Monthly Archives: February 2019

Ruby reads

My granddaughter, Ruby, is now nearly 14 months old, and I have re-entered the world of books for very young people. This is a catch-up on books I’ve read to her or listened to while someone else read to her – some fondly remembered, some new to me. Ruby’s parents and the people who give them books have very good taste. I mean no disrespect to the many brilliant board books featuring photos of African animals, sometimes with rudimentary rhymes, whose pages she loves to turn, but I’ve only included books that give me pleasure as well. In no particular order, then:

Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969)

This book is 50 years old this year, and its place in the canon is firmly established. I know the last page when the caterpillar is transformed into a butterfly is supposed to be the great visual thrill, but I love the transformation before that into a very big, round caterpillar.

Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks, On the Day You Were Born (Allen & Unwin 2018)

Margaret Wild is one of the greats of Australian children’s literature, and her collaborations with Ron Brooks are legendary. The title of this book might lead you expect a story of mother and baby cuddling in bed, but no, here the baby’s father takes ‘you’ on a walk out into the wonders of the world, and returns in the last words to the mother. None of the humans is seen – just the gorgeous world.

Hairy Maclary Scattercat (Puffin 1983), and other brilliant books by Lynley Dodd.

This book first appeared the year Ruby’s father was born. In case you don’t know, Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy is a scruffy and scrappy little New Zealand dog whose adventures are told in rollicking rhymes. Here he monsters a series of cats until finally the tables are turned by Scarface Claw, whose name says it all. Dachshund Schnitzel von Krumm isn’t in this book, but he’s in at least one of the others we get to read.

Nick Bland, The Very Sleepy Bear (Scholastic Australia 2017)

 This bear has a series of books, in which he is variously Very Cranky, Itchy, Brave, and so on. This one is a kind of trickster tale – a fox tricks the bear into leaving his cave with a promise of somewhere better to sleep. After inspecting a series of unsatisfactory possibilities, the bear insists on returning to his home, where he discovers the fox has installed a gang of his friends. Particularly relevant to adults who are trying to manage a baby’s sleep.

Eric Hill’s Spot series, in particular Who’s There, Spot? (Puffin 2013)

Along with the mouthless Miffy (whom I haven’t seen on Ruby’s bookshelves), Spot is a standout memory from my own early parenting days. The original was the lift-a-flap book Where’s Spot (1980). Who’s There, Spot, complete with flaps under which lurk a series of animals, is one of a vast number of sequels. Every baby I know has loved lifting the flaps on Eric Hill’s books, and as an adult, I’ve always enjoyed giving the hissing, trumpeting, barking, meowing hints beforehand.

Ted Prior, Grug at the Beach (Simon & Shuster 2009)

Grug is the animated grass-tree hero of his own series of 26 tiny books (I just found that out from Wikipedia, where I also learned that he may not be a grass tree after all, but I’m sticking to my story). The first book, Grug, appeared in 1979, and though the series finished in 1982, he lives on in treasured old copies and new editions. Grug at the Beach is charming propaganda for sunscreen, but don’t let that put you off.

Roger Hargreaves’ Mr Men series, in particular Mr Clumsy (Budget Books 1987)

I’m not all that keen on the Mr Men series, but there’s no doubting their appeal and longevity. Maybe the cheerful acceptance of idiosyncrasy and imperfection is the secret of their success. The gender specificity is a bit problematic, and was only made worse, in my opinion, by the Little Miss series. Girls can be clumsy too! Like the Grug books, these have the advantage of being small enough to fit very young hands.

Mem Fox and Judy Horacek, Where Is the Green Sheep? (Puffin 2006)

The text, which otherwise might be mistaken for a didactic exercise in naming colours, provides a perfect platform for Judy Horacek’s brilliantly silly illustrations. We haven’t got to Mem Fox and Julie Vivas’s great classic, Possum Magic, yet. In fact, no Julie Vivas at all – a gap that will definitely be closed before too long.

That’s enough for now. I’ll save Leo Lionni and others for another post.

I wasn’t going to mention any of these texts in relation to the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge, but then I remembered how children’s literature, especially picture books for the very young, tends to be seen as lesser creations than even the most lackadaisical work for older people, even while some picture books and books for very young people are works of genius. So here you are: On the Day You Were Born and Where Is the Green Sheep? are the fifth and sixth books I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Katharine Margot Toohey’s Vera Rudner

Katharine Margot Toohey, Vera Rudner: A Study (Quemar Press 2018)

A friend of mine (and no, this isn’t urban legend) recently attended a lecture on Australian modernist art at a mainstream tertiary institution in Sydney. The lecturer managed not to mention a single woman. When my friend protested, and rattled off a list of women who were crucial to the history, the lecturer was unapologetic.

