Election year food, sex and meaning

 The Best Australian Essays 2012 (Ramna Koval, editor). Black Inc Books, 2013.

'Best Australian Essays 2012' book cover


Writers are a breed apart. Brave, masochistic souls. I say masochistic because there's a degree of suffering in wrestling with words and ideas.

Not so much suffering for art, for me at any rate; rather it's a case of having to 'suffer the little children' in pursuit of time and oxygen enough to write. Mid-draft I'm perched atop my stool to commune with essays and essayists, having extricated myself from playing with Transformers and the six-year-old son and heir, and delicately talking down the spouse and Ms Nine from a violin practice-induced skyscraper discourse over vibrato.

Blink once, I'm baptising dishes; then there's swimming lessons, playdate chauffeuring, grocery shopping, visits to the doctor and a pharmacy, paying tradies and vacuuming away their detritus. Blink twice and the sun is in full retreat. It hits me that I'm yet to indulge in breakfast, lunch or dinner. Thankfully the selections on offer in The Best Australian Essays 2012, from 27 intrepid scribes, are like so many cakes.

And it's while deeply engorged in the everyday obsessions covered — food, sex, meaning, joy — that I found this volume's greatest joy: Maria Tumarkin's 'Sublime and Profane: Our Contemporary Obsession With Food'. Educational and provocative for a non-foodie. Tumarkin posits spiritual, psychological, sociological and sundry other reasons for chefs being our new rock gods; the shared meal reborn as the pinnacle of being human.

I savour liquored meditations on mortality from Louis Nowra, and Tim Flannery's inestimable 'The Naked Critic: Memories of Robert Hughes' (the much-mourned Hughes drunk as a lord and as naked as envy). I relish the high art of quality reportage, à la John Bryson's 'The Murder of Azaria', with its aching examination of the trials and tribulations of a family cruelled by fate, intolerance and hungry canines.

Heavy fare such as the deposing of a PM (James Button vs Rhys Muldoon) and David Marr's live vivisection of a prominently-eared opposition leader ('Political Animal') is interspersed with dashes of wisdom and wit from Helen Garner, Gideon Haigh, J. M. Coetzee and Clive James etc.

Great writing nourishes. Quality muses prompt tears, ribald laughter, recognition and, significantly, thought itself. There's good reason why many of us huddle at night, turning pages. Nodding to ourselves, while salvaging a cup of kindness, unclaimed treats from the fridge and the spouse's Christmas chocolate cache.

The kids are asleep. Grab your copy and settle in. Over a fevered fortnight's time theft, I've sucked the marrow out of Nick Bryant's take on Gina Rinehart. Plucked the pith from Kim Mahood's sorrowfully funny dissertation on 'Kartiya' (white workers in desert Aboriginal communities). It will take time to digest fully.

These diverse essays will leave you sated. Expect to consume same over an extended period, with intermittent mental bloating. My compliments to chef de cuisine, editor Romana Koval. 


In The Age recently, political philosopher Tim Soutphommasane drew on the influence of Michel de Montaigne, a 16th-century aristocrat, who — for fun, no less — invented the essay as a literary form.

'Few (in Montaigne's Essays) attempt to explain anything scientifically,' Soutphommasane writes. 'Montaigne regarded his work as 'a book with a wild and eccentric plan', which is to say it was one without a plan at all.'

Well, as Barry reminds us above, this is a fitting allegory for life, too; especially when the needs of a young family outweigh our own. As a working mother of two small boisterous boys I know just how difficult it is to find a chink in the chaos. Even for a moment, let alone for the duration of a chapter.

And so it was that a book with 'no plan at all' seemed right up my alley (yes, The Best Australian Essays 2012 arrives here on my recommendation).

But make no mistake. A book with no plan is not the same as a book with no purpose. 'These are essays full of insight and wit, on the subjects that moved us in 2012,' writes Koval in her introduction. 'When looking for wisdom, it's a good idea to range widely.'

I'm with Barry, there's something undeniably moreish about Flannery's musing on the late art critic Robert Hughes, Bryant's incisive reportage on our 'richest woman' Gina Rineheart and Mahood's moody take on what it really means to be a white man marooned in our sunburnt centre.

Then there are those essays that leave an indelible imprint. Just what is it to be human? they pose. And what better way to tackle this than to dissect our often ambiguous relationship with animals. In her quiet, almost perilously underwhelming way, Garner leaves me devastated with 'Red Dog: A Mutiny', Romy Ash finds amnesty in the hunt and Anna Krien leads me through the Indonesian abattoirs. And she does not let go.

Bryson's reappraisal of the all-too-iconic Azaria Chamberlain case and L. M. Robertson's terrible retelling (reliving?) of being encouraged to 'assist' a miscarriage following the awful realisation that the baby she is carrying is so severely handicapped that it would not live long after birth, leave me somehow clawing for breath. In both, mother and child loom large and sympathetic. It's a sucker punch to the heart.

We get two perspectives of a man felled by his own ego and, literally, rediscovering his humility. In Button's 'We Need to Talk about Kevin' and Muldoon's 'A Coup by Any Other Name' we're presented with an ex prime minister stripped bare. This is Kevin Rudd hurt, betrayed and, yes, completely human — a man so blindsided that he seems to almost fade between the lines.

Marr's withering piece on Tony Abbott completes the political trinity. These writers manage the impossible: they have me feeling sorry for politicians. Well, almost. I'm not sure if such magnanimity is allowed in an election year. But what a pleasure to discover those grey Canberran corridors harbouring such a chiaroscuro of emotion.

This collection doesn't just showcase great intelligence and humour. If the point of an essay is to 'open a conversation with a reader by the expression of what's on the essayist's mind', as Soutphommasane argues, then what we have here is dissemination writ large. Let the conversations begin.

Barry Gittins headshotJen Vuk headshotBarry Gittins is a communication and research consultant for the Salvation Army. He has written for Eureka Street, Inside History, Crosslight, The Transit Lounge, Changing Attitude Australia and The Rubicon.

Jen Vuk is a freelance writer and editor. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including The Herald Sun, The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Age and The Good Weekend. 

Topic tags: Barry Gittins, Jen Vuk, essay, Tony Abbott, Kevin Rudd, Gina Rinehart, Tim Flannery, Louis Nowra



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