VIC contributor

‘Shall I scrub your back for you?” the monkey asked ... He had the clear, alluring voice of a doo-wop baritone. Not at all what you would expect.’ The eight short stories in First Person Singular are exactly what a reader has come to expect from Haruki Murakami, a writer with a penchant for neo-surrealism. The parabolic tales in this collection explore the familiar tropes and motifs of his oeuvre, including loneliness, outsiderness, chance encounters, music (classical, jazz and the Beatles), and memories. While Murakami might not be breaking new ground here, it is still a magical experience to return to his whimsical, eccentric, and enigmatic reimagining of Japan.

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Harold Bloom died in 2019 at the age of eighty-nine. Always prolific, he continued working until the very end. Throughout his final book, he digresses at regular intervals to record the date, note his advanced age, and allude to his failing health. At one point, he reveals that he is dictating from a hospital chair.

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Hugh Stretton knew he was a lucky man – someone born well in the lottery of life. Born in 1924, he came into a thoughtful family with a strong record of public service. He was educated at fine private schools and excelled in his arts and legal studies at the University of Melbourne. When war intervened, Stretton served in the navy for three years without suffering injury and then won a Rhodes scholarship before completing his undergraduate qualifications.

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Vera Deakin was Alfred and Pattie Deakin’s third and youngest daughter. Born on Christmas Day 1891 as Melbourne slid into depression, she grew up in a political household, well aware of her father’s dedication to the service of the Australian nation, not only in the Federation movement but later as attorney-general and three times as prime minister.

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As readers of her two volumes of memoirs will know, Sheila Fitzpatrick trained at the University of Melbourne until departing for Oxford in 1964 to pursue doctoral research on the history of the Soviet Union. That took her to Moscow, where she gained access to Soviet archives. Fitzpatrick would make her name as an archival historian, in contrast to earlier Western scholars who relied, both of necessity and by inclination, on other sources; she showed remarkable ingenuity in using the officially sanctioned records.

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‘If you want peace, prepare for war,’ Vegetius wrote in a fourth-century CE Roman military manual. From the classical world to the twenty-first-century Sino-American cold war, Margaret MacMillan’s book is broad in its sweep. Judging by the content, one might gain the impression that war is a purely European invention, but that would be erroneous; it is only because Europeans spent 2,400 years carefully archiving their literary, artistic, and technological endeavours in ‘the art of war’ that so much survives – except the victims. The soldiers and civilians are long gone, their names largely forgotten; what lives on is the representation of war in text, the visual arts, cinema, and oral history.

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‘Exile is a profound stimulus to the human anxiety for literary representation,’ writes Harold Bloom. Whether voluntary or involuntary, this impetus is the driving force behind the works in The Penguin Book of Migration Literature.

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Facing the ‘global refugee crisis’, politicians in Europe and Australia claim they are protecting their countries from the arrival of untold multitudes. Yet the ‘crisis’ is not global but highly specific. In 2019, seventy-six per cent of refugees came from just three countries (Congo, Myanmar, and Ukraine), while eighty-six per cent of refugees are hosted in a handful of countries in what is known as the Global South (especially Turkey, Jordan, Columbia, and Lebanon). Despite the significant contribution of Germany to hosting refugees, only ten per cent of the global refugee population live in Europe, comprising 0.6 per cent of the continent’s total population. There are 2,600,000 refugees in Europe today, compared with 11,000,000 at the end of World War II. The European Union’s challenges can scarcely be said to be at ‘crisis’ levels.

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Australia’s nearest neighbour, the fabulous New Guinea, is one of the least developed and least known islands on earth. The largest and highest tropical island, it boasts extensive tracts of old-growth tropical forest (second only to the Amazon following massive destruction in Borneo and Sumatra), equatorial alpine environments, extensive lowland swamp forests, and huge abundances and diversities of orchids, rhododendrons, forest tree species, frogs, freshwater fish, and leeches. The fauna, exotic as well as diverse, include the richest radiations of tree kangaroos, echidnas, birds of paradise, and bowerbirds.

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If you have ever wondered about the imaginative, wondrous side of science – for instance, how Einstein used maths to predict the existence of gravitational waves, or how a metaphor led to the astonishing discovery that the spinning earth drags space-time around it like molasses around a spoon, this is not the book for you. But if you want to know why scientists had the patience to keep refining their experiments until they detected this barely perceptible rippling of space-time, or why they have the kind of grit made legendary by Marie and Pierre Curie, sifting through tonnes of pitchblende for a speck of radium, you will find an intriguing, bold, and controversial answer in The Knowledge Machine.

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