Early this year at a prestigious Melbourne gallery, the same friend was lamenting the almost complete absence of women painters in a large exhibition of 20th century Australian art. Then we walked into one of the smaller rooms, and there they were, scores of them, crowded onto the walls four or five high without space for so much as a descriptive label: if you wanted to see who painted that sock knitter or that bridge in curve you had to consult an iPad chained to a seat in the middle of the room and scroll through the list. So the ladies had a room to themselves, all hugger mugger, and the real male artists, were shown as individuals.

It seems our institutions may have some trouble giving Australian women artists their due.

This tiny, almost zine-like book from Quemar Press is doing its bit to kick against the trend.

Vera Rudner, born in Berlin in 1922, fled the Nazis with her Jewish family and arrived in Australia in 1938. She studied painting at the aforementioned Sydney tertiary institution, among others, and painted a number of striking surrealist works before she stopped painting in 1948.

Two of her paintings are held in the National Gallery of Australia. Four are in the artist’s possession. One is known to have been destroyed – actually burned – because, according to the woman who inherited it, it ‘scared her grandchildren’. She hasn’t been completely ignored in the literature of Australian art, but she remained in relative – almost complete – obscurity until Jennifer Maiden’s poem ‘Sacrilege’ appeared in her collection, Appalachian Fall (Quemar 2017, link is to my blog post). It introduces Vera as a friend of some decades, and focuses on her painting for which the poem is named. It begins:

                I fear not doing her justice; however,
for a long time I've wanted to write a poem about Vera
Rudner.

That poem, and ‘Be Back in the Morning or Diary Poem: Uses of Toys’, named for another of Rudner’s paintings and published in Maiden’s brookings: the noun (Quemar 2019), are reprinted in this book, evocative amplifications of Katharine Margot Toohey’s prose.

The text of the book is in three parts. First is a brief biography presented as an extended captions to a series of photos – snaps of Rudner as a child movie actor (the movies were all destroyed by the Nazis), of a framed wedding photo; an exhibition catalogue; the cover of a book that mentions her work; and a recent shot of her with Jennifer Maiden. The second is a short general essay, and the third an explication of the six paintings that Katharine Margot Toohey has access to.

There are two colour photographs of each of the paintings, and a number of details in black and white. These are enough to whet the appetite to see the actual paintings, but because of the perennial problem of reproducing paintings as tiny illustrations and getting the colour right, it’s hard to feel they do much more than that. For example, the cover photograph of Suburbia (1945) has a predominantly blue-grey pallet; both internal reproductions are mainly warm yellows and oranges.

Some sections of the book are available online at Quemar’s website (click here), where the images seem much less problematic. If, like me, you’re vaguely aware of an ache in your brain where the history of women artists should be stored, I recommend you have a look.

Vera Rudner: A Study is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I am grateful to Quemar Press for my complimentary copy.

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001–2011

Christa Wolf, One Day a Year 2001–2011 (2013, translation by Katy Derbyshire, Seagull Books, 2017)

In 1960 the Moscow newspaper Izvestia invited a number of writers, including East German Christa Wolf, to describe one day in their lives, 27 September that year, as precisely as possible. Christa Wolf accepted the invitation and found the project so interesting that she did the same for that date every year for the rest of her life.

She didn’t necessarily intend this writing for publication, but at the turn of the century she decided to compile the 41 pieces into a book, saying in her preface (reprinted at the start of this book):

I see it as a kind of professional obligation to publish them. Our most recent history seems to be at risk of being reduced, even now, to easily manageable formulae. Perhaps messages like these can play a part in keeping opinions on what has happened in flux, re-examining prejudices, dismantling hardened views, recognising our own experiences and gaining more trust in them, allowing unfamiliar circumstances a little closer to ourselves.

That book is a compendium of detailed accounts of a single day for each year, coming very close to the primary classroom concept of a ‘recount’ as opposed to a shaped ‘narrative’, beginning in East Berlin before the Berlin Wall was built, ending long after the unification of Germany, and traversing on the way the massive social and political changes of the 1960s to 90s, as well as huge changes in Wolf’s personal life.

The book I’ve just read is not so much a sequel as an addendum. The German original, titled Ein Tag im Jahr im neuen Jahrhundert (literally One Day a Year in the New Century) was published in 2013, nearly two years after Wolf’s death in December 2011. The changes it charts are not as momentous, at least not on the world stage – at the personal level these pages are overwhelmingly aware of the approach of death – but nor is it as dauntingly huge.

