Monthly Archives: January 2015

Ali Smith’s How to Be Both

Ali Smith, How to Be Both (Penguin 2014)

024114521XThe Art Student gave up on this book after a very few pages. But, well, I’d heard people rave about it, so I decided to brave those first pages of what looked like sub-modernist gobbledygook and give it a go anyhow.

Sure the opening pages are tough going. (The book is in two parts. In different copies, the parts, both labelled ‘One’, are in a different order, so my introductory pages may be your transitional ones, and the problem may not exist for you.) It turns out that the narrator is a 15th century Italian artist re-emerging from oblivion into temporary ghostly existence in 2013. At first, the artist’s grasp on language is rusty, but within 10 pages or so the narrative settles down. The artist, Francescho del Cossa (who really existed, generally known as Francesco), tells his own story in fragments as they come back to mind, and tells what he observes of a young woman in modern England who has been instrumental in his return to the world. That’s not quite accurate, but if I fixed it I’d be getting into spoiler territory, so it will have to do.

It’s an ingenious book. One part (the first in my copy) is Francescho’s narration. The other tells the story of George, the modern young woman. Each sees parts of the other’s story from the outside, only partly understanding it, but the reader doesn’t understand the whole of either story until you’ve read both: Francescho’s modern narrative begins where George’s leaves off; George gives us details of at least one painting that in effect completes Francescho’s story.

It’s an interesting and amusing read, and the writing is generally elegant and lucid. There’s an interesting and plausible take on gender as perceived in 15th century Italy: not exactly 21st-century inner-city gender fluidity, but not a rock-solid binary neither. A lot of time is spent on Francescho’s art, the making of it in the first part, the viewing of it in the second. This is all lively and intelligent; it moves the plot forward, and sends the reader off to look for the paintings (which all exist, beautifully, in the real world); but maybe some of it could have been saved for the DVD extras, and there is a climactic revelation about a painting that only works if you don’t actually use Duck Duck Go to see the painting for yourself. The modern story, dealing with bereavement and adolescent stirrings, also has its bits that might have been better as DVD extras, particularly mother–daughter arguments about History, and sessions with the school counsellor (all good, but repetitive and surely not all necessary). And at times both narrators seem almost coy about telling their stories: was George’s mother having an affair? was she the subject of surveillance? how did she die? who was the older woman who gave George cups of tea? why? what do the painted eyes mean? Is it all just pretty patterns formed by events with no actual connection? We’ll never know.

So I’m not about to tell the Art Student and other people who were deterred by the first pages that they’ve made the biggest mistake of their lives, but it’s a book that keeps you on your toes, and I’m not sorry I read it.

Australian Poetry Journal 4:2

Michael Sharkey (editor),  Australian Poetry Journal, Volume 4, Issue 2 (2014)

I hope I don’t sound too surprised when I say that this issue of Australian Poetry Ltd’s twice-yearly journal is excellent. Any surprise isn’t at the excellence, but at other factors. Most of the poems are remarkably accessible, for instance. And it was a pleasure to meet in its pages quite a few people whose work I know reasonably well. Andy Kissane takes on school bullying in ‘Southerly’: ‘

I know from talking to Joshua that Fridays
at lunchtime are the worst. He won’t tell me what happens, he simply stares at his shoes.

joanne burns confronts a spider in ‘watch tower a reconnaissance’:

of cool voltaren no living creature has been
harmed in the writing of this poem except
perhaps the poet

Brendan Ryan ventures far from his native Victorian dairy farm in ‘Cows in India’;  B W Shearer, whom I know from my time in children’s literature, pays homage to a rainbow lorikeet in ‘A crowned queen’. I warmed to poems by Ron Pretty, Andrew Lansdown, Carol Jenkins, Liz Dolan, Rachael Mead, and they weren’t the only ones.

Besides the poetry there are a number of interesting articles. Dan Disney and Kit Kelen call on poets to resist destructive politics, specifically regarding asylum seekers, to rouse themselves and readers ‘from a collectively accepted nightmare’, and they give robust examples, from John Mateer and Vicki Viidikas to Bertolt Brecht, of poets who have done so. Oscar Schwartz induces us to think about computer generated poetry in ‘A Turing Test for Poetry’, timely perhaps because of the movie The Imitation Game, and – to me – almost totally unconvincing. Simon Patton gives an insightful account of a translator–poet relationship in ‘Translating Yu Jian: Encounter and transmission’. Vivian Gerrand interviews Claire Gaskin, who has interesting things to say about many things, in particular her writing process, and her belief that to be a decent writer you need to read three books a week (which makes me well on the way). Sarah Day profiles the all but forgotten Tasmanian poet Helen Power.

