Category Archives: Books

Lemire and Nguyen’s Descender, Books 5 and 6

Jeff Lemire (words), Dustin Nguyen (images), Steve Wands (lettering and design) and Will Dennis (editor), Descender Volume Five: Rise of the Robots (Image Comics 2018)
––––  Descender Volume Six: The Machine War (Image Comics 2018)

For a Story So Far on this ripping revenge-of-the-robots space opera, you could do worse than clicking through to my blog post on Books 2, 3 and 4, by clicking here.

At the end of Volume 4, things were looking grim: Telsa, staunch but compromised ally of our robot hero child Tim-21, was left to drown by evil clone Tim-22; powerful destructive codes were about to fall into the wrong hands, and the galaxy as we know it was threatened with destruction; the Hardware were about to destroy Tim-21’s human ‘brother’ Andy, when Tim–21 recognised him on a screen and cried out, ‘That’s my brother!’

In Volume Five, the full complexity of the space wars is laid out.

Telsa is saved and evil Tim-22 comes to a ghastly end. Not to be too spoilerish, it turns out that ripping the head off a boy-like robot doesn’t disable it. You have to go a step or two further, and they need to be heavy steps.

Meanwhile, I don’t recommend that anyone read this book without reading the earlier instalments – and a quick reread of the earlier volumes would certainly have helped me. It’s a very complex world that Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen have created here: the main conflict is between humans and machine, but there are individuals in both camps who ally themselves with the other side, some as opportunists, others working for peace. It’s not at all clear that the humans are the goodies: in fact, the mysterious descenders of the title – the ones from whom all sentient machines are descended – make a good case for eliminating humans from the universe.

This volume ends with the appearance of yet another group of robot beings, who seem to offer some hope for peace (and who are keeping company with a benign human we met and assumed dead in the first volume, and whom I had completely forgotten).

Like all good space operas, this one ends with an all-out battle to save the universe. Dustin Nguyen’s images don’t always make it clear who is blasting whom, but it doesn’t seem to matter terribly, and his watercolours manage to convey both the intensity of the conflict and the vulnerability – I was going to say vulnerable humanity, but the character we care about most is Tim-21, a robot – of the beings involved, including the most authoritarian of humans and robots. There are huge moral dilemmas as characters have to choose whether to obey orders or follow their deepest values.

Just in case you assume that a cosmic war has to be won by the side that wants to save the universe from destruction, be warned, the final chapter begins with an irregular title card in the middle of a dark page: ‘This is the way the universe ended.’

On the other hand, the final page is a beautifully optimistic promise of a new series, Ascender. I’m looking forward to it

Kenzaburō Ōe’s Death by Water with the Book Group

Kenzaburō Ōe, Death by Water ( 2009, translation by Deborah Boliver Boehm 2015)

Before the meeting: In flagrant disregard for established practice, our current Designated Chooser nominated two titles, to be read for successive meetings. The first, Edward Said’s On Late Style, was not exactly a triumph (the link is to my blog post), though it has been working away in the back of my mind ever since I read it. This is his second pick.

Kogito Choko is a writer in his eighties who revisits his childhood home with the intention of writing a novel about his father’s death by drowning when he was a child. What he thinks of as ‘the drowning novel’ had been one of his earliest projects, which he had laid aside because his mother wouldn’t give him access to the red trunk that his father had with him on the fateful night. Now, ten years after his mother’s death, the chest is released to him. An experimental theatre group who are passionately interested in his work are developing a project that will involve a dramatisation of his complete works, and hope to incorporate the process of writing the long awaited drowning novel. The theatre group has a signature audience-participation process featuring soft toy dogs and vigorous disagreements.

That’s the set-up. Nothing goes to plan. At one stage a character describes Mr Choko’s recent novels as ‘serial slices of thinly veiled memoir’, and that isn’t a bad description of some aspects of this one.

Kanzburō Ōe has a lot in common with his protagonist: same age, same childhood locality, same artistic medium (though Mr Choko doesn’t seem to have won a Nobel Prize as Ōe has), several novels in his back-catalogue with the same names. According to Wikipedia, Death by Water is Ōe’s sixth novel featuring Kogito Choko and his brain-damaged son Hikari (Ōe’s own brain-damaged son is named Akari). The novel’s imagined reader probably knows all this: I’m coming in very late, so shouldn’t complain if I feel disoriented at times. Which I do.

