Monthly Archives: February 2010

Love, Squalor and Seymour’s introductory exit

J D Salinger, For Esmé – With Love and Squalor (1953, New English Library 1978)

I read this at least partly because I wanted to learn more about the Glass family, particularly Seymour Glass’s suicide. The suicide is there, of course, in the first story in this collection, ‘A Perfect Day for Bananafish’, also Salinger’s first published story. It’s a good story, full of charm and then of shocking enigma, but there’s nothing to indicate that the author would still be probing the repercussions for the Glass family a decade later (not to mention possible further Glass Family fictions yet to be discovered … I live in hope). Boo Boo, the older of the two girls in the family, makes an appearance in ‘Down at the Dinghy’. And Buddy, the family’s self-appointed chronicler who is in danger of vanishing into his own parentheses in ‘Seymour: An Introduction’, plays a central role in the title story (at least, I assume Staff-Sergeant X is Buddy, even though I may be the only person in the world to have done so). In each of these stories, the adult Glass has a conversation with a child, and these playfully smart-alecky conversations are what lift the book above standard albeit ultra-sophisticated New Yorker fare. Boo Boo could be a forerunner of the mother in Maurice Sendak’s sublime The Sign on Rosie’s Door.  Buddy’s conversation with thirteen-year-old Esmé and her follow-up letter are surely meant to be read in counterpoint to Seymour’s chat with the little girl Sybil. The latter is either a farewell to all things lovely or a cryptic explanation of his suicide, while the former has a deeply healing effect: one brother dies, the other lives. (Incidentally, I doubt if either of these stories could have been written nowadays: in the late 40s the general reader wasn’t expected to see every man as a potential child-rapist.)

Two non-Glass stories stand out for me, both with child protagonists: ‘The Laughing Man’ and ‘Teddy’. ‘Teddy’ is genuinely shocking.

Incidentally, it occurs to me that my lack of enthusiasm for The Hurt Locker may have something to do with the fact that I saw it in the middle of reading this book. It was awfully hard to see the movie as anything other than an adrenaline pumper with pretensions when I had Staff-Sergeant (Buddy?) X’s shaking hands fresh in my mind.

I know this is racist, but …*

A little after 7 o’clock this morning I was up the street buying carrots for our breakfast juice.

‘How are you?’ I asked, as the owner weighed the carrots.

‘Good so far,’ he said.

‘Too early in the day for things to have gone too wrong?’

And we were launched into a conversation about things that can go wrong in a small supermarket like his. In particular, he said, it can be five minutes from closing time and a couple of drunks will come in and wreck the place, or steal something. But thieves are a big problem at any time of the day. (This is Annandale, remember, whose public schools’ rankings on the Sydney Morning Herald’s League Table established it as a nice middle class suburb.) Talking about ways of dealing with thieves, he said, with an apologetic shrug:

I know this is racist, but they’re mostly Australian1, and Australians think you should do things by the rules. So when I catch them they expect me to call the police. Then the police take twenty minutes to come, and the thieves just swear at me and walk away. But I don’t give a f*** about the rules, I push them to the ground and search them, then I tell them to get out of my shop and not come back.

You can’t do that with women, of course, especially if you’ve seen them put stuff down the front of their jeans, and the ‘girls’ who work behind the tills won’t do it because they shrink from violence. He does ban people from the shop if he checks the CCTV after their visit and sees that they’ve lifted something – he’ll walk up to them out in the street, tell them they’ve been sprung, and warn them off. He’ll also send a copy of their image to his brother-in-law who has a shop down the road.

(I forgot to mention, the shopkeeper is originally from Lebanon, and I expect he has an Australian passport.)

* My blog had a huge surge of hits when I gave a post a provocatively sexist-sounding title a while back, so I’m experimenting to see if racism has the same pulling power.
1 He probably would have said ‘Skips’ if we knew each other better, but we both knew who he meant by Australians.

American Rust

Philipp Meyer, American Rust (Allen & Unwin 2009)

This is another Book Club book I approached with caution. At last year’s Sydney Writers Festival, Philipp Meyer read from it  in a sleep-inducing incantatory manner that I think of as peculiarly US-literary and which made the book singularly unattractive – at least it did to me. But in the spirit of challenging my own prejudgments, I chose it as one of my take-homes at our last Book Club meeting, and eventually opened it up. (Can you tell the next meeting of the Book Club is approaching, when I’ll have to return these books, and that I’d be embarrassed to admit to not having read them?)

This one confounded my negativity. The book is beautifully written and has a plot that, thriller-like, gathers momentum to a nailbiting last 20 pages. It’s set in Buell, town in Pennsylvania, on the banks of the  Mon River, and the place is probably the single most strongly realised character of a strong cast. Factories have closed down years before the action of the book, and the town, like all its neighbouring towns, is in a bad way. There’s little to keep people there except loyalty to each other and to the place itself. The decaying buildings of the abandoned enterprises are in stark contrast to the natural beauty of the countryside.

