Category Archives: Books

Philip Pullman’s Belle Sauvage

Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust, Volume 1: La Belle Sauvage (2017)

dust1.jpegThis is the first book in a promised trilogy, which is a prequel to Philip Pullman’s masterly His Dark Materials trilogy. If you haven’t read the earlier work I wouldn’t start with this one, there is something incomparably delicious in the way the world is revealed in Northern Lights (1995), and I remember how agonising the wait was for the third volume (The Amber Spyglass) after the cosmic cliffhanger ending of the second (The Subtle Knife).

La Belle Sauvage a big thick book, but a surprisingly quick read. Lyra, the main character of earlier/later trilogy, is a baby in grave danger. There are kind nuns and mean nuns, dangerous daemons and sweet daemons (Pullman’s daemons are one of the great inventions of twentieth century children’s literature), a deeply scary villain, a massive natural upheaval, a magical boat (the eponymous Belle Sauvage), and wonderfully engaging lead characters.

The second half of the book lost some of its charm for me as it turned into a kind of Odyssey-lite. But it might be more accurate to say that in the episodic second half, I became aware that I’m not part of the imagined audience. Given the amount of fruity language, and a sex scene that Malcolm, the young protagonist, sees but doesn’t understand, I’m thinking the book is meant primarily for people in their mid teens.

I was reluctant to embark on this trilogy because my To Be Read Pile is towering. But I’m very glad I did because I was in danger of forgetting what pleasure there could be in a good story. It’s a lot of pleasure.


PS on a tiny thing gave me perverse delight
On page 133 Malcolm is talking to his school friend Eric about spies, and suggests that the music reacher, ‘the shortest-tempered person Malcolm had ever known’, might be one:

Eric thought about it. ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘But she stands out too much. A real spy’d be less conspicuous. Blend in more.’

On the next page, still in the same conversation, Malcolm suggests that Eric pump his father for information about something.

‘Dunno. I could ask him. But I got to be suitable about it. Can’t just come out with a question.’
‘What do you mean, suitable?’
‘You know. Not obvious.’
‘Oh, right,’ said Malcolm. ‘Subtle’ was the word Eric wanted, probably. And he’d probably meant ‘conspicuous’ earlier.

Well, yes, he probably mean ‘conspicuous’ because that’s what he said. Clearly there’s been an unusual proofreading error. Malcolm’s unvoiced comment only makes sense if Eric used a malaprop earlier (‘A real spy’d be less contiguous,’ perhaps). Someone – I’m guessing a proofreader late in the process – corrected the wrong word and then had a moment’s inattention on the next page. Editorial workers all over the world think, ‘There but for the grace of god …’

The Book Group and Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer

Svetlana Alexievich, Chernobyl Prayer (1997, trans Anna Gunin & Arch Tait Penguin Classics 2016)

chernobyl.jpegFrom post revolutionary China in Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing back to the Russian Revolution in China Miéville’s October, and now forward to post-Soviet Belarus: the book group has lit on a theme.

Before the meeting:
Knowing that Chernobyl Prayer is essentially a series of monologues about the aftermath of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, I expected it to be a gruelling read, so I rationed it. I worked out how I would need to read seventeen pages a day to finish the book before the Group met, and set that as a schedule. Of course it didn’t work out like that, but it was a good strategy.

As Studs Terkel’s Working did for working people in the USA, or Wendy Loewenstein’s Weevils in the Flour for the 1930s Depression in Australia, this book provides a platform for scores of witnesses who otherwise would be largely ignored or – as a number of Alexievich’s interviewees tell us – treated as specimens. There are peasants and nuclear physicists, loyal Communists and embittered cynics, ancient women and nine year olds, poets, playwrights and journalists. There’s operatic intensity, fatalistic heroism, jokes that are terrible in both meanings of the word. The cultivated and forested land around Chernobyl is lovingly evoked, along with the invisible horror of nuclear radiation. The monologues that pretty much begin and end the book, each titled ‘A lone human voice’, are long, passionate, heartbreaking stories of love and bereavement, one from the widow of a fireman who was among what we now call the first responders, the other from the widow of a clean-up worker who was conscripted for the job six months later.

