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The subtitle of Janet Malcolm’s new book (published in Australia by Melbourne University Press) is Gertrude and Alice. Few names of literary couples can be so confidently trimmed. Scott and Zelda, Ted and Sylvia, George and Martha … all those happy couples. Gertrude and Alice has been used before, as the main title of Diana Souyhami’s joint study (1991), and will doubtless be used again. Their fame is an achieved and bankable thing, notwithstanding the fact that Gertrude Stein (1874– 1946) – whose books included Three Lives (1909), The Making of Americans (1925) and the wonderfully titled A Long Gay Book (1932) – remains perhaps the least read of the modernists.

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An occasion like this teaches us that we each have our own Helen Daniel. I met my Helen nearly ten years ago, appropriately through writing. I had written a book on the Aztecs of Mexico. It was primarily an academic book, but because it was published by a university press with a branch here, and because Aztecs are Aztecs, it was widely reviewed in this country. The material was esoteric and its interpretation involved some complicated talk about theoretical issues in anthropology and history, so I was relieved when the local reviews were kind. Nevertheless, I read them with mixed feelings: how was it possible for people to understand the same printed pages so variously?

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Do not attempt to judge this book by its amazingly beautiful but iconographically confusing cover. A close-up photograph of a single leaf shows its veins and pores in tiny detail. The colours are the most pastel and tender of creamy greens. Superimposed over this lush and suggestively fertile image is the book’s one-word title: Drylands ...

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Perched on the precipice of the Blue Mountains, Leura is both quiet and wild, a place of misty romance, sylvan charm, and middle-class entitlement. I am here because some friends have offered me their house as a writing retreat for ten days so that I can pen a chapter on the history of marriage (1788 to marriage equality) for ...

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A son of the French Revolution, Napoleon embedded in French society the Revolution’s core goals of national unity, civil equality, a hierarchy based on merit and achievement, and a rural society based on private property rather than feudal obligations. To these he added the Civil Code ...

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One swallow doesn’t make a summer, as the stark proverb cautions, but a cockatoo flocking of short stories suggests that the form is perhaps enjoying a revival – and the publishing industry has seized an opportunity. As it should.

In 2013, Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature, lauded as ‘the master of the contemporary short story’. Edna O ...

It would be a pity if this well-researched and nuanced biography of the greatest English composer of the second half of the twentieth century became known for the rather sensational medical revelations contained in the last chapter. Certainly, they gave me pause before I began reading the book.

Benjamin Britten (1913–76) was the towering ...

‘Too many vampires,’ wrote Patrick White. The year was 1980; the document was a letter to Shirley Hazzard; the subject was their friend and fellow novelist Elizabeth Harrower, who had published nothing but a handful of uncollected short stories since 1966. ‘Elizabeth keeps her principles,’ he wrote. ‘Whether she is also writing, I have given up aski ...

The Princeton Post Office, as befits this famed university town, has a certain grandeur. It is small – Princeton is a village after all – and modest in its proportions, but grand in aspiration. As you step through its panelled doors your gaze is drawn by the long parade of milk-glass and bronze lights towards the mural that adorns the far wall. Like the White House murals, it is lofty, but almost domestic in its depictions of American history, American hope, American mythology.

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Even the cover design of Sheila Fitzpatrick’s memoir gave me something to ponder. The title, which signals the father–daughter story, is linked with an engaging seaside photograph of the two of them. The father’s swimming trunks and the daughter’s bathing cap have an authentic 1940s look. Add to that a bland subtitle, Memories of an Australian Childhood, and the tough confrontations of the text may come as a surprise.

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