Zadie Smith’s new work and a novel ‘riddled with cliches’: books to hit and miss this week

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Zadie Smith’s new work and a novel ‘riddled with cliches’: books to hit and miss this week

By Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen and Steven Carroll

Book reviewers Giselle Au-Nhien Nguyen and Steven Carroll consider a mix of fiction and non-fiction releases. Here are their picks from the bunch.

FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
The Wife of Willesden, Zadie Smith, Penguin, $14.99

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Geoffrey Chaucer’s Wife of Bath’s Prologue, from his Canterbury Tales, gets a modern update with this reimagining by the prolific Zadie Smith in her first work for theatre. Commissioned to celebrate the author’s birthplace, Brent, as London’s Borough of Culture 2020, The Wife of Willesden turns Chaucer’s Alyson into a Jamaican woman, Alvita, who stands before a pub telling of her five husbands.

You can sense Smith’s joy in writing the text, injecting Jamaican patois into Chaucer’s couplets and peppering them with sharp modern references (come for the social commentary, stay for the skewering of Jordan Peterson and co). This lively work sparkles with righteous anger at the misogynistic double standards that have, depressingly, barely changed in the six centuries since the original text was written. It would be a delight to see this performed on stage.

Water Music, Christine Balint, Brio Books, $16.99

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A love of music radiates from this award-winning novella, which is set in 18th-century Venice. Raised by a poor family, Lucietta is whisked off to the Derelitti Convent at the age of 16 to study violin at the bequest of her wealthy birth father, whom she has never met.

Stripped of individuality and surrounded by fellow young women dreaming of musical fortunes, Lucietta learns that her paths in life are either to marry and give up her ambitions or to pursue music as a nun.

Christine Balint’s lyrical writing and depth of research into this fascinating, little-known period of history paints a vivid picture of convent life and the pressures faced by young women of the time. More detail in some instances could have helped to fortify the setting and create further impact.

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The Woman from Uruguay, Pedro Mairal, Bloomsbury, $29.99

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If you’ve read one male midlife crisis novel, you’ve read them all. This 2018 novella follows a single day in the life of an unemployed 44-year-old writer, Lucas Pereyra, who’s in a rut with all things: work, marriage, life.

Lucas travels from Buenos Aires to Montevideo to pick up a sizeable cash advance from a publisher; while there, he hopes to reignite an affair with Guerra, a woman decades his junior whom he met once at a literary festival.

Pedro Mairal’s disdain for women is evident in the one-dimensional, sexualised way in which he writes them, and the entire thing is written as a narration from the eminently unlikeable Lucas to his wife, Catalina – what might be intended as a mea culpa reads instead as incredibly dull machismo. Riddled with cliches, this book reinforces the uninteresting, unnecessary stereotype of the tortured male writer.

Scheherazade and the Amber Necklace, Gordon Thompson, Clouds of Magellan Press, $24.99

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This fantastical interpretation of the Arabian Nights is told through the eyes of Scheherazade, written here as a headstrong young woman. Melburnian author and publisher Gordon Thompson has a lovely control of language and an eye for description, with the writing and atmosphere reminiscent of Michael Ende’s 1979 children’s fantasy classic The Neverending Story.

Thompson puts his own spin on the story while retaining many of the recognisable elements of the original: flying carpets, mythical djinns and bold adventures. The sprawling tale, separated into parts, can be difficult to follow, and the wide cast of characters is sometimes a little confusing.

But overwhelmingly, Thompson’s creative vision and respect for the original text are evident. For young readers, this is a decent springboard into the exploration of a timeless classic.

NON-FICTION PICK OF THE WEEK
Our Sunburnt Country, Anika Molesworth, Macmillan, $34.99

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Anika Molesworth may take her title from Dorothea Mackellar’s poem, but she abhors the use of it by political deniers to claim that things were ever thus. This is more than a plea for what she calls “climate courage” to confront the disaster of climate change, though; it’s also a personal, often poetically rendered exploration of her deep connection with her family’s sheep station near Broken Hill, this ancient continent, and the earth.

Inspired by Al Gore, Molesworth studied science at university while working on the farm. She travelled the world, meeting farmers who are doing something, and was further inspired by world climate commentators.

The result is a work of hope that is always grounded. When the land is affected by global warming, droughts and monster bushfires, it is, for her, wounded – as are the animals, including humans, that live off it.

Girt Nation, David Hunt, Black Inc., $32.99

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Some of Australia’s most prominent colonial figures appear in this entertaining and irreverent history like Monty Python pop-ups: Banjo Paterson, Louisa Lawson and Henry, that son of hers, Henry Parkes, feminist Catherine Spence and others have their hour on David Hunt’s music hall stage. But it’s Alfred Deakin, second prime minister, bred on the streets of Fitzroy and educated at Melbourne Grammar, who takes centre stage.

Hunt has a lot of fun with his spiritualism – Deakin frequently consulting phrenologists and mediums, often unperturbed by early electoral losses because a medium had predicted eventual success.

Deakin’s darker side in his views of Indigenous Australians is documented too. Larrikins, eccentrics, burning ballerinas and more emerge in some of the most improbable of histories.

Anti-Social Media, Kevin Foster, MUP, $49.99

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War has been dramatically changed by IT, and social media – as this strongly argued inquiry demonstrates – is at the heart of that change. In the past, insurgent groups had to hijack airliners to attract the attention of the world’s media.

These days, all the likes of ISIS or the Taliban need are a mobile phone and an internet connection. While “non-state actors” use social media to “indoctrinate, recruit, organise and deploy”, conventional Western military forces such as those of the US, Britain and Australia have been slow to react.

IT changes have, often as not, favoured non-state actors because they have greater flexibility. The Western military, which tends to have a hierarchical, bottom-down approach to IT needs that flexibility – to trust its junior ranks and effect change from the bottom up – or victories in the field will be lost online.

True to the Land, Paul van Reyk, Reaktion Books $49.99

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It’s surprising, given how central food is to our lives, that serious studies of the food industry are only just hitting the mainstream. As Paul van Reyk says in this comprehensive study, a history of food is not only about what we ate and eat. Central to his study is the concept of “foodways” – how food is grown, produced, distributed and consumed.

He takes us back to Indigenous land-management and food practices, through the colonial period and the introduction of European farming to the present day and the new breed of farmers engaging with regenerative practices and looking to native crops.

Along the way we encounter some icons – the Chiko Roll, Vegemite and the Cherry Ripe – as well as looking at the impact of pivotal events such as WWII, America’s influence, more sophisticated canning, Coke and hamburgers.

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