Here’s an excerpt from the author’s interview with herself early in the book:

This is not a book on Chernobyl, but on the world of Chernobyl. … what I’m concerned with is what I would call the ‘missing history’, the invisible imprint of our stay on earth and in time. I paint and collect mundane feelings, thoughts and words. I am trying to capture the life of the soul. A day in the life of ordinary people. Here, though, everything was extraordinary: both the event itself and the people, as they settled into the new space. How many times has art rehearsed the apocalypse, offered different technological versions of doomsday? Now, though, we can be assured that life is infinitely more fantastical. … Chernobyl is a mystery that we have yet to unravel. An undeciphered sign. A mystery, perhaps, for the twenty-first century; a challenge for it. What has become clear is that, besides the challenges of Communism, nationalism and nascent religion which we are living with and dealing with, other challenges lie ahead: challenges more fiendish and all-embracing, although still hidden from view. Yet, after Chernobyl, something had cracked open.

I’ve responded to works by other Nobel Prize laureates with a kind of compliant respect, ‘I can see why this person was given the Nobel Prize, and I guess my horizons have been expanded by reading this book.’ In the case of Chernobyl Prayer I am deeply grateful that the Norwegians brought it to my attention (and to the Book Group for prompting me to read it). In illuminating the ‘missing history’ of Chernobyl, it reminds us of the disasters, past and in the making, that we so easily turn our heads away from: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Maralinga, Fukushima, and the overarching threat of climate change. In this way it is like Maralinga: the An̲angu story by the Yalata Aboriginal Community with Christobel Mattingley, or Yhonnie Scarce’s beautiful and unsettling installation Death Zephyr (click for an image). It would be impossible for a reasonably well informed Australian to read this book, especially the sections dealing with the way political pragmatism trumped the laws of physics, without thinking of the pronouncements on coal from Tony Abbott and his ilk.

The meeting: I hosted the meeting this time. I let people know in advance that I had made an enormous amount of marmalade from our cumquat tree this year. One of the chaps emailed on the weekend, ‘The prospect of marmalade is the only thing getting me through this miserable book!’ Others echoed the sentiment.

It turned out that the conversation was so animated that all thought of marmalade vanished from our minds. It’s a perfect book-club book. There is so much detail that the conversation bounced around from one alarming moment to another, as we reminded each other of what we’d read. We were in awe of the author’s skill in getting such poetry down on the page from her interlocutors’ testimonies.

And now a hasty fourteen lines, written before the group met:

November Verse 3: After reading Svetlana Alexievich’s Chernobyl Prayer
(‘I realise now that terrible things in life happen unspectacularly and naturally‘)
Good Soviets, good peasants trusted
authorities that reassured,
a lifetime’s mental habit rusted
on. To keep that Party Card,
to serve the people, serve the nation,
be not afeared of radiation:
in spring the wood’s still gently green,
roengtens, curies can’t be seen.
We have our own insanity
three decades on: the planet warms,
brings bushfires, catastrophic storms,
but ‘Coal’s good for humanity’
wins votes. With luck in time we’ll learn
so millions more don’t have to burn.

T G H Strehlow’s Journey to Horseshoe Bend & November verse 2

T G H Strehlow, Journey to Horseshoe Bend (©1969, Giramondo 2015)

horseshoe

The name Strehlow may not be quite well enough known to feature in a pub quiz question about whitefellas in Central Australia, but it comes close. Wikipedia describes Carl Strehlow (1871–1922) as a ‘linguist, anthropologist, genealogist, collector of natural history specimens, missionary and translator’ who ‘served on two Lutheran missions in inland Australia from May 1892 to October 1922, a total of thirty years’. T G H (Ted) Strehlow (1908–1978), his son, spent his childhood on the Hermannsburg Mission and achieved fame as an anthropologist and linguist, especially for his Songs of Central Australia, ‘a monumental study of the ceremonial poetry of the Arrernte’ (Wikipedia again).

