Non Fiction

Six years after the ‘transgender tipping point’ proclaimed by Time magazine in 2014, the trans and gender-diverse (TGD) community continues to surge into the spotlight. From Netflix and Neighbours to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary (which named ‘they’ its 2019 word of the year), transgender experience is enjoying well-deserved recognition and representation. Visibility, however, is not without its problems. Internationally, growing awareness has triggered an anti-trans backlash, with the TGD community becoming a conservative scapegoat du jour. The United States is experiencing a spate of anti-trans violence, while ‘bathroom bills’ proliferate in red states. In Australia, the 2016 moral panic over Safe Schools was followed in 2019 by The Australian’s anti-trans campaign (with sixty-eight articles, ninety-two per cent of them negative, published in six months), as well as the transphobic fearmongering of TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) over Victoria’s birth certificate reforms – not to mention Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s attacks on ‘gender whisperers’.

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When country needs burning, timing is everything, and the grasses, by how cool or warm they feel, tell you exactly when to light up. Victor Steffensen is a master of timing. His book about Indigenous fire management came out just weeks after Australia’s unprecedented fires inspired calls for more Indigenous burning to quell the danger.

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Feature-length documentary film has seldom been as commercially successful as fictional drama at the box office. Nevertheless, Nick Fraser tells us that it is now ‘common to hear documentary film described as the new rock ‘n’ roll’. It is exactly this energy, influence, and popular appeal of documentary that Fraser wants to tap into with this book. He seeks to further enliven the documentary aficionado’s appreciation of the genre and to expand their knowledge of titles and filmmakers.

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In the past we have tended either to ignore or to marginalise cultural ‘expatriates’. In today’s cosmopolitan culture, we are more used to varied career paths, but it is still possible for someone who has made most of their career abroad to be overlooked. Judith Anderson is a case in point. Born in Adelaide in 1897, Francee Anderson (her first stage name) made her professional stage début in 1915 in Sydney, but from 1918 she was, virtually for the rest of her life, based in the United States. Desley Deacon’s substantial, superbly illustrated biography rescues Anderson from obscurity and reveals the full extent of her remarkable career on stage, in film, and on television.

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Imagine you’re trying to make sense of the universe five hundred years ago, when astronomers believe there are just seven visible ‘planets’ wandering about the Earth: the sun and moon plus Mercury to Saturn. Intriguingly, there are also seven known metals: gold, silver, copper, iron, tin, lead, and mercury. For hundreds of years there have been just seven known ‘planets’ and seven metals. Wouldn’t you be just a little tempted to see more than a coincidence here? Take gold, for example, which ‘does not react with anything in the air or the ground, and so retains its brilliance seemingly forever’: surely its power is similar to that of the ever-shining sun?

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Once, when we humans reflected on what made us special, we latched on to those qualities that distinguished us from the rest of creation. We were smarter, more rational, more cognitively capable. The philosopher Joseph de Maistre, for example, proposed that ‘the concept of number is the obvious distinction between beast and man’. More recently, with the onrush of the digital age, we have come to feel less confident in our mental powers. We may understand numbers better than other beasts, but our phones can carry out arithmetic calculations at inconceivable speeds and beat the brainiest among us at chess.

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It’s late July and high over the foggy green waters of the Sea of Okhotsk, a solitary Grey Plover beats its way south. Within sight of Sakhalin Island, the former Russian prison colony documented by Anton Chekhov, she veers west, heading for a vast tidal flat in Ul’banskiy Bay, not far from the rural settlement of Tugur Village. It’s hard to imagine a more isolated situation, and yet even here, in this empty theatre of sky and water, there is an audience. Nestled under the plumage on her back is a small satellite transmitter. An aerial extending beyond her tail feathers broadcasts her progress to the world.

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Plants are one of the first things you notice when you arrive in Australia: the swathes of olive-green trees and a crisp eucalypt scent on the air. It was the first thing many explorers noted, too, whether in Abel Tasman’s 1642 description of an ‘abundance of timber’ or in Willem de Vlamingh’s 1694 descriptions of trees ‘dripping with gum’ and the ‘whole land filled with the fine pleasant smell’ of native Callitris pines. It did not take long for accounts and samples of Australian vegetation to make their way back to Europe, although it took significantly longer for any systematic scientific work to be completed on our distinctive flora.

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After his success in forcing the British Natural History Museum to return skulls and bones of Tasmanian Aboriginals, the human rights lawyer Geoffrey Robertson was asked by the Greek minister of foreign affairs to ascertain whether international law could be used to induce the British to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece. Although the project found favour with a succession of Greek prime ministers, the Tsipras government decided not to act on Robertson’s recommendations. This book is a revised version of his report, along with a discussion of demands for the repatriation of other cultural treasures.

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The papacy’s role in international affairs is often underestimated. A recent example is Pope Francis’s participation in the 2015 negotiations leading to a détente between Cuba and the United States. It helped, of course, that Barack Obama was president and that Raúl Castro had replaced his brother Fidel in Havana; but it was Francis, building on the work of his predecessors who had maintained continuous relations with the Castro regime, who brought the two sides together, and who persuaded the United States to drop its sanctions against Cuba.

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