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Campaigning during the 1912 US presidential election, the great labour leader and socialist Eugene Debs used to tell his supporters that he could not lead them into the Promised Land because if they were trusting enough to be led in they would be trusting enough to be led out again. In other words, he was counselling his voters to resist the easy certitude that zealotry brings; to reject a politics that trades on blind faith rather than the critical power of reason.

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The memoirs of any barrister still in harness are, by definition, advertising. The mystery of The Justice Game is what on earth Geoffrey Robertson needs to sell. He is much too busy already. A queue of life’s victims wanting his help in court would stretch twice round the Temple. But drumming up business is not what the book is about. Its real purpose, I suspect, is to show that, despite a certain radical reputation, Robertson is a sound man.

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Gerard Windsor reviews 'Maestro' by Peter Goldsworthy

Gerard Windsor
Friday, 06 December 2019

The current literary enterprise of this country is greatly indebted to Peter Goldsworthy. Yet his name is not one of those that trip off the reflex tongues of journalists, and not only journalists. He has only recently started to appear in the anthologies. He is granted all of two lines in Ken Gelder and Paul Salzman’s jerky traverse of our recent fiction. Yet his accomplishment in a diversity of genres is unique.

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The World of Charmian Clift is a selection of the weekly columns she wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald’s women’s pages. They date from 1964, the year that she, George Johnston, and their children returned from Greece, up to her tragic suicide in 1969. Clift herself selected most of the essays for the book, which was first published posthumously in 1970, not long before George Johnston’s death from tuberculosis.

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Elizabeth Jolley’s new novel takes a leap into the past, to a large hospital in wartime England where Veronica Wright, an awkward girl just out of a Quaker boarding school, endures the discomforts and humiliations of a trainee nurse. As we have come to expect from this writer, there are all sorts of marvellous things tucked away in odd corners. Sharp observations of hospital routine – preparing bread and butter for the patients’ trays, chasing cockroaches with steel knitting-needles, shivering on night duty, and trying to keep warm in old army blankets – are mixed with passages of grotesque comedy, and with one or two memorable instances of the macabre, nowhere more effectively than in the death of a gangrene-ridden, maggot-infested patient.

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Helen Daniel reviews 'Plumbum' by David Foster

Helen Daniel
Friday, 06 December 2019

After the zany energy and comic extravagance of Moonlite, the first part of David Foster’s new novel, Plumbum, is curiously sober and the comic vision subdued. In Canberra, which his characters generally regard as preposterous, The Last Great Heavy Metal Rock Band of the Western World is born, but its birth is protracted and the narrative pace is leisurely, sometimes dangerously slow. The reader is lulled, apart from the faint, nervous suspicion that the narrative might suddenly accelerate and take off. And it does, at lunatic speed in the second half of the novel, where Foster is at his fabulous best, absurdist and zany comic.

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Laurie Clancy reviews 'Brilliant Creatures' by Clive James

Laurie Clancy
Friday, 06 December 2019

Brilliant Creatures is not so much a novel – a first novel, as the title page coyly points out – as it is a presentation pack. The text itself is bookended by an introduction at the front, and a set of extensive, very boring notes and index at the back. A set of notes and an index for a novel, a first novel? Yep. Clive James has heard of Nabokov and Pale Fire. He has also, as the four-page introduction makes clear, heard of his ‘illustrious ancestor Henry’: of Gide, Montaigne, Sterne, Peacock, Firbank, Trollope, Joyce, Shakespeare, and Nietzsche.

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The Meaning of Recognition

Clive James
Friday, 29 November 2019

There is a difference between celebrity and recognition. Celebrities are recognised in the street, but usually because of who they are, or who they are supposed to be. To achieve recognition, however, is to be recognised in a different way. It is to be known for what you have done, and quite often the person who knows what you have done has no idea what you look like. When I say I’ve had enough of celebrity status, I don’t mean that I am sick of the very idea.

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Judy Duffy reviews 'I for Isobel' by Amy Witting

Judy Duffy
Thursday, 21 November 2019

Amy Witting’s second novel is a skilfully structured, totally absorbing, mystery story. Not a ‘who done it?’ but a ‘why did they do it?’ Why did Isobel Callaghan’s mother subject her child to such unrelenting and shocking psychological cruelty? Why did Isobel’s always tired, always silent father always acquiesce? Why is it Isobel and not ...

Brian Castro’s novel Birds of Passage is a dramatic exploration of the intriguing idea, found in Butler, Jung, and others, that an individual’s life may in some way be in touch with ancestral experience. It imagines the possibility of a previous life, its outlook on reality and rhythms of existence, flowing troublingly into the consciousness of the present. The book shared the valuable Australian Vogel Prize last year. It is of some interest, but is a distinctly uneven work. Romantic in concept in its adoption of the idea of racial memory and psychic disposition, it is sometimes sententious in tone in its reaching for poetic effect, and prone to mix its narrative modes disconcertingly. It is hard to see it as a major literary prize-winner, although some of the historical episodes in its dual narrative are nicely done and the basic idea in itself is an attractive one.

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