Non Fiction

On a frosty January morning in 2019, I found myself listening to oral argument at the Supreme Court of the United States. The cases I witnessed were not destined for headlines – no abortion, free speech, or death penalty cases that day – but I was still fortunate to get a seat. Queues snaked around the building, with tightly controlled ticketed entry and heavily armed security. As a scholar of constitutional courts, I was delighted by the public interest (less so by the guns), even if a Trump shut-down of nearby tourist attractions may have augmented the numbers. But none of us attending that day expected to witness something extraordinary: Clarence Thomas speaking.

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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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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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Catherine Cho’s Inferno is the first ‘motherhood memoir’ I have read since reading Maria Tumarkin’s essay ‘Against Motherhood Memoirs’ in Dangerous Ideas About Mothers (2018). The topic of motherhood has been ‘overly melded’ to memoiristic writing, Tumarkin argues; it feels ‘too much like a foregone conclusion’.

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Art and Paris meant everything to Agnes Goodsir. ‘You must forgive my enthusiasm,’ she wrote. ‘Nothing else is of the smallest or faintest importance besides that.’ Goodsir was the Australian artist who painted the iconic portrait Girl with Cigarette, now in the Bendigo Art Gallery. It depicts a cool, sophisticated, free-spirited woman of the Parisian boulevards. When Goodsir created it, in 1925 or thereabouts, she had lived in Paris since the turn of the century. Apart from brief visits back to Australia, she stayed there until her death in 1939.

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The Stranger Artist is a finely structured and beautifully written account of gallerist Tony Oliver’s immersion into the world of the Kimberley art movement at the end of the twentieth century; the close relationships he developed over the following years with painters such as Paddy Bedford, Freddie Timms, and Rusty Peters; and the creation of Jirrawun Arts as a collective to both promote and protect the artists and their work. How these artists, under Oliver’s practical guidance, came to assume the mantle of the legendary Rover Thomas and took Kimberley art to the world provides a compelling narrative: from fascination to enthralment to disillusion. Dreams are born, bear fruit, and die. Like many a fine work of art, The Stranger Artist attracts with a brilliant surface while fascinating with its deeper layers. Behind the thrill and wisdom of the painting – so new and old, so luminous and dark – lurk the tragedies of history and dysfunctional politics. This book – how could it be otherwise? – is peopled with spectacular characters, art, and landscapes. Appropriate to this remote corner of Australia, it is full of intense colour and eccentricity, while also permeated with great sadness.

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Written by a prominent economist with a long career in emissions reduction and policy modelling, this engaging book attempts to debunk eleven myths that undermine effective climate action. Jaccard also offers a ‘simple’ path to climate success, built around strong regulatory action, carbon pricing, a system of carbon tariffs, and supporting poorer countries in energy transitions. Jaccard focuses on emissions reduction in the transport and energy sectors, in line with his areas of expertise.

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All authors who are releasing new books during the global pandemic are at a disadvantage, but some less so than others. It helps to have a title that speaks to the moment, which The Better Half, with its central thesis that women are ‘genetically privileged’, certainly does. The coronavirus, we have learnt, tends to affect men more severely than women. Some have attributed the discrepancy to men being more likely to engage in risk-taking or health-compromising behaviours, while other experts have advanced a genetic explanation.

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‘“I must remember accurately,” I told myself, “remember everything accurately so that when he is gone I can re-create the father who created me.”’ This is Philip Roth exhorting himself while witnessing his declining father bathe in Patrimony: A true story (1991), a memoir that opens when Herman Roth is diagnosed with a brain tumour. The book, tender but also brutal, slips between the present and the past. Philip Roth, after all, is the writer. The matter of accuracy feels particularly perilous when the subject is the writer’s parent, if the intention is not to write a hagiography. It takes a particular kind of courage to countenance a parent’s failings when not motivated by revenge.

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Whatever you think of Woody Allen, you will probably find his memoir, Apropos of Nothing, compelling. It’s likely to convince you that he didn’t molest his adoptive daughter Dylan all those years ago. The resurgence of this accusation, first aired in 1992, has caused such widespread concern that Hachette pulled this book because of vehement objections by Ronan Farrow, Allen’s biological son with Mia Farrow, sometime partner of Allen and the woman who accused him of molesting Dylan. This was in the wake of her discovery that Allen had begun a romance with Farrow’s twenty-one-year-old adoptive daughter Soon-Yi Previn, to whom he has been married since 1997. The immediate context was a widespread office rebellion at Hachette.

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