The journal is a perk of membership of Australian Poetry Ltd, and individual issues can be bought via the web site.

joanne burns’s brush

joanne burns, brush (Giramondo 2014)

brush In a recent blog post my friend Will tells of a friend’s advice on how to visit a gallery:

Don’t try to see everything … When you walk into a room, scan the walls quickly, and then decide which painting you’d like to spend time really looking at. You’ll come away with a richer experience, and you’ll probably discover more.

That sounds like a good strategy for blogging about a book of poetry.

So, to start with a quick scan, joanne burns (this is how her name seems always to be written) is one of the stand-out Australian poets of the 1968 generation. Her poetry is generally witty, minimally punctuated, and not always immediately accessible. brush (again, my shift key isn’t broken) is in six sections:

  • bluff: where there is much play with the language of the share market
  • in the mood: prose poems, all interesting, with no common thread I could discern
  • brush – day poems: I understand these to refer to Frank O’Hara’s lunch poems, and they have elements of what Wikipedia calls O’Hara’s ‘characteristically breezy tone’ and ‘spontaneous reactions to things happening in the moment’
  • road: 21 poems, again with no common thread as far as I can tell – maybe they’re the non–prose poems that don’t fit into the other sections
  • delivery: poems related to a Bondi childhood
  • wooing the owl (or the great sleep forward), which could be subtitled ‘night poems’: poems with the feel of dreams or half-waking insomniac reveries.

Choosing just one poem to spend time with ain’t easy. I did a quick scan of poems I’d snapped with my phone on first reading (it’s a friend’s book, and phone-snapping was a non-damaging equivalent of turning down page corners), and settled on one that was outside of my comfort zone – that is to say, no obvious argument or narrative. Here’s a pic of it, and you can read it online at Best American Poets (not a misprint – they had a series featuring modern Australian poets).

2015/01/img_1148_2.jpg

I have no idea what initially drew me to ‘sesame’: perhaps it was a tantalising sense of a coherent argument just beyond my grasp; perhaps the play of images struck a chord in me; perhaps it just liked the sounds it made. It doesn’t really matter. I’ve now spent quite a lot of time with it.

Spending time with the poem wasn’t a matter of trying to decipher a ‘meaning’ as if it was a cryptic crossword. I did work out where sentences began and ended; and incidentally noted that the obvious punctuation – the extra spaces on lines 4, 12 and 18, the comma and the semicolon – are not indications of the poem’s turning points, but highlight the enjambed orphans that precede them. I learned the poem by heart. I recited it to the dog, to a paddock full of cattle, to the long-suffering Art Student, to the dark room when I woke in the night (though the effort of recall tends to send me back to sleep wink quick). I wrote it out from memory (and every mistake was a discovery). I went away and read other poems in the book and other books, and came back to it. I wrote a number of drafts of this blog post that went into great and (for any reasonable reader) tedious detail. Basically, I let the poem wash over me again and again. I’m pleased and relieved to report that I didn’t get bored. Here’s a bit of what I found.

First, the unconventional punctuation doesn’t create any real ambiguity. The poem just takes a little longer to decipher than it would with normal marks: the reader has to slow down, to pay attention, even on first reading.  (It does allow for some playfulness: the line break after ‘plate’, for example, conjures up a surreal image of a speedboat zooming over a dinner plate, which evaporates as soon as you realise that ‘plate’ belongs with ‘glass’, and we’re talking about the view.)

Then there’s the amount of patterning in the poem’s apparently casual language. There’s line-end rhyme (‘fast’/’last’), and buried partial rhymes that put stress at the start of lines (‘glass’/’reverse’; ‘access’/’emptiness’; ‘vanishes’/’crevices’). Definite articles – ‘the flowers’, ‘the cactus’, ‘the plate / glass’, ‘the wallet’, ‘the wall’ – communicate a sense of a particular room, a particular life. There are many times: the recent past of the cactus flowers; the distant past that the wallet comes from; the childhood past of touching the wall (of the rock pool at Bondi?); a generalised present (‘everything so fast’); the future (‘will not / help’).