The plot traces the repercussions of a killing: a young man kills a homeless man to save his best friend from serious harm, and the ripples spread from the two young men, the sister and father of one of them, the mother of the other and the local police chief, who is in love with the mother. Each of the six main characters sees himself or herself as in some way responsible for the death, and each of them has a point. This is deftly done: despite the terrible sense that these working-class communities have been abandoned by the forces of capitalism and government and left to increasing dysfunction, violence, drugs, despair, these are still deeply moral characters. Good people do terrible things in this book, and we come to realise that none of the people who do terrible things in it are simply evil.

There are some longueurs (it may have been one of them that Philipp Meyer chose to read at the SWF), and some darlings that perhaps should have been murdered, but the characters ring true and are never patronised, the many-stranded action makes the book hard to put down, and in the end some kind of dignity, if not happiness, is salvaged from the mess.

For Book Club purposes, I’m giving it 4 1/2 out of 5.

Between Us

This looks like an interesting venture in community arts/oral history, from the Think + DO Tank in Bankstown.


Are you the keeper of a story that should be shared?

BETWEEN US is a place to record a story that matters to you, your family, your friends, or your community. It can be about anything at all. You make the recording with someone you trust .

We help you to prepare to tell your story in a way that will give others listening pleasure.

And help you to make a recording that you can share and hand on, and on, and on …

How women should live their lives

This piece from yesterday’s Herald includes a fairly shocking glimpse of Kevin Rudd unplugged: ‘Rudd rolled his eyes and in a terse voice lacking any sense of irony remarked that [completing a PhD] is the “excuse” that “all” young women are using nowadays to avoid starting families.’

Penny had a strikingly similar encounter yesterday.

I haven’t mentioned this before, but after 37 or so years in the workforce – as an activist for women’s health, childcare, community health, and a consultant on those and similar fields – Penny is taking a year off to do a Graduate Diploma in Fine Art. Yesterday she ran into an older woman, a feminist public intellectual, whom I will call Lilith. When Penny told Lilith what she was doing, Lilith said (in a striking verbal echo of the Prime Minister): ‘In these gloomy times it’s not surprising that so many people are withdrawing from activism.’ She went on, ‘I’ll keep plugging away.’

Usually I’d follow an anecdote like that with a number of one-line comebacks thought of too late. In this case, though, Penny opened her mouth to talk about the work she’s still doing for asylum seekers etc, but Lilith had actually moved away, her assumptions about the role of art untroubled by the evidence.


Penny is reading Art and Propaganda in the Twentieth Century by Toby Clark and loving it. Every now and then she can’t contain herself and insists on reading bits out to me. This, for instance:

[Fascists] openly rejected rationalism as the arid and soulless outlook of bourgeois modernity, and described their movement as a cult of action and passion free of doctrinal rules. Thus the French fascist Robert Brasillach spoke of fascism not as a theory but a ‘poetry’ of faith and emotion, and Mussolini declared: ‘I am not a statesman, I am more like a mad poet.’ In the book Mein Kampf, … Adolf Hitler … stated that a leader could not gain followers by mere explanation or instruction; these have never moved the masses, he argued: ‘it is always a devotion which has inspired them, and often a kind of hysteria which has urged them to action.’

Now I’m not wanting to call anyone a Fascist, but it’s hard not to see some relevance to current Australian Federal politics. Doesn’t the Opposition spokesman on finance sometimes sound just a little like a mad (and not very good) poet? And how about Tony Abbott as fostering a cult of action and passion, and portraying the Government’s methodical approach to policy as arid and soulless: let’s be photographed in lycra and talk about a Great. Big. Tax. On. Everything rather than apply something approaching thought to the dominant issue of the day. Mind you, at the risk of agreeing with Hitler even a little bit, a little passion from the PM wouldn’t go astray. Even though I’m wearing my ‘Join the Kevolution’ t-shirt as I type this, the idea of devotion to Kevin Rudd seems more deeply ironic than ever. His habitual way of talking to us isn’t even as animated as ‘explanation or instruction’ – more like footnoting and indexing.

I’ve been mentioned!

I may be easily thrilled , but thrilled I am. I’ve been mentioned in a review – Tim Howard’s review of Going Down Swinging No  28 in the July–August 2009 issue of the Australian Book Review.

In case you can’t read it, the bit that thrills me is this:

[Lisa] Greenaway and her co-editor, Klare Lanson, share a taste for free verse; their selections include pithy and expansive poems. Jonathan Shaw’s ‘Correspondence’ is a concise, sardonic jab at historical amnesia and bureaucratic impotence.

And I don’t even know Tim Howard!

Lukewarm turkey

Schopenhauer and Richard Flanagan staged a virtual intervention and made me realise I have a problem. I don’t know about acknowledging a higher power and all that, but I’ve decided to Cut. Down. On. My. Reading. Habit.

So, I resolved, there’ll be no more reading before the sun is over the yardarm. I’ll take the dog on her morning walk bookless.