The novel progresses in an apparently haphazard way. The drowning novel is abandoned (a development it took me many pages to accept) and Mr Choko is persuaded to help write the script for the theatre group’s new project. A different theatre production is described in great detail. His wife is hospitalised and pretty much disappears from the book. He has a terrible falling out with Hikari and the problem of how to provide for Hikari’s needs remains on the agenda until the end. Key characters turn up well after the midpoint of the novel. The final movement deals with historical and remembered rape, incest and abortion – issues that have hardly even been hinted at earlier. It feels like one damned thing after another.

We learn about much of the action by way of letters to Mr Choko or conversations with him. Many words are spent describing theatrical performances and interpreting dreams and poems, though some of the dreams, we’re told, may actually be memories even though they involve a flying boy. Other characters tend to talk at Mr Choko, often offering him unflattering analyses of his personality or work, and they keep on talking in the absence of any verbal response, even one meant only for the reader. Mr Choko is asleep during the dramatic climax, and when his sister tells him (and us) what has happened she can only infer the action from what she has heard and overheard. The very final moments are Mr Choko’s imaginings of what might be going to happen.

At times it was like watching one of those Japanese movies that you can’t take your eyes off but which leaves your Western mind floundering.

My ignorance of Japanese history is part of the problem. Two historical uprisings feature strongly. The theatre group’s project is a stage play based on a film about an uprising during the Meiji Restoration, led by weeping children and warrior women. And Mr Choko’s father was involved in an ultra-nationalist plot to kill the emperor after the end of World War One. The incest-rape-abortion theme is linked to the first of these, and has a definite, though unclear to me, political meaning.

There’s also something about the tone of the writing that doesn’t travel well. For example, Masao, the artistic director of the theatre group, asks Mr Choko to reply to a questionnaire to help with the theatre project. What follows is several pages in which Masao delivers a series of monologues expounding on Mr Choko’s creative intentions and mental states at various points of his career. At the end of each monologue Mr Choko replies briefly to say, ‘Yes, that’s correct,’ ‘That’s exactly right,’ ‘You may very well be right about that, too,’ and so on. In a movie, no matter how deadpan the performance, this would be comic. But it’s just not funny on the page. Something isn’t translating.

But I’m not blaming the translator. I was disconcerted by a number of US-isms: a mention of a character’s ‘trail of tears’, for example, had me wondering why Ōe was referring to that terrible event from US history, until I realised he probably wasn’t. But other unsettling language is most likely just as unsettling in the original. I had to return my copy to the library so can’t give examples, sorry.

Mr Choko plans to write a book in a ‘catastrophic late style’ à la Edward Said (who was a friend of his), and perhaps this is Ōe’s version of the same. Perhaps this is Ōe’s ‘drowning novel’.

Having written a first draft of this blog post, I re-read the last ten pages of the book before returning it to the library, and realised that for all the book’s opacity and apparent incoherence, it does hang together. It comes back again and again to the main image of Choko’s last contact with his father, just before the father drowned. The boy’s unresolved feelings about that moment are the novel’s engine, echoed by a young woman’s need for resolution about her experience of rape and incest: it’s a tortuous, and tortured, path for both of them, but in very different ways they each find some sort of resolution.

After the meeting: There was a terrifying moment when it seemed out host, who was also the Designated Chooser, wouldn’t be able to come to the meeting because of a family crisis. Happily – both in terms of the crisis and for the good of the group – he did turn up, and was able to deal with our general bafflement with lucidity and grace.

But first: my bafflement was generally shared. One man said that he had never experience so strongly a sense that he and a book were travelling along separate, parallel lines. His partner got exasperated with his moaning and told him to abandon it and read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles instead – advice he was happy to follow. He wasn’t the only one to jump ship.

Our host agreed that some elements of the book were mystifying, but they didn’t determine his response. For him it worked as a comedy – the protagonist is an unreliable narrator, who thinks of himself as a distinguished novelist, perhaps a national treasure, but is in fact pretty much a has-been: the theatre group, which he thinks of a celebrating his legacy, is actually using his work as a springboard for something very different – devoted though they may be. He is managed by the women in his life – his mother, his sister and his wife; is useless at dealing with his son’s difficulties. And alongside this comic aspect, our host was enthralled by the way the images of forest and water are woven through the book, so that he was thrilled by the final moments (which I felt were clumsy and arbitrary).

