No 253 - August 2003

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Commentary by Sir William Deane
Kerryn Goldsworthy reviews Margaret Simons: The Meeting of Waters
Andreas Gaile reviews Peter Carey's My Life As a Fake
Neal Blewett reviews Marilyn Dodkin's Bob Carr
Jennifer Strauss reviews Anne Whitehead's Bluestocking in Patagonia


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    Bestsellers / Subscription.
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08)
    This item contains the July 2003 Bestellers list and Subsciption page from this issue.
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    Apprentice. [poem]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Beveridge, Judith
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    Tenacious Tiger. "Thylacine: The Tragic Tale of the Tasmanian Tiger" by David Owen and "The Last Tasmanian Tiger: The History and Extinction of the Thylacine" by Robert Paddle. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Bantick, Christopher
    The Tasmanian Tiger or thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus) continues to stalk the Tasmanian imagination. Miasmas resembling it figure in reports from tourists and bushwalkers, who happen upon the slinking apparition in the wilderness. Fanciful meanderings of wishful hearts and minds? Perhaps. Tantalising suspicions that the thylacine may still exist will not go away. No matter that the last thylacine died in the Hobart Zoo on 7 September 1936. With it died a species, but not the legend. In both these books, stringent research has brought the authors to the salient truth that the thylacine is, on available evidence, extinct. There are no contemporary photographs of the animal in the wild since 1936, when the last images of a caged and morose survivor were taken. Nor are there plaster casts of fresh paw tracks. However, the thylacine stubbornly inhabits the minds of those who want to believe.
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    Marriage of Minds. "Philosophical Foundations of Neuroscience" by M.R. Bennett and P.M.S. Hacker. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Grace, Damian
    This book is a joy to read. It is the fruit of collaboration across disciplines and continents between a neurophysiologist and a philosopher. They have written a polemical work that is a model of clarity and directness. Distinguished neurophysiologist M.R. Bennett, of the University of Sydney, and eminent Oxford philosopher P.M.S. Hacker have produced that rarity of scholarship, a genuinely interdisciplinary work that succeeds.
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    Perpetual Fall. "The Fall" by Jordie Albiston. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Gorton, Lisa
    Jordie Albiston's latest collection opens with a remarkable poem about a woman falling from the Empire State Building and falling, at the same time, through the story of her life. Some poems work in a more limited way, as witty, well-phrased exercises. In some poems in this collection, Albiston treats love as something understood. The series consists of daily poems. In each one, Albiston takes up the same images from the landscape. In this way she makes an imaginative landscape for love, as it were. And if that love seems sometimes a little too 'poetic', it is all the same poetry, with such gentle cadences and grace notes.
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    1621 and All That. "Literary Culture in Jacobean England: Reading 1621" by Paul Salzman. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Campbell, Marion J.
    A crucial difference between Salzman's work and more conventional literary histories is its privileging of reading over writing: he aims to cover what was readable in 1621, not simply what was written then. His book begins with a map of the mental horizon of a paradigmatic late-Jacobean reader in his account of John Chamberlain, a gentleman, information-gatherer and letter-writer who immersed himself in the news of his own culture and recirculated its currents. He is interested, promiscuously, in feasting and masquing and gossiping; he interprets what he sees and hears, whether it is trivial and playful or serious and political. For Salzman, Chamberlain stands 'as the exemplar of a method that will endeavour to allow nothing to pass unnoted.' It is hard for a reviewer to resist this as a characterisation of Salzman's own book, which is long, learned and enlightening. It adds a great deal to our sense of the detail of this rich period of literary history, even if it leaves the traditional contours of the bigger picture firmly in place.
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    Dream on. "Dream Home" by Mark Wakely. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Spigelman, Alice
    A fascination with the kinds of abodes we humans inhabit, and dream about, is the central theme around which Mark Wakely has spun his wide-ranging observations, anecdotes and personal stories. The topic lends itself to as many possibilities as you wish to make it. In order to narrow the focus, the author could have gone several ways. One approach would have been to write for a specific audience, perhaps for people interested in building a home. Or the book could have become a memoir of observations and people around their favoured homes. The author has instead decided to present stories, facts and observations that seemed relevant to specific periods of life, from childhood to old age, even death (what kind of mausoleum would you like as your final resting place, baroque or minimalist?). Although a valid approach, the book's form presents particular problems.
