December 2016

Four book covers in a row
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead cover

Injuries and Usurpations

'There is no subject that exposes the tensions, hypocrisies and flat-out contradictions of the United States’ defining myths – manifest destiny, individual liberty, self-reliance, exceptionalism – as starkly as that of race. It is hardly surprising that some of the most trenchant critiques of the nation’s problematic relationship with its own ideals should be found in the work of African-American writers. Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad and Paul Beatty’s satire The Sellout are unalike in almost every respect, but on this point they share a consciousness, if not exactly an attitude. They have a common set of underlying preoccupations, which follow from the obvious historical fact that the institution of slavery made a mockery of the nation’s declared allegiance to the ideals of freedom and equality. What both novelists address, in their very different ways, is the problem of a nation divided against itself, not simply in a material and tribal sense, but on the fundamental level of its founding ideology. Both recognise that its history of conquest, exploitation and systemic inequality generates a profound cognitive dissonance.'

Fight Like a Girl by Clementine Ford Cover

First Person Feminism

Feminist books pitched to a broad audience, whatever their contents, inevitably face the same criticism: okay, what are the solutions then? This charge could be levelled at Ford’s book, in which apart from the injunction to ‘fight like a girl’, hearty encouragement to masturbate as often as you desire and to find a good girl gang, does not offer much in way of a roadmap forward. Certainly, it would have been illuminating to read about feminist campaigns that need more attention and support and to introduce readers to some impressive feminist thinkers who deserve a wider audience. Yet this criticism also strikes me as a little beside the point. The authors of feminist blockbusters have always been better at diagnosis than they have at cure and such books are still necessary, including to help prompt the ‘light-bulb’ of recognition that moves feminist identification along.

On The Cartographer’s Curse

'Each participant brought a certain cultural heft to this collective, creative, and collaborative writing process.'

Zainab Kadhim the poet
Lancelot Brown and the Capability Men cover
Do not say we have nothing by Madeleine Thien book cover
So Much Smoke by Felix Calvino cover

Felix Calvino’s Lost Galicia

'Galicia is made strange through the English language; Australia is made strange by non-native English and a Galician worldview. In this collection, the teeming social world of the village takes over, threatening to spill beyond the boundaries of the short form. This collection firmly establishes Calvino as an English prose stylist. The influence of Anglophone modernist minimalism is apparent and appropriate. Through absence and implication, the stories register feelings of loss the characters themselves often lack the language to articulate. If, as Rosalía de Castro wrote, to sing of Galicia in the Galician language offers ‘consolation against evil, relief from pain,’ to write of it in English implies something else entirely.'

November 2016

The Good People by Hannah Kent cover

Believing in Fairies

'I know this probably makes me a bad reviewer but I am pretty agnostic about the question of literary value. I carry the inherent suspicion of canonicity of my generation of scholars and feminists (and the generation that went just before me). The question of what makes a book important, or even very good, is difficult for me. But to review a novel is to wade into the waters of literary value and try to snag something on your stick. I tend to snag things I have inherited from modernism and its impact on my education as a literary studies scholar: the complexity of the ideas that the book is grappling with, or its awareness of other books, or its ability to do something new. But there are others things to snag, that have tended to be coded feminine: the pleasure of plot, the engagement of complex identification, recognition, thrill (the kinds of things Rita Felski writes so beautifully about in The Uses of Literature).'

Lebs and Punchbowl Prison

‘There were 1200 students at Punchbowl Boys High School in 1985. That year a brick was hurled at Mr Stratton’s head and a gradual process of expulsions began so that by the time I arrived at the school in 1998, there were only 299 students left.’

Dial-a-gun Daily Telegraph clipping
Ben Brooker portrait
Wild Island by Jennifer Livett cover

History Is A Many-Sided Thing

'Three new Australian titles from debut novelists prompt just such a consideration of the connection between monumental and historical time, and its relationship to femininity. All three novels bestow a value and significance on women’s experience across two centuries: from the early penal settlement of Van Diemen’s Land in Jennifer Livett’s Wild Island to the ferocious and tragic friendship of two girls at the foot of a lighthouse in Kate Mildenhall’s Skylarking, and a pianist’s entrapment within an Oxford terrace from the 1950s to the present day in Zoë Morrison’s Music and Freedom. These novels all consider the domestic, with a weightiness given to private scenes and the interior – and alongside this, a feeling of movement, of an unsettled and unmoored female independence. Far away from the colonial centre, a certain wildness and abandon comes to the fore. '

