Category Archives: Book Club

Diana Athill’s Alive, Alive Oh!

Diana Athill, Alive, Alive Oh!: and other things that matter (Granta Publications 2016)

I’m one of the many readers who first met Diana Athill’s work near the end of her long career as editor and writer. The title of her 2008 essay collection, Somewhere Towards the End (link is to my blog post), accurately describes the feel of the book. They were lucid ruminations in the shadow of approaching death.

Eight years later when Alive, Alive Oh! was published, death was still imminent, and in fact Diane Athill died in February this year. If we can judge by this book, she was ready to go – not because life had become unbearable, far from it, but because she had achieved a marvellous sense of equanimity in the face of the inevitable.

You may have to be of a certain age and ethnicity to recognise that the book’s title is from the song ‘Molly Malone’. You can see a haunting version by Sinéad O’Connor / Shuhada’ Davitt on YouTube, but be advised that the eerie melancholy of that song doesn’t reflect the tone of Diana Athill’s twelve short memoir-essays. In her Introduction, she writes that somewhere in her seventies she stopped thinking of herself as a sexual being, and after a short period of shock found that very restful:

I had become an Old Woman! And to my surprise, I don’t regret it. In the course of the ninety-seven years through which I have lived I have collected many more images of beautiful places and things than I realised, and now it seems as though they are jostling to float into my mind.

(p 2)

What follows are some memories of that sort to be sure: the first essay is a loving description of her grandparents’ garden – really an estate, where she spent much of her childhood; the second rejects the common view that the post-war 40s and 50s were a dreary time, and tells of the joys of her life as a twenty-something in those years – the swinging 60s, in her experience, were just an extension of her privileged 50s; and third begins with a brilliant description of the beauties of the island of Tobago, and tells how as a young woman there she came to understand that the pleasurable existence of British tourists and expats was built on the many-faceted exploitation of locals. So the book may be full of beautiful places and things, but it also goes to dark places.

The title essay, ‘Alive, Alive Oh!’, comes fourth. I was expecting a celebration of life in one’s nineties (those essays come later). But no, it’s a vivid account of a pregnancy when she was in her 40s, unmarried but in a solid relationship with a married man. I won’t say more about this essay, other than that it’s a narrative full of suspense, and an outcome that is both expected and surprising.

After that, there are short essays on

  • the ‘peculiarly English middle-class technique for dealing with awkward facts … : if something is disagreeable let’s pretend it isn’t there’, and how it played out in her relationship with her mother
  • clothes and similar luxuries including, in her current life, a wheelchair
  • a wartime romance, which she frames by saying that two valuable lessons life has taught her are ‘avoid romanticism and abhor possessiveness’ – enough to say that the story she tells, while complex, is not an illustration these lessons
  • favourite books – the ones she lingers on are the letters of Boswell and Byron.

There’s a substantial account of her decision to move into a home for old people (a very posh one, it turns out). This is full of elegant reflections on ageing. For instance:

Old-age friendships are slightly different from those made in the past, which consisted largely of sharing whatever happened to be going on. what happens to be going on for us now is waiting to die, which is of course a bond of a sort, but lacks the element of enjoyability necessary to friendship. Iin my current friendships I find that element not in our present circumstances but in excursions into each other’s pasts. A shared sense of humour is necessary, together with some degree of curiosity. Given those, we become for each other wonderfully interesting stories, which arouse genuine concern, admiration and affection.

(p 112)

And this, from the final essay ‘Dead Right’, on the prevailing attitudes to dying among her fellow residents:

Death is no longer something in the distance, but might well be encountered any time now. You might suppose that this would make it more alarming, but judging from what I now see around me, the opposite happens. Being within sight, it has become something for which one ought to prepare. One of the many things I like about my retirement home is the sensible, practical attitude towards death that prevails here. You are asked without embarrassment whether you would rather die here or in a hospital, whether you want to be kept alive whatever happens or would prefer a heart attack, for instance, to be allowed to take its course, and how you wish your body to be disposed of. When a death occurs in the home it is dealt with with the utmost respect – and also with a rather amazing tact in relation to us, the survivors.

(p 159)

When I blogged about Somewhere Towards the End, I said I wouldn’t mind having a mind like Diana Athill’s when I’m 90. Make that 97.

