The Community Colleges Australia Summer Reading List

December 30, 2018

This year, I wrote Community Colleges Australia’s first “Summer Reading List”, with selected recommendations for members and friends. (You can view the CCA version here.)

“Summer reading is a sacred pastime. For many of us, it’s about the only time we now have to read without constant distraction.” – Tim Soutphommasane 

Understanding Australia 

My Country: Stories, Essays & Speeches by David Marr 

David Marr’s My Country: Stories, Essays & Speeches is a massive collection of his writing, from the 1970s onwards, including early works, such as the first review of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. “My country is the subject that interests me most, and I have spent my career trying to untangle its mysteries,” writes Marr. The book is filled with Marr’s wisdom: “The true radicals in Australia are those who call themselves conservative…. Australians are a practical people…. We fight change hard here – often brutally hard – but the leaders we come to admire are mostly reformers.”

I suspect I am not the only person on whom David Marr has grown over the years. Perhaps best-known for his biography of Patrick White, Marr’s work has broadened and deepened in recent years, turning him one of Australia’s most insightful cultural and political commentators. In recent years, Marr has published Quarterly Essay biographies of Tony Abbott, George Pell and Bill Shorten. Listen to Marr’s ABC Radio National “Conversations” interview with Richard Fidler (13 November 2018) for a preview of his book’s contents. 

Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up by Gabrielle Chan

In this week’s Sydney Morning Herald (29 December 2018), Shane Wright writes: “Capital cities are eating up the rest of Australia. Already home to more than two-thirds of the nation’s 25 million residents, each capital city will soon dominate their respective state or territory in a way that will challenge Australia’s economic and political landscape.” Capital city populations became dominant in 1916 in South Australia, 1921 in Victoria, 1942 in Western Australia, 1954 in New South Wales and 1991 in the Northern Territory. It’s projected to take place in 2027 in Queensland and 2040 in Tasmania. The social, political, economic and cultural implications of this national demographic shift is profound.

It’s also one cause for the political restlessness of non-metropolitan Australia, with increasing numbers of non-major party politicians winning seats such as Cathy McGowan; the further you get from the state GPO, the higher the disillusioned minor party vote. 

That’s the context of Gabrielle Chan’s book Rusted Off: Why Country Australia is Fed Up. Born to Chinese immigrants in Sydney, Chan became a journalist and moved to western New South Wales in 1996. She separates the book into 2 parts (“Shedding my city skin” and “The politics of country”) and 19 chapters – which she calls “lessons”. Examples: 1. WTF? There are people west of the divide; 2. Place is everything; 5. There is an education divide; 7. Not all kids want to go to uni; 11. Rural politics is stuck in an old model; 15. The economics of a small town are tricky. Listen to Chan’s interview with Philip Clark on ABC Radio’s “Nightlife”. 

Seize the Fire: Three Speeches by Richard Flanagan 

Acclaimed novelist Richard Flanagan (The Narrow Road to the Deep North) has begun to develop a reputation as one of Australia’s most insightful speech-makers. This short volume includes three of his recent speeches, encapsulating a unique Australian voice: “Australia is not a fixed entity, a collection of outdated bigotries and reactionary credos, but rather an invitation to dream, and this country—our country—belongs to its dreamers . . . if we are finally to once more go forward as a people it’s time our dreamers were brought in from the cold.” 

Understanding America

The United States of America has always fascinated Australia, however during the last two years – since the ascendancy of President Trump – the need to understand what is happening across the Pacific, and it’s meaning for Australia, has become acute. These two works should assist.

These Truths: A History of the United States by Jill Lepore

This ground-breaking, lengthy and acclaimed historical work by Harvard academic and New Yorker essayist Jill Lepore attempts in one volume to explain the full scope of American history. Writing in The Atlantic, Megan Garber writes: “I can think of no stronger endorsement than this: These Truths is 932 pages long—and, reader, I didn’t want it to end…. Here are some of the most urgent and defining truths of the current moment—among them inequality, partisanship, nationalism, and, in particular, racism—told in reverse, Metacom to Cotton Mather to Andrew Jackson to Frederick Douglass to Pauli Murray to Phyllis Schlafly to Barack Obama … [p]eople who, treading the vast American landscape, bent the arc of history.”

Companion piece: Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein, a recent visitor to the Sydney Writers Festival; listen to her Festival talk here.

Call Them by Their True Names: American Crises (and Essays) by Rebecca Solnit

American journalist, historian and environmental activist Rebecca Solnit – author of Men Explain Things to Me, about male arrogance which preceded “mansplaining” – has marked out her place as one of the most original voices on feminism, ecology and the environment and how place matters in the modern age. Her latest collection consists of 20 essays separated into four sections – Electoral Catastrophes, American Emotions, American Edges and Possibilities. The pieces in this collection were all written since 2016 and are thus imbued with a sense of urgency within the shadows of the Trump presidency. Solnit lives in San Francisco, and brings a unique West Coast perspective, compared to the New York-Washington-Boston intellectual approach we are used to.