Luke Carman portrait
Grant and I by Robert Foster cover

One Tank Of Gas

'There’s the power of glam and androgyny to Forster’s generation, and with it the influence it had on punk and post-punk. There’s the sensuality of experience that lies at the heart of many of Forster’s tales in the book. There’s the setting of the 1970s as a formative period, where music is glimpsed fleetingly on the radio and the ghosts of pre-war life in Brisbane are hovering. And perhaps most tellingly there’s the drama of Forster’s persona, developed over decades of song- and prose writing.'

joanne burns portrait
Idiot box image

Idiot Box

Penrith fencing


The Suspended Image

'I stood with my face almost touching a wall of glass, a sheer window looking out into an immense depth, a profound, almost unfathomable dark green chasm girded by sandstone precipices and a halo of mist and cloud. It had been raining all afternoon. In the diminishing light the distant wet cliffs looked dark orange, blood red, gold. A motionless wing of pure white cloud floated over the valley floor like an apparition on a billow of air.'

Joanna Logue 'Towards the gloaming' acrylic on paper

The Place of Terrorism in Australia

'I want to live my culture, my way of life within my country. Often this means a humble existence; a freedom that requires constant access to our traditional and natural world, always with an emphasis on family and cultural exchange.'

Catherine Spence portrait

Deep Listening

'Two projects of collective authorship, these books interrupt the singular authority that has imposed the Intervention onto Aboriginal communities in the Northern Territory and mandatory immigration detention onto asylum seekers who arrive in Australia by boat.'

Brisbane River

October 2016

Rosa Praed portrait
Position Doubtful by Kim Mahood

Crossing The Line

'To cross a line can be to start something – a race or a journey – or to breach a boundary. It can also mark a disruption or a transgression. In her new memoir, Position Doubtful, Kim Mahood crosses many lines. She broaches topics that are fraught with ethical, social and intellectual complexities, and while she does so with a confidence earned through experience, she does not relinquish her uncertainties. She questions herself, her right to be doing what she does, her reactions to people and to her situation as a white artist working with Aboriginal people.'

First Government House Sydney by John Eyre
After the Carnage by Tara June Winch Cover

The Bleeding Edge: new short fiction

The short story is sometimes viewed as an apprentice form, yet the heterogeneity of the stories collected in these volumes attests to its adaptability in structure, style, voice and genre – and to the particular freedoms it offers as a site for experimentation.

Disappearing Mural
Their Brilliant Careers by Ryan O'Neill Cover

The Writers We Deserve

I suspect that, like me, most readers are inclined to approach any new work of fiction that explores the writing life with a kind of wariness verging on dread, but two recent Australian books prove that metafiction can still be stimulating, and that the Künstlerroman is not yet an exhausted literary form.

Elegant and Generous: María Kodama

I thoroughly enjoyed the first round of the Emerging Critics reviews. Thanks for creating a space for this type of work to flourish. Although Ali Jane Smith and Ben Brooker's had great merits, particularly Brooker as an inheritor of the Critic Watch series that serves the SRB so well, I found James Halford's 'Such Loneliness in that Gold' particularly worthwhile.

394 abercrombie street

Bob Dylan goes to Stockholm

I would argue that the decision of the Nobel judges is not only courageous; it is also a welcome recognition of the fact that the concept of ‘literature’ is enriched by being understood in a broad and pluralistic way. And on this point, Dylan is a particularly astute choice. The judges’ one-line press release acknowledges that the significance of his work lies in the fact that it is larger than itself, that it acquires its full meaning in the context of the American songwriting tradition. He is, I think, a deserving winner of the Nobel Prize not simply because of the uncommon linguistic facility that his work displays, but because he occupies a unique position in relation to that tradition.

The Ash Range by Laurie Duggan cover

Such Loneliness in that Gold:
María Kodama on Life After Borges

‘You’re meeting the FIFA of Argentine literature,’ one young Buenos Aires poet said: ‘Watch out she doesn’t sue you.’ María Kodama gave me the best part of three hours of her time, describing her life with Jorge Luis Borges and discussing his work. Her generosity and warmth were at odds with everything I’d ever read or heard about her.

Winged Victory of Samothrace detail
The School Days of Jesus J. M. Coetzee

Novelist of the Sorrowful Countenance

There are critics who have suggested that J. M. Coetzee’s writing lost its edge when he emigrated from South Africa to Australia.

We are here and we are significant

Long before those postcards of Bondi Beach and Sydney Harbour co-opted our image of Sydney, Parramatta was its watery centre.

Bad Writer

The universality of bad writing

Michael Mohammed Ahmad boxing pose