Ruby Reads (17)

It’s been a while since I’ve posted about books I’ve encountered when wearing my Poppa hat. Here are some of the wonders I’ve encountered since last I blogged about them.

Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd, Goodnight Moon (1947)

Anyone who has worked in children’s literature has heard of Goodnight Moon. It’s an absolute classic US picture book for young children, which I can now tick off my Shame List. The person who sold it to me said he’d had to hide his daughter’s copy because she demanded it so relentlessly. Yet he claimed to still like it. I don’t know what I was expecting – maybe something full of saccharine statements of maternal love – but actually it’s terrific. A tiny rabbit in a big bed says goodnight to all the wonderful things in the bedroom and outside the window.

Leslie Patricelli, On My Potty (Walker Books 2010)

If Goodnight Moon can be read as a text with a manipulative subtext (a reading encouraged by a page at the end of our copy that list dozen hints for how to get your child to sleep), On My Potty can’t be read any other way. No actual potty has yet appeared in Ruby’s life, so the book is a bot on the theoretical side, but there’s no doubt that it’s meant as a tool for toilet-training. It’s charming and silly as well. Whether it succeeds in its aims remains to be seen in our case.

Laura Bunting, illustrations by Philip Bunting, Kookaburras Love to Laugh (Koala Book Company 2018)

I imagine all two-year-old people have enthusiasms. Ruby is loves kookaburras. Two of her recurring sentences are, ‘Kookaburra in tree’ (that one is sometimes a question, or perhaps a request) and, ‘Kookaburra fly away.’ The plot of Kookaburras Love to Laugh may be a little beyond her: there’s a serious kookaburra who leaves his family in search of more serious birds. He ends up with some garden flamingoes who are completely serious but utterly boring, and goes back home, converted to the enjoyment of laughter. So the plot is OK, especially given that his family also make adjustments to meet his needs, but the real appeal is page after page of kookaburras and the frequent need for kookaburra imitations from the reader.

Jon Klassen, This Is Not My Hat (Walker 2012)

The second in John Kalassen’s wonderful minimalist hat trilogy. In the first book, I Want My Hat Back (link is to my review), a bear goes on search of his hat and finally finds and deals with the thief. This one tells a similar story from the thief’s point of view. A small fish has stolen the hat of a very big fish and is confident of getting away with it. But the reader who notices small details such as the direction the big fish is looking or the angle of a bystander crab’s nippers knows that the confidence is misplaced. The humour is sly, and the images are brilliant.

Jon Klassen, We Found a Hat (Walker 2016)

This is the third in the series. Two tortoises find a hat in the desert. One hat, two tortoises. They decide that that won’t work so they walk away, but one of them looks back longingly and when the other goes to sleep he sneaks back towards the hat … Unlike the other two books this one doesn’t end with retribution, but with a splendid, richly satisfying imagined resolution to this specific sharing dilemma. (We are witnessing many sharing dilemmas in playgrounds.)

Ruby’s father and grandfather both love these hat books. I think Ruby quite likes them.

Kookaburras Love to Laugh is the thirty-sixth book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Proust Progress Report 4:

Marcel Proust, À la recherche du temps perdu (text established under the direction of Jean-Yves Tadié ©1987–1992): À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (1919), deuxième partie, ‘Nom de pays: le pays’

Here’s my fourth monthly progress report on my project of reading five pages a day of Proust’s Á la recherche du temps perdu. I’ve reached page 682, roughly 60 pages from the end of Book Two. Last month I noted with some surprise that I was now invested in the effete upper-class Parisian characters, especially the chronically ill, introspective narrator-as-remembered. This month, I’m surprised to report, I’m taking the narrator’s longwinded seriously – still laughing at times, but no longer unsympathetically.

Mind you, there’s still something absurd about the young narrator. He glimpses a woman selling milk at a railway station and wants to spend the rest of his life with her. He sees a group of young women at the beach resort of Belbac and falls in love with the whole group. He fantasises the wonderful letters of friendship he will receive from a young man he hasn’t met, is bitterly disappointed when on his first actual meeting with him the young man is reserved. He weeps in bed at night when his grandmother doesn’t come to say goodnight. But I now understand that the narrator, remembering himself as a young man, is at least as amused, astonished or even unbelieving as I am.

Someone defined a literary classic as a book one can’t read for the first time. I understand that: though I wouldn’t say I’ve heard or read very much about Proust, but in the last month he has cropped up twice: as an anagram for ‘stupor’ in a crossword (which gave the Emerging Artist joy, as she has to suffer my occasional chat about the book), and at a talk on memoir by Walter Mason at the Ashfield Library, where he showed an image of madeleines (one of which, dipped in herbal tea, plays a key role in the first book).

