Saturday, 9 September 2006

Review: Australian Literary Review, 6 September 2006

The ALR’s launch issue is auspicious. On page three, Richard Nile contemplates “communities of ageing free radicals popping up all over the place”. With a large number of professional intellectuals set to retire, he posits, the outlook is good for Australia’s cultural life.

On page four David Burchell contemplates the divide between the communities of the Blue Mountains and that of Lithgow, “Australia’s first mining town”. He then segues into an analysis of “the culture wars” via “those who rejected the morality of the herd, and strove to better themselves through culture and self-cultivation”. This brief snapshot of the “chardonnay set” allows Burchell to look at a few new books by public intellectuals. “There’s a lot of listening to be done,” he opines, near the end of the piece.

Each article is closed, rather facetiously, by an oversized asterisk, as if there were a single footnote to the whole story.

Ian McCalman’s piece, which starts on page seven: “In 1995, American author Dava Sobel had a seismic impact on the nonfiction publishing business.” “Now, more than a decade later,” he continues, “the market for popular history has become saturated.” It is significant that Longitude was also chosen as a subject for this month’s First Tuesday Book Club. It seems to have long legs. McCalman proceeds, however, to detail the value of each of Sobel’s more recent works. Galileo’s Daughter (2000), for example, is:

… a fine piece of revisionist history that counters anachronistic accounts of Galileo as a heroic professional scientist defying the bigoted irrationalism of the church.

This is very fine criticism — encapsulating the essence of the work in a few words.

Sobel was a guest at the Melbourne Book Festival and the subject of the next piece, on page eight, novelist Lionel Shriver, is a guest at the Brisbane Writer’s Festival — by Nike Bourke. Again, the longer narrative of the piece provides the writer, as in McCalman’s case, with a freedom often absent in the shorter reviews found in the supplements of the weekend broadsheets:

This is the mind of a woman who, perhaps under the awful impress of persistent, untreated postnatal psychosis, rationalises her own abuse by imputing her victim’s complicity, his willingness to be abused. His pleasure in it.

Page 10 brings us a book review by Genevieve Tucker, measuring half a page. The other half of the page is given over to an ad for one of ALR‘s sponsors: the Australia Council for the Arts.

More reviewing on page 11, with a lovely illustration of a flower the name of which I wish I knew. The drooping blossoms next to the rampant ones nicely set off the content of the piece, which is: sex.

Page 12 looks at a recent success story, but with a twist. “Has Australian author Geraldine Brooks won the Pulitzer Prize in the US for a bit of monumental fibbing?” she asks. Later she says: “The plot is Hollywood.” Stella Clarke goes on to beckon to the attendant waiting in the wings: the herald of the History Wars Part II: the novel as a purveyor of palliative potions in the face of the dark forces that once stalked the land. She highlights the value of opprobrium heaped on the heads of novelists, like Kate Grenville, who was (apparently: I haven’t read The Secret River) “coy around 18th-century Aboriginal and settler violence”. The past is, indeed, another country.

On page 13 Jennifer Kloester reviews Kate Legge’s novel The Unexpected Elements of Love. I should read this book, as it deals with dementia, and I fear my father is tending that way.

Deborrah Hope tackles The Ballad of Desmond Kale in a longer review on page 14.

[McDonald’s] attitude is measured, abstract, completely divorced from my heritage-linked histrionics [she is an ancestor of Samuel Marsden] and the immoderately passionate debate over the writing of historical fiction that blew up like a hurricane last year.

On page 16 the essay deals with the Beaconsfield Mine disaster, Pro Hart, and our attitudes toward mining. This is a two-page piece, and starts auspiciously. A compendious effort.

Dwelling on the ordinary has made the efforts of working-class artists and miners shine. It is easy for city-dwellers to imagine that these stories and places are familiar and intimate parts of their lives, but it is clear that it is our literature and art, rather than the actual places and people, that have made them part of our identities.


The modernist period into which Hart, Drysdale and Williams were born is a fading memory and rapidly becoming an interesting historical period only.

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