Phillipa McGuinness’s Year Everything Changed

Phillipa McGuinness, The Year Everything Changed: 2001 (2018)

Phillipa McGuinness reminds us in her preface to The Year Everything Changed that in 1988, the bicentenary of James Cook’s visit to Australia’s east coast, a number of substantial books called ‘slice histories’ were published: each of them dealt with a single year, a slice of Australian life taken every 50 years starting with 1788. ‘You take a single year,’ McGuinness writes, ‘and interrogate the bejesus out of it.’ This book interrogates the bejesus out of 2001.

The Australian Bicentenary project isn’t the only precursor. Elisabeth Åsbrink’s 1947: When Now Begins, which I read last year in Fiona Graham’s translation, is a brilliant example. Pip McGuinness’s book is also brilliant, but in a very different register: more intimate for one thing, given that one of the key events of her year is intensely personal, and the events she describes, and has researched prodigiously, are part of her living memory, whereas Elisabeth Åsbrink wasn’t yet born in her chosen year.

The book’s structure looks straightforward: a chapter for each month. But actually, at least at first, each chapter takes an event from its month and uses it as a springboard to a general theme. So:

  •  January has great fun with the fizzer celebration of the Centenary of Federation, and its more sombre in its account of the inauguration of George W Bush and dick Cheney. Both events allow for quick sketches of the Story So Far.
  • February saw the death of Don Bradman and the divorce of Nicole Kidman. There’s a delicious exploration of the differences between the historical Bradman and the way his image was used to represent something about Australia – the icon Bradman. And there’s a list of heroes and icons that were big that year, most of whom are now forgotten.
  • In March the iPod came into existence, and OMG how all that has changed!
  • April saw the first edition of Black Inc’s Quarterly Essay, Robert Manne’s The Stolen Generations and the Right, and the chapter ranges over the policies and debates around human rights. In Australia that means the treatment of Aboriginal people and asylum seekers. Elsewhere in the world, same-sex marriage, euthanasia and the death penalty were in the news. Later in the year, the US would officially sanction torture, kidnapping and indefinite detention.
  • In May, George Pell became Archbishop of Sydney. The chapter deals mainly with the connection between religion and politics, clerical child abuse in Australia and, inevitably, Islam and violence (including violence against Muslims) everywhere.
  • June is the money chapter. ‘Were it not for Tampa and 9/11, in Australia we might remember the year as one of corporate catastrophe.’ One.Tel, insurance company HIH and Ansett all collapsed. Elsewhere Bill Clinton cleared the legislative way for the Global Financial Crisis, and Enron, the seventh largest corporation in the US, went bust. I was reminded that I went to the US that year when the exchange rate was down to just over 48 US cents to our dollar. 
  • July was the Australian census, and McGuinness and her family went to live in Singapore. The chapter deals with Australia’s changing demographics, the expat experience, and the twentieth anniversary of AIDS, in 2001 the number one cause of death by infectious disease in the developing world.

I had approached the book expecting a Before and After narrative, with turning points of Tampa, 9/11, and the devastating event in McGuinness’s personal life flagged in the Preface. By the end of July, I was engrossed enough to be no longer reading it that way. Then comes the opening of the August chapter:

We’ve come to the part of 2001 where so much happens that were it a novel, its author would be criticised for over-plotting. Cut out one terrorist attack, one election, one war, one maritime crisis, please, pleads her overwhelmed editor. There are so many villains, where are your heroes? And why don’t you consider a happier ending? But, I counter, facts lined up on my side, all this happened. It’s part of the story. I too wish I could rewrite events, tweak history, even – especially – my own. But I can’t so, cue the high-drama chart-stoppers of 2001. We know the words to the chorus, but let’s pay more attention to the verses.

(Page 173)

And so it goes: the August–November chapters pretty much draw our attention to the verses of songs we kind of know: in August it’s the Tampa, in September 9/11, in October the invasion of Afghanistan, and in November elections – especially those that were won by John Howard and George W Bush.

These chapters are fine examples of narrative history, telling the story in terms of what people knew, suspected or feared at the time and illuminating it with later knowledge only as needed. Although they tell stories that have been told many times, it’s a very personal telling, with odd facts and interesting angles, and oddly refreshing to be reminded of what it looked like back then – before Trump, Iraq, Manus Island and Nauru, but well on the way to all of them.