Yesterday was the first day of this desolate new regime. I left American Rust beside my bed. As I was packing the plastic bags, I caught my addictive brain thinking, ‘Maybe I could just slip the anthology of Chinese poems in as well.’ Resisting that temptation, I then had to stop my hand from picking up the Asia Literary Quarterly of its own volition, and then the Monthly. But I got out the door with no printed matter about my person, had a very pleasant walk and on my return actually managed to engage with my current writing project sufficiently to get some words on paper.

And I got to notice odd things around the suburb, like this big button squash put out to ripen in a back lane, for all the world like a pumpkin in a French village:

I still allow myself to read on the afternoon dog-walk. Yesterday we went on a 30-page excursion.


Richard Flanagan, Wanting (Knopf 2008)

Even though I’m addicted to print, or perhaps because I am, I approach most books with a kind of resentful suspicion. It’s as if I’m projecting onto the book an anxious feeling that Schopenhauer might have been right when he said, in the essay ‘Thinking for Oneself’:

Reading is thinking with some one else’s head instead of one’s own. … Nothing is more harmful than, by dint of continual reading, to strengthen the current of other people’s thoughts. These thoughts, springing from different minds, belonging to different systems, bearing different colours, never flow together of themselves into a unity of thought, knowledge, insight, or conviction, but rather cram the head with a Babylonian confusion of tongues; consequently the mind becomes overcharged with them and is deprived of all clear insight and almost disorganised.

I came to Wanting with my normal ambivalence, plus an extra burden of suspicion, because the only other novel by Richard Flanagan to have entered the cram in my head was the abysmal Unknown Terrorist. I was willing to give this one a go because he writes compelling non-fiction, and the earlier, terrible novel was set a long way from his native Tasmania, in a place he clearly loathed and equally clearly didn’t know at all well, whereas this one is largely back in Van Diemen’s Land. Book Clubbers recommended it (that’s the Book Club, where we swap, not the Book Group, where we discuss). I took it home and eventually opened it up.

I wish I could say my suspicion evaporated within a couple of pages, but I can’t. A Protector of Aborigines, Charles Dickens, Lady Jane Franklin (widow of Sir John Franklin, Governor of Van Diemens Land and explorer) are introduced to us in a series of clunkily expository scenes. That would be all right, but the clunkiness comes with lashings of heavy irony – the narrative voice is unpleasantly insistent that it knows better than the Presbyterian Protector, and really really wants us to know it doesn’t share the genocidal racism of all the white characters. Maybe things would improve once the story got under way, I thought. But there were other discouraging signs. On page 14, to pick the most striking example, the Presbyterian Protector, in 1851, sings some lines from ‘Lead Kindly Light’. That’s unlikely, I thought, given that the hymn was written by high Anglican John Henry Newman, no friend of Presbyterians. Fifteen seconds with Google revealed that though Newman wrote the words of the hymn in 1833, it wasn’t until 1857 that someone put them to music. So it’s not only unlikely, it’s a straightforward anachronism. And I don’t think that’s just nitpicking. If the novel, having already repeatedly pronounced judgment on this character, doesn’t care enough about him to know what hymns he would or even could have sung, why should I trust anything it says about any of its characters?

I did read on. But by page 55 I realised I was motivated entirely by some weird sense of obligation. There was no pleasure. I didn’t believe a word. I put the book back on the shelf. It may be very good. It may fully deserve the awards and critical praise it has attracted. It may successfully mirror the terrible anguish that accompanied the belief that Tasmanian Aboriginal people were about to die out, as an author’s note says it aims to do. It probably is a moving meditation on the conflict between reason and desire or some other Significant Dichotomy. I’ll never know. And I probably won’t bore you ever again with blog entries on Richard Flanagan’s work.

Our baskets and Awaye

Almost exactly a year ago I mentioned that we’d acquired three beautiful woven baskets. The artist, whose name I omitted to mention then, was Jim Walliss, a white man from down Nowra way. Yesterday onABC’s Awaye he received an honorable mention in a program about Boolarng Nangamai Aboriginal Art and Culture Studio in Gerringong, near Nowra. The Awaye link in the last sentence gets you the audio. Here’s the relevant bit, where Steven Russell, weaver, painter and print-maker is talking to Nicole Steinke from the ABC:

Nicole Steinke: How did you start with the weaving, because you’ve said you really love the weaving?
Steven Russell: It started back in TAFE, in 2000, when I first started TAFE. We were taught by this old fella, a whitefella –
NS: Is that Jim Walliss?
SR: Jim Walliss, yeah. He’s a pretty good weaver himself, and he told us stories about the Aboriginals and what they did. He showed us a lot, and we just took off from there and ran with it and haven’t looked back since. I’m just thankful for Jim, for knowing him, and teaching us something that should have been passed down by our ancestors, and which wasn’t.
NS: So was there a sharing there that went on?
SR: Yes, it was sharing, and he was honoured to teach us. He taught us a lot of things about weaving and styles of weaving. He taught us our traditional weaving and that’s something that we’ll cherish for the rest of our lives, and we’ll pass it on to our kids.

So our beautiful little baskets have some sweet connections.