Book of the Week

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I am a great fan of archives, and so is John Fahey, a former officer of an Australian intelligence service (the Defence Signals Directorate) turned historian. His previous book, Australia’s First Spies (2018), covered the same time period (1901–50) but focused on the good guys (our spies) rather than the bad ones (their spies). His itemised list of Australian, British, and US archival files consulted runs to several pages. Most of these are the archives of intelligence agencies. And here’s the rub: intelligence files contain many names, but not necessarily the names of actual spies.

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Felicity Plunkett reviews 'Summer' by Ali Smith

Felicity Plunkett
14 September 2020

I could begin with a lark stitched into a letter. It’s 2020 and ‘all manner of virulent things’ are simmering. Sixteen-year-old Sacha writes to Hero, a detained refugee. She wants to send ‘an open horizon’. Unsure what to say to someone suffering injustice, she writes about swifts: how far they travel, how they feed – and even sleep – on the wing. The way their presence announces the beginning and ending of summer ‘makes swifts a bit like a flying message in a bottle’. Maybe they even make summer happen.

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When William Blake wrote of seeing ‘a World in a Grain of Sand’, he meant the details: their ability to evoke entire universes. So did Aldous Huxley when, experimenting with mescaline, he discovered ‘the miracle … of naked existence’ in a vase of flowers. More recently, Jenny Odell’s bestseller How To Do Nothing: Resisting the attention economy (2019) made a case for rejecting productivity in favour of active attention to the world around us.  

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On the July afternoon when I first read Intimations, novelist and prolific essayist Zadie Smith’s new book of essays, Melbourne registered its highest number of Covid-19 cases – 484 positives, with two deaths. Since then the daily tolls have risen alarmingly. Midway through the city’s second week of Lockdown 2.0, there is a nebulous feeling of dispiritedness. We mark time as belonging to a pre-Covid era or the present reality. Within the present there exist further subdivisions of pasts and presents marked by social distancing, mandatory mask-wearing, hopefulness.

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In 2011, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed that ‘gay rights are human rights’. This statement, which would seem uncontroversial to most readers of ABR, was widely attacked as a symbol of Western neo-colonialism. Combined with the 2015 US Supreme Court recognition of same-sex marriage, gay rights were seen by many religious and political leaders as a threat to tradition, culture, and religion, even when, as in many parts of Africa and the Pacific, laws proscribing homosexual behaviour are the legacy of nineteenth-century colonialism.

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Laura Elvery’s second short story collection, Ordinary Matters, shows the same talent for precise observation, pathos, and humour as her accomplished début collection, Trick of the Light (2018). It differs in its creation of a greater range of narrators and voices, and in its use of a specific ideological framework through which to unify the collection: each of its twenty stories is prefaced by the name of a Nobel Prize-winning female scientist and the ‘prize motivation’ for her award. This device might be read as subverting the sexist stereotype that, denying women the capacity for rational thought, consigns them to the ‘softer’ realms of emotion and artistic endeavour. It also encourages an interesting way of thinking about female desire as it pertains to a range of experiences, including creativity, ambition, motherhood, sexuality, and political activism.

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Acknowledging the limits of Acknowledgments of Country, the Wiradjuri artist Jazz Money once wrote:

whitefellas try to acknowledge things
but they do it wrong
they say
           before we begin I’d like to pay my respects
not understanding
that there isn’t a time before it begins
it has all already begun

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On a frosty January morning in 2019, I found myself listening to oral argument at the Supreme Court of the United States. The cases I witnessed were not destined for headlines – no abortion, free speech, or death penalty cases that day – but I was still fortunate to get a seat. Queues snaked around the building, with tightly controlled ticketed entry and heavily armed security. As a scholar of constitutional courts, I was delighted by the public interest (less so by the guns), even if a Trump shut-down of nearby tourist attractions may have augmented the numbers. But none of us attending that day expected to witness something extraordinary: Clarence Thomas speaking.

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Blake Gopnik’s Warhol is a monumental undertaking. At nearly a thousand pages, there is an intensity of labour present so dense that the tome feels light by comparison. The fifty chapters are arranged in chronological order after a prelude detailing Warhol’s first untimely death. This order, from birth to his second untimely death, charts a linear path through the chaotic, challenging, and extraordinary life of one of the art world’s most precocious and baffling personalities.

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Kokomo has a startling beginning. ‘Mina knew in that moment what love is’, goes the first sentence. She is looking at Jack’s penis, which is compared to a soldier, a ballerina, a lighthouse, and a cooee. It is also the nicest penis she has ever seen.

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