December is a harrowing account of giving birth to a baby who has died in utero. It might seem that such a chapter belongs in a different book. But in a way it’s what brings this whole book together. Big picture events can make the lives of individual people seem trivial, but that’s an illusion created by distance. All of who lived through those times had big things happen in our personal lives, some connected to the big events (like the casualties of war and terrorism or sacked employees of Ansett, whose voices we hear in their chapters), others not so much, but equally weighty. And anyway, the whole book feels personal – which is no mean achievement given the enormous amount of research that went into it. I don’t know Phillipa McGuinness, but as I’ve been writing this blog post, I’ve had to struggle every time I’ve written a version of her name: I want to call her Pip, which is how she refers to herself in one wry aside, not because I have trouble with the spelling of her personal name, but because by the time I reached the list of friends on page 326 I felt as if I belonged there.

The Year Everything Changed is the second book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. It was a loan from the Book(-swap) Club.

Pat Barker’s Silence of the Girls

Pat Barker, The Silence of the Girls (Hamish Hamilton 2018)

Pat Barker is one of the great war novelists. Mostly she has written about the wars of the 20th century, most notably in her Regeneration trilogy. The Silence of the Girls goes back to the first war story in western literature, and tackles the Trojan War. She’s not the first to do so: in recent years, David Malouf’s novel Ransom focuses on the episode where King Priam begs Achilles to hand over the corpse of his son, Hector, and Alice Oswald’s stunning book of poetry Memorial  excavates the Iliad, consisting mainly of translations of the death scenes. The Silence of the Girls tells Achilles’ part of the story, mostly from the point of view of his trophy slave Briseis.

Some readers have complained that though the book sets out to tell the story of the women, whose voices are unheard in the original text, the men’s stories are still central and much more interesting than the women’s. I don’t see it that way. I think the book sets out to tell the story of Achilles, bringing to bear Briseis’ perspective as a non-combatant who is generally regarded as a prize rather than as fully human. I don’t think Pat Barker sets out to subvert the tale of Achilles’ heroics and passions so much as to contextualise them and enrich our understanding of them.

There are a couple of pages in The Silence of the Girls describing the deaths of individuals at Achilles’ hands that I would have assumed were Pat Barker’s invention if I hadn’t read Alice Oswald’s filleted translation (yes, I haven’t actually read the Iliad): the original makes the brutality of warfare viscerally explicit. What Barker does add is Briseis’ imaginings of how the slain men’s mothers must have seen them as children. The book asks, and sets out to answer, not so much the plaintive question, ‘What about the women?’ as the much more interesting ones, ‘Where were the women and what did they think about it all?’

The result is brilliant. I cried a lot.

Alice Walker’s Chicken Chronicles

Alice Walker, The Chicken Chronicles: Sitting with the angels who have returned with my memories – Glorious, Rufus, Gertrude Stein, Splendor, Hortensia, Agnes of God, The Gladyses, & Babe: A memoir (The New Press 2011)

chicken.jpg

The Chicken Chronicles consists of 37 short chapters, originally blog posts, about keeping chickens. Not just keeping them, but spending time observing them, enjoying them, being sat on and pecked and fed by them, communing with them, falling in love with them as individuals and as a species, and following the mind wherever they take it.

One of Alice Walker’s childhood chores was to wring the neck of  a chicken each week for the Sunday dinner. Chickens, or more specifically roosters, featured in her 1992 novel Possessing the Secret of Joy – as a nightmarish presence to do with the genital mutilation of little girls. It’s tempting to read The Chicken Chronicles as Walker’s joy-filled atonement for those sins and slanders of the past.

The first chapter describes an encounter with a mother hen who was ‘industrious and quick, focused and determined’. The memory of that encounter kept resurfacing, and Walker writes:

I realised I was concerned about chickens, as a Nation, and that I missed them. (Some of you will want to read no further.)