Most interestingly, amid the apparent impulsive hopping from one subject to another, there is something very like a question raised and answer proposed. First a series of on/off moments: cactuses bloom, speedboats come and go, we wake and sleep. Then the longer term: the emblematic wallet is forgotten, goes mouldy, becomes inaccessible. In both these ways, we lose our grasp on things. The problem crystallises at the midpoint when ‘a thought vanishes [‘wink quick’?] into the air’s [wallet-like?] crevices’.

And now, the dominant sense of sight yields to the sense of touch. If you don’t remember how to open the wallet, your fingertips can find a way; when the salt water stung your eyes you groped your way to the pool’s edge. A beachcomber’s manual is close to a contradiction in terms. The next lines move further, leaving not just sight but also speech:

__________[maybe] the best thing
to do between the tick and the tock
is to hold your breath

The ‘tick and the tock’ harks back to the on/off motif, and also possibly takes us back to the room with the cactus and the plate glass, which also evidently has a big clock. The air’s crevices have become veins, as in veins of ore, which yield a patient map: not on/off, not corroded by time, and quite different from an external manual. The thought that vanished into the air returns in a new, useful form, in response to a silent, groping approach. (The stinging salt water also suggests tears, and the air’s veins suggest blood – so perhaps as well as silence and groping the approach involves suffering.)

The poem reaches a climax with the word ‘open’ in the second last line, which arrives with even more force if you have the poem’s enigmatic title in mind. Only at this point does the title settle into place, assuming the reader knows the Ali Baba story (and just in case you don’t: that’s the story from The Arabian Nights where a treasure cave opens in response to the magic phrase, ‘Open sesame’). In effect the title announces that the poem is about opening up some metaphorical cave of riches.  The last sentence might mean ‘you’ll only need the one magic word, not a whole vocabulary’ or ‘contrary to the story, you won’t need words at all – the secret to getting access to these treasures is silence.’ I prefer the latter reading.

So what’s the poem about? Jeez, I dunno, he said, meaning it in the nicest possible way. The Art Student thought it was about dementia. I think the first half is about memory, and perhaps about the mythical process we’ve been told to call ‘age related cognitive decline’. But the whole strikes home for me as a meditation on creativity, on thinking of any sort, on how wisdom grows from concrete experience, perhaps from facing pain rather than pretending it doesn’t exist. What I’m left with, though, isn’t the ‘meaning’ so much as the beautiful, intricate, apparently casual but actually carefully structured play of mind.

Peter Kirkpatrick launched the book at Gleebooks. His illuminating launch speech is online at the Rochford Street Review site.

aww-badge-2015This is the first book I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2015. I plan to read and blog about ten this year.

Haruki Murakami’s Strange Library

Haruki Murakami, The Strange Library (2008, translation by Ted Goossen, Harvill Secker 2014)

1846559219I received this as a Christmas gift, and I’m pretty sure that’s what the publishers had in mind.

Tucked away on the imprint page is a credit to Suzanne Dean as designer with a copyright symbol next to her name, and that is just as it should be. The library record pocket glued to the front cover is just the beginning. As one reads the book, almost every page offers a little (or big) design surprise: gorgeous illustrations (many of tangential relevance to the text), to the illusion of different paper stocks, simulated water damage, clumsily stamped page numbers. You can never forget that you are dealing with a book as physical object. I haven’t been been as entranced by a book design since Marshall McLuhan and Quentin Fiore’s The Medium Is the Massage.

The creep, scary, dream-logical story of a boy who is imprisoned in a labyrinth beneath a library until he can memorise four thick books about taxation in the Ottoman Empire reads like Murakami’s version of a children’s story. If it had crossed my desk when editing The School Magazine, I probably would have voted to include it in our list of recommended books ‘for advanced readers’, though I would have understood if I’d been voted down because of some deliciously scary threats that the boy faces.

As it is, it’s a brief, pleasant diversion for adults as well as whoever else might find it.

