Commentary

Last December, the Melbourne Age asked some prominent literary folk to name the best novel of the twentieth century. Readers would have found few surprises in the choices. Most of the punter – some novelist and a few literary critics – went for Proust’s Remembrance and Joyce’s Ulysses. Little argument there. But Ian Rankin, a Scottish crime fiction writer, chose something altogether different: Mario Puzo’s The Godfather (which, incidentally, is also Jackie Collins’ favourite novel of all time).

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In 1919 a major outbreak of pneumonic influenza threatened the livelihoods of actors and musicians throughout Australia, and forced a tense confrontation between artists and government officials in Melbourne.

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It is a truth, maybe not universally acknowledged but a truth nonetheless, that epiphanies tend to happen earlier rather than later in one’s life. Soul-shattering, life-changing experiences occur more regularly when the soul is tender enough to be shattered and the life malleable enough to be changed.

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A number of recent political events in Australia will have enduring and wide-ranging impacts on freedom of expression in this country. They include the denial of access to archival papers concerning the Whitlam dismissal, which Professor Jenny Hocking detailed in the April 2020 issue of ABR.

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I was operating when it arrived. Between patients I read the email hastily. It concerned an article from surgeons at Stanford University. Along with colleagues in the United States, Italy, China, and Iran, they were reporting an increased risk of death from Covid-19 among otolaryngologists, neurosurgeons – and ophthalmologists, like me. Surgery around the nasal passages or other mucous membranes of the face seemed to release a potentially lethal aerosolised load of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Among the casualties were surgeons in their thirties.

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I read with interest Professor Jenny Hocking’s article ‘At Her Majesty’s Pleasure: Sir John Kerr and the royal dismissal secrets’ regarding the release of the ‘Palace letters’, the correspondence between Governor-General Sir John Kerr and Queen Elizabeth, covering the period of the dismissal of the Whitlam government (ABR, April 2020).

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Closeted but not isolated, everyone will have a story, so there’s nothing special here. But the common difference is clear. When it’s about Brexit or Trump there, it’s us to them; when it’s bushfires here, it’s them to us. We have been globally entwined for decades, but the economic and political truths are mostly covert. It’s taken Covid-19 to put us all overtly at the same risk at the same time.

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I grew up with The Sydney Morning Herald. In spite of enforced years in Melbourne and Canberra and sojourns overseas, I still regard it as my paper. So my business being writing and Sydney my town, it’s a matter of identity that The Herald’s reviews are the primary ones for me. But my tribal instincts are faltering. The problem is The Herald’s book coverage. My quarrel isn’t with the choice of books nor the quality of the reviews. It’s the prior matter of quantity. Over the three Saturdays of the 11, 18, 25 April, The Herald ran a total of ten full-scale book reviews. The Australian over the same period ran seventeen, and they were generally longer.

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Essays One is the first of two volumes of collected non-fiction drawn from all periods of Lydia Davis’s long career. While the second collection will, according to the author, ‘concentrate more single-mindedly on translation and the experience of reading foreign languages’, this volume has an alternating focus on writing and reading practices, translation, commentary, reviews, and personal essays. It is loosely structured, non-chronological, and doesn’t shy away from repetition or reiteration – particularly throughout the several pieces that share the subtitle ‘Forms and Influences’.

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During my first month as a trainee journalist at The Sun-Herald newspaper in Sydney, I went on strike. It was the year 2000, and the newspaper enjoyed a full roster of reporters and photographers dedicated solely to one edition each Sunday, yet even during this well-resourced period there were inklings of the headwinds to come. 

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