Book reviews

Orwell’s Australia: From Cold War to Culture Wars
Dennis Glover. Scribe, 2003.
isbn 0 908 01156 3, rrp $19.95


I confess, I grew up jealous of those living in the inner suburbs. Year after year, we would make the voyage from the outer east to see my cousins in Richmond. I would return home to my suburban life, dreaming of living in a terrace home with brilliant yellow walls and arty, intellectual people drifting in and out.

Dennis Glover has got me thinking about the suburbs a lot more, and a little differently. You see, people who live ‘out there’ on the fringes of Australia’s cities vote. Not only do they vote, but their constituency has been the contested ground upon which the last two federal elections were fought. According to Glover, the centre–left needs to search for the truth about these fringe dwellers. They need to take the trip from Richmond to Fountain Gate, and Leichhardt to Penrith, and immerse themselves in the life of people who reside there. This is what Orwell would have done.



Glover’s knowledge of Orwell the man is used to great effect throughout the book. I was left wanting to find out more about this person who relinquished the niceties of a middle-class existence to live amongst the real battlers of his time. Australia’s centre–left needs to use Orwell’s example to seek the truth about suburbanites and their aspirations. The truth is out there.

Emily Millane

A Woman of Independence
Kirsty Sword Gusmão.
Macmillan, 2003. isbn 0 732 91197 4, rrp $30

Kirsty Sword Gusmão’s book begins with an endearing scene at the dawn of a new nation.

‘Shouldn’t you at least put on a tie?’ she says to her husband as he leaves to greet the first on a list of foreign dignitaries arriving to mark the birth of East Timor. ‘It’s in my pocket!’ says Xanana Gusmão as he climbs into the back seat of the car which would take him to Dili—15 hours before he is to be sworn in as president.

A  degree in Indonesian and Italian from the University of Melbourne is the catalyst that propelled Kirsty Sword Gusmão to become the first lady of Asia’s poorest country.

The candid, journalistic writing of Sword Gusmão makes her book A Woman of Independence a compelling read.

The autobiography follows her journey from a typical Australian upbringing which she left to work as an English teacher and underground human rights activist in Jakarta. Here, she encounters East Timorese freedom fighter Xanana Gusmão with whom she begins a relationship while he is held in Cipinang prison.

Her strong willed commitment and steadfast motivation to the cause is evident on each page—unwavering even in the most confusing and challenging times. Her story reveals throughout a woman of independence who is destined for greatness.

The book is lightened by her tumultuous romance with the future leader of East Timor, and flavoured with the exotic and exhausting tales of her work for the independence struggle of the East Timorese.

Beth Doherty

How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia
Sylvia Lawson. UNSW Press, 2001. isbn 0 868 40577 9, rrp $37.95

The best moment in Sylvia Lawson’s How Simone de Beauvoir Died in Australia is when, as an aside in her collection of essays and fiction analysing Australian culture, she mentions that the only recognition in Australia to follow the death of Michel Foucault was a small headline in a daily newspaper that read ‘Sex historian dies’.

Such an observation, wryly noted, captures what is behind the finest moments in this book: Lawson’s sharp writing, the ability to apply her knowledge of what is evidently a vast amount of reading and research, and to tie seemingly unconnected threads together. That said, however, its weakness is that the prose is sometimes dense, tripping over its own worthiness, and there are not as many moments of illumination as one would hope.

Yet, the last and title essay is an exception to this rule. Here, Lawsons’s analysis of Simone de Beauvoir as a feminist, and of feminism in Australia, allows for a vibrant exchange of ideas. Similarly her writings permit ambiguity without slipping into vagueness. It is Lawson writing at her best, allowing a reader to forgive the slower passages that precede it.

Chloe Wilson

The Man Who Knew Too Much
The Strange and Inventive Life of Robert Hooke 1635–1703
Stephen Inwood. Pan Macmillan, 2003. isbn 0 330 48829 5, rrp $66


Stephen Inwood’s The Man Who Knew Too Much is an interesting account of the complex Robert Hooke, a 17th century scientist, architect, painter, inventor and mechanic. Inwood revives Hooke from the forgotten pages of history to portray a brilliant and versatile but very flawed man.

One of Inwood’s strengths in this work is that he manages to vividly recreate Hooke’s world of 17th century London. On the other hand Inwood does go into immense detail of Hooke’s inventions, to the crosshairs on quadrant lenses, punch clocks and the springs and gears in pocket watches, so it would help to have a technical mind to fully appreciate The Man Who Knew Too Much. To be fair to Inwood though, so much of Hooke’s life work was tied up in the inventing and refining of gadgets like the air pump and microscopes, that technical detail would be hard to avoid.

Nonetheless, without having a technical mind myself, I found The Man Who Knew Too Much quite enjoyable because Hooke is such a fascinating character. He probably inspired the now common archetype of the jealous scientific genius. Hooke was, to say the least, unconventional. He was a man who had a long-term incestuous relationship, yet many years before Charles Darwin even existed, proposed that fossils were the remains of creatures that had become extinct and not just ‘nature’s tricks’. In parts Inwood’s book is also highly amusing. Particularly hilarious is Hooke’s account of the results of personal experiments conducted using Indian hemp.

In short The Man Who Knew Too Much is a thorough, entertaining and eye-opening biography of Hooke, in which Inwood manages to rescue Hooke from the caricature of the ugly little man jealous of the great Sir Isaac Newton.

Godfrey Moase

 

 

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