Book of the Week

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It’s difficult to describe what it’s like to be raised in a Chinese family, especially when you are surrounded by markers of Western society. There is no such thing as talking back to your parents or refusing to do what they say. As a child, I never went to sleepovers. During my teenage and young adult years, I felt increasingly trapped in my own home. Everything I did was scrutinised; my parents never seemed to take into account my wants or needs. I found myself grasping for any scrap of independence, usually through lying or stealing or a combination of the two. As children, we are continually told that adults do things to protect us, especially when they are things we don’t particularly like. But when does protection morph into something uglier? When does it smother us, as if our agency has been stripped from us?

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On the Line: Notes from a factory by Joseph Ponthus, translated by Stephanie Smee

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June 2021, no. 432

Few books immediately suspend time; few need no warm-up and almost demand to be read, reread, underlined. Stephanie Smee’s rendition of Joseph Ponthus’s multi-award-winning first solo book, On the Line: Notes from a factory, is one such read. It is the autobiographical story of an intellectual with a career in social work in the suburbs of Paris, who, having moved to Brittany for love, can’t find a job in his field and is forced to sell his labour as a casual worker in the local food-processing industry. Here we couldn’t be further from postcard Brittany, whose wild nature, hazy skies, mysterious language, and inhabitants inspired a Romantic generation of poets in search of an exotic fix without the hassle of leaving the Hexagon.

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In Creating a Character (1990), acting coach Moni Yakim urges students to explore their vulnerability, arguing that, while we admire Superman for lifting buildings, we become emotionally invested only when he’s faced with Kryptonite. It’s ironic, Yakim writes, that vulnerability is simultaneously ‘the one quality a person is most likely to conceal’ and the one that ‘most allows an audience to identify’. This is the terrain Rick Morton traverses in My Year of Living Vulnerably, a mix of memoir, cultural history, reportage, and witness testament. How can we be at peace with our vulnerabilities when, like the dinosaurs Morton used to obsess over, they could eat us alive?

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More than twenty-five years ago, I wrote an essay on the work of Oliver Sacks (Island Magazine, Autumn 1993). Entitled ‘Anthropologist of Mind’, it ranged across several of Sacks’s books; but it was Seeing Voices, published in 1989, that was the main impetus for the essay. In Seeing Voices, Sacks explored American deaf communities, past and present. He exposed the stringent and often punishing attempts to ‘normalise’ deaf people by forcing them to communicate orally, and he simultaneously deplored the denigration and widespread outlawing of sign language. Drawing on the work of Erving Goffman, Sacks showed how deaf people were stigmatised and marginalised from mainstream culture, and he revealed, contrary to prevailing opinion in the hearing world, the richness and complexities of American Sign Language.

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The Committed by Viet Thanh Nguyen

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March 2021, no. 429

Viet Thanh Nguyen arrived in the United States in 1975 as a four-year-old Vietnamese refugee. He is now a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a professor of English and of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, and a contributing writer to The New York Times who has devoted much of his working life to Vietnamese-American history. A related topic that he writes and speaks about is ‘narrative scarcity’, the fact that if you belong to a minority group, none of the stories you read is about you or the importance of those groups being given the opportunity to tell their own stories in their own words. That is just what Nguyen has done in his first novel, The Sympathizer, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and its sequel, The Committed. Though many American novelists have written about the Vietnam War, he is one of the first Vietnamese-American writers to do so.

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He. by Murray Bail

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March 2021, no. 429

In 2005, Murray Bail published Notebooks: 1970–2003. ‘With some corrections’, the contents were transcriptions of entries Bail made in notebooks during that period. Now, in 2021, dozens of these entries – observations, quotations, reflections, scenes – recur in his new book, He. It’s to be assumed that this book, too, is a series of carefully selected transcriptions from the same, and later, notebooks.

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This book addresses one fundamental question: is nationalism a transformative force in politics? Nationalism is usually seen as an offshoot of ‘identity politics’, which in turn is the product of long-term social change, notably access to higher education. Such an analysis can be found in David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere: The new tribes shaping British politics (2017) and Maria Sobolewska and Robert Ford’s Brexitland: Identity, diversity and the reshaping of British politics (2020). There is of course merit to such positions, but it is unusual for any research-based analysis to see nationalism as the driver of political change: it is the symptom rather than the cause.

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In the wake of the 2017 Uluru Statement from the Heart, truth-telling has gained new currency in Australia. The Statement called for a ‘Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history’.  Although yet to be fleshed out in any detail, the renewed call for truth-telling has been greeted with enthusiasm by many First Nations peoples and their allies around the continent, who endorse the view that shining the bright light of truth into the darkest recesses of Australian history will contribute to a transformation in Indigenous–settler relations.

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Liz Byrski’s introduction to Women of a Certain Rage is, among other things, a homage to second-wave feminism and a lament that feminism, ‘originally a radical countercultural movement’, has been ‘distorted into a tool of neoliberalism’. While there is no doubt that strains of feminism have been co-opted by neoliberalism to debilitating effect, this narrative – that feminism has become ineffectual since the 1970s – is one that erases many contemporary feminisms, as well as broader feminism-informed political movements and the work that they have done and continue to do.

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Dearly by Margaret Atwood

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March 2021, no. 429

Margaret Atwood began as a poet and transformed herself into a factory, producing work of great energy and range. Since her first collection, Double Persephone, appeared in 1961, she has published more than sixty books of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. She is a librettist, a maker of eBooks, graphic novels, and television scripts, and, with the serialisations of The Handmaid’s Tale and Alias Grace, a beloved global phenomenon. Much of this work builds on genre fiction bones: the gothic romance, the dystopian novel, and speculative fiction. But now it has become difficult to see her poetry as anything more than an adjunct to her prose, attracting attention less because of its merits as poetry than because it is an Atwood production.

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