Journey to Horseshoe Bend is Ted Strehlow’s account of the last days of his father’s life, when he was fourteen years old. Written four decades after the event, and now reissued by Giramondo more than four decades after first publication, it’s an extraordinary time machine of a book, consisting of at least four distinct strands:

The main narrative: In October 1922 Carl Strehlow, Lutheran pastor of Hermannsburg Mission in Central Australia, is extremely ill, and the only chance to get desperately needed medical attention is to take him by horse and buggy to the nearest settlement that can be reached by a doctor in a car. He has dropsy (that is, most of his body is painfully swollen with retained fluid) and suffers terribly from the jolting journey in the intense summer heat. It’s no spoiler to say that he reaches the settlement of Horseshoe Bend, but dies before a doctor can reach him, and the burial ceremony is described in painful detail. His wife Frieda travels with him, and Hezekiel, the Arrernte man who drives the buggy. Their son Theo – referred to in the third person throughout – travels separately on a cruder, even joltier wagon driven by the Arrernte man Titus.

Arrernte stories: As the vehicles move through country, we are told the stories (called ‘myths’) of the ancestral beings who created its features, and some of the pre-settlement history of internecine conflict. It seems unlikely that the fourteen year old Theo would have known all these stories, but he had  grown up among Arrernte people (here called ‘Aranda’ or ‘dark people’) and though he was never initiated he had a deep sense of belonging to the Arrernte and to that country. Certainly the respectful matter of factness of his story=telling has an insider feel to it.

Settler history and anthropology: As the small party travels down the Finke River, they are given hospitality by a number of settlers along the way. Strehlow gives a brief history of each stopping-place, and casts a dispassionate anthropologist’s eye over them, particularly their sexual mores. At least, his tone is dispassionate: it’s hard to imagine that anyone could describe without a quiver of indignation moments like the one where a new white wife arrives and insists that the children who have been borne to her new husband by an Arrernte woman should no longer have his name. Some pages aim to reproduce the language of the settler patriarch of Horseshoe Bend, and even though its full-blown colonialism is certainly not endorsed by the book, a trigger warning for its liberal use of the N word wouldn’t be out of place.

The elder Strehlow’s spiritual struggle: There’s quite a bit of Biblical exegesis, particularly of the Book of Job and Christ’s anguished cry. ‘Thy will be done’, and some bitter reflections on the contrast between institutional religion and the religion of the spirit. Although, as Philip Jones comments in his excellent afterword, Strehlow’s bitter blaming of the Lutheran authorities for his father’s suffering may well be a projection of his own feelings towards his university employers, all the same there’s some profound meditation here.

The younger Strehlow’s coming of age story:  Theo leaves his childhood home for the first time, and his father’s death marks a decisive turning point – he had expected to go to Germany to finish his education, but now he decides he belongs in Australia. In other ways too, the ordeal changes his sense of himself in the world: for the first time he meets with people who are neither Arrernte nor devout European Christian: his journey to Horseshoe Bend is his first encounter with ‘the outside world’. Though the terrible ordeal of the elder Strehlow is made painfully tangible, we are not made privy to the emotional upheaval it must have caused his son.when we are told what is going on in Theo’s mind, it is mostly his response to the country and then in the final pages his decision to stay in Australia.

I don’t suppose anyone would claim that Journey to Horseshoe Bend is a great literary work. Philip Jones’s Afterword describes in some detail how Strehlow resisted his editors’ suggestions on many fronts: the dialogue is generally wooden, the religious reflections repetitive, the recriminations shrill. But I have to say that it has changed – deepened, expanded, transformed – my sense of what it is to be a settler Australian.

I am grateful to Giramondo for my complimentary copy.

[Added later: Lisa Hill has an excellent review of this book at ANZ LItLover’s LitBlog]

And now, because it’s November:

November Verse 2:
(riffing on Journey to Horseshoe Bend pages 262–265) 
Lill had three sons and a daughter.
She was the wife of Gus the boss
of Horseshoe Bend. Well, kinda, sorta.
A wife would not have borne the loss
of stolen fair-skinned daughter Millie.
Her sons would have been heirs – that’s Jimmy,
Bert and Sonny, stockman all;
her wife-pride would have had no fall.
But then a girl bride joined the station,
said, ‘Lill’s sons can’t have your name,
so give them hers.’ She had no shame.
A decade later, commendation:
‘I’d not have coped with life up here
without Lill’s help. She’s such a dear.’