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    The Missing Captain. "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" by Robert Holden. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Dooley, Gillian Mary
    The perils of a certain kind of historical writing are painfully demonstrated in "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea", billed as 'the life of Australian whaling captain, William Chamberlain: a tale of abduction, adventure and murder'. The problems inherent in "The Devil and the Deep Blue Sea" arise from failures in both language and imagination. Holden has tried to put himself in Chamberlain's shoes and write from his point of view, but he has not made the imaginative leap necessary to write true historical fiction. Like many others before him, he has mistaken long words and convoluted sentences for genuine nineteenth-century prose. In the end, Holden lacks both the material to write a biography and the imagination to write an historical novel, and has fallen uncomfortably between two very high stools.
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    Advances, Contents, Letters, Imprints and Contributors.
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08)
    This items includes miscellaneous pieces from this issue.
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    Three Sleuths. "Master's Mates" by Peter Corris, "Kittyhawk Down" by Garry Disher and "Something Fishy" by Shane Maloney. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Anderson, Don
    If we are to believe Aristotle, or the Chicago neo-Aristotelians (R.S. Crane, Richard McKeown, et al.), or even bluff old Squire Henry Fielding, then plot is the mainstay of drama, as of the novel. This has often been held to be particularly so of detective fiction. On the other hand, Raymond Chandler was notoriously cavalier about the 'what, who, and why' of narrative causation, and Edmund Wilson famously asked, 'Who cares who killed Roger Ackroyd?' It would seem that voice and character (Peter Corris’s Cliff Hardy, Gary Disher’s Detective Inspector Hal Challis, Shane Maloney's Murray Whelan, MP) are as important as plot, if not on occasion more so. Milieu is crucial: think of Hardy's Sydney, Peter Temple's Melbourne, Carl Hiassen's Florida, Elmore Leonard's Detroit and Miami. Plot Rules, OK? Not! Voice is everything.
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    The God of Small Islands. "The Trickster" by Jane Downing. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) McGirr, Michael
    This story is told from a number of points of view. One of them is that of Joy, a woman with impeccable light Green political credentials, a job in a suburban library in Canberra and a mother who seems to have a clearer idea of what Joy should be doing than Joy does herself. Joy's partner, Geoff, takes a job at the Office of Planning in the Marshall Islands. His motives are good. He'd like to help. That's his problem. He has walked into a culture where much happens but nobody ever seems to do anything. "The Trickster" is rich in satire, mostly of a gentle rather than a punishing kind. Initially, it appears that the novel will be garnished with stereotypes of Pacific passivity. As the book evolves, however, its purpose is never so obvious. "The Trickster" is intimately acquainted with the Marshall Islands: with the detritus left in our neighbour by both World War II and atomic testing; with the buildings that have been developed but stand empty; with the yachting club without yachts; with the problems disposing of rubbish; with a supply centre in which everything useful that is imported manages to get lost, only to turn up in the faces of people who are looking for something else. It is an environment that has been put upon, squeezed out and wrung dry. Geoff and Joy are part of a chain of visitors who have wanted to help but can't.
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    Partridge Wings. "North of Nowhere, South of Loss" by Janet Turner-Hospital. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Rivers, Bronwyn
    Janet Turner-Hospital fans, possibly reminded of their affection for her by the recent publication of her latest novel, "Due Preparations for the Plague" will find this anthology an interesting exercise in retrospection. Collected here are fourteen stories published between 1991 and 2002 in various periodicals and anthologies from around the globe. Like most anthologies, "North of Nowhere, South of Loss" showcases the scope of its author’s output. The peripatetic nature of her life - raised in Queensland, she is now resident in South Carolina - is reflected in these stories’ settings, which include Canada, the US, Japan, France and Australia. Wide though Turner Hospital's range may be, what become most apparent in this collection are the continuities in her short fiction. Dislocation and disorientation are prominent themes here, as they are in much of her work. These stories are filled with people who shuttle from one country to the next, indeed feeling north of nowhere. Not only are they unsure of their physical location, they are often confused about time. Thoughtful and engaging, these stories provide a pleasurable opportunity to re-experience in bite-sized chunks Turner Hospital’s narrative skills.
