Book reviews

Speaking for Australia: Parliamentary speeches that shaped our nation.
Edited by Rod Kemp and Marian Stanton. Allen & Unwin, 2004. ISBN 1 741 14430 2, RRP $35

Most of the time Australian politics resembles the Lilliputians arguing over whether it is better to crack an egg at the big end or the little end. Speaking for Australia, edited by Liberal Senator Rod Kemp and Marian Stanton, is a collection that records the more significant moments.

Speaking for Australia covers many of Australia’s more dramatic periods from Federation and the White Australia Policy to the Bali bombings and the invasion of Iraq. The choice of speeches raises questions at times. For example, Amanda Vanstone illuminates the stem-cell research debate by saying that ‘the views … to this bill depend on just what it is that comes out of the freezer’. And you have to wonder why Kemp included Simon Crean’s bland and diplomatic welcome speech to George W. Bush in 2003. I am sure that these two speeches shaped no one, let alone the nation. Speaking for Australia can be dry, but this probably says more about recent Australian political history than anything else. That said, there are examples of speech-making eloquence, such as Gough Whitlam’s post-dismissal speech: ‘Well may we say “God Save the Queen”, because nothing will save the Governor-General.’

By far the most sobering reading was Pauline Hanson’s maiden speech. I wonder how controversial the words ‘Wake up, Australia, before it is too late …’ would have been if uttered in 2005? This collection is worth having, if only as a useful reference.

Godfrey Moase

Direct action and democracy today
April Carter. Blackwell Publishing, 2004. ISBN 0 745 6236 9, RRP$56.95

I expected that this book would solely reflect Australia’s experience in political life. I was wrong. April Carter explores different countries’ experiences in the presence or absence of democracy.

Carter’s book addresses complex political issues that may benefit academics and students of politics as a valuable research text. She thoroughly analyses some countries’ journey towards democracy (sometimes involving direct action) and reveals how those in power have responded to these actions.

The book is divided into chapters with subheadings, which allowed me to read sections that sounded interesting (and abandon them if they didn’t hold my attention). I was interested in Carter’s recognition that technological developments have exposed and aided those suffering under repressive regimes. For example, television coverage has raised the Western world’s awareness of globalisation issues, including child labour, poverty, the abuse of natural resources and the devastating repercussions of war.

It’s disappointing that the book was published before the Iraqi election in which citizens reasserted their identities as members of a democratic society through their right to vote, but overall, Carter’s exploration of democracy and direct action in the world today is informative.

Kathryn Page

Scraps of Heaven
Arnold Zable. Text Publishing, 2004. ISBN 1 877 00886 9, RRP$29.95

Arnold Zable’s novel cements his reputation as one of Melbourne’s great storytellers. Set in Carlton in 1958, it is made up of the interconnecting stories of the immigrant families who call the area home and are trying to make a life for themselves in the goldene medineh (golden land) of Australia.

The principal characters, Romek and Zofia, are survivors of concentration camps, and Zable describes their memories of coming together and their irreparable drifting apart with skill and subtlety. Their stories, and those of others, do seem bleak. From the beer-swilling pool guard who is an ‘ex-Mr Australia’ to Romek, a poet with no means of expressing himself,  lies the sense of unrealised potential, and the harshness of daily life stifling the dreams of those who wished to start anew. That said, the novel has many moments of humour and celebration, from a group of Yiddish actors who casually and affectionately insult one another to the stories of stylish Valerio’s soccer prowess or teenagers rebelling by lying around listening to jazz.

There is a tendency for Zable to over-explain a character’s state of mind. Sometimes gesture expresses a feeling with such precision that further explanation is not necessary—Romek’s awkward attempts at embracing Zofia are even more poignant before they are described as a ‘pas de deux between two anguished souls’. But this is a minor complaint, and this is a thoughtful and well-rounded story of the experience of migrants, one in which even the desperate find the will to continue. As the cabaret specialist Potashinski says, ‘Why wander around like farts in a barrel? The old world is gone. This is where we now belong, whether right or wrong.’

Chloe Wilson

Lazy Man in China
Helene Chung Martin. Pandanus, 2005. ISBN 1 740 76128 6, RRP $35

Lazy Man in China is told through a series of letters by John Martin, the husband of former ABC correspondent Helene Chung Martin. The letters document John’s disdainful impressions of China in the early 1980s and his slow adaptation to his new life. Moving to China after his wife’s posting as a foreign correspondent, John’s letters provide witty, irreverent and humorous insights which will resonate with any person who has ever felt a long way from home. The strength of Lazy Man in China is the personal observations of a pre-Tiananmen Square Beijing. John writes, ‘Beijing is a fascinating and most exotic place in a repressive and sinister sort of way.’

While an engaging historical read, Lazy Man in China is also a bittersweet love story; the letters were collated after John’s death in 1993. The love story serves as a framework for the larger socio-political story. However for any serious detail about political change in an increasingly cosmopolitan Beijing, the reader will have to look beyond this  paperback. Lazy Man in China is a good read for those wanting an insight into the massive changes happening in one of the world’s most powerful countries.

Kate Stowell



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