 

Felicity Castagna’s No More Boats

Felicity Castagna, No More Boats (Giramondo 2017)

boats.jpgIt’s 2001. The Tampa is all over Australian television with its burden of asylum seekers saved from drowning, alternating with John Howard’s uttering his infamous cry, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come.’ And one working-class migrant family in Parramatta is coming apart at the seams.

Antonio Martone came to Australia after World War Two and married Rose, an Anglo woman he met in the migrant hostel. In 2001 he is injured in a terrible accident on a building site trying to save his best friend’s dignity, and after decades of skilled labour is forced to retire. Francis, their son who still lives at home, works by day on the same projects as his father, though without the pride of a first-generation migrant, and he knocks around by night with a small group of partying friends. Their daughter, Clare, has lit out for the inner city where she works in a bookshop and aspires to be a writer (though as far as the family is concerned she is still a high-school teacher): ‘She was born to these city streets, even though she wasn’t really born in the city; she was made to be born here and when she walked these streets she told herself that she was.’ And Rose tries to keep it all together as Antonio becomes increasingly bitter and erratic.

The novel’s title may lead you to expect it to be about Australian immigration policy. Well, maybe it is, but the domestic story, the story of Antonio’s deterioration and other people’s responses to it, is at the book’s heart. Here’s Antonio just after discovering that Clare has been lying about keeping her teaching job:

He felt the weight of something pressing against his chest. A memory interrupted his exit from the school: Clare with her pigtails in plaits, standing with a piece of chalk at the blackboard he’d given her for her twelfth birthday, writing down words for a five-year-old Francis to copy onto a sheet of paper.

He wondered who his children were now. This was the hardest thing about being a parent, the thing that no one tells you about. The fact that you grieve for your children from the moment they are born. Not so much because you’ve lost them but because they are always changing and you can’t get back all those different versions of what they once were.

Antonio grapples with many kinds of loss – of the pre-migration life, of youth, of employment, of physical wellbeing, of dignity, and of friends. Flailing around for a way to deal with his wretchedness, he seizes on the issue of immigration: he’s offended by the poor workmanship of the underpaid recent migrants on the worksite, and becomes obsessed with the objects of John Howard’s televised indignation. At a crucial moment he smokes some marijuana from Francis’s secret supply, and creates a spectacular piece anti-boat-people graffiti. The family is suddenly in the headlines, the dramas being played out on the television are much closer to home, and there’s a strong undercurrent suggesting that Antonio’s deterioration may be a metaphor for a similar process in Australian ciivil society.

There are other characters: a Vietnamese former student who surprises Clare by becoming a love interest; a Lesbian next door neighbour who provides respite for Rose; Francis’s mates Jesús and Charbel; a right-wing opportunist who exploits Antonio’s confusion; the ghost of Antonio’s friend who was killed in the accident – and more. It’s a story told at a pace that keeps the pages turning, with compassion for all players (John W Howard – ‘the dull man’ – and right-wing opportunists excepted), and a strong sense of place: the Martone home with its concreted front yard and gap in the fence to the house next door, the streets of Western Sydney and the inner city, the banks of the Parramatta River, this is a book in which you always know where you are.

aww2017.jpgNo More Boats is the fourteenth book I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I gratefully acknowledge that I received a complimentary copy from Giramondo Books.

Lemire and Nguyen’s Descender continues

Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen and others, Descender Volume 2: Machine Moon (Image Comics 2016)
––––  Volume 3: Singularities (Image Comics 2016)
——-  Volume 4: Orbital Mechanics (Image Comics 2017)

descender2descender3Descender4

Descender is a space opera in glorious watercolour with a sweet, vulnerable and potentially lethal little boy at its heart.

