February 2018

The Innocents and Others by Dana Spiotta

Long Looks and Serious Games: on Deborah Levy, Siri Hustvedt and Dana Spiotta

'A Woman Looking At Men Looking at Women is the work of an artist who has spent decades grappling with the way the self is made and remade, in an admiringly non-narcissistic manner. The writer looks inwards and outwards, engaging with surfaces, not always convinced by what she sees; sometimes we find her looking sideways or underneath.'

After Kathy Acker a biography by Chris Kraus

Discarding Congeniality:
lessons from the life of Kathy Acker

'Kraus’s oeuvre has been dedicated to the writing of unlikeable women; challenging congeniality as the bedrock of femininity and exploring the uncomfortable and often humorous situations generated by ambitious, creative women when they cast off congeniality and conventional sexuality. That Acker was a difficult, competitive and transient friend, peer, collaborator and lover makes her an ideal subject for Kraus to continue her work of intervening in conversations about women writers, what the avant-garde is and where it is located.' 

Mirror Sydney by Vanessa Berry book cover

Eccentric Guides:
Vanessa Berry’s Mirror Sydney

Mirror Sydney appeals to the notion that people live inside worlds of their own making. This suggests both a certain comprehensiveness or completeness and a limitation: the globe is known in form but so are its borders. However, this is also a world post-globalisation: the great exhibitions of the colonial project have become abandoned variety stores and theme parks, the pathos of which comes from quaintness or the strange, instead of authority or splendour.

The Last Man in Europe by Dennis Glover book cover

The Prompt of the Real

Glover uses the historical record to unpack the mythology that still surrounds the composition of Nineteen Eighty-Four, that is, Orwell’s heroic struggle against terminal illness to complete his magnum opus. Glover’s art lies in the careful curation of his researches, and in the fleshing out of their significance. Where the facts are unknown, Glover extrapolates from Orwell’s essays and diaries, a device that might jar but for the fact, observed by Glover in his author’s note, that ‘many contemporaries commented on Orwell’s habit of rehearsing the contents of his forthcoming writings in discussions with friends and colleagues’.

Shaping the fractured self book cover crop

Turnings and Over-turnings in Glebe

Since I did not grow up here, and arrived knowing no-one, Glebe was both without memory and emphatically real. The new resident seeks not only the stories of a place, but also its genii loci and forms of unconcealment. Something small becomes the proclamation of larger matters, and historical consciousness prompts random and puzzled affections. There’s a passageway here that reminds me of John Berger’s notion of ‘the shape of a pocket’. For Berger this term refers to hidden-away communities and small spaces of cultural resistance, but it also to the effects of painting in its ritual role as affirmation.

Glebe by flickr user Kate Ausburn
Spiral Staircase Collected poems by Hirato Renkichi

The Imagination of a New Era:
new translations of Japanese modernism

'Sawako Nakayasu’s 2015 translation of The Collected Poems of Chika Sagawa and Sho Sugita’s 2017 translation of Spiral Staircase: Collected Poems of Hirato Renkichi each introduce an English-speaking audience to a key figure in Japanese modernism. Hirato Renkichi, born in 1893 in Osaka, has been hailed as Japan’s first futurist poet; Chika Sagawa, born in 1911 in a village on the northern island of Hokkaido, its first female modernist.'

December 2017


A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey book cover

Carey’s Race: A Long Way From Home by Peter Carey

A Long Way From Home is a novel that seeks to start a conversation about what Australia stands for—who we are as a nation and what stories we want to retell and remember. It is Carey’s attention to the construction of Australian identity that is both the strength and weakness of this novel. For all its clever metaphors and allegorical flourishes, A Long Way From Home sits somewhere between a meaningful novel about Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal identity in Australia and a novel of well-meaning gestures. In writing about the silenced Aboriginal history of this country and appropriating Aboriginal voices and trauma to do so, Carey is wading into an ethically and politically fraught arena.

Fictive Selves: The Life to Come

De Kretser is an ironist without peer in contemporary Australian writing. Her instincts are subversive, her scalpel well-honed. She exposes her characters’ vanities, only to turn our sense of their thoughtlessness and self-regard inside-out so that we might sympathise with their loneliness. Her powers of social observation are as acute as her awareness of the fictions we live by.

The Crazy Games of John Clarke

John Clarke had been in training to write The Tournament his whole life. He was curious about everything. He loved ideas. He was extraordinarily sensitive to language and to effects of style. He was a brilliant mimic and parodist. He had the nerveless approach of the encyclopaedist. And he adored the idiom of sports commentary.

Richard Flanagan First Person cover

The Horror! The Horror!: First Person by Richard Flanagan

At times, when reading this novel, I felt as if I had passed from the realm of colonial romance to that of science fiction, and was learning about a strange society inhabited only by men, in which no women existed except as holographic projections of some masculine need or fear.

