Hale & Iremonger

The title of The Half-Open Door implies questions relating to the lives of modern professional women in Australia, and bears on the current attention, political and academic, being given to women’s matters. These questions are made explicit in the book’s Preface, which asks why women enter the demanding areas of the professions and the arts, and why so few achieve positions of high status in these fields. Contemporary evidence, formal and informal, of the ambiguity of opportunity for women in Australia is commonplace. For instance, the typical composition of academic humanities departments is like that in which the reviewers work: sixty-four per cent of the student body yet only twenty per cent of the full-time academic staff are female. Why the door – which was opened relatively early for women in Australia by university admittance, emancipation and equal job-opportunity –remains half-closed is a question that needs to be asked. Regrettably, this volume goes only half-way to suggesting an answer.

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One of the challenges confronting the writer of poetry is the balancing of public and private modes in an engaging and satisfactory whole. In these three collections the precarious possibilities of balance, of confiding and confronting, are attempted in very different ways.

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I have sat on these books longer than is reasonable for a review, yet have to confess that I am not satisfied with the readiness of what follows. I got the Porter first, but receiving the Johnston thought that they in some ways offered similar difficulties, perhaps similar rewards, to the reader, and that it might be neat to review them together.

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Eddie Leonski was a private in the United States Army who was tried and executed for strangling three women in wartime Melbourne. Barely three weeks elapsed between the first murder and Leonski’s arrest. He was executed six months later, in November 1942. There seems no doubt that Leonski committed the crimes; whether he had a fair trial is another matter.

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Sometimes I’ve written reviews ‘because I was invited’, or felt I should. But this is a book I really want to review. And I wasn’t invited: I applied for the job. For close on thirty years I’ve been grateful to Rosemary Dobson, especially for her third book, Child with a Cockatoo (1955), the one through which I came to know her work. Her latest, despite obvious continuities, gives a rather different kind of pleasure, and new reasons for gratitude.

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It is comparatively rare for a new writer to bring out his first two collections in the one year, and even more rare that one should be a collection of verse and the other of short stories. Yet this is exactly what Peter Goldsworthy has done. His name will be unfamiliar to many, but those who regularly read literary magazines will have come across his stories and poems before and he will undoubtedly be heard of again.

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On getting hold of Grace Karskens’s new book, I went straight to the colour plates of artefacts resurrected from the neighbourhood of the title, part of the historic Rocks area of inner Sydney. I love to look at salvage: pieced-together dinner plates, dolls’ heads, and brass buckles and buttons whose verdigris defies any amount of elbow grease. But the photo that really grabbed me was of a dug-up gold wedding ring, modelled on one finger of a hand neatly manicured but for a crescent of black dirt embedded deep under the thumbnail. To me, that minute trace of the Rocks neighbourhood spoke vividly – more so, somehow, than any of the scrubbed-up artefacts – of the peculiar joys of dabbling in other people’s cesspits and of the adventure into history that underlies Inside the Rocks.

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