Two brothers who were torn apart ten years earlier are searching for each other in the context of the build-up to intergalactic war. The catastrophe that separated them involved huge robotic machines called Harvesters, which wrought havoc on the planets governed by United Galactic Council and then disappeared. Since then, the agents of the UGC and others who are simply robot-phobic have been trying to destroy all artificial intelligence machines. Freelance bounty hunters, ‘scrappers’, roam space ferreting out even the most innocent robots, ‘robbies’, including those that are essential to human life on tiny planets. The repugnant inhabitants of the planet Gnish have made a virtual religion of pitching robbies against each other in gladiatorial combat. Meanwhile, the UGC are secretly building their own version of a Harvester, in the hope of securing the software that will make it an invincible weapon; and The Hardwire, an underground robot resistance, is building a huge army and hoping to call on the Harvesters (whom they worship as gods) as allies in a great war to eliminate humans.

All of that is background revealed in the first couple of books as it impinges on the lives of a handful of vividly realised characters.

There are the brothers, Andy and Tim-21, who is not a human brother but a robot created to be Andy’s companion. We learn through a series of flashbacks that they were devoted to each other as small boys, that Andy’s mother treated Tim-21 with kindness and respect for his sentient nature, that Tim-21 developed a capacity for compassion, affection and loyalty. He was in sleep mode when the Harvesters struck and stayed asleep until accidentally woken ten year later. Meanwhile, Andy was filled with vengeful rage and became a scrapper.

The sweet-natured, vulnerable Tim–21 contains within himself the coding that will reveal the secrets of the Harvesters – so he is a sought-after prize by all the big players. He does have allies: Quon, the man who ‘created’ him, Telsa (not Tesla) an officer of the UGC sent by her father to retrieve Tim–21 (she is unaware that her father wants to weaponise his coding); and his brother Andy.

The little band is captured, released, split up, infiltrated. There’s plenty of explosions and bang-crash-pow. But the narrative is kept alive by the complex web of ambivalent relationships and the underlying Blade-Runner-ish question of what it means to be human: Tim–21 has a human ‘brother’ in Andy, and a robot ‘brother’ in Tim–22, both of whom claim his affection and also plan to destroy him; he grieves for his deceased human mother, sees Quon as a kind of father, and is claimed as a son by the leader of the Hardwire; Andy’s ex-wife Effie identifies as part robot since being patched up after an accident, and insists that her name is Queen Between; a barely-intelligent robot named Driller turns out to have deep reserves of remorse for a murderous act of revenge.

The back stories of the characters unfold, full of satisfying twists, as the adventure lurches forward. At the end of Volume 4, things are looking grim: one character is about to drown, the weaponising secrets are about to fall into the wrong hands, one of the little bands of adventurers is about to be wiped out by The Hardware, and the galaxy as we know it may well be about to be destroyed. Then Tim–21 recognises Andy on a screen and cries out, ‘That’s my brother!’ The end of Book Four.

It’s terrific story-telling, with moments of sly satire, as when the Gnishians are crowning a new king: instead of a crown they place on his head an orange hairpiece that is eerily familiar to anyone who follows US presidential politics.

I wasn’t drawn to Dustin Nguyen’s watercolour art in the first volume but either it’s settled down or I’ve settled in, but now I’m loving it. My conversion was completed by a series of spreads early in Volume 4 where three narrative strands play out wordlessly – across the top of each spread, the two Tims are alone on a lunar landscape; across the middle Andy and Effie/Queen Between revive their former mutual passion; in the bottom panels Quon and Telsa fight off a Hardwire guard and search for Tim–21. Each level has its distinctive style, and the sex and the violence are both handled with conviction but without prurience. At a couple of moments it may be hard to tell exactly what’s happening (my complaint about Volume 1), but there is good reason for that: sometimes the reader needs not to know everything.

According to Amazon, volume 5, The Rise of the Robots, will be published in January 2018, and it’s ‘what it has all been building to … as the origins of The Harvesters are finally revealed and the galaxy is thrown into all out war’. But Amazon says nothing of what happens to Tim and Andy. I’ll just have to wait.

The rest of Ed Brubaker’s Velvet

Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting, Velvet Volume 2: The Secret Lives of Dead Men (Image 2014)
——, Velvet Volume 3: The Man Who Stole the World (Image 2016)

velvet2 velvet3My reliable son lent me the remaining volumes of Velvet in return for walking his dog and picking up a parcel from the post office.