Luke Carman’s An Elegant Young Man

Luke Carman, An Elegant Young Man (Giramondo 2014)

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/889/7316403/files/2015/01/img_1161.jpg Published at the same time as Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe, in a similar format (they are both Giramondo Shorts), and with a similar voice-from-Western-Sydney cover blurb, this book cries out to be read alongside that one. Both books comprise interlinked stories with a single narrator. Carman has shared the stage with Ahmad at a number of readings in Bankstown and elsewhere over the years, and his name has cropped up on this blog a fair bit, often alongside Ahmad’s. Both of them write fiction that feels as if it’s at one small remove from autobiography. They are, however, very different writers.

First, a trigger warning: if you’re sensitive to what the record companies call explicit language, you’d better give this book a miss. If you’re fine with the C word, but don’t want to have a vile image of sexual debasement served up to your inner eye, definitely skip pages 10 and 11, in which the narrator tells of an early encounter with pornography.

Quite apart from that, much of this book isn’t for the faint-hearted. The dominant theme is multiculturalism as it’s lived by working-class teenagers in western Sydney: plenty of violence, racist and sexist verbal abuse, drugs and desperation. In his performances of these stories, Carman has an oddly dissociated, almost robotic manner, with no attempt to mimic the natural rhythms of speech, or indeed of language. It’s as if we’re hearing a meticulously observed report from the point of view of a visitor from another plane – or even another planet: no judgement, no analysis, no emotive suggestions. I don’t think the stories work quite the same way on the page, but there are elements of it: after the description of porn I mentioned earlier, the narrator comments inscrutably, ‘In some ways, life was better before the Internet,’ and moves on with the story. When the narrator (named Luke, and with a number of verifiable things in common with the author) gets onto a fight with a Cronulla punk named Pivot, it goes like this:

…my head started erupting over and over with blows to my face before I realised I was in a fight. By the time I’d understood, I’d thrown a punch of my own. It hit nothing. I watched it miss and so did Pivot, delighted. The two security guards came out from the McDonald’s to cheer us on. One turned to the other and said, ‘It’s like Rocky V!’ The other guard laughed and my second punch connected so hard that I panicked. The first I knew about throwing it was the sound Pivot’s head made cracking against my fist. He toppled and clonked crown first against the concrete. I bent to my knees and put my knuckles against his forehead. Not punching. Just grinding them into him, saying things that didn’t make sense. Somebody grabbed me by the shoulders and yanked me away, saying ‘Oi! Don’t do that mate, it’s over!’ The crowd dispersed in an instant. The security headed back into Maccas and the sound of the clubs and bars came back to me. Tall bronzed meat-heads carrying cans of Woodstock in their hands helped Pivot to his feet and one in a Bundaberg jersey said ‘Better luck next time, Pivo, you weapon!’

About halfway through the book, the narrator leaves the western suburbs and moves to the inner west, where he listens to young men talk ‘in their lilting tones as if no shadow in the coming night would trip them up’. He and another ‘Westie come good’ (I did warn you about offensive language) go to the Sydney Writers’ Festival and ask offensive questions. They get Christopher Hitchens to inscribe a copy of God Is Not Great, ‘You’re the man now dog.’ In one of the book’s many funny scenes, a lightly fictionalised Penguin Plays Rough event in Sydney Park is disrupted by an Aboriginal homeless man:

‘Be gone! The lot of you! This is my home!’ And no one knew what to do, not just because he had a big stick and was wild and homeless and drunk but because he was Aboriginal and we were all white and so if somebody wanted to say, ‘This is public space, we have a right to be here!’ he could very easily say, ‘No you don’t!’

Be reassured, the situation is resolved peacefully.

Perhaps the most striking moment comes at the end of one of the shortest stories, ‘I Heart Henry Rollins’. The narrator sees the planes fly into the World Trade Center on TV. He wakes his mother and tells her America is being attacked. ‘That’s no good,’ she says, and goes back to sleep. [That’s the closest thing I’ve read to what happened in our house that night.] Then he arrives at school the next morning to find scenes of great rejoicing. The principal makes a perfunctory attempt to stop it, and the narrator is uncomprehending. His maths teacher is standing close by:

I asked him, ‘Why is everyone with the terror?’
He scowled, then he grunted an ugly laugh. He was missing a tooth.
He said, ‘When people die in other countries are you so concerned?’
I did not know what to say. I still don’t. Johnny the Serb had overheard us, and he said, ‘Exactly sir, exactly!’ and I wanted to go home … I sensed a great phantom of history was awake and visible for the first time, shadowing my town, looming over the Western Suburbs like an oncoming colossus …
The clouded sun looked like a blood clot. No one was really afraid.

