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The fortieth anniversary of the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras might have been an occasion for unbridled elation. Held in March of 2018, the celebration came soon after the bitterly fought battle to legalise same-sex marriage in Australia. Dennis Altman, a pre-eminent figure in Gay Liberation, paints a different picture of the Mardi Gras. His new book, Unrequited Love: Diary of an accidental activist, conveys a sense of unease despite the frolicsome charms of such festivities.

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Every biographer has a relationship with their subject, even if they have passed away. A real advantage for biographers of the dead is that the subject cannot say what they think about the book. The relationship between Margaret Simons and Penny Wong was fraught. That this mattered is evident from the opening sentence: ‘Penny Wong did not want this book to be written.’ Simons, a journalist, biographer, and associate professor at Monash University, uses her preface to complain about how difficult it was researching the book without Wong’s assistance and against her will. 

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Johanna Leggatt reviews 'Coventry: Essays' by Rachel Cusk

Johanna Leggatt
Friday, 22 November 2019

Two years before Rachel Cusk published the first novel in her acclaimed Outline Trilogy (2014–18), she wrote a searing account of her divorce, entitled ‘Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation’, which ignited a brouhaha in her homeland, the United Kingdom. The dramatic excoriation of marital life aroused apoplexy among critics and readers; they bristled at Cusk’s subjective and one-sided storytelling, as if any other account of divorce were possible. It wasn’t the first time Cusk’s work had raised eyebrows: her memoir, A Life’s Work: On becoming a mother (2001), offended many a book-club member with its frank and unflattering descriptions of motherhood.

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Brian Toohey reviews 'Permanent Record' by Edward Snowden

Brian Toohey
Friday, 15 November 2019

Edward Snowden was a model employee of the National Security Agency. After realising that the vast electronic surveillance organisation often failed to backup its advanced computerised systems properly, Snowden offered a solution. His bosses readily agreed to let him build and run a comprehensive backup system. He subsequently copied huge amounts of highly sensitive information, which he took with him when he left the NSA in 2013, aged twenty-nine, to become the most important whistleblower in intelligence agency history.

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Shannon Burns reviews 'Ducks, Newburyport' by Lucy Ellmann

Shannon Burns
Friday, 25 October 2019

Lucy Ellmann’s ambitious seventh novel stages the workings of a mind as it digests – or fails to digest – life-altering experiences. Ducks, Newburyport is, for the most part, the ruminating inner monologue of a bewildered and frightened woman. It spans a thousand mostly artful pages and is an undeniably impressive accomplishment. However, for readers who relished Ellmann’s brilliant comic novels, Ducks may lack the energising charge – absurd, erotic, and darkly funny – that is so satisfyingly prominent in her earlier work.

Its chief narrator is a well-educated American mother of four afflicted by sharp anxiety. Her concerns include: the existence of President Trump; repeated  mass shootings; the threat of nuclear war or climate catastrophe; male violence; and precarious health care. Her inner life is expansive but oriented around  a handful of personal wounds, many of which are recast in the parallel story of a hunted lioness in search of her babes. Leaving aside a memorable sexual encounter, the latter resembles a children’s fable, a similarity that is knowingly signalled when the narrator recalls ‘some Disney movie about an escaped lion that wonders around some town’.

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In the spring of 2003, a person from Hilary McPhee’s past got in touch with her. McPhee did not remember the woman’s name but recognised her immediately when they met for coffee. At high school they had played hockey together for a team called the Colac Battlers. The woman had been working for years as a personal assistant at a palace in Jordan ...

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Paul Kildea reviews 'Sontag: Her life' by Benjamin Moser

Paul Kildea
Wednesday, 23 October 2019

Sam Leith, literary editor of Spectator magazine, recently put author Benjamin Moser on the spot. ‘Do you think her work will last?’ he asked, referring to the writings of Susan Sontag, whose biography Moser had not long finished. ‘And if so, which of it?’ Moser dissembled bravely. ‘Well, I hope so ...

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Beejay Silcox reviews 'The Testaments' by Margaret Atwood

Beejay Silcox
Monday, 07 October 2019

There was never any question that The Testaments, Margaret Atwood’s coda to The Handmaid’s Tale (1985), would be a gargantuan blockbuster, a publishing Godzilla. Giddily hyped and fiercely embargoed, bookshops across the world counted down the minutes until midnight on September 10 (GMT), when the envy-green volume ...

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James Antoniou reviews 'On Drugs' by Chris Fleming

James Antoniou
Monday, 30 September 2019

Literature inspired by drugs tends to swing between extremes. On the one hand, drugs are the very doors of perception, gateways to Xanadu; on the other they are a source of grim addictions, lotus plants that tempt one into indefinite living sleep. In recent decades there have been the highs of William S. Burroughs, Tom Wolfe, Hunter S. Thompson and Irvine Welsh, but rarer are those memoirists with experiences of addiction and philosophy who can reflect on the subject in the tradition of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821). Well, cue Chris Fleming’s On Drugs.

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Anna MacDonald reviews 'There Was Still Love' by Favel Parrett

Anna MacDonald
Thursday, 26 September 2019

Favel Parrett’s tender new novel, There Was Still Love, explores what it means to make a home and how a person might be free in a world ruptured by political as well as personal upheavals. Moving backwards and forwards in time (from 1981 to 1938) across vast distances – from Prague to Melbourne, via London – between first- and third-person narrators, past and present tense, Parrett beautifully captures one family’s complicated twentieth-century inheritance.

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