I took this as a warning and a challenge to anyone who finds that capitalised ‘Nation’ ridiculous or even offensive: if you read on, be prepared for some tendentious animal-liberation rhetoric, perhaps. I did read on, and I was glad to have been forewarned, especially when there is a change of register after half a dozen chapters, and from then on Walker addresses the chickens directly and refers to herself as Mommy (and the person who until then  had been her partner as Daddee), telling them about her travels and her admiration for figures such as Gandhi and Ho Chi Minh, or delivering little sermons to them and the eavesdropping reader. Like this:

Mommy’s mind is dizzy and her heart sore from all the troubles in the human realm. She sees pictures of other birds, no less wondrous than you, covered with oil and dying of suffocation and despair. How can they fathom what is happening to them? How can they understand they are not to blame? What have they done but be themselves, flying about eating insects and grubs, while appearing marvellous to the human spirit, even whole doing so? She learns soldiers from her country have shot and killed two pregnant women in Afghanistan, one of them Mommy of ten. What is an Afghanistan? You will wonder. Is it edible? Mommy has never been there but she used to wear beautiful long dresses made of velvet and embroidered in many colours, which came from Afghanistan.

There’s something real happening here: in addressing the chickens, the mind can go to some basic questions. But any grumpy and humourless children of the Enlightenment should probably stay away from this book. I’m grumpy but not completely humourless, and had to work hard to appreciate passages like that one,  and I found a lot to enjoy elsewhere.

The chapter that picks up the notion of ‘sitting with the angels’ from the book’s title is an example. (I’ve just discovered that a version of this chapter is online in Alice Walker’s facebook timeline – you could do worse than read the whole piece.) As she spends time with the chickens, sitting in her ‘meditation chair’ in their enclosure, Walker finds that memories of her childhood come back to her:

For, spending time with you, not only did Mommy recall and visualise her own mother’s thumb with its deep, beloved scar, and from the thumb begin to see her mother’s face and actions, but she also began to see, in stark detail, the house near Ward’s chapel: the final and most wretched of all the grey shacks; the house that her mother attempted to hide, as she camouflaged all the others, behind a vibrant wall of flowers. And inside the house that shook when anyone walked from room to room, there was Mommy’s room papered with real wallpaper, though too thin and delicate to actually touch! While in her parents’ room her mother had done the Mommy thing that was so typical of her: she had papered her own bedroom with flattened cardboard boxes and brown butcher’s paper.

As she describes the way the chickens gave her back these memories, she also gives memories back to the reader – at least to this one. We had chooks in my childhood home, though I didn’t have to wring any necks and our chicken meals were a lot less frequent than the Walker family’s. This book is full of wonderful descriptions of chickens – their behaviour around roosting, their alarm at predators (river rats and hawks in my case, North American beasties in Walker’s), their joy at being fed and called to by humans’ crude impersonation of their cries. These felt like a generous gift of memory. Walker brings to her chickens with the kind of attention I remember from my childhood, and her descriptions of them capture beautifully the joy of being close up to other species.

Sarah Winman’s Tin Man

Sarah Winman, Tin Man (Tinder 2017)

tinman.jpgThis is a gentle love story. It starts out with a man who we gradually discover is grieving for the loss of his wife and best friend in a car accident. Over the novel’s short length we discover the rich complexity of the relationships among the three of them, the depth of their loves, their joys and their sorrows, maybe particularly their sorrows: not a ménage à trois, but what one of the characters calls a mélange.

It’s very English, tactful when erotic, and filled with the kindness of strangers and the healing of wounds.

 

Marija Peričić’s Lost Pages

Marija Peričić, The Lost Pages (Allen & Unwin 2017)

lostpages.jpgThis book begins with a lie.

The imprint page includes standard disclaimer, ‘Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental,’ but what follows purports to be an account by Max Brod (a real person, you can look him up on Wikipedia) of his relationship with Franz Kafka (ditto). Brod famously disobeyed Kafka’s deathbed instruction to burn all his papers, and so gave the world The Trial and other works that established Kafka’s eminence in 20th century literature. So we’re set up from the beginning for a historical novel about a literary friendship.

Usually, historical novels thrive in the gaps in the historical record: the facts as we have them remain fixed points, and the novelist’s imagination goes to work with people, events and dialogue that have been undocumented. In The Lost Pages, things aren’t so cut and dried. Brod’s biography of Kafka is one of the main historical sources about him. This novel is presented as a manuscript found in Kafka’s papers as preserved by Brod and now owned by two Israeli sisters (which really do exist, unexamined by scholars): so what the fictional Brod writes here can claim to override the historical Brod’s version.

