Monthly Archives: January 2021

Ruby Reads 22:

It’s been a long time since I’ve posted about books read with my granddaughter. Here’s a beginning catch-up.

Dinner with Olivia (Simon & Schuster 2009, based on the TV series, adapted by Emily Sollinger, illustrated by Guy Wolek)

Neither Ruby nor her grandparents knew there was a TV series featuring Olivia, and at first I was wary of this knock-off of Ian Falconer’s wonderful books: as befits children’s TV, the illustration style is a lot cruder than Falconer’s New Yorkish elegance. But it turns out the book is lovely. Olivia goes to her posh friend Francine’s place for dinner. At first she is in awe, and mildly ashamed of the messiness of her own family, especially her little brothers. But once she has experienced the rule-bound life of Francine’s family, not to mention the Brussels sprouts, she – and Francine – realise how excellent it is to slurp spaghetti sauce and occasionally have a meatball bounce to the floor.


Alison Lester, Hello Little Babies (OUP 1985)

Like Alison Lester’s Clive Eats Alligators, this follows a number of children in different activities. This time the children are babies, of a range of ethnicities. Ruby is besotted with her little brother, and with babies in general – at the museum, the exhibit that held her attention was the diorama of baby dinosaurs hatching from their eggs. An added attraction in this book is that one of the babies is named Ruby.


Sally Lloyd-Jones and Sue Heap, How to Be a Baby, by Me, The Big Sister (Schwartz & Wade Books 2007)

Much loved by Ruby, this mocks the narrator’s baby brother for his comparative helplessness. At least, we assume the baby is male, because that’s what Ruby’s baby brother Charlie is. We first read this before he was born. It has become much more popular since he became a reality. I’m not entirely comfortable with the book’s rampant condescension, but I think Ruby can tell it’s joking, and she particularly likes the last pages, where the big sister looks forward to the time when the baby will be as tall as her and able to play with her.


Maurice Sendak, In the Night Kitchen (©1970, HarperCollins Publishers 1988)

Ruby’s not so fond of this. I think there’s too much that she doesn’t quite recognise: the cooks in the kitchen, dough rising, New York skysline, naked boy … And the story line is weird. However, we were driving in the car the other day and she started chanting, ‘Milk in the batter! Milk in the Batter!’ So the magic of Sendak is percolating.


Margaret Mahy (writer) and Jenny Williams (illustrator), A Lion in the Meadow (©1969, re-illustrated edition ©1986, Picture Puffins 1989)

We picked this up at the Addison Road markets. Margaret Mahy is one of the great children’s writers, and Ruby has responded to this book appropriately. Like Sendak’s The Sign on Rosie’s Door, it has a brilliant mother who responds intelligently to her child’s fantasies. The difference is that is this case the child’s fantasy, of ‘a big, roaring, yellow, whiskery lion in the meadow’, turns out to be real, and so does the mother’s counter-fantasy of a dragon in a matchbox who will chase the lion away. Not a word out of place, this is irresistible, and – like the Sendak books – a pleasure to read aloud.


Libby Gleeson (writer) and Freya Blackwood (illustrator), Banjo and Ruby Red (Little Hare 2013)

A dog and a chook overcome initial relationship difficulties to become good friends. What’s not to love? We used to visit some urban chickens when Ruby was much smaller (her word for chicken as ‘babook’, but she eventually decided to go with the consensus). She still talks about the family dog who died some time ago – ‘It’s very sad.’ And relationship difficulties seem to be an issue as she spends more time in childcare. Plus, the chook’s name is Ruby Red. I don’t imagine the Australian farm setting is any more familiar to our inner-city girl than Sendak’s New York skyline, but in this case that doesn’t seem to matter.

This book is also a pleasure to read aloud, for the pathos of a scene where Ruby Red is apparently lifeless as much as for the pages where Banjo does a lot of barking and for the way movement can be traced in great arc across the pages in Freya Blackwood’s illustrations


Hello Little Babies and Banjo and Ruby Red are the first two books I’ve read for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2021.

*** New Book***

For more than a decade now, this blog has burst into rhyme every November and occasionally at other times. I’ve just published the fourth hard copy collection of these rhymes: Take Five.

