Book of the Week

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A young Australian radical, who finds academic success later in life, struggles with an inexorable question: what is the relationship between these two worlds: the activist and the scholar? This question animated the life of Vere Gordon Childe, the Australian Marxist and intellectual whose The Dawn of Euro pean Civilization (1925) helped establish modern archaeology, as it has his most recent biographer, activist and labour historian Terry Irving, whose Class Structure in Australian History (1981, with Raewyn Connell) remains a key text.

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Borrowing a term coined by the late Jewish Nobel Laureate and vegetarian Isaac Bashevis Singer, Charles Patterson (in)famously likened humanity’s treatment of animals to an ‘eternal Treblinka’. In his 2001 book of the same name, Patterson set the mass murder of Europe’s Jews and industrialised animal slaughter side by side, drawing a line between the production methods of Chicago’s early twentieth-century slaughterhouses, the assembly-line technology pioneered by Henry Ford – an avowed anti-Semite and Hitler supporter – and the death camps of Nazi Germany. Another Jewish writer, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno, is said to have observed that ‘Auschwitz begins whenever someone looks at a slaughterhouse and thinks: they’re only animals’.

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Catherine Cho’s Inferno is the first ‘motherhood memoir’ I have read since reading Maria Tumarkin’s essay ‘Against Motherhood Memoirs’ in Dangerous Ideas About Mothers (2018). The topic of motherhood has been ‘overly melded’ to memoiristic writing, Tumarkin argues; it feels ‘too much like a foregone conclusion’.

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‘The constant loss of breath is the legacy.’ So wrote poet Ali Cobby Eckermann in 2015 for the anthology The Intervention. The eponymous Intervention of 2007 in the Northern Territory was, in the long history of this continent, the first time that the federal government had deployed the army against its own citizenry. As I write this review, in the United States police are using tear gas, traditionally reserved for warfare, against those protesting the worth of black life, while the president flirts with the idea of calling in the military. Some of us gasp in shock. Some, in suffocation.

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Though its origins are unknown, the earliest sense of the word ‘quirk’ was as a subtle verbal twist or a quibble. Over time, its definition has become more nuanced: a quirk now also refers to a person’s peculiar or idiosyncratic traits, chance occurrences, and sudden, surprise curves appearing on paths or in facial expressions. Quirks can also be accidents, vagaries, witty turns of phrase.

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Malcolm Turnbull looks us straight in the eye from the cover of this handsome book, with just a hint of a smile. He looks calm, healthy, and confident; if there are scars from his loss of the prime ministership in August 2018, they don’t show. The book’s voice is the engaging one we heard when Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott in July 2015 and promised a style of leadership that respected people’s intelligence. He takes us from his childhood in a very unhappy marriage, through school and university, his astonishing successes in media, business, and the law, his entry into politics as the member for Wentworth, and ends with his exit from parliament.

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John Keane is Australia’s leading scholar of democracy, with work that demonstrates an impressive command of global sources. Keane’s most widely cited book, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009), included new research on the origins of public assemblies in India many centuries before the familiar democracy of Greek city-states. Keane located the origins of democracy in non-European traditions, in part by tracing the linguistic origins of the concept.

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Who better to shepherd us through a once-in-a-century pandemic than Rebecca Solnit? The prolific essayist, activist, and critic has long acted as a lodestar for progressives to follow in times of despair, providing encouragement to find Hope in the Dark (2004), as she did in a collection of essays after the beginning of the Iraq War, and demonstrating how human ingenuity can shine through in the wake of a disaster like Hurricane Katrina in A Paradise Built in Hell (2009).

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Everything about Chris Flynn’s Mammoth – the characters, plot, and structure – should not work. But it does, and beautifully so. Mammoth is narrated by the fossilised remains of a 13,354-year-old extinct American Mammoth (Mammut americanum), who likes to be addressed as Mammut. On 24 March 2007, the eve of his sale at the Natural History Auction in New York, Mammut finds himself in a room with Tyrannosaurus bataar (who prefers to be called T.bat).

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James Bradley’s Ghost Species arrives at a time when fiction seems outpaced by the speed with which we humans are changing the planet. Alarmingly, such writerly speculation has been realised during Australia’s tragic summer, when the future finally bore down on us. And there are few writers of climate fiction – or ‘cli-fi’, the term coined by activist blogger Dan Bloom and popularised in a tweet by Margaret Atwood – who so delicately straddle the conceptual divide between present and future as Bradley.

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