Book of the Week

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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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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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One of the blessings of Covid-19 lockdown was discovering the wildlife cameras streaming on the internet in real time. With a click it became possible to observe brown bears catching salmon in Alaska, sea lions clambering on and off a rocky beach in British Columbia, and white-bellied sea eagles nesting in an eyrie high in bushland on Sydney’s fringes. Watching newly fledged eaglets literally stretching their wings as they stare across the treetops, it’s impossible not to wonder what they must experience in that moment, as they sense for the first time the instinctive urge to take flight. What does it feel like to be a bird? What sense does a bird have of itself as a subjective, experiencing being? How might its consciousness be characterised?

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A detailed timeline prefaces Fire Flood Plague. Stretching from September 2019 to September 2020, it charts events so momentous that Christos Tsiolkas describes them as being ‘imbued with an atavistic, Biblical solemnity’. Sophie Cunningham, the book’s editor, notes in her introduction that many of the contributors (herself included) have found themselves drafting their essays ‘once, twice, thrice, as we’ve progressed from bushfire and smoke-choked skies, to the early days of the pandemic … and into the exhaustion of what is becoming a marathon’.

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