Companion piece: Women and Power: A Manifesto by British classicist Mary Beard.

Understanding the Crisis of Neoliberalism

Neoliberalism, with its accompanying marketisation/privatisation agenda, has made a profoundly negative impact on Australian vocational education and training (VET), and – as a result – the community education sector. These three recent books provide arguments against the marketisation agenda and essential reading on what to do next:

Dead Right: How Neoliberalism Ate Itself and What Comes Next by Richard Denniss is a passionate, highly readable essay that shows how “the language, ideas and policies of neoliberalism have transformed our economy and, more importantly, our culture.”

The Wages Crisis in Australia: What it is and what to do about it is a free e-book from University of Adelaide Press, edited by Andrew Stewart, Jim Stanford (a recent speaker to NSW community college CEOs) and Tess Hardy. Read chapter 9, “Contracting out community services, marketisation and wages”, by Fiona Macdonald and Michael Pegg.

Wrong Way: How Privatisation & Economic Reform Backfired, edited by Damien Cahill and Phillip Toner, includes 19 case studies of how marketisation has failed Australia. Read Toner’s chapter entitled “A Tale of Mandarins and Lemons: Creating the Market for Vocational Education and Training”, which I reviewed back in November.

Understanding Economics, Democracy and Politics

And finally, the age of Trump means that more authors are writing passionately about and why democracy should be saved:


Jewish films released in Australia on Boxing Day

December 20, 2018

(This article originally appeared in the Australian Jewish News on 20 December 2018.)

Boxing Day – 26 December – is traditionally the “biggest” movie-going day in Australia. Freed from the holiday responsibilities, many Australians flock to the movies to watch the biggest summer releases. This year four films feature important Jewish actors or creatives behind the scene.

Holmes and Watson: Sherlock Holmes has, by some count, been the most portrayed character on screen, first featured in a one-minute silent one-reeler in 1900; by 1995, more than 25,000 Holmes and Watson related cultural products had been produced in 63 languages. That competition hasn’t dismayed Jewish Israeli-American director, Etan Cohen (who grew up in Efrat) – not to be confused with Ethan Coen of the famed Coen brothers – who has directed this latest effort. Will Ferrell (as Holmes) and John C. Reilly (as Dr John Watson) star and sport English accents, along with Rebecca Hall, Ralph Fiennes (as Professor Moriarty) and Rob Brydon (Inspector Lestrade). Director/writer Cohen has made this version a comedy: it’s broad, it’s for families, and clever enough to appeal to more sophisticated audiences through pop culture references.

The Favourite: “The Favourite” is a historical period comedy-drama film focussing on behind-the-scenes politics between two cousins jockeying to be court favourites during the reign of Queen Anne in the early 18th century. British Jewish actress Rachel Weisz (who played Deborah Lipstadt in “Denial”) takes the role of Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough. “The Favourite” is already garnering accolades in the upcoming end-of-year awards season: it won the Grand Jury prize at the Venice Film Festival and been nominated for Golden Globes for Olivia Colman (best actress), Emma Stone (supporting actress) and best screenplay. (Full review coming soon.)

Cold War: The film “Cold War” is, appropriately, set during the 1950s Cold War in Poland, Berlin, Yugoslavia and Paris. Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, whose paternal grandmother was Jewish and died in Auschwitz, previously directed “Ida” (2013). His new film is an epic love story between two passionate and mismatched people of different backgrounds and temperaments. Shot in black and white, a cineaste’s delight.

Ralph Breaks the Internet: What can you say about an animated comedy where the second and third featured actor voices are Jewish women? Worth seeing, we’d say. “Ralph Breaks the Internet” stars the voice of John Reilly (again!) along with stand-up Jewish comic Sarah Silverman and Israeli actress Gal Gadot (Miss Israel 2004 and star of “Wonder Woman”). In this Disney 3-D computer animated film, Silverman plays Vanellope von Schweet (pronounce that five times fast), best friend of Ralph (Reilly). Gadot plays Shank, a tough-as-nails racer in “Slaughter Race”. The plot makes little sense to anyone over age 15, but tech-savvy children are likely to be charmed – and not confused – by the colour, movement and three-dimensional representation of the Internet as only a Hollywood studio can do it. There are hundreds of characters, all of them a mystery to this reviewer, but high entertainment value is guaranteed in this sequel to “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012): the film has been nominated for a “Best Animated Film” Golden Globe.

(image below: “Cold War” film theatrical poster)