And it does.

It’s a tale full of obsession, anguish, betrayal, jealousy, paranoia (well, it is a story about Kafka), hallucinatory episodes (ditto), and enormous improbabilities which are resolved by even less likely revelations. I kept forgetting that it was written by a 30-something woman living in Melbourne – I was away in the world of Prague literary celebrity a century ago, having a great time. It would be wrong to say the book is silly, but I find it hard to think of a better word for its quality that most charmed me. It’s a romp, if a romp can include social exclusion (Brod in real life and in the novel had severe spinal curvature), abject humiliation, extreme mental anguish …

The Lost Pages is the fifteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Sue Lawson’s Freedom Ride

Sue Lawson, Freedom Ride (Walker Books Australia 2016)

freedomride.jpgThis is a YA novel, that is to say, a novel intended for young teenagers. Its main character, fifteen-year-old Robbie Bowers, lives with his bank-employee father and his grandmother in the tiny fictional New South Wales town of Walgaree. Robbie’s a frequent target for the school bully and his cronies, and home is no refuge. His grandmother is prim, humourless and authoritarian, a terrible cook with nasty gossiping friends. His father is hardly any better, having come back to live with his mother after losing his wife when Robbie was a baby. The stage is set for a coming of age story, in which Robbie finds a way to independence of spirit, connection with some decent people, and perhaps even a little happiness.

And that is what plays out. Robbie is befriended by the young man who has come home from London to take over the caravan park when his father died. Robbie accidentally unearths some family secrets and lies, exposes his father and grandmother and their friends as terrible people, and ends up with the possibility of a new life opening up for him.

At the same time, the novel is about the 1965 Freedom Ride, in which a group of university students led by Charles Perkins hired a bus and travelled through rural New South Wales for two weeks, documenting the living conditions of Aboriginal people and staging protests at, among other things, RsL clubs that excluded Aboriginal veterans and swimming pools that banned Aboriginal an non-Aboriginal children from sharing the pool. The students arrive in Walgaree about four-fifth of the way through the book. In terms of the plot, they don’t do much more than provide a dramatic backdrop for Robbie’s climactic outburst. In fact, in terms of the plot, the terrible racism that is endemic in Walgaree serves mainly as a broader social justification Robbie’s rebellion against his father and grandmother: they’re not only mean, deceitful, and bad cooks, but they’re unmitigated genocidal racists.

A historical note at the back lists the 37 participant in the Freedom ride, and links it to the 1967 referendum, the land rights campaign, the setting up of the Tent Embassy and the apology to the Stolen Generations. The book clearly aims to  informs a new generation of readers of a significant moment in Australian history. I think it will do that. However, I have two caveats.

First: even though there’s a language warning in the opening pages, the bruisingly racist dialogue, taken together with the focus on a white boy’s coming of age story while all but one of the Aboriginal  characters are pretty one-dimensional, makes me think it’s a book that should be read alongside something by an Indigenous writer: Anita Heiss’s anthology Growing up Aboriginal in Australia, which I hope to read soon, comes to mind. And there’s a big list of Indigenous Australian YA book here. [Added later: In the comments below, Greenspace01 mentions A Bastard Like Me by Charles Perkins, who led the Freedom Ride and appears as a character in this book.]

And second: there’s not a lot of complexity in the non-Indigenous characters. The racists are all mean-spirited bullies, gossips, who are willing, down to the last one of them, to cover up the most heinous crimes agains Aboriginal people, and also they have horrible voices and are terrible cooks. The ones who take a stand against racism are good looking, warm, generous, and witty. Denouncing your racist family and getting the hell out of there is clearly the only thing to do. Sadly, it’s not always like that in the real world. It’s not that I wanted the book to soften its depiction of racism, but when the lines are drawn as simply as this, the story is unlikely to prompt its non-Indigenous readers to look at their own collusion in, or at best benefitting from, the oppression of Indigenous people.