I found the book fascinating. Each day is full of detail: the dream from which Wolf wakens, a list of newspaper headlines, the meals her husband prepares, crime shows on television, her current reading, her current writing project, gossip, calls on her to appear in the media, invitations to gallery openings (most of which go straight to the bin), news from her family (one of her daughters has a birthday on 28 September, so family always looms large), reflections on the big events of the day (German elections seem to happen in September), correspondence. It’s not that all these things are presented as of equal value: Wolf knows that her reflections on, say, the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC, will be more interesting to her possible readers (including her future self) than what she had for lunch. But there’s a wonderful sense of the broad sweep of history enmeshed in the minutiae of life as each entry ‘interrogates the bejesus’ out of its day (the phrase is from Phillipa McGuinness’s The Year that Everything Changed, which did for the year 2001 what Wolf does for her days – the link is to my blog post).

I imagine that every reader will find her or his own personal points of connection. Here are some of mine.

On 9/11, the perspective of a former East Berliner stands as something of a challenge these days to those who urge the primacy of ‘western civilisation’:

Why did it seem to me – precisely sixteen days ago it was – as though those two towers were crashing directly into the empty centre of our civilisation, the alleged target of the attack? Everyone appeared to know what our civilisation is. […] So it’s Greek philosophy, the monotheistic religions, the Enlightenment’s belief in reason … And what if they had all lost their effectualness in the Occident under the ‘terror of the economy’ and lived on only as a chimera inside us? And have not more and more people sensed that this civilisation of ours is hollowed out and empty?

(page 11)

(Incidentally, that ‘the Occident’ makes me wish I could read German so I’d know if it was Wolf or the translator Katy Derbyshire who decided to use it rather than the more usual ‘the West’. Given the general ease of the English elsewhere, I’m assuming it was Wolf: she tends to use ‘the West’ to mean West Germany, and Katy Derbyshire has honoured her usage.)

In the period covered by this book, Wolf completed the only other book by her that I’ve read: City of Angels or, The Overcoat of Dr Freud. That book deals in part with a moment in 1985 when it was revealed that she had been an informant for the Stasi – something she had completely forgotten. There are some interesting footnotes to that book – she mentions in passing the difficulty of writing it, of dealing with editorial changes and then, in 2010, readers’ responses. This passage makes me resolve to tell writers when their work means something to me:

Then a quite long, intense letter from a woman from Berlin, prompted by City of Angels, which she calls a ‘captivating and liberating’ text. My books, she writes, have accompanied her for more than half her life (people often tell me that now). She goes on to thank me for staying ‘in this part of the country’ […] I could cite more of this letter, which is typical of a large number of letters I’ve received since City of Angels. More from the East – but not only from there – more women than men, more older than very young people. Testaments of personal concern, which push aside my doubts over whether I ought to have published the book in this form.

(page 145)

The book is probably an example of ‘late style’, as discussed in Edward Said’s On Late Style, a book that failed to impress me much when I read it last year, but which seems to be relevant to almost everything I’ve read since. Like Said’s book, this one was published posthumously. Unlike his, it’s explicit about the writer’s physical condition. This moment from 2007 strikes a chord with me, though the pain in my joints is a trivial shadow of hers:

From the living room window I see a young blonde woman walking past, in a white jacket and black trousers; I watch enviously as she walks without effort, as if that were the most natural thing in the world.

I console myself – when I was her age I could do that too.

(page 110)

The final entry – just two pages of notes she managed to scribble two months before she died – is an extraordinary testimony to her dedication to the life of the mind, and to this task in particular: among the notations about the struggle to find a position for sleeping that won’t be in pain, her medication, difficulties with eating and going to the toilet, she mentions her reading:

I read a few pages of [Estela Canto’s] relationship to Borges, which Ellen sent me. Didn’t know B. was infertile – for mental reasons, not least due to his domineering mother.

(p 149)

In the middle of it all, there’s always something new to learn.

I don’t suppose this book is everyone’s cup of tea, but it makes me glad to belong to species that has included such an individual.

Joyce Carol Oates’ Hazards of Time Travel

Joyce Carol Oates, Hazards of Time Travel (4th Estate 2018)

Maybe I’m being harsh, but this strikes me as an example of a literary novelist deciding to write science fiction in the spirit of someone slumming it. It’s a dystopian novel in which the world building is fairly slapdash and awfully familiar even to someone like me who doesn’t read a lot  of dystopian fiction. It has a number of twists that don’t really turn. The timing, especially in the final pages where there is a faux happy ending (or is it?), just doesn’t work.

Having said that, I think there is a serious argument that J F Skinner’s psychological theories are useful in understanding the creeping totalitarianism of our times: a young woman who asks questions (not too many questions, but questions at all) in the repressive future is exiled to a rural university in the US in the 1950s where Skinner’s theories are seen as cutting edge, and … oh I don’t care.

I haven’t read anything else by Joyce Carol Oates, so I may be missing something. Edward Said’s On Late Style warned that contemporaries dismissed the work of any number of great artists as they moved into the apparent carelessness of their late style. Perhaps that’s what is happening here. I’m open to argument