I don’t know that he persuaded any of us to go back and reread the book, but it was a wonderful to have someone lay out a very different response to a book. One of us would say, ‘But what do you make of [blah blah]’. ‘Oh that,’ he’d say, ‘that’s something from Japanese culture.’ It’s no good argung about taste, as my Latin teacher used to say (but in Latin, De gustibus non est disputandum), but you can definitely learn a lot from talking about where different tastes take you.

More Ruby reads

So many books in Ruby’s house, so little time. I may be doing a weekly blog post for a while to come. Given that the projected life of a children’s book is alarmingly short, it’s heartening to see so many relatively ancient books here.

Leo Leonni, Inch by Inch (1962)

This was Leo Lionni’s first picture book. Not as spectacular as Swimmy, perhaps, it’s still splendid. The tiny inch worm saves itself from being eaten by offering to measure parts of various birds, and finally by rising to the challenge of measuring the nightingale’s song. For small readers, there’s a bit of a Where’s Wally thing going on as the tiny worm appears in every spread. For big ones (including grandparents) there are more sophisticated joys in the spare text and elegant paintings.

Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, Baby Wombat’s Week (Angus & Robertson 2009)

This is a sequel to Diary of a Wombat that won hearts and prizes all over the place in 2002. Who doesn’t love a wombat? And this one’s a baby. Again, the images are probably too complex and the humour too sly for tiny people. But this is wonderful.

Pat Hutchins, Rosie’s Walk (Macmillan 1967)

This is a board book supplied by us grandparents. Its place in our affections is at least as firmly established as The Very Hungry Caterpillar‘s. It’s a classic example of illustrations telling a story of which the verbal text pretends to be oblivious. The bright, patterned illustrations are, of course, gorgeous.

Giles Andreae and Guy Parker-Rees, Giraffes Can’t Dance (2001)

This one doesn’t appeal to me so much, but it’s on high demand in Ruby land, possibly because one of her favourite toys has been a squeaky giraffe named Sophie. The Giraffe in the book is mocked by the other animals because it can’t dance. It wanders off a communes with the moon and the wind, and soon is dancing spectacularly: given how very ungainly the giraffe is in the first part of the boo, there’s something dispiritingly unrealistic in the moral is that everyone can dance if the music is right.

John Klassen, I Want My Hat Back (Walker 2011)

Jon Klassen is a Canadian minimalist picturebook maker. As far as I can tell this is the first of a trilogy about a bear and his beloved hat. The bear, who doesn’t change much from page to page, asks a number of other animals, some of them of indeterminate species, if they’ve seen his hat. We see the hat long before he does (another example of an illustration alerting the reader to something the text is unaware of), and there’s a bloodthirsty and punitive but funny twist in the tale, which I hope young readers generally miss.

Bob Graham, Vanilla Ice Cream (Walker 2014)

Bob Graham! Evidently he’s even more popular in France than in his native Australia. This picture book is the work of an assured master – possibly in his Late Style. A sparrow accidentally hides away in a bag of rice loaded onto a ship in an Indian port. When the ship arrives in a southern land (a non-specific Australian city), the sparrow emerges and flies to a nearby park. There, a dog leaps up towards him and knocks an ice cream out of someone’s hands. The ice cream lands in the lap of a baby in a stroller, and that’s the first time that baby tastes vanilla ice cream. A weird non-plot, you might say. But he pulls it off!

Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, The Snail and the Whale (Puffin 2006)

A strange tail of a snail with an itchy foot who hitches a ride to exotic places on the tail of a whale and comes back to inspire the other snails to go adventuring, having saved the whale’s life by writing a message in slime on a classroom blackboard. Surrealism is alive and well in children’s picture books. This one is way too old for Ruby, but she has two copies, one in the profusion of books and toys in a corner of the living room and one beside her cot.

Anna Dewdney, Llama Llama Red Pajama (2005)

A gauge of the success of this book is that Mr Blue Pencil didn’t notice the US spelling in its title until I wrote it for this bog post. It’s a bedtime story with bright colours, bouncy rhymes (as long as you pronounce mama to rhyme with llama). There’s a fear-of-the-dark moment that might be a bit suggestive for some children. But the relationship between ht young llama and the llama mama is warm and loving, even if she does answer the phone when the young one needs her desperately at the bedside.