Freedom Ride is the fourteenth book I’ve  read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing

Evie Wyld, All the Birds, Singing (Vintage 2013)

wyld.jpgMy copy of All the Birds, Singing announces on the cover that it won the Miles Franklin Award in 2014. As I read the first chapter, which is set in a generic British countryside, I wondered about that prize, given the insistence in past years that the Miles Franklin winner had to be set in Australia. The first paragraph of the second chapter put my questioning to rest:

We are a week from the end of the job in Boodarie. I’m in the shower at the side of the tractor shed watching the thumb-sized redback that’s always sat at the top of the shower head. She hasn’t moved at all except to raise a leg when I turn on the tap, like the water’s too cold for her.

Then, as if Boodarie and the redback aren’t enough to signal that we are now in rural Australia, the next paragraph lays it on thick:

The day has been a long and hot one – the tip of March, and under the crust of the galvo roof the air in the shearing shed has been thick like soup, flies bloating about in it. […] The first stars are bright needles, and in the old Moreton Bay fig that hangs over the tractor shed and drops nuts on the roof while I sleep, a currawong and a white galah are having it out; I can hear the blood-thick bleat of them. A flying fox goes overhead and just like that the smell of the place changes and night has settled in the air.

The novel continues in alternate chapters. On an unnamed British island, the protagonist has a small sheep farm, and someone or something is killing her sheep. In Australia, some years earlier, she is a lone woman shearer, with a dark secret in her past. On the island, she has to deal with a series of men who refuse to take her story of a sheepkiller seriously. In Australia, the telling moves back in time through a series of unfortunate incidents, mostly involving physical and sexual abuse by men.

It’s a good read, but I have to tell you that if, like me, you prefer a book that sets up a mystery to arrive at a solution to that mystery, you will want, like me, to throw this one across the room when you reach the final pages.

All the Birds, Singing is the fifth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

The Book Group & Salman Rushdie’s Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights

Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights (Jonathan Cape 2015)

2yrs.jpgSadly (or not – you be the judge), I missed the book group meeting on Wednesday night. Unusually, though, there was a lot of email discussion of the book in the lead-up to the date. Here are annotated excerpts from the emails, with names changed and identifying detail removed:

3 March 1:35 pm, Alphonse:
NEXT BOOK: 
Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights: ‘From one of the greatest writers of our time: the most spellbinding, entertaining, wildly imaginative novel of his great career, which blends history and myth with tremendous philosophical depth. A masterful, mesmerising modern tale about worlds dangerously colliding, the monsters that are unleashed when reason recedes, and a beautiful testament to the power of love and humanity in chaotic times.’
NEXT DATE: Wednesday 20 April / 7pm
NEXT VENUE: Bill … we voted last night that the next meeting would be at your place. Hope that’s OK with you and that you are able to join us.

That was all until:

15 Apr 2016 2:45 pm, me:
Hi all
I’m assuming our next meeting is confirmed for Wednesday 20th at Bill’s place, as in Alphonse’s last email.
Sadly I won’t be able to make it. I’m about three-quarters through the book, and mostly enjoying it. (I love the description of Obama on p 127.) I’ve read a number of children’s books dealing with similar subject matter and I’m not sure that this is any more engaging than the best of them. If you’re interested you could have a look for the Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud.

Having now finished Rushdie’s book, I would name Sophie Masson’s Snow, Fire, Sword as a more relevant children’s book: Sophie has supernatural beings from Arabic lore wreak havoc in Indonesia, with an implied parallel to real-world Wahhabism – a scenario not a million miles from Rushdie’s book. Here’s the Obama description I mentioned:

… the president of the United States was an unusually intelligent man, eloquent, thoughtful, subtle, measured in word and deed, a good dancer (though not as good as his wife), slow to anger, quick to smile, a religious man who thought of himself as a man of reasoned action, handsome (if a little jug-eared), at ease in his own body like a reborn Sinatra (though reluctant to croon) and colour-blind.

The prospective roll-call began:

15 Apr 4:02 pm, Chrysostom:
Apologies from me too. Am in the bush

15 Apr 5:18 pm, Dionysus:
I’ll be there

And then the opinions started:

15 Apr 10:37 pm, Errol wrote:
I’ll be there, but as a complete bludger I’m afraid. I couldn’t get traction with the book. I tried three times but then I put it down and just couldn’t pick it up again.
Looking forward to other opinions
PS. What’s the address?