Reading the book in French, with some difficulty and a lot of vocabulary blanks, just a couple of pages at a time, I’m generally focusing on particular moments rather than following the broad sweep of the narrative (if there is one).

Here are some more or less random highlights.

When the narrator and his grandmother are at Balbec, he is acutely aware that most of the other guests at the hotel see them as social inferiors (there’s a lot about snobbery in this book, despising it and being unawarely caught up in it). An aristocratic woman (who I imagine as a French Maggie Smith) turns up, inaccessible to the other guests because of a phalanx of attendants. But she is an old friend of the narrator’s grandmother, and he hopes that the connection will increase his own prestige. But when she comes into the dining room, and nods imperiously at grand-mère, the latter – who considers that when on holiday at the beach one should be free from any obligation to acknowledge friends from one’s life in Paris – ignores her. The narrator compares the moment to the sensation of someone who is shipwrecked at sea who sees a large vessel, a potential rescue, approach, only to sail on past without seeing them. (I should mention that in what I’m coming to see as a typically Proustian twist, the two elderly women somehow come to spend a great amount of time together, and the narrator’s hopes are later fulfilled.)

The narrator meets an artist, Elstir, who invites him to visit his studio. The encounter does move the plot forward, but first many pages are spent in rhapsodic description of the artist’s paintings, and theorising about them and about art in general. What’s new for me is that I’m no longer reading these digressions (though you can’t really call them digressions because they’re pretty much central) as waffle. Here’s a tiny example I dog-eared a page for:

si Dieu le Père avait créé les choses en les nommant, c’est en leur ôtant leur nom, ou en leur en donnant un autre qu’Elstir les recréait. Les noms qui désignent les choses répondent toujours à une notion de l’intelligence, étrangère à nos impressions véritables et qui nous force à éliminer d’elles tout ce qui ne se rapporte pas à cette notion.

(p 656)

And a translation I found on the internet (and modified slightly):

If God the Father had created things by naming them, it was by taking away their name or giving them another that Elstir created them anew. The names which designate things correspond invariably to an intellectual notion, alien to our true impressions, and compelling us to eliminate from them everything that is not in keeping with that notion.

(From https://www.proust-ink.com/quotable-a)

That comes close to describing what Proust is doing in À la recherche: he takes familiar things – youthful infatuation, a sunset, a romanesque church – and pulls them, or rather the act of experiencing them, apart, then puts them back together transformed. It’s the pulling apart that has people giving up on him saying things like, ‘He just goes on so much!’ But one of the effects of reading him is that an awful lot of what I read or hear elsewhere starts to sound intolerably glib and/or ready-made.

In this morning’s pages, the narrator has almost been introduced to Albertine. The experience is anticlimactic, which is not surprising to the reader as he repeatedly fantasises about something – a theatrical performance, a new friend, the church at Balbec – and then is disappointed when that something materialises in the real world. But this time he follows it up with this lovely reflection:

Tout cela avait causé pour moi du plaisir, mais ce plaisir m’était resté caché ; il était de ces visiteurs qui attendent pour nous faire savoir qu’ils sont là, que les autres nous aient quittés, que nous soyons seuls. Alors nous les apercevons, nous pouvons leur dire : je suis tout à vous, et les écouter. Quelquefois entre le moment où ces plaisirs sont entrés en nous et le moment où nous pouvons y rentrer nous-même, il s’est écoulé tant d’heures, nous avons vu tant de gens dans l’intervalle que nous craignons qu’ils ne nous aient pas attendus. Mais ils sont patients, ils ne se lassent pas, et dès que tout le monde est parti, nous les trouvons en face de nous.

(p 678)

And in English:

All this had been a source of pleasure, but that pleasure had remained hidden from me; it was one of those guests who don’t make their presence known until the others have gone and we are by ourselves. Then we catch sight of them, and can say to them, “I am all yours,” and listen to what they have to say. Sometimes between the moment when these pleasures have entered our consciousness and the moment when we can enter there ourselves, so many hours have passed, we have seen so many people in the interval, that we are afraid they might not have waited for us. But they are patient, they do not grow tired, and as soon as everyone has gone we find them there in front of us.

(C K Scott Moncrieff’s translation, at https://marcel-proust.com/text.html, tinkered with by me)

Did I already say this? It’s like an epic of introspection that may sometimes be silly or solipsistic, but mostly it’s so very alive.