I’ve given copies as New Year gifts to a number of people. If you think you should have received one, there may be one earmarked for you but still sitting on my desk because of my CPS (chronic procrastination syndrome). Email or text me and I’ll rectify the omission. Likewise if you think you should have received one or more of the previous four books

If you don’t feel entitled to ask, you can buy a copy, cheap, from lulu.com. It may also be available from Amazon at a slightly higher price. The previous four books are for sale there, here, here, here and here. There’s information about all five books on my Publications page.

Kathy O’Shaughnessy’s In Love with George Eliot

Kathy O’Shaughnessy, In Love with George Eliot (Scribe 2019)

George Eliot’s Middlemarch keeps turning up at the top of people’s lists of great English novels. I read it as part of the great cultural tsunami that engulfed me as a boy who’d landed at Sydney University in 1967, having come from North Queensland by way of a monastery, and I loved it, though I haven’t retained much more than a vague impression of the shining integrity of its main character Dorothea and her dried up stick of a husband Dr Casaubon. My first recent vicarious re-encounter was a couple of years back on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s blog (now apparently no longer available), when he took his readers through one of Eliot’s long sentences, describing its movements in language he had developed in talking about rap music. I found a nice piece by him in the Atlantic from about the same time: here. Middlemarch is on my To Be Read list, though the tiny type in the copies I’ve seen is pretty discouraging for someone with my eyesight.

When I was given In Love with George Eliot in my Book Group’s Kris Kringle, it seemed a good halfway measure: decent type size, manageable length, written this decade, and promising some kind of George Eliot experience.

The kind of George Eliot experience it offers is not easy to describe. The novel’s main narrative covers the years from Eliot’s arrival in London in 1851 to her death in 1880: the trajectory of her writing career including the agonised gestation of Middlemarch, her years living unmarried with George Henry Lewes, the ensuing scandal and shunning being overcome by her huge fame as a novelist, her late brief marriage to Johnny Cross, which caused almost as much scandal (after her flouting of convention had been accepted, she went and did the conventional thing, though to a man 20 years her junior and too soon after George’s death). In a secondary narrative, a number of EngLit scholars in contemporary London fall in and out of love, take part in mild academic intrigues, organise conferences and write papers about Eliot and her contemporaries. One of these scholars, Kate, is writing a novel about Eliot, ‘but a novel based on fact – biography, letters, diaries.’ In other words, this novel. An author’s note assures us that all the letters quoted, both George Eliot’s and others’ – are from the archives, and so is much of the dialogue.

So it’s a partial biography in which the writer has given herself permission to make stuff up to fill in the gaps. From a reader’s perspective, it’s a partial biography without a lot of paraphernalia or uninteresting detail, but also one that can’t be completely trusted; one that sticks to the known facts with no spectacular flights of fancy, no plunging headlong into the character’s imagined inner life. That is to say, this is just the thing for unscholarly readers who want to know more about George Eliot (real names Mary Ann Evans, Mrs Lewes, Mrs Cross), of whom I am one. But I’m not sure it will do much for readers who are not already interested.

In a way, the book is less about George Eliot herself than, as the title suggests, the people who were and are in love with her.

I knew about George Lewes, but only that he was her partner for many years. The book gives us much more of him: a scholar and writer himself, he was Eliot’s encourager who protected her from negative criticism, building his life around her and her work.

I knew that Eliot was successful in her lifetime. I didn’t know that she was a huge celebrity – on her trip to Venice late in life she is reluctant to leave the hotel for fear of being recognised.

I knew nothing of Edith Simcox, whose passionate love, ‘lover-wise’, for Mrs Lewes, as she wanted to be known, had her kissing her feet and laying her head in her lap. Presumably these details are taken from Simcox’s private diaries published as Autobiography of a Shirtmaker in 1998.

I didn’t know about Johnny Cross, whom Eliot married late in life and who jumped from a hotel window into a canal when visiting Venice with his wife: in the lead-up to this incident the novel shakes off the shackles of the archive a little, and those few pages are alive with Johnny’s weird, unsettled inner life.

Herbert Spencer, Henry James and other literary luminaries of the time have walk-on parts, not as lovers, but filling out the picture.

And then there are the 21st century academics, who in their own ways love her too. Perhaps, too, there’s a reflexive element to the book’s title: it was written in love.