Baby Wombat’s Week is the seventh book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Ruby reads

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

Eric Carle, The Very Hungry Caterpillar (1969)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Katharine Margot Toohey’s Vera Rudner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vera Rudner: A Study is the fourth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Christa Wolf’s One Day a Year 2001–2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(page 11)

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

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

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

(page 145)

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

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

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

(page 110)

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

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

(p 149)

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

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

Joyce Carol Oates’ Hazards of Time Travel

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

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

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

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

Elieen Chong’s Uncommon Feast

Eileen Chong, The Uncommon Feast: Essays, Poems and Recipes (Recent Work Press 2018)

In 2017, Eileen Chong’s third book of poetry, Painting Red Orchids, was shortlisted for the Australian Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. At the awards ceremony, a senior poet told her that many of her poems were like recipes, and if she collected them into a book she might have some success with it. She writes about this comment, and her reaction to it, in the first essay of The Uncommon Feast. ‘I am speechless,’ she says. ‘I feel put in my place, and ashamed.’

Happily, the shame didn’t last. The Uncommon Feast is a beautiful, generous, delightful response to that comment. It contains poems that are like recipes, as well as actual recipes. And it is much richer and more rewarding to culinary and non-culinary readers alike than anything her fellow poet presumably had in mind.

As Judith Beveridge says in her Introduction, the poems are at the heart of the book, but the prose essays and recipes, and the line drawings by Chong’s husband Colin Cassidy, are what transform it from a slim vol of poetry to a feast of a book. ‘The Common Table’, a short essay first published in Meanjin, which includes the account of the awards evening, also gives us the wonderful (food-related) moment when Chong’s mother understood that she was a writer; and ‘Eating and Telling: A Personal Food History’, is a quick autobiography told in terms of food – the school canteens (Singapore’s version so much more interesting than North Queensland’s), family meals, dining with partners, the bliss of cooking and eating with her husband. If we needed instructions on how to read Chong’s food poems, they are there:

Food, for me, is representative of family, culture, nourishment and love. I’ve learned how to cook from my grandmother, my mother, my friends’ mothers, and my partners over the years. The dishes I prepare are a palimpsest of experiences and cultures, new and old.

I’m surrounded by people who say they don’t get poetry – they feel intimidated by it, or see it as lost up its own wazoo. If any one book could convert them to poetry lovers, this would be it. There are many wonderful moments. For example, ‘Chinese Ginseng’ is a very fine poem in which the poet’s mother offers ginseng as a traditional cure for what the daughter knows to be irremediable. It ends:

--------------------------------------There is no point
in telling my mother what she doesn't want to hear:
------polycystic ovaries,
endometriosis, infertility. Instead, I just listen – I can
------almost taste

her soup, sweet dates and wolfberries, smoky angelica
------and lilybulb,
but above all, the unmistakeable bitter-sweetness of
------Chinese ginseng.

Such a great moment! Ginseng may not be a cure for the physical ailment, but it becomes a sacrament of the mother’s love. Facing the poem is Colin Cassidy’s drawing of a ginseng root, inscribed with the words ‘panacea, tonic, necessity’ Then you turn the page to a recipe for Chinese Ginseng Chicken Soup, and you’re invited to join the moment with your own soup-making, soup drinking body.

The book is full of segues, and juxtapositions like that. I laughed out loud a number of times for sheer joy.

The Uncommon Feast is the third book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Mary Oliver’s Twenty Moons

Mary Oliver, Twenty Moons (Back Bay Books 1979)

The first thing Mary Oliver said to me, it must have been in the mid 1990s, was this:

You do not have to be good.

That’s the opening of ‘Wild Geese’, from her book Dream Work (1985). Having completely grabbed my attention, she went on:

You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.

They are words I wish every Irish-style Catholic of my generation, and possibly of all generations, could have heard in their childhood. There’s even more to the poem. You can watch her read the whole thing on YouTube.

When I heard last Friday that she had died, aged 83, I made a little pilgrimage to Gleebooks and bought Twelve Moons, one of four books by her on the shelves, of which one (Blue Horses) I already own, another (Devotions) was too huge for the moment, and the third (Dog Songs) probably too tummy-scratching.

Twelve Moons was Mary Oliver’s fourth book of poetry, first published half a decade before she won the Pulitzer (and before ‘Wild Geese’ was published). It’s a terrific book. Reading it now, I’m interested in how it fits with the New York Times headline of 22 January, ‘Mary Oliver, 83, Prize-Winning Poet of the Natural World, Is Dead.’ In what way, I found myself asking, was she a poet of the natural world? (I don’t disagree with the description. After the lines quoted above, ‘Wild Geese’ goes on to talk about flocks of wild geese with their harsh cries.)

