Book of the Week

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The street entrance to the Melbourne Magistrates’ Court is a scoop-hungry gauntlet of journos who spend the day jostling for soundbites, ever ready to give chase. As a rookie reporter, Louise Milligan used to be part of the Sydney court scrum, but when she arrived to give evidence in Australia’s ‘Trial of the Decade’, she had become the story. In her investigative work for ABC’s Four Corners – which begat the Walkley Book Award-winning volume Cardinal: The rise and fall of George Pell (2017)Milligan had been the first person to hear one of the criminal accusations against the Vatican’s disgraced treasurer

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This is a book in the expansive American tradition of long, well-researched historical works on political topics with broad appeal, written in an accessible style for a popular audience. David Nasaw has not previously worked on displaced persons, but he is the author of several big biographies, most recently of political patriarch Joseph P. Kennedy.

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It was obvious that Nick Bryant’s insightful new book would be a requiem for American greatness. More revealing is its history of Trumpism, which long predated the man’s presidency.

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‘Unerring muse that makes the casual perfect’: Robert Lowell’s compliment to his friend Elizabeth Bishop comes to mind as I read Helen Garner. She is another artist who reveres the casual for its power to disrupt and illuminate. Nothing is ever really casual for her, but rather becomes part of a perfection that she resists at the same time. The ordinary in these diaries – the daily, the diurnal, the stumbled-upon, the breathing in and out – is turned into something else through the writer’s extraordinary craft.

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Opening a review with a book’s first line allows a critic to thieve the author’s momentum for themselves. I am in a thieving mood. For the first line of Elena Ferrante’s new novel, The Lying Life of Adults, carries an enviable wallop: ‘Two years before leaving home my father said to my mother that I was very ugly.’ It’s the kind of line – charged, discomforting, and vicious – that makes Ferrante so electrifying to read. Ferrante’s novels are whetstones; her narrators are knives. When we meet twelve-year-old Giovanna Trada in this novel, she is a meek and dutiful creature – clever but incurious; a dewy-eyed admirer of her affluent parents and their hermetic life. Four years later, when Ferrante is finished with her, Giovanna’s heart is a shiv. Here is womanhood, Ferrante shows us once again: a relentless abrasion, a sharpening.

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Scott Morrison does not like to explain the decisions he makes on our behalf. Sometimes he just refuses to discuss them, as he did when, as immigration minister, he simply rejected any questions about how his boat-turnback policy was being implemented at sea. At other times he is a little subtler, as he has been this year while presiding over what will probably prove to be the most consequential shift in Australia’s foreign relations in decades. The collapse in relations with our most powerful Asian neighbour and most important trading partner is not just Canberra’s doing, of course; it has resulted from decisions made in Beijing too. But Australia’s recent and current choices have certainly contributed to the chill, and our future choices will do much to determine where things go from here.

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Ben Bland, a Financial Times correspondent in Indonesia in 2012–15 and currently director of the Southeast Asia Program at the Lowy Institute, had a ringside seat to watch the rise of Indonesia’s President Joko Widodo (also known as Jokowi). By his own account, Bland has met him more than a dozen times. Jokowi was a furniture-maker and -exporter, mayor of Solo, and governor of Jakarta before being elected president in 2014. Bland has written a good introduction to the Jokowi era that will appeal to the general reader but may leave the serious student of Indonesia unsatisfied.

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Gideon Haigh reviews 'Rage' by Bob Woodward

Gideon Haigh
02 October 2020

Tom Lehrer famously believed that Henry Kissinger’s Nobel Prize for Peace rendered satire impossible. Has Donald Trump’s presidency made the same true of political journalism? This may sound counterintuitive. After all, Trump has been a boon for news outlets and book publishing, as well as for social media. Bob Woodward’s Rage sold 600,000 copies in its first week. And that the dean of White House scribes herein abandons his trademark disinterest and pronounces authoritatively that ‘Trump is the wrong man for the job’ has been treated as news in itself. Yet so what?

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Sue Kossew reviews 'Our Shadows' by Gail Jones

Sue Kossew
24 September 2020

Gail Jones’s new novel, Our Shadows, provides readers with another virtuoso performance, showing a writer fully in control of her medium. It is a poetic and beautifully crafted evocation of shadowy pasts whose traumatic effects (in the world and in individual lives) stretch deep into the present and the future.

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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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