Jeff Lemire’s Ascender Vols One and Two

Jeff Lemire Dustin Nguyen (storytellers), Steve Wands (lettering and design) and Will Dennis (editor), Ascender Volume One: The Haunted Galaxy (Image Comics 2019, from issues 1–5 of the comic)
———-, Ascender Volume Two: The Dead Sea (Image Comics 2020, from issues 6–10 of the comic)

At the end of Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen’s Descender series (my blog posts here, here and here), as the world was being destroyed, there was a faint glimmer of hope, and a promise of a sequel to be called Ascender. This is it.

The action begins ten years after Descender ended. The landscape on planet after planet is unrecognisable, and not just because it’s in ruins from the great galactic war of the earlier series. Where that earlier conflict was mostly between humans and machines, there are now no machines to be seen. The world is ruled by a hideous witch known only as Mother, whose agents utter phrases reminiscent of The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984: ‘Mother loves you’, ‘Mother is always watching,’ and the like.

Aligned against her, at the beginning, there is just a little girl named Mila and her father. We soon discover that the father is Andy, who was the human boy companion of Tim-21 the robot-boy hero of Descender. In a series of flashbacks we learn of Mila’s birth and the death by vampire bite of her mother – Effie, who had chosen to become part machine in the earlier series but was aligned with the forces of good. As the story unfolds, we learn that Mother draws her power from the coven of her deceased female ancestors – including her own older sister, whom she murdered. Tim-21’s robot dog Bandit, one of the dozens of charming characters from the earlier series, turns up with his backwards bark (‘Fra! Fra!’), and helps Mila and Andy get out of some very tight corners. And then there’s Telsa, former soldier with the now non-existent NGU (maybe not the good guys, but certainly better than Mother’s lot), currently the captain of a small vessel. The book ends with Andy wounded and bobbing about in the ocean, and Telsa and her Amazonian first mate Helda reluctantly in charge of Mila and Bandit, pursued by Mother’s forces:

‘Now what are we gonna do, Captain?’
‘The only thing we can, Helda …
We find a ship. We get this girl off-planet.
And we never come back.

Volume 2: The Dead Sea continues the process of getting the old gang back together, filling the reader in on the horrors of the past ten years, and giving Mother’s back story. A cracking pace is set, much blood is shed, much of it the blood of ‘vamps’, there are ghosts and sundry monsters, including werewhales, and Mila has definitely become the main protagonist, a small child who draws people to her as protectors and as would-be predators. Mother’s story takes a dramatic lurch forward, there are intense operatic moments involving love and death, and my sense is that we’re poised for some big action in the next volume. (A quick Duck Duck Go reveals that Volume 3 was published in December, so it may well arrive in Sydney in time to be a March birthday gift.)

I’m enjoying this series hugely. Tim-21, the powerful but vulnerable boy robot from Descender may never appear, but his absence accounts for a lot of the emotional heft of the story, and Mila seems to be provoking some of the same emotion.

The credits don’t attribute the story to Jeff Lemire and the art to Dustin Nguyen, that is they are not writer and illustrator but storytelling collaborators: there are many moments where the text doesn’t quite say what’s happening and the images step in – often enough in ways that require the reader to slow down and do some parsing. There have probably been theses written on the notion of comics-literacy. This partnership would be a good place for such a thesis to linger. Nguyen’s watercolours are magical – the muted colours and soft outlines mean that even the most violent and blood-thirsty scenes have a kind of enchantment to them.

Amanda Gorman!

I expect most of my readers have already seen Amanda Gorman’s performance of her poem ‘The Hill We Climb’ at Joe Biden’s inauguration as President of the USA earlier this week. (And even though of course President Biden won’t be the answer to all our prayers, it’s still a thrill to write those words in that sequence: (President Joe Biden.)