Reading the two books took just a bit longer than the walk to and from the post office with two aged and wilful dogs, and was a much smother experience. I was glad at times that I wasn’t in a crowded street because a couple of the pages, in which Velvet Templeton allays the suspicions of a man who is betraying her by indulging in intimate acts, are pretty NSFW.

I don’t know if there are any plans for further adventures of Velvet, glamorous super-spy. She came back from a desk job in the first of these books. There’s nothing in principal stopping her coming back at some future time from the beach resort where we leave her at the end of the third volume. But I’d be happy to have this be the end of this elegantly written, drawn, coloured (by Elizabeth Breitweiser) and lettered (by Chris Eliopoulos) series, to have the door close on all these twists and turns, alliances and betrayals, murders and rescues, seductions and rejections.

As my supplier said, it’s popcorn. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

 

Velvet and Descender begin

Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting and others, Velvet Volume 1: Before the Living End (Image Comics 2014)
Jeff Lemire, Dustin Nguyen and others, Descender Volume 1: Tin Stars (Image Comics 2015)

These two books, on loan from a son, have been singing their siren song from by TBR pile for months. I lashed myself to the mast of serious reading for a long time, but I’ve finally succumbed – and a good thing too.

velvet1 Velvet is a spy story set in the 1970s, with flashbacks to the 50s. It’s a Bond movie from before those movies started reducing the violence to get PG ratings, with a glamorous woman protagonist who’s in her 40s but would pass for 25. Lots of gore, lots of exposed flesh (but nothing you wouldn’t see at the beach), cool gadgets (including a fabulous ‘stealth suit’) and – as you’d expect from Ed Brubaker, writer of Fatale and The Fade Out – intrigue aplenty.

Before the Living End begins with the violent death of a field agent accompanied by a ‘voice over’ reminiscing about the boss’s glamorous assistant. It ends with that assistant, former field agent Velvet Templeton, on the run, determined to clear herself of suspicion by finding the real killer–mole, and at the same time find out the truth about the terrible events that led to her removal from the field 17 years earlier.

Steve Epting’s artwork is slick and moody, capturing the Bond version of 70s cool perfectly. Colors [sic] by Elizabeth Breitweiser and letters by Chris Eliopoulos are impeccable.

descender1From international espionage to intergalactic AI in a single bound.

Descender takes place in the distant future, on the planets of the United Galactic Council. After a prologue in which enormous humanoid robots attack the eight worlds of the UGC, the main story picks up ten years later with a little boy waking from a long sleep on a small mining colony to find everybody else dead. The boy, it turns out, is a sentient robot named Tim–21 who was a companion to a human child.

A connection between Tim–21 and the gigantic destroyer robots is gradually revealed, and soon he and a band of allies – the scientist who created him, an irritating robot dog, a UGC officer named Telsa (not Tesla), a loyal muscleman, and an ore driller with enough artificial intelligence to be a dumb sidekick – are fleeing and fighting for their lives as any number of criminal and state bodies are out to get him, not always for reasons the reader yet understands. We do know for sure it’s not a case of ‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’. In the background there is a Dantesque purgatory teeming with the souls of decommissioned robots who look to Tim-21 as their possible saviour.

It’s complex, ripping-yarn fun.

Dustin Nguyen’s watercolour art is beautiful, but not ideal as a story-telling medium: too often it’s too hard to tell what is happening. And Steve Wands’ lettering is sometimes too concerned with the design look, and not enough with legibility. But these are quibbles set alongside the wonderfully poignant images of the vulnerable child at the heart of the story.

As soon as I’d read these books I texted my son–supplier, who has two more volumes of each series. I guess I’ll be writing about them soon.

