An ode to Britney Spears and a dazzling look at the genius: books to read now


black thing in danger
Eugen Bacon, Transit Lounge, $29.99

Eugen Bacon’s Danged Black Thing.

Few writers in Australia are as prolific as Eugen Bacon, or as polymorphous. Although she mainly works on short films, she oscillates easily between non-fiction and flash fiction, the poetic, the experimental and the strange. Central to this endeavor is his identity as a writer from Africa and its diaspora.

The 17 short fictions here, some written with foreign collaborators, include the vibrant genre of Afrofuturism, but also realism. Some read like folk tales, others glimpses of dystopia. She can write the miseries of life in unglamorous immigrant Paris, hexagons in Melbourne’s lockdown or a talking turtle with Idi Amin in the Bayou.

Borders dissolve here, as do borders between literatures. Here, no two stories are the same, but all are sensual and intense like a tropical garden, full of flowers and fruits.

The Spy’s Wife
Fiona McIntosh, Penguin, $32.99

Fiona McIntosh's spy wife.

Fiona McIntosh’s spy wife.

Fiona McIntosh started out as a fantasy writer, but morphed into a story writer, on the romantic end of the spectrum. The fact that they also include thrillers gave it a substantial following.

This new novel treads the familiar terrain of World War II, with a focus on intelligence operations. Evie, the station master’s smart daughter, marries engineer Roger, who is not what he seems. Neither does Evie, when thrust into the role of a naïve bride in Nazi Germany. She will prove to Roger and his spymasters her hidden depths and unforeseen abilities.

This story has cosplay and fashion, but also trainspotting and tech content. Pedants may quibble about class issues, but the narrative moves like a train. It even includes a fairly unplanned twist, something technically difficult to do. For McIntosh fans.

The jugement
Jess Hill, Quarterly Trial, $24.99

The Judgment of Jess Hill.

The Judgment of Jess Hill.

In this heartbreaking account of how #MeToo unfolded in Australia, Jess Hill captures the moment through the metaphor of society as a haunted house. Suddenly the lights came on and we could see “the previously invisible central computer of the patriarchy…the house we didn’t even know we lived in, with its trap doors, dark hallways and stairwells secrets”.

Being able to see, criticize and therefore dismantle this structure, this system that allows powerful and empowered men to violently abuse and harass women with impunity is central to Hill’s analysis of the revelations triggered by # MeToo and how they have become a catalyst for change in politics, law, higher education and other sectors of the community.

Bringing together the experiences of survivors and those working behind the scenes, it tells a story of epic proportions that will continue to shake the foundations of this haunted house.

Leonard Cohen: the mystical roots of genius
Harry Freedman, Bloomsbury, $29.99

Leonard Cohen from Harry Freedman: The Mystical Roots of Genius.

Leonard Cohen from Harry Freedman: The Mystical Roots of Genius.

In this age-old age, the popularity of Leonard Cohen’s songs testifies to a widespread desire for meaning that material wealth cannot satisfy. “There is a spiritual aspect to everyone’s life, whether they want to live with it or not,” he said in his last interview.

While Cohen was himself steeped in Jewish and Christian mythology and teachings, in addition to being a practicing Zen Buddhist, he was too subtle a thinker and too confrontational a man to deliver religious homilies. Rather than trying to guess Cohen’s intentions, Harry Freedman examines the religious sources and biblical references, primarily Jewish and Christian, embedded in the lyrics.

The result is an illuminating work that deepens and enriches our understanding of the songs while leaving their tantalizing ambiguity intact. More could have been said about the influence of Zen and Vedanta, but that’s for another book.

The fairy tale
H.G. Nelson, Pan Macmillan, $34.99

HG Nelson's Fairy Tale.

HG Nelson’s Fairy Tale.

This hugely plausible and solidly unbalanced account of sport’s great moments since colonization reminds us that sport cannot be separated from the stories we tell of it.

HG Nelson starts with the facts and follows them wherever the mood takes it, from the exploits of Bill King, the Flying Pieman, to the Sport of Hog, our “long and proud tradition of dumping truckloads of cash into sporting organizations based in marginal seats”.

The most memorable moment is not always the sporting event. Sometimes it’s the trappings that surround it, like the live entertainment before a football grand final. The first performer was Barry Crocker, whose efforts made their way into rhyming slang for “shock”. What constitutes the sport is a moving party, which allows Nelson to imagine a future in which Olympic esports stars will “win gold without leaving their homes”.

Being Britney
Jennifer Otter Bickerdike, NineEight Books, $29.99

Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is Britney.

Jennifer Otter Bickerdike is Britney.

Jennifer Bickerdike isn’t shy about being biased. Britney Spears was wronged and her biographer is on the witness stand to defend her until the end. And she can’t be blamed, given how Spears was deprived of her agency for so long under a legal dictate that infantilized a grown woman.

People loved Spears, says Bickerdike, because she was the working-class girl, but when she showed her background, she was damned as white trash. Spears, she argues, is a “cultural vessel” for America’s obsession with fame and fortune. “When a person is forced to inhabit an idealized two-dimensional representation of perfection, rather than openly existing as a fallible human being, it’s no surprise that they stumble and fall.”

While Spears’ every move has been scrutinized and often cursed, her success as a popular entertainer and multi-million dollar business speaks for itself.

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