Amanda Gorman was an inspired choice. She’s youth poet laureate, and even if she’d read something trite, and read it badly, the symbolism of a 22-year-old African-American woman reading a poem she had written from that platform would have been amazing. But it’s a terrific poem, and her performance was/is thrilling. Confession: I could hardly listen to the words the first time, because I was enthralled by her brilliantly eloquent hands. As my regular readers will know, I’m a bit attached to rhyme. The rhyming in ‘The Hill We Climb’ is really something. For just one example, I love:

It's because being American is more than a pride we inherit,
it’s the past we step into
and how we repair it
We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation
rather than share it

Anyjow, here’s the whole thing:

Proust Progress Report 17: She’s still gone

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): Book 6, Albertine disparue, the last pages of Chapter 1 to the first pages of Chapter 3 (pages 2000–2077)

I’m now well into the sixth and second-last book of À la recherche du temps perdu. This was published posthumously, and I gather that it’s the book that has generated most controversy about the correct text. Even its French title chopped and changed – evidently it was originally La fugitive, but had a name change to avoid confusion with someone else’s book of the same name. I mention this because this month I stumbled over a paragraph that’s in my book but not in C K Moncrieff’s translation or the French edition he worked from. So here’s a little tangential story.

As he struggles to come to terms with the loss of Albertine, Marcel’s grief gradually fades but his jealousy and his obsession with her amorous relations with other women persists. His investigations make it increasingly clear that these relations were not figments of his jealous imagination, and he craves to understand Albertine’s inner life in her Lesbian experiences. This narrative line is developed in painful detail, and goes to unexpectedly creepy places, including long interrogations of Andrée, who has been fancied by both Albertine and Marcel. On the way, Marcel hears of evidence from a blanchisseuse. Basic French vocab tells me that this is a washerwoman, or laundress. However, as blanchisseuses keep being mentioned as women who are available for casual sex I began to wonder if the word had a slang meaning. One online dictionary confirms my suspicion, suggesting that it has been slang for ‘prostitute’. After reading one particularly confronting passage, I went to the English translation to see if C. K. Scott Moncrieff found an equivalent euphemism.

He didn’t. His translation is ‘laundress’.

But here’s the thing. The passage that had sent me to Scott Moncrieff isn’t in his translation at all. I thought this might be a case of quiet censorship. After all, it’s not unheard of for translators to spare their readers bits they think will bore or otherwise alienate them. But then I discovered that this passage isn’t there in the only French version I could find online. So the absence wasn’t about sparing delicate English sensibilities. Maybe Proust thought better of it and took it out, only to have it reinstated by an editor/scholar 70 or so years after first publication. Or he intended to put it in, to push the envelope even further, but died before he could make his intentions clear – to have those intentions understood and implemented 70 or so years later.

In the passage in question, Marcel decides he wants to hear what Albertine would have sounded like when taking her pleasure with another woman, so he has two ‘little laundresses’ demonstrate for him. It’s a good example of Proust’s commitment to complexity, even when he’s being quite, well, pervy: while inviting us to imagine a Lesbian sex scene, he discusses the difficulty of interpreting sounds stripped of context and the impossibility of ever fully understanding another human being. Part of the passage and my attempt at a translation are at the end of his blog post.

Finally, in the last two days’ pages, Marcel has got out of his bedroom and is now in Venice with his mother, appreciating both of them, and once more going on the prowl for beautiful young women.

It’s been strange this month to settle down to a couple of pages of Proust each day, when so much other time has been spent doomscrolling, reading about world events where deep, slow, complex analysis of thoughts and feelings is almost impossible to imagine. Exasperating as Marcel’s relentless self-dissection may sometimes be, it’s immensely reassuring that this too is possible.


Here’s the passage with the ‘two little laundresses’

Dans un maison de passe j’avais fait venir deux petites blanchisseuses d’un quartier où allait souvent Albertine. Sous les caresses de l’une, l’autre commença tout d’un coup à faire entendre ce dont je ne pus distinguer d’abord ce que c’était, car on ne comprend jamais exactement la signification d’un bruit originale, expressif d’une sensation que nous n’éprouvons pas. Si on l’entend d’une pièce voisine et sans rien voir, on peut prendre pour du fou rire ce que la souffrance arrache à un malade qu’on opère sans l’avoir endormi; et quant au bruit qui sort d’une mère à qui on apprend que son enfant vient de mourir, il peut nous sembler, si nous ne savons de quoi il s’agit, aussi difficile de lui appliquer une traduction humaine, qu’au bruit qui s’échappe d’une bête, ou d’une harpe. Il faut un peu de temps pour comprendre que ces deux bruits-là expriment ce que, par analogie avec ce que nous avons nous-mêmes pu ressentir de pourtant bien différent, nous appelons souffrance, et il me fallut du temps aussi pour comprendre que ce bruit-ci exprimait ce que, par analogie également avec ce que j’avais moi-même ressenti de fort différent, j’appelai plaisir; et celui-ci devait être bien fort pour bouleverser à ce point l’être qui le ressentait et tirer de lui ce langage inconnu qui semble désigner et commenter toutes les phases du drame délicieux que vivait la petite femme et que cachait à mes yeux le rideau baissé à tout jamais pour les autres qu’elle-même sur ce qui se passe dans le mystère intime de chaque créature. Ces deux petites ne purent d’ailleurs rien me dire, elles ne savaient pas qui était Albertine.

