VIC contributor

The Living Sea of Waking Dreams begins, self-consciously, at the limits of language. Its opening pages are rendered in a prose style that is fragmented and contorted. Sentences break down, run into each other. Syntax is twisted into odd shapes that call into question the very possibility of meaning. Words seem to arrive pre-estranged by semantic satiation in a way that evokes Gertrude Stein or Samuel Beckett at their most opaque: ‘As if they too were already then falling apart, so much ash and soot soon to fall, so much smoke to suck down. As if all that can be said is we say you and if that then. Them us were we you?’

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Modern mega-farms are like nothing on earth. Imagine a vast black field stretching from horizon to horizon. A driverless tractor glides across the skyline spreading synthetic fertiliser. A cluster of grain towers looms over an empty asphalt parking lot. A row of pig sheds gleams in the distance. The square blot of the manure lagoon simmers in the hot sun. There are no trees. No birds. No mess. Everything is orderly, unpeopled, and entirely alien.

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Scanning my bookshelves, I see a dozen or more of the distinctive green spines of Virago Press. In the late 1970s and 1980s, the Virago imprint was a guarantee of good reading by women writers whose works were rediscovered and sent out to find a new public. I had read Margaret Atwood, Rosamond Lehmann, and Elizabeth Taylor for the first time in hardcovers; Virago made them new. Kate O’ Brien’s The Land of Spices, banned in Ireland, had been hard to get. Here it was in Virago green, with a perceptive introduction to put it in context.

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Catharine Macaulay (1731–91), a celebrated historian in England, was acquainted with leading political figures and intellectuals in Britain, America, and France. American revolutionaries were influenced by her republican principles, and the feminist pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft was inspired by her views. Today she is a largely forgotten figure, at most a footnote in histories of the period and not regarded as significant enough to be included in the Enlightenment pantheon among the luminaries she supported or criticised. Melbourne philosopher Karen Green claims that the neglect of Macaulay is not only an injustice to a historian and philosopher whose works deserve attention. She regards her as an important advocate of a form of Enlightenment thought that cannot be reduced to an apology for the possessive individualism of capitalist society.

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The announcement in June 2000 that a first draft of the human genome had been completed was rightly recognised as a landmark in scientific endeavour. Predictions were that the sequencing of the genome would allow for the pinpointing of genes responsible for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and heart disease, and lead to finely targeted, even personalised, treatments for a range of disorders. That these ambitions are still some way from being met doesn’t make the discovery any less remarkable. The Human Genome Project (HGP) gave us the capacity to read the basic building blocks of life. Research into the human genome is teaching us that the relationship between our approximately 30,000 genes and who we are is enormously complex, the result not merely of the action of individual genes but also of the ways in which those genes interact with each other and with their environment.

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On May Day 1955, two years after his death, a colossal memorial to Joseph Stalin was unveiled on a prominent site north of central. Towering above the city and containing 14,000 tons of granite, it was the largest statue of the dictator ever created. Stalin was depicted at the head of a representative group of citizens, dubbed by some as a bread queue. Otakar Švec, a prominent Czech sculptor, had won the commission in 1949. After the work’s stressful gestation, he killed himself shortly before the work was unveiled; there had been constant interference and police surveillance, and his wife committed suicide in 1954.

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This is a remarkable book – not so much for its subject matter as for the intensity of the passionate involvement of one writer with another. From the beginning, it is clear that this is not a conventional biography or book of criticism. A.N. Wilson approaches Charles Dickens through seven different mysteries about his life. The principal one, which underlies the whole book, is the mystery of what makes Dickens such an utterly compelling writer.

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Tilt by Kate Lilley

by
October 2020, no. 425

‘Even if truth be drawn from the work,’ writes Maurice Blanchot, ‘the work overruns it, takes it back into itself to bury and hide it.’ This strange, poetic movement to conceal what is manifest brings to mind another statement, by the psychiatrist and author Judith Herman: ‘The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma.’

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Change Machine is an exceptionally strong third collection. To the extent that a schematic of thesis–antithesis– synthesis applies to poets’ books, this one both exceeds and incorporates the work that came before. Intriguingly, the title poem seems a late addition, citing the pandemic in three clipped lines, borne on the shoulders of two innocuous words, should and but:

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The store of knowledge available to humanity has never been so immense and accessible as it is today. Nor has it been so vulnerable to neglect or erasure. That, in essence, is the message of this book, written with urgency by the most senior executive at the Bodleian Libraries at Oxford, one of the largest and oldest library systems in the world.

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