That’s the end of the story. I don’t know about the colossus, which sounds like hindsight, but the schadenfreudeof those semi-alienated young people and their teachers, which has nothing to do with being ‘with the terror’, rings true. To describe it so bluntly comes close to breaking a taboo. The same can be said for the rawness of much of the book. It comes as a breath of fresh air, not as in sweet-smelling, but as in from a new place.

A final note: Like its back cover blurb, I’ve emphasised the book’s report-from-Western-Sydney qualities. I should mention that the narrator is also bookish. He reads Whitman. A poem by Viennese flâneur Peter Altenberg (1859–1919) is a key element of ‘West Suburbia Boys’. Patrick White, Frank Moorhouse, Peter Skrzynecki and other Australian writers ate brief mentions, not necessarily honourable. In ‘Rare Birds’ he sets out to undo the harm he did by enthusing a woman friend about Kerouac and ruining her life.

Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s Tribe

Michael Mohammed Ahmad, The Tribe (Giramondo 2014)

The Tribe cover Though I’ve been mentioning Michael Mohammed Ahmad, writer, performer, actor, organiser and editor, in this blog and its predecessor for some years, The Tribe is his first book. It’s one of Giramondo’s Shorts series – ‘short form, short print run books, designed to take account of the new technologies of digital printing’.

The Tribe narrates three episodes in the life of a Lebanese family living in Sydney – first in the inner west and then further out, in Bankstown – told by Bani, a son of the family who is aged seven, then nine, then eleven. The back cover blurb reminds us that ‘the representation of Arab-Australian Muslims has been coloured by media reports of sexual assault, drug-dealing, drive-by shootings and terrorist conspiracy’, and offers this book as a corrective. But The Tribe isn’t a defence or apologia: it’s a lively, intelligent, funny, weep-making portrait of an extended family. It’s clearly fiction, but if it’s not drawn from life than Ahmad is a true magician.

Every member of a huge cast of characters constantly calls on the reader’s attention, and though there’s occasional confusion about who is related to whom, it’s a marvellous achievement that we mostly know exactly who is speaking and their place in the complex network. There is great warmth, mostly emanating from Tayta, the family matriarch. There is a wedding and a death, both of which are like every family wedding or death that I have been involved with, but dialled up to eleven and a half. By the last page, we feel as if we know these people.

The book isn’t a communal hagiography – one of Bani’s uncles beats his wife; another is addicted to ice; an aunt has been more or less excommunicated because she and her husband were greedy for her legacy; grudges are treasured. During the wedding celebrations Bani’s father stares unsmiling at the door of the venue, armed with a hidden knife and ready for who knows what – the suspense is beautifully executed and the pay-off is unexpected, credible and deeply satisfying.

There’s a lovely moment at the wedding when an adult says hello to  nine-year-old Bani. Astonished, he looks to see who would pay any attention to him in this very adult-centred context. Seeing that it is the man from the couple whose corner shop the family frequent,  the only two Christians invited to the event, he realises that although they have the same physical appearance, wear the same clothes, speak the same language, they are outsiders: it is Muslim identity that is key to belonging to this tribe. (In fact, it’s more specific than that: the tribe are Shi-ites, and the fact that Tayta came from a Sunni family and converted when she married is something that just isn’t spoken of.)

As I was writing this blog post, Rupert Murdoch published this sad tweet in response to the Charlie Hebdo terrorist murders:

RMtweet

I wonder which of the characters in this book he would hold responsible. Tayta, the grandmother racked with arthritic pain who is a source of great comfort and strength to her grandchildren? Bani, a sharp observer of the world of his family? Bani’s mother, whom we last see demented with grief? Uncle Ibrahim, addicted to ice and barely managing to be a decent family member? The refused suitors, the protective husbands, the fathers who rage and then beg forgiveness? Mr Murdoch, if you chance to read this, I recommend – assuming that you won’t get out a bit and meet some non-elite Muslims – that you read The Tribe before the next time you tell ‘most Moslems’ what they must be held to.