(page 2018)

My attempt at a translation, resisting the temptation to break his long sentences up:

I had brought to a disorderly house [Scott Moncrieff’s polite term] two little laundresses from a suburb that Albertine used to frequent. Under the caresses of one, the other began to make a sound of which at first I could not make out the nature, as one never understands precisely the meaning of a new sound that expresses a sensation we don’t experience. If you hear it from a neighbouring room without seeing anything, you can hear as mad laughter that which is drawn from a patient being operated on without being put to sleep; and as for the sound that issues from a mother who is told that her child has just died, that might seem, if we don’t know what is happening, as difficult to translate into anything human as the sound that escapes an animal, or a harp. A little time is needed to grasp that those two sounds express what, by analogy with what we ourselves have felt, though quite different, we call suffering, and I also needed time to understand that this noise expressed what, similarly by analogy with what I had myself felt, though very different, I called pleasure; and the pleasure must have been very powerful to throw the person feeling it into such disarray and draw from the person this unknown language which seems to name and annotate all the stages of the delightful drama being lived by the little woman and being hidden from my eyes by the curtain lowered forever for anyone other than herself over what passes in the intimate mystery of each creature. These two little ones could tell me nothing. They didn’t know who Albertine was.

Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (Bloomsbury 2020)

I tend to think of every book I read as a stand-alone experience, but that’s almost certainly nonsense. With Piranesi I have been acutely aware that like it or not I was reading it with other books in mind. I can think of three.

First, and least significantly, there’s David Mitchell’s Utopia Avenue which I’d read immediately before beginning Piranesi (blog post to come in early February). Mitchell is quoted on the back cover of this book: ‘What a world Susanna Clarke conjures into being.’ So I was led to expect something of the interplay of different realities that I loved in Mitchell’s book.

The opening pages of Piranesi, in which the protagonist lives in a labyrinthine House that he perceives to be the whole world, sent my mind hurtling back to the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges. When I was at university in the 1970s, poet Martin Johnston was a huge Borges fan and a super spreader of enthusiasm for his short fictions. I was one of the many infected. More than one Borges story involves a labyrinth – ‘The Library of Babel‘, for example, imagines a universe consisting of a vast library of interconnected hexagonal rooms containing all the books every written. It’s as if Susanna Clarke had become fascinated by a Borgesian image, in which statues, an infinite number of them, line the walls of an infinite number of hallways, vestibules, and rooms. The protagonist-narrator, named Piranesi, though he assures us that is not his real name, writes with a kind of Borgesian abstraction – though where Borges’ narrators are conducting thought experiments (‘what if there was a library that …’), it’s clear from the start that for Piranesi there’s no scholarly or ironic distance.

Entry for the first day of the fifth month in the year the albatross came to the south western halls
When the Moon rose in the Third Northern Hall I went to the Ninth Vestibule to witness the joining of three Tides. This is something that happens only once every eight years.

It’s many years since I read any Borges, but I was immediately in familiar, though eerie, territory.