Subbed In’s first books

Aisyah Shah Idil, The Naming (Subbed In 2017)
Emily Crocker, Girls and Buoyant (Subbed In 2017)

Subbed In, described on its website as ‘a DIY literary organisation based in sydney’, organises poetry readings and other events, often in the East Sydney dress shop Funky Bruiser. Its directors, Dan Hogan, Stacey Teague and Rory Green, aim ‘to provide grassroots support for new and underrepresented voices as well as helping emerging writers to achieve publication or performance’.

subbedinlogo.png

In September they launched three chapbooks – the two I’m blogging about here and Parenthetical Bodies by Allison Gallagher, of which I haven’t bought a copy and haven’t read (sorry Allison!). I’m not sure what ‘DIY’ means in this context. Perhaps it’s just a way of proclaiming a hipster ethos. It certainly doesn’t mean slipshod or amateurish. These books are beautifully designed inside and out, and lovely to hold in the hand. The Subbed In logo manages to make an ibis perched on a garbage bin look elegant. (There is at least one typo – see below – but not as many as turn up in non-DIY poetry books.)

naming

The Naming has an epigraph from the Qur’an – ‘And He taught Adam the names of all things’ – and its poems are rich with reference to Islamic practice, Malaysian folklore, and Arabic and Malay language. They are also rich with feeling and playfulness.

For example, ‘Malay Sketches’ consists of three one-page versions of the same poem. In the first, headed ‘Jiwa’, all the words have been blacked out as if redacted; in the second, ‘Malay’, about a quarter of the words are visible; in the third, ‘English’, nothing has been redacted.

At first, you might tentatively think the subject is censorship – that some things are not allowed to be said in Malaysia. But no. Of the first line, the English has ‘Bobbing heads circle platters of rice’, and only the Malay for heads (‘kepala’) and rice (‘nasi’) remain unredacted; later, only curry (‘kari’) survives from ‘Fingers covered in curry point to the sink’. Surely there’s nothing censorable in this, or in the sweet picture of family domestic life that follows. I read it as enacting the loss of language by a second generation migrant: the poem was composed in English, and the speaker’s attempt to translate into Malay was thwarted by her lack of knowledge. I’m pretty sure the details will yield nuances to readers fluent in both languages: for example, the last line in English, ‘We figure God has seen us in less’ becomes (I think) ‘God has seen us’ in the Malay .

Which raises the question of the completely redacted ‘Jiwa’ version. I guessed that this was a more local language, completely lost to the speaker. But a web search made that seem unlikely. ‘Jiwa’ means ‘a living soul’. Perhaps, then, the blacking out of this section is enacting the impossibility of speaking directly what is in one’s heart.

Then I found the place where the poem was first published, on the Language on the Move website (you can see the whole three-part poem at the link), and there the first version is headed ‘Jawi’ rather than ‘Jiwa’. A Wikipedia describes Jawi as ‘an Arabic alphabet for writing the Malay language … and several other languages in Southeast Asia’, it seems likely that ‘Jiwa’ is a typo, and that the blacking out signifies the speaker’s inability to read the Jawi alphabet.

For once, I’m not just irritated by a typo. This one took me into a deeper reading of the poem: it is about the loss of language, but the metaphorical force of the Jawi/Jiwa typo brings home what a terrible loss that is.

Not all the poems ask for so much research. It helps to know that ‘Pontianak’, about the grief and rage of women, is named for a female vampiric ghost in Malaysian folklore. ‘Laylatul-Qadr’ is named for one of the last days of Ramadan, called the Day of Power in English, but the poem, which celebrates the birth of a baby and laments the murders of Muslims and Muslim defenders, all in the context of Ramadan, works well without that knowledge. ‘Instances of Allahu Akbar’ expects you to recognise ‘Allahu Akbar’ as a common exclamation among Muslims asserting the greatness of God, and possibly offers a corrective to the assumption that it is exclusively or even primarily a war-cry. The first ‘instance’:

My mother, after
a long period of somnolence,
where getting up is only possible
through divine assistance.

And the last one:

a newborn sleeps.

The title of girs&buoyantGirls and Buoyant says a lot. There are no boys in this book, and the girls are doing OK.

The opening line of ‘Smashed’ evokes the milieu of these poems, and the intelligence in them:

Avocado, I didn’t want to settle down anyway.

This is a voice from the generation that’s forever being reprimanded by millionaires and (mainly) conservative politicians. It’s speaking to people who recognise the reference to smashed avocado and it’s speaking with good humour, irony and its own confident point of view: slightly grungy, vegetarian, inner-city inflected.

There are so many lines I’d like to quote. From ‘Aoraki’:

I realise I’m waiting for a way to see the earth
not as a tourist.