John Cornwell’s Dark Box

John Cornwell, The Dark Box (Profile Books 2014)

1781251088 In Ken Loach’s movie Jimmy’s Hall, the Communist hero visits his arch-enemy the parish priest in the darkness of the confessional and asks for advice on how to deal with the Pharisees who encourage oppression of the Irish poor. The priest, outraged, exclaims: ‘This is sacrilege!’ Jimmy shoots back, ‘I’ll tell you what’s sacrilege. You hate more than you love.’

At the beginning of John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary we see a priest in extreme close up as a voice from the other side of the confessional grille announces the intention to kill him in revenge for sexual abuse committed by another priest.

It’s unlikely that the writers of those scenes, Donal O’Kelly and Paul Laverty for the first and John Michael McDonagh for the second, had read The Dark Box or even knew much of the history it recounts. An Irish Catholic childhood would provide more than enough acquaintance with the confessional box as symbol of pervasive clerical power. But this book could have been written as an explication of these and similar scenes.

It actually was written as an explication of the experiences of generations of Latin Rite Catholic children in the first six decades of last century. (I believe it was different for the Maronite and other rites.)

The practice of frequent sacramental confession was introduced at the Catholic Reformation, in the mid 16th century. Under pain of excommunication and hell all Catholics who had reached the ‘age of discretion’ had to confess at least once a year. In large part this was to strengthen priests’ hold over their parishioners’ inner lives, with the aim of detecting and deterring heretical tendencies. At about the same time the confession box was invented, reputedly by St Charles Borromeo, as a way of preventing priestly abuse of the intimacy of Confession – you could tell your sins without the priest recognising you in the dark or being able to touch you through the separating wall. John Cornwell argues persuasively that it also fostered an approach to morality that was individualistic, introspective and divorced from the narratives of people’s lives – which is pretty much the approach that was taught in the schools of my childhood.

In the 16th century, the age of discretion was generally taken to be somewhere in the late teens. It was Pope (now Saint) Pius X in the early 20th century who decreed that Catholics must make their first Confession at the age of seven. To put it crudely, 17 was too late if you were going to get a solid grip on people’s minds, and steel them against the amorphous threat of ‘Modernism’ – which seems to have been a word for openness to current philosophical and other thinking.

Cornwell spends a lot of time on the link between child sexual abuse and Confession as it existed from the time of Pius X to the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s. First, the ultra private nature of the confessional provided opportunity – though paradoxically it was when priests began hearing confessions in places other than the box that opportunity increased, as his personal recollections attest. More interestingly, though, Cornwell argues that the training that had grown along with the practice of confession created a skewed understanding of human sexuality among priests. He quotes extensively from the text books used in British seminaries for the first half of the 20th century: homosexuality was seen as mortally sinful but rated a very brief mention; rape was a mortal sin but not much discussed; child sexual abuse wasn’t mentioned; masturbation was also a mortal sin, possibly worse than rape for reasons I can’t bear to repeat, and discussed at length.

Through it all, priests were to see themselves as the authorities. As children they had recited laundry lists of sins; now they had more elaborate laundry lists and a host of arguments they could rationalise with. Nowhere was there room for thinking about life as it is lived.

Catholics of my generation sometimes swap stories about childhood confession. The word for ‘sex’ was ‘impurity’, for example, and what was a seven year old boy to make of the information that if he touched his ‘private parts’ except for bathing or peeing purposes he risked burning in hell for eternity? I remember curling up with embarrassment when I went to confession with the Archbishop of Brisbane in the early 60s, when I was perhaps 14. The Archbishop had a deep, loud voice, and when I confessed to impure acts (a term that covered everything from pack rape to a cheerful roll in the hay, but in my case meant touching my own erect penis – and I do mean just touching), he rumbled for the whole cathedral outside the box to hear, ‘Alone or with others? And how frequently did you do it?’

It’s a dark kind of joy, but a joy all the same, to have history’s unforgiving light shone on this part of my childhood. I recommend the book to anyone who has a close relationship with a Pre–Vatican Two Latin-rite Catholic.

Minchin’s Storm, Vaughan’s Saga

Tim Minchin, DC Turner & Tracy KingStorm (Orion 2014)
Brian K Vaughan & Fiona Staples, Saga, Volume Four (2014)

The slender rationale for including these books in a shared blog post is that they’re both comics, and I read them both in a single beach-side holiday afternoon.

