Non Fiction

It seems hard to imagine that we need more books on World War I after the tsunami of publications released during the recent centenary. Yet, here we have a blockbuster, a 926-page tome, Staring at God, by Simon Heffer, a British journalist turned historian in the tradition of Alistair Horne and Max Hastings.

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The Great War: Aftermath and commemoration edited by Carolyn Holbrook and Keir Reeves

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April 2020, no. 420

The centenary of World War I offered a significant opportunity to reflect on the experience and legacy of one of the world’s most devastating conflicts. In Australia such reflection was, on the whole, disappointingly one-dimensional: a four-year nationalistic and sanitised ‘memory orgy’ (to use Joan Beaumont’s wonderful phrase). It did, however, galvanise historians to produce important new studies of the war and to tackle long-standing questions about Australians’ attachment to Anzac. Many of those historians, established and early career, feature in The Great War: Aftermath and commemoration.

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It was only seventy years ago that Aboriginal workers in the north-west of Western Australia emerged from virtual slavery on the pastoral stations in the Pilbara region. Through their own efforts, and with encouragement from some white supporters, they radically changed the industry and undermined a colonising process of government control over them. Their protest is known as the 1946–1949 pastoral workers’ strike, which Anne Scrimgeour declares ‘has the quality of a legend’. In On Red Earth Walking she verifies the story. Her meticulous archival research and evidence, from those whose planning and actions were mostly not recorded, lead her to new understandings. It is her relationship with the strikers and their descendants that makes her book unique, for she conveys their response to colonisation through their eyes.

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Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse follows the life of the strong Nuenonne woman who lived through the dramatic upheavals of invasion and dispossession and became known around the world as the so-called ‘last Tasmanian’. But the figure at the heart of this book is George Augustus Robinson, the self-styled missionary and chronicler who was charged with ‘conciliating’ with the Tasmanian Aboriginal peoples. It is primarily through his journals that historians are able to glimpse and piece together the world fractured by European arrival.

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Going Dark by Julia Ebner & Antisocial by Andrew Marantz

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April 2020, no. 420

On 15 March 2019, the worst mass shooting in New Zealand’s history took place at the Al-Noor Mosque and the Linwood Islamic Centre in Christchurch. Fifty-one people were killed and forty-nine injured as they gathered for Friday prayers. Sickeningly, the gunman, Brenton Tarrant, live-streamed the event on Facebook. A manifesto written by Tarrant quickly surfaced, full of coded language and references best understood by the alt-right community on online platforms such as Reddit, 4Chan, and 8Chan. In court, as he waited for charges to be read out, Tarrant flashed the ‘okay’ signal, once an innocuous hand gesture, now transformed by the culture of the alt-right into a symbol of white supremacy.

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At the beginning of this wide-ranging collection of criticism by the novelist, critic, and academic Anthony Macris, the author notes wryly that an early candidate for the book’s title was Personality Crisis, such is its diversity of topics and styles. The implication here is that reviews and essays form a kind of autobiography. I’m not sure I would use the word ‘crisis’ to describe it, but certainly the portrait we have in this case is of a writer driven by very different kinds of curiosity: about literature and writing but also the art forms that lie beyond them – and, as centrally, by a social and political curiosity about the ways those forms change when they respond to the world around us.

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The Australian Musical from the Beginning by Peter Pinne and Peter Wyllie Johnston

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March 2020, no. 419

What is the musical’s appeal? Performing arts venues in Australia’s capital cities stage them year after year; a lucrative box office seems to be virtually guaranteed. The feel-good mix of song, melodrama, and vibrant dance – not forgetting the bonus of a happy ending – can lift the spirits and entertain the entire family. Recently, Chicago (Melbourne, Brisbane), West Side Story, and Billy Elliot (Adelaide) secured packed houses.

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It’s perhaps a dubious thought, but the life of an actor invariably triggers something prurient in the audience, some desperate need to peer past the mask, to see beyond the curtain. Books by and about actors indulge this prurience, whether or not they are intended to. Works like Konstantin Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepares (1936) or Stella Adler’s The Art of Acting (2000) deal academically with the interiority and motivations of acting, but they still offer a glimpse into the process and the perceived trickery of creation. The most fun are the intentionally salacious ones, like David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon (1971) or Scotty Bowers’s Full Service (2017), which detailed the sexual proclivities of Hollywood’s closeted élite. Anything to get us closer, to get us into the inner sanctum.

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In 1973, aged six, I heard the song ‘Rock On’ by David Essex. I was obsessed by its sound. While I couldn’t have put it into words, I half understood that the song was made sonically exciting not just through its inventive arrangement (a song about rock and roll with no guitars!) but also its production techniques, especially the use of reverb and delay to ‘stage’ the vocal and instrumental performances.

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‘How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,’ writes Annie Dillard in The Writing Life, her timely appeal for presence over productivity in modern life. Turning the page on a new year reminds us of the seasonality of time, its familiar cycles of life, death, and rebirth. But flipping through the empty pages of a calendar can also remind us that time is a human construct designed to regulate our lives for maximum efficiency and output. In today’s attention economy, where time is treated as a currency by the technologies we use to satisfy our animal need for connection, how might we rediscover the joy of being present in a moment, a body, a community, a place? In other words, how are we to live?

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