But this is a novel. One begins to want explanations. We meet a man who Piranesi thinks is the only other living human, whom he calls the Other. (Piranesi’s idiosyncratic use of initial capitals is only part of the general strangeness.) The Other has a shiny object that we suspect is a smart phone, and there are other clues that he has a life outside the House. Piranesi actually overhears a snippet of conversation that sounds to the reader as if it comes from a contemporary street on the other side of an invisible wall, but to Piranesi is meaningless and fails to inspire curiosity. A trajectory is established: Piranesi is going to find out what’s going on …

Progress is slow, and I might have lost confidence altogether if I hadn’t read Joanna Clarke’s first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell (2004 – before I started blogging about my reading). This is a vast, slow-moving story of magic in Regency England, not big on thrills and spills, though the Battle of Waterloo, suitably magicked, features. I have a lasting impression of being immersed in a meticulously created world where magic is part of the texture of life. I would have been surprised if in Piranesi the ‘real world’ outside the House wasn’t revealed to be both recognisably mundane and weirdly fantastical.

I got what I was expecting. The explanation of the nature of the House is only slightly more complex and plausible than Dr Who’s ‘timey-wimey stuff‘, but who really ever cares about such explanations – it’s a fantasy novel, for goodness sake! The history that Piranesi gradually uncovers, on the other hand, is full of intellectual intrigue, complex relationships, and general creep-you-out-ness; and the big climax (foreshadowed in the opening lines I quoted above) kept me reading well past bedtime. (Incidentally, ‘timey-wimey stuff’ gets a mention in a document that Piranesi discovers, and which is incomprehensible to him.)

While Piranesi is looking for the truth of his history, readers (this one, anyhow) are hoping the book will unfold something of what it is about that infinite House filled with statues that captured Susanna Clarke’s imagination, and for that matter ours. I don’t want to reduce the book to an allegory: I’m happy for it to be a story about a house full of statues and nasty magic. But I did find myself brooding on echo chambers and half-overheard conversations about Baudrillard. From Wikipedia: ‘Baudrillard claims that our current society has replaced all reality and meaning with symbols and signs, and that human experience is a simulation of reality.’ With that kind of thinking in mind, Piranesi’s struggle stirs in readers’ minds our own struggles to reach past the simulacra, dogmas and fairytales have been given since childhood, to an independent relationship with the real world. At least that’s where it took me, and it was fun being taken.

Lemire & Sorrentino’s Gideon Falls 5

Jeff Lemire (writer), Andrea Sorrentino (artist) and Dave Stewart (colorist), Gideon Falls, Volume 5: Wicked Worlds (Image Comics 2020, from issues 22–26 of the comic)

My younger son and I traditionally give each other comics on Christmas, birthdays, and Father’s Day. Luckily, this most recent aggregation of Gideon Falls monthlies turned up in Kinokuniya a couple of days after I had done my shopping there, so we avioded the embarrassment of giving each other the same book.

I’m not a fan of this series, horror not being my cup of (something a lot less savoury than) tea. But having come this far, there’s no turning back.

This is the second-last volume, and we’ve pretty much reached the depths. At the end of Volume 5 the mysterious Dark Barn was destroyed and our band of heroes thought that would be the end of the evil they were combating, but it turns out that they just set the evil free, and nothing much happens in this volume except to see just how demonic the world has become. It’s a kind of zombie apocalypse with hideous grins.

The saving grace of this book, and of the whole series, is the brilliant artwork. Hardly a single page goes by with a simple linear narrative. As the story flips back and forth between three separate narrative threads (I think there are only three), each in its own time period though all in the same place, the artwork does all it can to heighten the disorientation, but repays close attention. In a spread where the Western story is unfolding, the are tiny insets from the futuristic one. Spectacularly, a spread near the end shows a series of cubes, and on each of the three visible sides of each cube a different story progresses towards the hideously threatening full-page image of the last page, an image that ensures that at the end of this year, like it or not, we’ll be lining up for Volume 5.

A New Year’s sighting of the Marrickville Mattress Poet

I’m not the only one who keeps a weather eye out for new works by ‘C.L’, who turns discarded mattresses around Marrickville into ephemeral works of literary art. Here’s my latest sighting. After a brief foray into politics, she (I think the poet is a woman) is back to more existential subject matter. The calligraphy is less precise than usual – perhaps 2020 has taken its toll.

[Added a bit later: I keep thinking I can’t be the only one uploading images of C.L’s work. A moment with DuckDuckGo led me to the Nothing Really Mattress site, which showcases street mattress art from around the world. One of C.L’s distinctive works, perhaps from a happier time – ‘People fell in love on me’ – appears at this link.]