No more writing about Proust from me until the middle of January, by which time, with any luck, I’ll be some way into the third book, Le côté de Guermantes.

Emma Lew’s Crow College

Emma Lew, Crow College: New and Selected Poems (Giramondo 2019)

This book’s cover image, from a painting by Maryanne Coutts, hints at a dark, elusive narrative. A woman whose face is turned away from us engages in an activity that is far from clear and possibly dangerous. It could be a moment from a dream. Many of Emma Lew’s poems have a similar sense of being spoken from the midst of a dark, elusive narrative. The ‘I’ is invariably hard to pin down: you may (as I, naively, did) start out thinking the poems feature Lew speaking in her own voice but you soon realise you’re wrong. In fact, most of the time it’s hard to have any sense of Emma Lew’s engagement except as a crafter of highly-charged enigmas. In his review of this book, Martin Duwell writes that he once surmised that Lew’s characteristic poem

was based on something like putting the characters of one novel into a quite different novel (usually Central European or Russian) – say like transferring the characters of Great Expectations into Pasternak’s Dr Zhivago – isolating a scene and then writing it as a fragmented monologue or third person narration removing all clues as to what either of the original novels might have been.

Australian Poetry Review at this link

He has discarded that hypothesis, but it does a nice job of evoking both the drama and the disorientation one experiences reading many of the poems in this book.

Evidently the Giramondo team felt that readers might need a little help with that disorientation, because whereas most books of poetry have minimal guidance in how to read them, this one includes an introduction by poet Bella Li. I generally avoid introductions, but I read this one hoping it would help me blog coherently. I also read a number of reviews, including the excellent one by Martin Duwell quoted above and one by Ross Gibson – author of the brilliant books Seven Versions of an Australian Badland and 26 Views of the Starburst World [links to my blog posts] – in Sydney Review of Books [here’s a link].

Everything I read about the poetry is interesting (though Ross Gibson’s prose at times went off into academic incomprehensibility). What I realised is not that I didn’t understand what was happening in the poems, but that I didn’t get how to enjoy them.

My copy of the book is an ARC (advanced reading copy) which comes with a request not to quote from it, but I can’t bear to end without giving my readers at least a small taste. This is the start of the relatively straightforward ‘Kanipshins’, whose title the internet says is a Yiddish word meaning fits or temper tantrums (for some reason WordPress is being difficult with line breaks; please overlook the weird line spacing here):

In consideration for my mother

the yacht got free of its moorings.

'Just bring him home:

I'll decide who's handsome.'

We tried to quarrel quietly in the bathroom.

She had kept certain phrases for this moment

but ended up expressing desperation

through the elaborateness

of her hairdo, and drama,

the way she salted her food.

See what I mean? There’s a slantwise portrait of a mother daughter relationship there: the daughter brings a boyfriend/suitor home for the mother to evaluate; the young people find a little privacy in the bathroom; the mother communicates in non-verbal ways. But what is the broader picture presumably alluded to in the first two lines? should we care what the young people are quarrelling about? Is it the mother who is desperate, and why? These are questions that have no answers. The poem continues (I think) with the mother hectoring the daughter to marry the young man, but just as you think you’re following the story, it goes somewhere quite unexpected and enigmatic:

The drug companies did the serenading,

but how the girdle must have hurt!

And there are a couple more twists before the end, including the wonderfull but elusive line ‘holding lilies, almost apoplectic’. Could be a narrative – a dramatic monologue or the abstract of a short film or play – but without establishing shots or guideposts. So it offers some of the pleasures of story while refusing others. It’s not my cup of tea, but I can see that it’s very good.

Crow College is the thirty-eighth and last book I’ve read for the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge. My copy is an ARC from Giramondo Publishing.

#aww2019 and #aww2020

This is my round-up post for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019.

I read a total of 38 books by Australian women writers, well over the goal of ten that I’d set for myself. They ranged from Alexis Wright’s 640 page many-voiced Tracker to picture books with fewer than 100 words, and included:

  • 19 books for very young children
  • 8 books of poetry
  • 2 novels (only 2!)
  • 6 memoir/biography/history/essay/creative non-fiction
  • 2 books that mixed genres (one poems and recipes, the other a novella and essays)
  • 1 short book of art criticism

Three books were written by Indigenous Australian women. None were translated from languages other than English. The list doesn’t include journals.

You can see my blog entries on them at this link.

Now I’m signing up for another year, at the Franklin level, which means I aim to read and review 10 books by Australian women in 2020.

