Pam Brown, True Thoughts (Salt Publishing 2008)
Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels (Allen & Unwin 2008)
Peter Steiner, Le Crime (Thomas Dunne Books 2003, 2008)
Apart from the conviviality, the food, the cards, the ever expanding list of draconian (and largely ignored) rules, what I love about our book club is that it makes me read things I might otherwise not have touched – books about secret rendition and Guantanamo Bay, someone else’s favourite detective novels, intimidating poetry.
One of the welcome consequences of my self-imposed task of blogging something about every book I read is that it pushes me to reflect on my reading.
So with Pam Brown’s True Thoughts I’m doubly blessed: without the book club I doubt I would have read it, but here it is with an affectionate inscription to one of the club members; without the blog my mind might not have lingered on it any longer than it took my initial bemusement to fade. But here I am, remembering that poetry usually requires the reader to do a little work, and knowing that I would be revealing myself as an unforgivably lazy reader if I just wrote something like, ‘I don’t get it,’ or even, ‘I don’t grasp how these pieces hang together to make poems — I can barely tell where one ends and the next begins.’ (By pure serendipity, after I’d written that para I heard a Poetry Off the Shelf podcast in which Matthew Zapruder talks about immersing himself in John Ashbury’s poems because they moved him somehow even though he didn’t understand them at all, so I’m clearly in good company, and I imagine Pam Brown would be happy to be discussed analogously to Ashbury.)
So, in spite of feeling that I needed someone to take me by the hand and explain how to read Pam Brown’s poems, I went back, took my time, ruminated, savoured, absorbed and, eventually, enjoyed. It was a fascinating process. At the start I was like a colour-blind person looking at one of those red-and-green patterns, then with sustained, though not strained, attention it was as if the colour-blindness healed and the formless array of dots and squiggles reorganised themselves before my eyes into elegant shapes. For example, ‘Peel me a zibibbo’ begins:
I could go [extra characters are spacers & meant to be invisible]
oooooooin any direction
but it’s best that
ooohere and now
ooI remain lesbian,
keep my vanishing cream
On first reading, this seemed little more than verbal noise, a bit like the start of an Ern Malley poem. And in the middle of the poem, there’s this:
imperfection in kindness
ooooooocomes with the void,
oyou need to
ithe ‘I’m feeling lucky’ google option.
To which I said, ‘Huh?’
I still don’t really get this second quote, but now that the green dots and the red dots have sorted themselves out, I do get that the first quote is meant to tease, and not meant to yield its meaning until the last line, where she addresses the poets and others whose names have cropped as the poem meanders with apparent aimlessness through a day in the life of the poet, and we realise they are all men:
oooooooooohi John T,
opeel me a zibibbo
ooooo would you,
ooooone of you guys?
(A zibibbo, as a note up the back tells us helpfully, is a delicious kind of grape.) The first lines suddenly yield their meaning. The busy-busy Lesbian poet, after making workaday contact with male poets and artists alive and dead, indulges for a moment in a fantasy that she’s some kind of Mae West femme fatale surrounded by male attendants. And I am amused.
Tender Morsels an exception as book club books go: I would have read it with or without the BC’s agency. In fact, I’ve been wanting to read it since it came out nearly 12 months ago. I gave it as a Christmas present to one of our members, secure in the knowledge that it would come to the table at one of our meetings. When it did surface, I was a little taken aback when the person offering it, she to whom I’d given it for Christmas, said she’d stopped reading at about 40 pages because she didn’t want to go on reading a litany of suffering. And I confess that when it was my turn, I was close to giving up on page 40 myself. But I read on, and can report that on page 42 everything changes!
This is a wonderful book, and the gruelling first movement is absolutely essential. We need to know just how much the heroine suffers, so that we understand her need to escape, and when other characters (and possibly the back cover blurb as well) make assumptions about what she is avoiding, we know that they completely fail to grasp the strength of character that has enabled her to survive and function as well as she does. The fairy tale ‘Rose Red and Snow White’ plays through the story beautifully. The use of language is exhilarating. Though in one sense things are resolved by about the two thirds mark, there are unexpected twists and turns right to the very last page. Margo Lanagan walked across in front of my car when I was stopped at lights in the city recently. She looked like just another person on her way to an office job. I wondered how many of those others crossing the street were also total geniuses in disguise.
Le Crime‘s cover quotes compare Peter Steiner to John Le Carré, Len Deighton, Peter Mayle, Agatha Chsitie, Robert Ludlum, Alan Furst and Graham Greene. I have no idea how embarrassed the quoted reviewers are to see their phrases taken out of context like that. The book is not in the league of any of those writers. It creaks, its psychology is implausible, the plot is completely silly, and the structure barely holds up – but it’s a quick, enjoyable read. I liked it mainly for a flashback that lasts for three of the 26 chapters, in which the hero goes on a long walk through the French countryside, starting at Charles De Gaulle Airport and finally crossing the border into Spain (though we don’t go all the way with him). P and I have just booked in for a much shorter walk in France later this year, supported as befits our ageing selves, and these thirty-odd pages make it seem like a very good idea.
Ready for the next Book Club meeting now, I am.