Storm cover Storm had its first incarnation as a beat poem Tim Minchin performed in one of his musico-comic solo shows. DC Turner and Tracy King, animators, loved it and saw its potential for an animated film. When they happened to meet the man himself a little later they asked his permission, and voilà, after just a couple of years’ work by many people, their video was scoring millions of hits on YouTube. This is the comic book of the film of the poem.

The poem tells of a dinner conversation where one of the guests (‘Tim’, known mainly as ‘I’) throws civility to the wind and delivers a blistering rant in defense of evidence based medicine and the scientific method against another guest, the eponymous Storm, who persistently advocates hip irrationality. It’s funny, both in its remorseless point scoring and in its mockery of the protagonist’s probably futile passion. It’s also completely serious, and includes a sweetly lyrical evocation of the wonders of the actual world.

The book in effect performs the poem on the page, illustrations and typography doing the work of voice and music. When ‘Tim’, in full snarky flight, asks, ‘Do we actually think that Horton heard a Who?’, a pale blue Dr-Seuss elephant trunk pokes in from a corner of the frame. And there’s an extra comic dimension in images of the other diners’ reactions – I particularly like his wife’s scowl when he mentions the tattoos on Storm’s breasts.

And then there are the equivalent of DVD extras: a foreword by Neil Gaiman (such a nice touch to have one of the living masters of fantasy write approvingly of a book that could easily be misread as antagonistic to fantasy); accounts of the book’s genesis by the writer and the artists (they are called illustrators, but they are much more than that); and a selection of alternative covers by other comics artists.

Saga vol 4 This volume of Saga continues to be as funny, suspenseful and artfully told as the first three volumes. I just reread my blog post on those, and don’t have anything to add. Except possibly that it begins with a full page close up of the television-head of one of the aliens emerging from the birth canal, Hazel’s parents separate, Hazel herself is kidnapped by a television-headed insurgent, who has also kidnapped the one we saw being born. Sadly the next volume won’t be here for an awfully long time.

Geoff Dyer’s Ongoing Moment

Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment: A Book about Photographs (©2005, Canongate 2012)

0857864017This was a gift from a photographer friend who says she rarely reads a book all the way through. She dips here and there until she has had enough. The Ongoing Moment could have been written with her in mind. When I wrote the top line of this blog post, I first wrote the book’s subtitle as ‘A Book About Photography’. That may not be a completely inaccurate description of the book, but its actual subtitle comes closer to the mark. There are 105 photographs reproduced in its pages, most of them muddy and far too small in the edition I read. Dyer’s discussion of them – and of perhaps as many again –  is organised around themes that he says emerged as he immersed himself in what appears to have been a sea of photographs.

He writes about photographs of blind people, of men in overcoats and men in hats, of hands, backs, steps, doors, roads, service stations, barber shops and, perhaps most movingly, park benches. These subjects allow him to explore the distinctive styles of different photographers – and those wonderful moments when a work by one photographer looks exactly like something by another. He finds or invents narratives that link images created decades apart, and at times I don’t think he knows which he’s doing. He has a considerable gift for describing an image in an illuminating way.

He discusses works by more than 40 photographers – most of them of the United States, though he says in his introduction that he didn’t set out with that intention. One of the key questions about a photograph, he says, is whether it is of something or by someone.

There are delightful skerricks of gossip, wonderfully apposite quotation from Whitman, Wordsworth and other poets, a constant, confident play of mind. There’s a moment of snark in the acknowledgements that should win some kind of award.

I’m not well versed in photography. In the first days of my relationship with the Art Student, we bonded over a Diane Arbus exhibition (neither of us had previously heard of her, and we both realised at about the same moment that she wasn’t mocking her subjects). We recently visited a huge Paul Strand exhibition in Los Angeles. I’ve peered over her shoulder as she did assignments on Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. This much knowledge, plus my passing familiarity with some Australian greats (who of course are beyond Dyer’s southern horizon), enriched my experience of reading the book. I expect it could be enjoyed by people who know an awful lot about photography, who would find it an interesting personal take on aspects of this huge field. Equally, for people who know next to nothing, it serves as an unsystematic introduction to 20th century US photography – or not so much un- as eccentrically systematic. It’s like spending a couple of hours with a well informed and witty friend who chats enthusiastically as he shares his shoebox full of photographs.