There’s a lot of the ‘natural world’ in this book: twelve very different moon poems; deer, horses, sharks; rain, snow, sunshine; crows, owls, bears and trees; mussels, snakes, turtles and stones. But they’re not generally ‘nature poems’ in any easy, Fotherington-Thomas way (‘Hullo clouds, hullo sky!’). At times, they seem to emerge from sustained, quiet observation of the living environment; at others, from a sharp moment of empathy (as in ‘The Black Snake’, where the speaker picks up a dead snake from the road and puts it back in the bushes). And though I’d say Mary Oliver is a life-affirming poet, there’s a lot of death: as an osteopath once said to me, ‘The body naturally seeks equilibrium, which is part of the healing process, but of course there’s also equilibrium in death.’ There’s that, and also the notion of life as precious but brief.

As is my custom, let me look fairly closely at a single poem. ‘Last Days’, on page 51, is not necessarily my favourite in the book, but it’s short enough to show you in a single jpeg, it does interesting things with ‘the natural world’, and – happily, given my love of the form – it’s a sonnet. Here it is:

Things are    changing; things are starting to     spin, snap, fly off into    afternoon. Oh and ooh   come whistling out of the perished mouth   of the grass, as things   turn soft, boil back   into substance and hue. As everything,   forgetting its own enchantment, whispers:   I too love oblivion why not it is full   of second chances. Now,   hiss the bright curls of the leaves. Now!   booms the muscle of the wind.

This is more enigmatic than most of Mary Oliver’s poems. In fact, it’s a teaser poem – not naming its subject until its last word, but describing its effects as if they originate elsewhere, and also throwing in a good dose of misdirection.

The misdirection begins with the title, an apparent reference to the End Times, when life as we know it finishes in the twinkling of an eye. The first words, echoing W B Yeats’s ‘The Second Coming‘ – ‘Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold’ – lead us further down that path. Perhaps one expects a poem about environmental disaster.

But the tone is too jaunty for that: ‘things are starting to / spin, snap, fly off’ doesn’t exactly feel like doomsday! The enjambments in those first lines, snapping phrases in two, capture the feel of all that disruption, but in an almost comical way, and it’s hard to see ‘the blue sleeve of the long / afternoon’ as a place of dread.

Then comes the sound. By the time the oh and ooh whistle from the grass’s mouth, the puzzle is only nominally still in place: wind is clearly involved. So when things ‘turn soft / boil back into substance and hue’, we know what is going on. Serendipitously, as I type this the gum trees and jacaranda outside my windows are boiling away, so what the eye sees is mainly colour and movement, no detail, just ‘substance and hue’.

Broadening out from ‘things’, the poem now speaks of ‘everything’: as in the Sleeping Beauty story, everything shakes off the enchantment that has made it inanimate.

Everything whispers, ‘I too love oblivion why not it is full / of second chances’. Where the early enjambments mimic the snapping-off effects of the wind, here the lack of punctuation evokes the way everything is in motion. Then the final exhilarated cry of ‘Now!’ Who hasn’t stood in a strong wind and felt that exhilaration? And the wind is named at last as the great sayer of ‘Now!’.

So the poem isn’t about the end of the world after all. It’s just the wind, and not necessarily even a dangerous wind.

But what to make of that whisper, ‘I too love oblivion why not it is full / of second chances’? The poem rushed us past it, even though on my first reading it was the word ‘oblivion’ that snagged my attention. What does it mean here? Why ‘too’ – who else loves oblivion?

In most contexts I would take ‘oblivion’ to mean something like death, or at least the death of the mind – so a word that chimes nicely with the End Times expectations generated by the title. But the immediate context suggests a completely different meaning: ‘oblivion’ is the state of forgetting, of having one’s attention fully in the present moment, the Now.

And why ‘too’? One possibility that suggests itself is that it’s the poem’s speaker who loves oblivion; that she isn’t just recording what she sees, though nor simply projecting her mental state onto it, but in describing the weather she is also describing the effect it has on her emotional state. And so back to the poem’s title. It’s not Last Days as in End Times, so much as the end of something, no longer stuck, enchanted, brooding over the past, but shaken into the present moment, where there is a possibility of new beginnings.

Please excuse me for hammering away at this small poem, but it’s helped me to articulate how I understand Mary Oliver to be a ‘poet of the natural world’: she’s not a meticulous describer of natural phenomena, but she writes out of her relationship to them. It’s a two-way relationship.

