, the fairy tale tries to spin something wondrous, turning straw into gold and men into beasts.

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Tilt by Kate Lilley

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October 2020, no. 425

‘Even if truth be drawn from the work,’ writes Maurice Blanchot, ‘the work overruns it, takes it back into itself to bury and hide it.’ This strange, poetic movement to conceal what is manifest brings to mind another statement, by the psychiatrist and author Judith Herman: ‘The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.’

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The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas by Machado de Assis, translated by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux

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October 2020, no. 425

From the moment one reads that this book is dedicated ‘To the worm that first gnawed at the cold flesh of my cadaver’, it is clear that The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, first published in Rio de Janeiro in 1881, is a novel like few others.

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Our stories are not working. Whether they be the kind we tell in fiction, or the larger canvas of culture twittering away across the global village, our present reality – the seismic planetary shifts, the pandemical turmoil – evades our collective narrative comprehension. We are clearly at a critical moment in history, the consequences of which will ripple through time in unimaginable ways. In preparation for what is to come, we urgently need to view the frightening present with clarity. Only then, by extrapolating the likely future of our planet, might we begin to imagine a better world. There may not be a more qualified living writer to do this than Kim Stanley Robinson.

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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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