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    Exilic Colour. "Summer Visit: Three Novellas" and "The Island/ L’Île/ To Nisi" by Antigone Kefala. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Gauntlett, Stathis
    Readers who share Helen Nickas's view that Antigone Kefala's fiction forms 'a continuous narrative which depicts and explores the various stages of an exilic journey' may be pleased to find more instalments in her fourth book of fiction, "Summer Visit". The first of the three novellas is an account of an unsatisfying marriage, told with a controlled detachment that makes its title, 'Intimacy', seem ironic. In contrast, the third, 'Conversations with Mother', contains a series of elegiac apostrophes of the deceased; the connections with Braila and other congruities with a figure familiar from previous writings again encourage an assumption of autobiography. However, it is the middle, title story, 'Summer Visit', that will provide most sustenance for followers of Kefala's repeated engagement with issues in her diasporic identity. The summer visit is to Greece, the briefest of Kefala's stops en route to Sydney, and it provides opportunities for laying ghosts. She revisits the Piraeus orphanage that was the whole family's cramped refuge after fleeing Romania. "The Island" depicts the New Zealand stage of Kefala's 'exilic journey' and revolves around the first love of the heroine Melina. "The Island" was reviewed on its first publication in 1984, so this review focusses on the novelty of the latest (third) edition: a juxtaposition of the original English text with two translations, one French (by Marie Gaulis), the other Greek (by Helen Nickas).
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    A Social Pulse. "The Secret Burial" by Penelope Sell and "The Alphabet of Light and Dark" by Danielle Wood. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Hill, Christine
    The bush gothic of Barbara Baynton shapes the world of this promising first novel from Penelope Sell. "The Secret Burial" deals with the brutal coming of age of fifteen-year-old Elise. The setting is a harsh, drought-stricken rural environment where people, fauna and the environment are barely surviving. Elise is catapulted into adulthood by the accidental death of her alcoholic mother, Lizzie, who electrocutes herself when drunkenly trying to repair the washing machine. Afraid that she and her younger brother, Jeremy, will be separated, Elise asks her old neighbour, Isaac, to help her bury her mother and tell no one. Danielle Wood’s "The Alphabet of Light and Dark", a first novel and this year’s Vogel Award winner, is a multi-layered work. In the 'now' of the narrative, there are two main characters - Essie and Pete - whose points of view alternate. The story of each character remains separate until they meet at the lighthouse on Bruny Island, where each has come to live. One day, they pass each other on the path in front of the lighthouse; each recognises the other as someone they knew as a child. "The Alphabet of Light and Dark" belongs to the now well established Tasmanian genre best exemplified by Richard Flanagan's "Death of a River Guide". The light and dark imagery of the lighthouse beacon, the motif of flaxen hair and the mermaid story link the generations in a delicate poetic network. This is an impressive first novel, powerfully informed and beautifully written.
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    Screen Tests and Digital Dead-ends. "Turning Off the Television: Broadcasting’s Uncertain Future" by Jock Given and "Media Mania: Why Our Fear of Modern Media is Misplaced" by Hugh Mackay. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Torney-Parlicki, Prue
    At a recent Australian Broadcasting Authority conference, federal communications minister Senator Richard Alston conceded that the early adoption of digital television in Australia had been 'modest'. More impartial observers of the transition to digital broadcasting in Australia have been less restrained. 'A digital dead-end' and 'dismal failure' are representative of recent media commentary on the subject. Jock Given, however, is optimistic. "Turning Off the Television" discusses the technical, commercial and policy choices already made about digital broadcasting, and examines their implications. As much about the past as the future, this comprehensive study traces the technological changes that have led to the so-called digital revolution, from Marconi to the dot-com crash. Mackay's book examines in turn those aspects of the modern media around which claims about media influence have revolved: television advertising, media violence, the Internet, and the current trend towards lifestyle programs. Advertising, which appears to be the most overt form of television propaganda, is found to be greatly overestimated in its ability to influence consumers. The theoretical framework of Mackay's thesis is not new. The view that the media contribute to attitude formation rather than shaping it directly has prevailed for at least forty years. Mackay's achievement is to present it in an accessible and appealing manner. At a time of intense debate in Australia about media ownership laws, the funding of the ABC and SBS, and the transition to digital broadcasting, both of these books make a valuable and important contribution to our understanding of media practices and influences.
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    Peculiar Mercy. "A History of Criminal Law in New South Wales: The Colonial Period 1788-1900" by G. D. Woods. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Dillon, Hugh
    The book is built around the themes of savagery within the justice system; the entrenchment of the rule of law and the development of legal principle; and the discretionary application of clemency within the criminal law. Early on in the piece, Wood warns the reader that he will focus on the law relating to murder, rape, assault and theft, and essential doctrines and procedures relating to criminal trials. Dry as the prospect of reading a further 400 pages appears to be at that point, it is a misleading impression. Wood brings this apparently dense and unpromising topic to life by employing a series of vignettes, anecdotes and case studies that reveal the peculiarities, not only of the law itself, but of colonial judges, lawyers, politicians, administrators and criminals in all their hideousness and glory; and he does so with both gravitas and humour. Woods’s pioneering work (as far as I can ascertain, the first comprehensive history of this country’s criminal law in the colonial period) is not only an impressive piece of scholarship and a fascinating expedition into our past, but a service in placing our current controversies in their historical contexts.
