NSW contributor

The cover of this book tells you pretty much what to expect. It shows the dancer Li Cunxin, evidently at rehearsal, facing the camera while over his shoulder peeps his wife, Mary. Add the subtitle, that this is the ‘untold story’ of Li Cunxin’s wife, with a foreword by the man himself, and it’s clear that this book might not have seen the light of day without the phenomenal success of Mao’s Last Dancer, published in 2003 and later made into a well-received film (Bruce Beresford, 2009). Even the title has echoes of its predecessor.

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To start with the broadest of generalisations, artists’ biographies can be divided into three types: those that concentrate on the work; those that take the life as their focus; and the ‘life and times’ volumes that attempt to place the artist in her social and political context.

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‘Half a Jew’s life is consumed by the futile battle with papers,’ wrote Joseph Roth, in The Wandering Jews (1937), his little-known collection of essays written not long before the Holocaust. ‘The struggle for papers, the struggle against papers, is something an Eastern Jew gets free of only if he uses criminal methods to take on society.’ Faced with police demanding to see ‘exotic, improbable papers’, the Eastern Jew who possesses too many troublesome names, inaccurate birthdates, and no proper nationality to speak of is sent packing, ‘again, and again, and again’.

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Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Robert Adamson is the fact that he is still alive. One of the ‘Generation of  ’68’ and an instrumental figure in the New Australian Poetry (as announced by John Tranter’s 1979 anthology), Adamson has continued to write and adapt while also bearing witness to the premature deaths of many of that visionary company. As Adamson’s friend and fellow poet Michael Dransfield (1948–73) once put it, ‘to be a poet in Australia / is the ultimate commitment’ and ‘the ultimate commitment / is survival’. The poems in this volume attest to the grace and burden of being one of Australian poetry’s great survivors – of the countercultural mythology of the ‘drug-poet’, alcoholism, and the brutalities of the prison system (recounted firsthand in his 2004 memoir, Inside Out). ‘The show’s to escape / death’, Adamson observes of the Jesus bird (sometimes called a lilytrotter), a lithe performer and canny survivalist that affords this most ornithologically minded of authors a telling self-image.

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Don Anderson reviews 'The Silence: A novel' by Don DeLillo

Don Anderson
Wednesday, 25 November 2020

‘Literary talent,’ writes Martin Amis in his new ‘novel’, Inside Story, ‘has perhaps four or five ways of dying. Most writers simply become watery and subtly stale.’ Not so the eighty-three-year-old Don DeLillo, who has published seventeen novels over the last fifty years, all of them muscular, intelligent, prescient. In 1988, he told an interviewer from Rolling Stone, ‘I think fiction rescues history from its confusions.’

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André Gide, when asked who was the greatest French poet, is said to have replied ‘Victor Hugo, alas’, and many readers have responded in similar fashion to William Faulkner’s place in the history of the American novel. Werner Sollors, the eminent Harvard scholar of American Literature, unambiguously described Faulkner in 2003 as ‘ultimately the most significant American novelist of the [twentieth] century’, a judgement echoed in this book by Michael Gorra, who calls him ‘the most important American novelist of the twentieth century’. But Faulkner’s marked proclivity for both stylistic excess and thematic incoherence has always made him a difficult author to appreciate and study. Hence Gorra’s The Saddest Words, a judicious and measured blend of biography, contextual history, and travelogue, performs a signal service in making this complicated author more accessible to a wider reading public.

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Single-name status is granted to very few. In Australian art, ‘Daniel’ has always been Daniel Thomas: curator, museum director, walking memory, standard-setter (and inveterate corrector of errors), passionate lover of art, friend of Australian artists. His life’s work has been establishing the understanding of Australian art in our art museums, and his influence is incalculable. The late Andrew Sayers rightly described Thomas as ‘the single most influential curator in creating a shape for the history of Australian art’, but as editors Hannah Fink and Steven Miller observe, ‘Daniel is everywhere and nowhere: the greatest authority, hiding in the detail of someone’s else’s footnote, and in the judgements that have made the canon of Australian art.’

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The cover of All Our Shimmering Skies is crammed with surprises. Look closely among the Australian wildflowers and you’ll find black hearts, butterflies, lightning bolts, a shovel, a crocodile, a dingo, a fruit bat, a Japanese fighter plane, and a red rising sun. Trent Dalton has adopted a similar method in writing his second novel, which samples almost every genre you can think of, from war story to magic realism and Gothic horror to comedy. There are references to Romeo and Juliet and a nod to The Pilgrim’s Progress

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Nicole Abadee reviews 'Infinite Splendours' by Sofie Laguna

Nicole Abadee
Thursday, 22 October 2020

Sofie Laguna does not shy away from confronting subject matter. Her first adult novel, One Foot Wrong (2009), is about a young girl forced by her troubled parents into a reclusive existence. Her second, The Eye of the Sheep (2014), which won the Miles Franklin Literary Award in 2015, tells the story of a young boy on the autism spectrum born into a family riven by poverty and violence. Her third, The Choke (2017), concerns a motherless child in danger because of her father’s criminal connections. Infinite Splendours is also about the betrayal of a child by the adults in his life, but here Laguna ventures into new territory, exploring the lasting impact of trauma on a child as he becomes a man, and whether the abused may become the abuser.

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To his obvious surprise, John Wood became a household name playing ordinary, reliable Aussie blokes – most memorably Sergeant Tom Croydon on Blue Heelers and magistrate Michael Rafferty on Rafferty’s Rules – two of television’s best-loved everyday heroes. (I confess to writing about the latter in The Bulletin and describing him as ‘the thinking woman’s crumpet’.)

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