From ‘Guyra’, a visiting-the-family-on-the-farm poem:

_________________________________I’m here
for both of us to see what I am made of

or:

My brother loves good men.
Wins meat-raffles like a vegan.

From ‘Uproot’:

_________________________________ Time does not pass
with the quiet awe of a monk. It bustles by,
blows us down, and grumbles when we don’t keep up.

It’s the love poems that hit home most for me. Like ‘Plate’, which begins:

‘Ceremony’ has a dirty taste
but for the way we eat.
The ritual of back and forth
of olives off your pizza.
The potatoes off my plate
when you give me too many
with all intention of
eating them yourself.

Or ‘Covers’, which my partner had to explain to me was about a partner with period pain rather than suicidal depression; or ‘Illawarra’ (roadside scenery seen when driving with a lover); or (spoiler alert, I guess), the ending of ‘Gaps’ , the last poem in the book:

You make me conscious of the void
and how blessedly we inhabit it.

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The Naming and Girls and Buoyant are the twelfth and thirteenth books I’ve read for the 2017 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Boori Monty Prior & Jan Ormerod Shake a Leg

Boori Monty Prior & Jan Ormerod, Shake a Leg (Allen & Unwin 2010)

shake.jpeg Two of the greats of Australian children’s literature join forces in this book. Boori Monty Prior’s chapter books written with Meme McDonald, My Girragundji and The Binna Binna Man, are wonders of cross-cultural communication. It must be a rare Australian born into a reading family who hasn’t been delighted by Jan Ormerod’s images of small children.

Shake a Leg starts out with three hungry boys hunting for pizza in a Far North Queensland town. They find an excellent pizza maker who gives them a little lesson in Italian (for those who don’t know, there has been a strong Italian presence in some parts of Far North Queensland for well over a hundred years) before mentioning that he is Aboriginal.

‘You’re … an Aboriginal?’
‘How come you’re …’
‘Not standing on one leg, leaning on a spear, looking for emu?
I still do that on holidays but …
a man’s got to make a living
and you boys are hungry.’

As he makes their pizza he tells them traditional stories, and when they’ve eaten he teaches them to dance the stories.

It’s a witty, joyous, generous assertion of the vibrant persistence of Aboriginal culture. Boori Monty Prior has a long history of performing in schools. I would love to be in an audience when he reads / performs this book to a group of children, especially if it evolves into a general dance:

This was once
our bora ground
our gathering place
for warrima.
Now it’s a busy street
in this town.

Our pizza feeds the soul,
keeps you dancing strong,
lifting the dust with your feet,
listening with eyes, ears and heart
so our old people can join us
and together we warrima.

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This book came to me by way of the little Street Library we set up a month or so ago. Our aim was to cull our bookshelves, hoping the books we discarded would find good homes. What we didn’t expect was the steady reverse flow of other people’s unwanted treasures. Shake a Leg is one of them.

Keigo Higashino’s Salvation of a Saint

Keigo Higashino, Salvation of a Saint (2018, translated by Alexander O Smith, Abacus 2012)

salvationThis is exactly the kind of book I’ve decided not to read any more – the novel equivalent of a run-of-the-mill police detective TV series. But I’d borrowed it from the Book Club, and the cover quoted The Times saying Keigo Higashino is ‘ the Japanese Stieg Larsson’ so I read it.

Evidently it’s part of a series, the second to be translated into English, featuring Tokyo police detective Kusanagi, his retired scientist consultant–friend Professor Yukawa and junior-detective-who-brings-a-woman’s-insight, Utsumi.

It’s pleasant enough, once you get past the very telling writing (as in not showing), like an episode of Jonathan Creek. It pretty much tells you who done it on page 5 before the murder has even happened, and from then on the question is how.

If there’s any wider social observation it’s been lost in translation. I don’t mean that Alexander O Smith has done a bad job. As far as I can tell the translation itself is fine. But if, for example, there are subtle comments about cultural change in modern Japan, they are too subtle to cross the East-West divide. Unless something huge has been lost, the only possible justification for the comparison to Stieg Larsson is that the series is very popular. There is certainly none of Larsson’s politics.

Also: the title doesn’t make sense.

As we say in the Book Club, 2 out of 5.