November 2017

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Paradise Redux: The Essential Paradise Lost edited by John Carey

Yes, Paradise Lost is still read today. It is the progenitor of the fantasy and science-fiction tradition through the epic tale it tells of the founding Judeo-Christian myth. Tolkien and Lewis, Ursula Le Guin, George RR Martin and the rest are the aftermath. But there is a good chance that Carey's new edition will lead even more readers to its splendours, to wonder at its tragic action, epic music and transcendent strangeness.


In The Estuary: Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats

'In Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats, we are repeatedly reminded that the novel’s locale, Parramatta, marks the shifting aqueous site in Sydney’s Western suburban landscape where ‘saltwater meets fresh’. Historically, this is the place where Australia’s early colonial explorers, travelling up the Parramatta River from Sydney Cove in 1788, could take their boats no further. It is also one of numerous sites of resistance to European invasion by the Aboriginal warrior, Pemulwuy. In Castagna’s hands, this rich and multi-layered history of place is embodied in the topography of the Parramatta River and its intricate estuarine environment, creating a wonderfully nuanced metaphor.'

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Talking to the Dog: The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke

'We may approach Yan Lianke’s 1997 novella The Years, Months, Days through another, perhaps rather unexpected, work — Richard Matheson’s iconic 1954 novel, I Am Legend. The protagonist of the latter work, Robert Neville, finds himself in a post-apocalyptic world in which humanity has been ravaged by a virulent bacillus.  Lianke’s novella is set against a similarly apocalyptic landscape. Following a devastating drought, the entire population of a remote Henan village flees, leaving behind only an old man and a stray dog.' 

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt book cover

Forty Whacks: See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

'The real discomfort of the novel  is a set of relationships marked by deeply unpleasant entanglements of attachment and disgust. The intensity of familial domesticity is literally inescapable in this house: at one point the family are snowed-in, at others the doors are locked and the heat inside is stifling. The grown sisters’ relationship is a complex and terrible mix of dependence, love, responsibility, sacrifice, jealousy and fear.'


What Lay In The Ashes: The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc by Ali Alizadeh

The Last Days of Jeanne d’Arc blends fiction and nonfiction in its reconstruction of Jeanne’s life, not to offer a new conclusion about the warrior, but to urge us to view her otherwise than through the lens of her canonisation. The fictionalised exploration of Jeanne’s homosexuality may raise the ire of those who would consider themselves the guardians of a chaste legend; it is also essential to Alizadeh’s insistence on the maid’s humanity.

Bodies of Water by Astrida Neimanis book cover

All The World’s A Drain

If it is the job of a phenomenologist to describe conscious experience, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology does so in a way that collapses the distinction between one’s psychic life and one’s material situation. Its author, Astrida Neimanis, challenges us to reimagine how individual human bodies—constituted of approximately 70 per cent water—are thoroughly implicated in the planetary hydrocommons.

Lunar Inheritance by Lachlan Brown book cover

Time’s Moebius Strip

I first met Lachlan at Gleebooks in Sydney in 2014, at the launch of Judith Beveridge’s Storm and Honey. I remember speaking with him, and being confounded when he gave me his business card. He didn’t look like a ‘Brown’ – Lachlan is half-Chinese, and I had immediately assumed he would have a Chinese surname. In Lunar Inheritance, he explores the complexities of ethnic origin and identity as sited on his body and in his explorations of suburban Ashfield as well as the city of Guangzhou in China.


The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen book cover

Brown Refo, White Nasho

Last week at Vy Vy Garden Café in Canley Heights, my refugee cousin Tuan and I were watching the news when a segment on the Manus Island crisis came up. ‘Leave those fucken queue jumpers, mang,’ he said. How could Tuan speak against refugees when he himself is a refugee? Moreover, he is Vietnamese-Australian, like me. We were the first non-European people to migrate en masse to settler-colonial Australia. Our appearance, culture, and language were alien and threatening. And then there was the fact of Cabramatta and Bankstown in the nineties, the Sydney suburbs of Vietnamese immigrants where crime rates spiked following the introduction of cheap heroin from Vietnamese gangs. We were boat people, foreigners, gangsters, and ingrates. So how does someone look like Tuan but sound like Pauline Hanson? How do the words of a White nationalist come from a refugee body?

An Embassy for Nowhere

Shaun Prescott’s eminently strange novel, The Town, begins by rejecting outright any ‘sense of place’. The town in this novel is nameless. It is a site that refutes specificity, character, and indeed meaning itself. As a librarian tells its narrator early on: ‘There are no books about this town... Nothing of note has ever happened in this town, and by the time it does, there will no longer be any point in remembering it.’

But who are the actors?

I am writing in response to Ben Etherington’s latest Critic Watch piece.

The Collected Poems of Fay Zwicky book cover

Becoming Fay Zwicky

For most people, the great adventures of their lives are births, love affairs, illnesses, bereavements, starting businesses or changing jobs. Insights into our selves and our loved ones come through the difficult enough business of living together. Fay Zwicky writes about the way in which daily practices connect with deep struggles, the way culture lives, not in grand gestures and ritualised moments, but in commonplaces and taken for granted ways of thinking about things.