Jason Lutes’s Berlin

Jason Lutes, Berlin: City of Stones. Book One (Drawn & Quarterly 2001)
Jason Lutes, Berlin: City of Smoke. Book Two (Drawn & Quarterly 2008)
Jason Lutes, Berlin: City of Light. Book Three (Drawn & Quarterly 2018)

This work of fiction, whose story covers the half dozen years in Berlin leading up to Hitler’s coming to power, was originally created as a series of 22 comics published over more than two decades. I read it in a single day, when I was too sick to do much else.

The first issue was published in April 1996 and the last in 2018. Those years saw 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan, the War in Iraq and the rise of IS; Donald Trump became President of the United States, and Jason Lutes became a father (his acknowledgements in Book Three describe two people with his surname as ‘the best reasons possible to miss deadlines’). No doubt the course of the narrative departed hugely from the original plan, but there’s an awe-inspiring visual consistency – neat ink drawings in regular panels, with meticulous hatching and loving attention to architectural detail.

At the beginning of the first book Marthe Müller, an art student, meets journalist Kurt Severing on a train travelling to Berlin in September 1928. They go their separate ways at first, she to the rigours of art school (in which the reader attends a lesson in perspective, which incidentally directs our attention to the quality of much of the book’s art) and the joys of bohemia, he to his politically engaged journalism. But theirs becomes the central relationship of the story, soon featuring lots of tactfully drawn sex. The second main narrative thread involves a working-class family that splits along political lines – the father and son join the Nazis while the mother, Gudrun, is drawn to the Communists along with her two daughters. These stories play out against the backdrop of serious political tensions, with flashbacks to the founding of the Weimar Republic after World War One. The final pages of this book feature the massacre of May Day marchers in 1929, where Gudrun is among the many killed.

City of Smoke picks up the story a month later. Marthe is drawn into the famous Weimar decadence, with an Eyes Wide Shut style orgy, lots of drugs and a relationship with a gender-fluid fellow student Anna. Kurt becomes increasingly despondent at the evident futility of his journalism, as his editor is charged with treason for a significant piece of investigative journalism (a page at the end of Book Three notes that this arrest and imprisonment are historical facts).

Kurt Severing at work

Meanwhile, Gudrun’s daughter Silvia lives by her wits, hating the Nazis but blaming the Communists for her mother’s death. She becomes involved with a Jewish scrounger and lives for a time with a comfortable Jewish family. A third major plot line involves an African-American jazz group, and the relationship one of them forms with a cabaret performer (who also happens to be a life model at the art school in City of Stones). Again, these personal dramas play out as part of the sweep of history, as anti-Semitic violence increases, and the Nazis become a greater force. Book Two ends with the jazzmen flying out of Germany just before the September 1930 election, which increased the Reichstag seats held by Nazis from 12 to 107.

City of Light dispenses with the methodical noting of dates that has been a hallmark of the books so far. It also has slightly larger frames, slightly larger lettering, perhaps a result of Jason Lutes’ ageing eyes, and certainly a kindness to mine.

Like the first two books, this one opens with passengers on a train bound for Berlin. In Book One it was Marthe, in Book Two the jazz group. In Book Three it’s Hitler himself, not even a name previously, but now a fully-fledged character. The book ends with his becoming Chancellor in 1933 – followed by four spreads showing panoramas of the city over the decades since then, including the only use of colour in all three books, for the decorations on the Wall after it fell in 1989, and a photograph of the modern city.

All the characters we have been following reach some kind of resolution. The Jewish family escapes. A policeman with scruples quits his job and leaves Berlin. Marthe returns to her parents in Köln (though in her final frames she considers turning back). Silvia and Kurt, each in their own way, decide to stay and fight. But the city itself, as those final spreads show, is in for a long and tortured time.

I was given Book Three as a Christmas gift, and decided to buy the first two and read them first. I’m glad I did, because much of the power of the third book depends on what we know of the characters’ struggles in the earlier books.

I don’t think I’ll ever understand those pages that consist of a series of almost identical panels showing, for example, a man playing a clarinet, but I expect that’s because of my relative visual illiteracy. This is a terrific historical novel, and a monumental piece of visual story-telling, a brilliantly accessible introduction to important history, and – what Lutes couldn’t have known when he started the project – a sober warning for our times, that catastrophes approach one step at a time.