On a related topic, I’ve done a quick gender check on books I read this year altogether [and updated it on 30 December]. Not counting journals or children’s picture books, I read:

  • 30 31 by women
  • 29 33 by men

I read four five books in translation (two three from French, one each from Japanese and German), and two in their original French.

November verse 14: Guests for dinner

Tonight guests are coming for dinner. I probably should be working, but my final November verse must be finished. I was intending to write about tiramisu and salmon with miso, but the verse got the bit between its teeth.

November verse 14: Guests for dinner
Once when people came to dinner
Dad's job was to kill a chook
or two, pluck them, remove inner
bits, then give to Mum, the cook.
We kids would watch with fascination:
first the neat decapitation,
the bloody, headless honour lap
with throat that clucks and wings that flap,
and then the steaming pile of feathers,
puckered pores in naked skin,
a cold-eyed head thrown in the bin.
Tonight as dinner comes together,
I can't help feel a kind of shame
that nothing in it had a name.

November verse 13: Clothes at the Metro

With one and half days of November left and two stanzas to reach my goal of 14, I went to the local shopping centre to buy stuff and find inspiration. This is what I got:

November verse 12: Clothes at the Metro 
One wears a hijab bearing witness
modest Islam is her path,
one a T promoting Fitness
at the local gym. No dearth
of mercenary and smart-arse slogans
worn by hipsters and by bogans,
calls to arms, despair or sex
stretched across their breasts or pecs.
One says, 'SATAN IS MY DADDY',
one 'CU <small> in the</> NT',
another 'I'M THE REASON WHY
WE CAN'T HAVE NICE THINGS.' He's a baddy.
'THE FUTURE'S FEMALE' 'I <HEART> <BAND>'
I wear a giant ampersand.

Here is the actual ampersand T-shirt:

November verse 12: Waiting for the NBN technician

November verse 12: Waiting for the NBN technician
at my son's newly purchased (but not new) flat
It worked for two weeks then it didn't,
so he called his ISP.
Now he's at work but he was bidden
be here between eight and three* 
today to meet their roving techie
when they come to have a recce
and with any luck repair
the fault that's kept him off the air,
so here I sit, just waiting, waiting,
all else cancelled, in his flat
surrounded by his life still packed
in cardboard boxes, meditating,
making rhymes. Outside, the wind
raged like a god avenging sin.**

* They actually said between 10 and 12, but you know, rhyme! And then at 12, when my son called TPG – remember that company name – they said that for technical reasons which they didn’t disclose the technician wasn’t going to come. Evidently this technical reason didn’t turn up until it was too late to text my son as promised and save me a couple of hours twiddling my thumbs.

** I changed the last two lines when I heard on the news that the wind I had observed had cause enormous destruction i other parts of town.

November verse 11: Sleepless-ish

I was going to call this ‘Lines written between three in the morning and dawn, but I only managed three lines in that time span.

November verse 11: 
I mostly have no trouble sleeping –
drop a hat, I'll hit the hay,
so much so, I struggle keeping
open eyes at movies, plays
and lectures. When I go to ballet
I nod from first to final plié.
So if I wake at half past three
with leg cramps or anxiety,
I walk about, might drink some water,
best of all, engage my mind:
recite some verse, and then I find
it's just five lines before I've caught a
zed or two; perhaps compose
lines, like this ... and here I snooze.

November verse 10: Wiggle and Jiggle at the Library

November verse 10: Wiggle and Jiggle at the Library
For Scott Morrison
We're here to sing and dance and jiggle,
mums, a dad and sundry grands,
toddlers primed with twinkle-twinkle,
row-row, incy-wincy hands.
'Welcome all, here's bells and shakers.
Let's go where the songs will take us.
We'll have great fun this afternoon
though sadly I can't hold a tune.'
That was no lie. She sang with gusto,
high and low but always wrong,
We tried and failed to sing along
fell silent on that all-day bus. To
sing together lifts the heart
but badly led, song falls apart.

November verse 9: Sauna soliloquy continued

Yesterday’s stanza (November verse 8) covered a tiny part of a one -sided conversation in a sauna in Newtown. Here’s another tiny part, with some inventions and alterations for the sake of rhyme and metre.

November verse 9: Sauna soliloquy (continued)
Newtown: students and their tutors
protest, join the Student Strikes!
Activists on their computers
save the whales by riding bikes.
Feminazi hashtag metoo.
Greens cause fires by burn-off veto.
Sorry, politics! Let's just sweat.
I've got to do five minutes yet.
I've decided not to marry
unless the right one comes along
or better, two – tell me I'm wrong.
Happy, that's me, just like Larry.
Newtown's where I'm born and bred.
I could try Adelaide instead.