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    An Exclusive Club. "The Complete Book of Great Australian Women: Thirty-six Women Who Changed the Course of Australia" by Susanna de Vries. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Wright, Clare
    The book works best as a sort of extended "Who's Who", introducing readers to a host of captivating female writers, artists, activists and innovators. But whether through lack of editorial guidance or resources, there has been a missed opportunity here. In bringing together two volumes and, patently, years of painstaking research, this book offered the chance to draw a bigger picture about the historical and personal circumstances that shaped the lives of certain important Australians - an occasion to draw distinctions or resonances between the women whose experiences display such extreme richness and complexity.
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    Dressed for Deco. "Art Deco: 1910-1939" by Charlotte Benton, Tim Benton and Ghislaine Wood (eds). [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Weng-Ho, Chong
    London’s Victoria and Albert Museum is currently hosting a 'sumptuous' survey of the Art Deco period. Quoting curator Ghislaine Wood that the central themes are 'fashion, glamour, commerce', "Time" magazine’s review presses the buttons: Top Hat, ocean liners, Cartier (the scarab brooch), streamlined cocktail shakers and radios, and stepped pyramid skyscrapers … The list evokes a suspension of glittering objects in amber. The book "Art Deco: 1910-1939" accompanies the exhibition. The editors note in the introduction that 'Art Deco' was not recognised as a style label until 1966, with the publication of Bevis Hillier's "Art Deco of the 20s and 30s". Deco was born and became a craze without ever having a name. John Pile's "Art Deco Dictionary of 20th Century Design" says that 'the Modernists denigrated the style as Modernistic, putting a modern surface on things without any of Modernism's depths.' That’s a lot of protesting moderns there. The book at hand notes that as late as 1984 a critic was writing doubtfully: 'The critical re-evaluation of which Art Deco today is the object cannot deny that it consists more of a taste than a style, and this is responsible for the slippery way it resists theoretical categorization.' A taste rather than a style? Was Art Deco merely 'Modernistic'? Did it simply substitute a dress code for a program? One may as defensibly argue that it was ahead of its time - not Modernist but already Post-Modern. As "Art Deco: 1910–1939" demonstrates in its hundreds of pictures and the connecting skein of exegeses, Deco was the international face of its age. Not the faces of Dorothea Lange's WPA farmers or August Sanders’s peasants, but the shining face of grace and luxe and leisure - that is to say, one kind of the best we can be. As someone once remarked about civilisation, even a veneer is an actual thing.
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    Insouciant Chic. "Lina Bryans: Rare Modern 1909-2000" by Gillian Forwood. [review]
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Thomas, Sarah
    Lina Bryant's painting "The Babe is Wise" captures the 'insouciant chic' of the New Woman in 1940: independent and self-assured, the subject stares at the viewer from beneath a sharply angled hat. A portrait of the artist's close friend, author Jean Campbell (whose novel inspired the painting’s title), "The Babe is Wise" became Bryans' most famous painting, and its subject captures the artist's own attitude to life. Gillian Forwood's handsome new book, "Lina Bryans: Rare Modern 1909–2000", recalls the life and work of a brave, unconventional and generous woman who single-mindedly pursued a career as an artist from the late 1930s until her death three years ago. This lavish Miegunyah Press publication serves both author and artist well, reproducing numerous images in colour, many for the first time.
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    Gallery Notes.
    (Australian Book Review, 2003-08) Wallace-Crabbe, Chris
    Art is a strange posing of discoveries, a display of what was no more than possible. For it is the task of the creative artist to come up with ideas which are ours, but which we haven't thought yet. In some cases, it is also the artist's role to slice Australia open and show it bizarrely different, quite new in its antiquity. Half a century ago, Sidney Nolan did just this with his desert paintings and those of drought animal carcasses. I recall seeing some of these at the Peter Bray Gallery in 1953 and being bewildered by their aridity: a cruel dryness which made the familiar Ned Kelly paintings seem quite pastoral. Nor could I get a grip on his 'Durack Range', which the NGV had bought three years earlier. Its lack of human signs affronted my responses. The furthest our littoral imaginations had gone toward what used to be called the 'Dead Heart' was then to be found in Russell Drysdale's inland New South Wales, Hans Heysen's Flinders Ranges, and Albert Namatjira's delicately picturesque MacDonnells. Nolan's own vision was vastly different: different and vast. It offered new meanings and posed big new questions.
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