17 Apr 8:52 am, Ferdinand:
Same.

17 Apr 10:49 am, Dionysus being a little more forthcoming:
Glad to hear I’m not alone.

That’s three people who couldn’t get past the first few pages. I’m guessing that’s because there’s a lot in those pages about 12th century philosophical debates between Ibn Rushd (known to the West until recently as Averroes, and surely not coincidentally sounding a bit like ‘Rushdie’) and Ghazali (said to be the most influential Islamic scholar since Mohammad), mixed in with a lot of lore about jinn, plus some unconvincing sex. For a book that’s going to feature fairies and magic and levitation and comic book monsters, this beginning is perhaps just a little anxious to establish that the author has a serious underlying theme. Surely Salman could hear his readers muttering, ‘Get on with it!’

Back to the correspondence.

17 Apr 4:52 pm, Graham:
Just back this morning from overseas. So far I am enjoying the book but not finished yet. Has Bill said it’s on for Wed?
I am keen to come but may need to cancel at the last minute.
Keen to hear what people thought of the book

Hmm, enjoying it, but not going to move heaven and earth to talk about it with the comrades. And still no word from Bill.

18 Apr 8:17 am, Harald:
I’m on, got half way so far, with a similar lack of interest. Too much jinnying, to too little purpose.

Was ever a book so unenthusiastically greeted?

For my part, the place where I nearly put the book aside was page 107, well before the halfway mark:

… in Times Square … for a period of time variously described by different witnesses as ‘a few seconds’ and ‘several minutes’, the clothes worn by every man in the square disappeared, leaving them shockingly naked, while the contents of their pockets – cellphones, pens, keys, credit cards, currency, condoms, sexual insecurities, inflatable egos, women’s underwear, guns, knives, the phone numbers of unhappily married women, hip flasks, masks, cologne, photographs of angry daughters, photographs of sullen teenage boys, breath-freshening strips, plastic baggies containing white powder, spliffs, lies, harmonicas, spectacles, bullets, and broken, forgotten hopes – tumbled down to the ground. A few seconds (and maybe minutes) later the clothes reappeared but the nakedness of the men’s revealed possessions, weaknesses and indiscretions unleashed a storm of contradictory emotions, including shame, anger and fear. women ran screaming while the men scrambled for their secrets, which could be put back into their revenant pockets but which, having been revealed, could no longer be concealed.

That’s clever, it’s funny in a number of ways, and nicely written, with a touch of surreal silliness (when did you last see a sexual insecurity lying on the footpath?). But I was overwhelmed with a sense that life is short and Two Years, Eight Months & Twenty-Eight Nights is long. Too much jinnying indeed, and if this is part of what the book calls the War of the Worlds, there’s a serious gap between what the book seems to be claiming to be and what it actually is. Oh Salman, Salman, the readers are still muttering. Still, I went in mildly to bat:

18 Apr 8:42 am, me:
I’ll be interested to know if people think his account of the ‘purpose’ towards the end makes up for all the jinnying.

And then things got all organisational.

18 Apr 09:12 am, Alphonse:
So we have:
*   4 apologies
*   3 yes (2 of whom haven’t got far with the book)
*   3 no reply
*   no confirmed venue
Do we reschedule to a new venue next week ?

18 Apr 1:16 pm, Errol (who, remember, hadn’t got past the first couple of pages):
The way I see it, it’s not our fault that Salman Rushdie is a stuffed shirt with funny ideas and a strange way of saying them.
What if we ignore him? How about those of us that are available just go out for a meal on Wednesday night and hang out?

