AGE
Type
Review

August in nonfiction

9781742235264The Honest History Book – David Stephens and Alison Broinowski (eds) (NewSouth Books)

I picked up The Honest History Book during the first wave of concerted right-wing attacks on Yassmin Abdel-Magied for her seven-word facebook post on Anzac Day, and its measured and analytical essays came as a welcome relief. The book traces the strange story of how a devastating global conflict became so central to Australian nationalism when, as Douglas Newton observes, ‘the Great War should rattle our souls, not rouse our national self-esteem’. For his part, David Stephens proposes a ‘quieter, more honest Anzac’ which ‘emphasises … the effects of war on those who fight it and on their families’, and focuses ‘on the impacts on other countries besides our own’.

The first half of the book challenges myths and ‘Anzackery’ and examines stories less often told, such as Vicken Babkenian and Judith Crispin’s essay on the Armenian genocide, while the second considers the broader contours of Australian history. The essays are strong throughout, each standing alone comfortably as well as contributing to the book’s themes. Particularly recommended are Larissa Behrendt’s sharp and thoughtful consideration of ongoing colonial dilemmas, which closes with a moving summary of Barangaroo’s story, and Paul Daley’s haunting exploration of frontier violence.

thomListen, Liberal or Whatever Happened to the Party of the People? – Thomas Frank (Scribe UK) 

This witty yet urgent book, released before the 2016 US presidential election, argues that the modern Democratic Party does not seek to create equality or justice, but merely to bring about a more perfect meritocracy. In this utopia, the smartest and most creative – the professional class – will be rewarded; those left behind will have brought it on themselves by their failure to innovate. Surveying Obama’s presidency, Frank argues that a reverence for smartness had disastrous results: an ‘unquestioning, reflexive respect for professional expertise was an impediment to thinking rationally about Wall Street’.

The relevance of the book’s insights extends far beyond the sphere of domestic US politics and the thesis is compelling. Frank could however be accused of romanticising the Democrats’ past; he rightly critiques the party’s turn away from the Roosevelt era but does not explore details such as the New Deal’s virtual exclusion of African Americans. Focusing on the professional class might also obscure some of the structural barriers that complicate the building of social democracy under capitalism. Would changing the people at the top fix the problem? Perhaps not entirely, but it would surely be a start if the leading lights of a centre-left party were more passionate about economic equality than about ‘the learning class’.

downloadDoing It: Women Tell the Truth About Great Sex – Karen Pickering (ed) (UQP)

This collection is packed with perspectives from older women, younger women, women with disabilities, gay, straight, trans, sexually active and inactive women. Although viewpoints vary, the broad outlook is liberal. In Karen Pickering’s absorbing introduction, she observes correctly that ‘we talk about sex and women a lot’ but ‘far less often ask women themselves about sex’. Pickering then reels off a list of questions she can ‘only answer with an eye-roll’, one of which is ‘are women hurt by porn?’ Reasonable feminists can disagree on pornography, but it’s odd to place the possibility that a multibillion dollar industry run largely by and for men might be detrimental for at least some women on a par with inane questions like ‘Are women in offices dressing “professionally” enough to be taken seriously?’

The essays brim with humour, pathos, eroticism, and candour – from Emily Maguire’s recollections of choosing sex over scripture class to Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen’s exploration of internet dating. Jenna Price’s discussion of sex in an ageing, post-childbirth body is frank and valuable; similarly I’d recommend Tegan Bennett Daylight’s ‘Vagina’ in The Best Australian Essays 2016 (I was put off by the title, but it’s excellent). Doing It is a joyous read, and the collection closes fittingly with Clem Bastow’s charming piece on her conviction, ‘held since 1991, that sex should be fun and funny’.

13437113The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely: Australia’s Prime Ministers – Mungo MacCallum (Black Inc) 

This is a fine sample platter of Australian political history garnished with pleasing factlets; for example, Chifley refused ever to wear a dinner suit, even to meet King George VI. The prime ministerial sketches are necessarily brief, and at times MacCallum’s conclusions raise eyebrows. For instance, he states rather dubiously that ‘The reforms of the Hawke-Keating years are now held by both sides of politics to have been both ground-breaking and necessary’. Can our politics really be divided simply into ‘two sides’, as though the Labor and Coalition parties represented the totality of perspectives throughout the country? Aren’t there a multiplicity of views, many of which are not adequately represented in our parliamentary system? The odd eyebrow twitch notwithstanding, The Good, The Bad, and the Unlikely is a very enjoyable read that will no doubt whet appetites for more studies of Australian leaders past and present.

heyBeautiful Balts: From Displaced Persons to New Australians – Jayne Persian (NewSouth Books) 

This valuable book tells the story of the ‘displaced persons’ scheme hatched out by Ben Chifley and Arthur Calwell, under which over 170,000 persons left stateless by the Second World War (or unable or unwilling to return to designated home countries) came to Australia between 1947 and 1952. The narrative is beautifully balanced between the war’s global aftermath, the work of policymakers within the Australian government, and personal stories of those who came seeking a new life. Beautiful Balts is a sobering corrective to notions of Australia as a generous host: in selecting migrants, whiteness prevailed over all other considerations, and Jewish people were discriminated against while Nazi sympathisers slipped through; ‘DPs’ were dispatched to remote areas to do hard manual work; and families were separated.

However, Persian concludes that despite its faults the scheme was ultimately successful in building Australia, shaping its national character, and providing a home for vulnerable people. She asks whether there is ‘something we can learn from this when today’s refugee policies seem so uncompromising?’ For mine this question is somewhat troubling, raising uncomfortable images of Australia once again putting traumatised people to work for its benefit. Persian’s point about the power of political will holds true, though, and her book provides much-needed historical context to the stories we tell ourselves about immigration.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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Sarah Burnside lives in Perth and writes about history, politics, policy and culture. She tweets at @saraheburnside

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