Non Fiction

When the book arrived for review, a paperback of 656 pages, my heart sank. Americans are the world’s greatest researchers. Reading it would be like drinking from a fire hose. But it began incisively, with a turning point in the 2008 presidential campaign that established Obama’s audacity as a ‘complex, cautious, intelligent, shrewd, young African-American man’ who would project his ambitions and hopes as the aspirations of the United States of America itself. Soon we were in Kenya, with Tom Mboya, Jomo Kenyatta, the Mau Mau uprising, and Barack Hussein Obama Sr, a promising young economist with a rich, musical voice and a confident manner on his way to the University of Hawaii. We also meet the most compelling character in the book, perhaps in Obama’s life: his mother, a seventeen-year-old from Kansas, intrepid and idealistic, who takes up with the dasher from Kenya, becomes pregnant and marries him.

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What could be more timely than an argument for the humanities? They are poorly served in our schools and universities, and badly need champions. Martha Nussbaum, a distinguished philosopher at the University of Chicago, is well placed to affirm their importance. I read her book with eager anticipation and mounting disappointment.

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During the lead-up to the 2008 United States presidential election, I found myself waiting for a train at the Princeton railway station with nothing to read. I picked up a copy of the student newspaper. Much of it was standard Bush bashing, intermingled with unrealistic expectations of what Obama might achieve. But one sentence in an editorial caught my eye: ‘It is time to end amateur hour at the White House.’ One of the great failings of George W. Bush’s presidency was the neglect of expert advice on the complex issues that faced America during his two terms. Ideology, prejudice and vested interests trumped properly informed judgements based on good research.

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Not for forty years have Australians had real arguments with their governments about international relations. Many marched in 2003 against the Iraq invasion, but were ignored. Now, if the national obesity rate is any guide, Australians spend more time eating, partying and sleeping than having the earnest pre-breakfast discussions about foreign relations that Fukuzawa recommended.

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One of the more robust responses to what has come to be called the New Atheism has been that of the influential literary critic Terry Eagleton. He weighed into the argument early with an aggressive and widely cited critique of Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion (2006) in the London Review of Books, in which he charged Dawkins with theological ignorance. He extended his argument in a series of lectures, published as Reason, Faith and Revolution: Reflections on the God debate (2009), which condemned the atheist movement for its allegiance to an outdated form of nineteenth-century positivism and for its optimistic belief in the virtues of progressive liberal humanism. His latest book, On Evil, is a kind of supplement to the debate, in which he attempts to drive home what he considers the naïveté of such a view.

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How complex a task it is to write the biography of a writer. For writers, whose daily business is making things up, the truest experience may be one they have imagined. All biographers need to be storytellers and private detectives, but the biographer of a writer must also be a literary critic, must account for how the work relates to the life and escapes the life; beyond this, how the experience of writing it might change how the author apprehends those other parts of experience, called facts.

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Australian war historians usually find their theme in the army. Mike Carlton, a well-known journalist, thinks it is time to praise the Australian warship Perth and its men: ‘They were the flower of Australia’s greatest generation. No other has been so tested.’

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Needless to say, yet needing to be said, Australia’s twenty-third prime minister, R.J.L. Hawke, emerges from this interesting, sometimes engrossing yet disconcerting book smelling like roses. When MUP decided to publish, it must have seemed like a good idea. Deployed on television, Bob and Blanche were a marketing dream. But the result has a fatal flaw; it neither enlarges Hawke as a political leader nor advances d’Alpuget as a writer.

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A young Australian radical, who finds academic success later in life, struggles with an inexorable question: what is the relationship between these two worlds: the activist and the scholar? This question animated the life of Vere Gordon Childe, the Australian Marxist and intellectual whose The Dawn of Euro pean Civilization (1925) helped establish modern archaeology, as it has his most recent biographer, activist and labour historian Terry Irving, whose Class Structure in Australian History (1981, with Raewyn Connell) remains a key text.

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It is 116 years since Charles Harpur, Australia’s first poet of real eminence, died with his own collection of his works unpublished. Except for a couple of small selections – the most recent of which, made by Adrian Mitchell in 1973 and containing only about 120 pages of the poetry, was the most comprehensive – and the infamously corrupt 1883 ‘collection’, it has remained so. This has been a blot on the reputation of Australian critical and academic workers and a loss not only to Australian literature but to Australian history. Now Elizabeth Perkins, of the English Department of James Cook University, has handsomely remedied a long injustice.

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