Bill (who hadn’t read the book) finally surfaced from his heavy other commitments to say that his place wasn’t possible this week, and with a little back and forth it was decided to go ahead, in a restaurant, last night. Harald (of the ‘too much jinnying’ comment) said he’d try to finish the book in time, and Jamahl chimed in:

18 Apr 4:40 pm, Jamahl:
I’ve read the book and enjoyed it.
See you at the restaurant.

By now, I was spoiling for a conversation:

19 Apr 11:22 am, me: 
I’m sorry I can’t be there. Apart from the always excellent company, I would have enjoyed advocating for the book. It’s not as if I enjoyed it hugely. I struggled with the start and was tempted to give up at about page 100 (where the jinnery was getting tedious). Also, the sense that Rushdie was doing stuff that many children’s books had been doing for decades made me kind of resentful by proxy
BUT
in the end I was drawn in by the way he expects us to treat Arabic scholars with the same respect as we would western mediaeval ones; and the way he seduces us into seeing the ‘fairy’ world of northern Africa as central, with various more familiar Indian and Greek gods as manifestations of them. There’s a tiny bit where two characters are married at the Auribondo ashram in Pondicherry, by ‘Mother herself’ – an Indian email friend of mine has told me about Mother, who was a huge influence in my friend’s life. I wondered how many other references there were that non-Westerners would pick up on that just float by me. And yet, the book is definitely a novel in the western tradition, even if closer to children’s books and graphic novels than to Bleak House.
That’s my two bits.

Which drew Jamahl out with a perfect counterbalance to my over-seriousness. The book is after all a lot of fun, with goth-girls hurling lightning from their fingers and elderly gardeners floating a couple of millimetres above the ground, and terrible things happening to people’s skin if they tell lies in the presence of a magical baby:

19 Apr 5:06 pm, Jamahl: 
What a fantastic BUT.
Despite the river of references flowing by unnoticed while I read I still enjoyed the book. While I read I would suspend disbelief and wallow in the plasticity of time. There are also moments of ‘couldn’t give a fuck to consequence’ that I wholeheartedly supported.
While as a retiree you may be familiar with these freedoms this book allowed me to drift and swim in them.

No report from the dinner yet.

Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy (Beacon Press 2002)

0807066095My copy of this book doesn’t have the subtitle it evidently carries in other editions: On Objects and Intimacy. If the subtitle had been there I might have been better prepared for what the book is. What it’s not is a dissertation on the painting it is named after (whose title has been changed to Still Life with a Glass and Oysters and which can be seen at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or online here).

The book starts with the painting, or at least with the writer’s having fallen in love with it, and it does discuss it and other still lifes from the period, but it roams far and wide, through memoir about objects and how they – or their memories and representations – can come to embody emotional truths, to lyrical reflections on love, mortality, bereavement and poetry. It ranges through cute childhood memories of bears and boiled lollies, a fortieth birthday in Amsterdam involving visits to the Rijksmuseum, a Gay bathhouse, and a fine Thai restaurant, and wonderful writing about the consolations of art.

I came away from the book liking Mark Doty a lot, and with a sense that my heart had been rendered that much more open to the world.

To give you a taste of the writing, here is a passage that crops up as a digression in a story about a chipped blue and white platter that Doty bought at a sale table when out walking his dog, at a time when his partner was gravely ill:

The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of this great wheel of cheese cut away; the sealed chamber of the pie, held aloft on its raised silver stand, has been opened. Someone has left this knife resting on the edge of the plate, its handle jutting toward us; someone plans, in a moment, to pick it up again. These objects are in use, in dialogue, a part of, implicated. They refuse perfection, or rather they assert that this is perfection, this state of being consumed, used up, enjoyed, existing in time.
But there’s the paradox – they are depicted in a moment of being seen, contemplated between the experience of tasting, smelling, devouring; but this depiction places them outside of time, or almost outside of it, in a long, slow process of decay, which is the process of oxidation, of slow chemical transformation … Whatever time may have done to the original fruits, their depiction is now safe from the quick corrosions of local time and subject to the larger, slower, depredations of history.
And thus something of the imperfect, the quickly passing, the morning meal with its immediate pleasures has been imported into the realm of perfection, into the long, impersonal light of centuries.

PS: In the little blog that appears over in the right hand column of this one, I expressed frivolous misgivings as I was starting this book:

It’s a slender volume, published by a Unitarian publishing house. Is it a mattress to catch a falling Protestant and so of little interest to those who had a Catholic childhood?

Will commented:

No, not at all. It’s a lovely book of reflections on the real world as we see it. Painting and memory, seeing and interpreting. I hope you enjoy it.

It’s worth mentioning that Will is a librarian, and so may have a slightly more precise meaning in mind for the word ‘real’ than most of us do (see realia). He was right.