Tag Archives: Tohby Riddle

Tohby Riddle’s Astronaut’s Cat

Tohby Riddle, The Astronaut’s Cat (Allen & Unwin 2020)

On Wednesday Tohby Riddle facebooked that he couldn’t have a launch for his new picture book because of the social isolation regime. I ordered a copy yesterday morning (Friday) from Gleebooks online. David Gaunt, Gleebooks head honcho, delivered a copy to my door yesterday afternoon – he said he was hand delivering books as a way of dealing with his anxiety. All three bricks and mortar Gleebooks are shut and their post-Covid survival is in doubt. So I’m writing this post about an utterly joyous book through a haze of proleptic grief.

The book is brilliant. It’s brilliant anyway, but it’s absolutely a book for our socially-isolating times.

The Astronaut’s cat is an inside cat. The text never mentions the moon, but that’s where she is. She likes to look outside but doesn’t want to go there. She dreams of going out to frolic in the low-gravity landscape, and then within the dream she dreams of going to live on the blue ball that rises over the horizon – and after all the stark moonscapes there are four full-colour spreads to make the heart sing. All this told in sparse, perfectly judged text.

Tohby has put a couple of his favourite spreads up on facebook (at this link). I’m assuming he won’t mind me putting them up here as well:

When I blog about children’s books, I label them as ‘Ruby Reads’. So that’s how I’ve labelled this one. While I expect toddler Ruby to enjoy it, I doubt if she’ll fall as intensely in love with it as I have.

End of year lists 2012

As if it isn’t enough to be shopping and wrapping and cooking and unwrapping and eating and searching for lost dogs and blocking our ears to keep out the piped carols, it’s the season for drawing up Best-Of lists.

The Art Student’s best five movies (with links to the movies’ IMDb pages):

A Separation (Asghar Farhadi 2011): ‘Definitely the best movie this year. We got to see how complex it all is for secular Muslims in Iran.’

Lore (Cate Shortland 2012): ‘Up there with A Separation. You don’t believe you can watch yet another film about Jews and Nazis, yet here it was, original and fresh. I hope it wins an Oscar. I liked Somersault too.’

The Skin I Live In (Pedro Almodóvar 2011): ‘Creepy,’ she said, ‘but good.’

This Must Be the Place (Paolo Sorrentino 2011): ‘I loved the great humour, the art, the spectacular musical event.”

The Sessions (Ben Lewin 2012): ‘I liked having nudity and sex without it being voyeuristic.’

My best five movies, chosen fairly arbitrarily (with arbitrary reason given) from a short list of 19 that included all five of the Art Student’s picks:

Liberal Arts (Josh Radnor 2012) features a main character who walks around the city reading. I identified. It also reminded me of the pleasures of Eric Rohmer movies.

Sing Me the Songs that Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle (Lian Lunson 2012) pips The Sapphires (Wayne Blair 2012) at the post for my musical of the year. It’s a concert movie that invites us into extraordinary intimacy with a brilliantly musical family. Martha Wainwright sings ‘First Born’, which her mother wrote for her brother, and which we played a lot when our firstborn son was being ‘the first to crawl’.

Le Havre (Aki Kaurismäki 2011) made me feel irrationally pleased with myself or recognizing the oddly deadpan directorial style from Drifting Clouds, which I saw and loved decades ago.

The Artist (Michel Hazanavicius 2011) was a moderately enjoyable film until the final moment, which resolved a plot point I had been half-awarely worrying over, and vastly expanded the movie’s meaning.

Weekend (Andrew Haigh 2011): In spite of the phenomenal consumption of alcohol and other drugs, which would normally be enough to put me right off, I loved the unsentimental, unprurient portrayal of two characters who are completely taken with each other, including sexually.

The worst movie: We both picked Sophie Lellouche’s bland, self-indulgent Paris–Manhattan. But don’t take this as a solid judgement on the film as it might have miraculously picked up after the first hour, which is all we could bear. If we had to name a movie we stayed the course for, the Art Student would pick Skyfall, which she just plain hated, and I might have to pick Bernie, because Jack Black’s creepiness and the creepiness of the subject matter were from different universes.

The Art Student’s best books (she wouldn’t be limited to five), listed here in no particular order, with links to my blog entries or the book’s LibraryThing page:

1bmMartin Gayford, A Bigger Message: Conversations with David Hockney (2011): ‘Full of surprises and delights, about the way an artist sees the world.’

090787181XIrfan Orga, Portrait of a Turkish Family (©1950, Eland & Galeri Kayseri 2004): ‘Compellingly tells of the transition from a feudal society to modernity as a result of war. Also wonderful was the insider child’s view of life under the veil.’

20120704-175516.jpgHilary Mantel, Bring Up the Bodies (2012): ‘I’m glad it won the Booker. I’m completely hooked on the story, and looking forward to the third book, although having fallen in love with Cromwell I’m not looking forward to his death.’

1920898581Heather Goodall, From Invasion to Embassy (1996): ‘A must-read for all Australians, especially those who think the dispossession of Aboriginal people all happened in the distant past.’

1ccStephen Gilchrist, editor, Crossing Cultures: The Owen and Wagner Collection of Contemporary Aboriginal Australian Art at the Hood Museum of Art (2012): ‘I’m only half way through this but it’s a great, accessible introduction to the complexity of Australian Indigenous art.’

Edwina Shaw, Thrill Seekers (2012): ‘I read this in one sitting. I couldn’t put it down even though a lot was uncomfortable.’

0007149530Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder (2008): ‘Fascinating portraits of scientists in the late 18th century, when science and romanticism were closely joined. Particularly good on Banks and the Herschels.’

0670033804Sebastian Barry, The Long Way Home (2005) and On Canaan’s Side (2011): ‘Two completely absorbing novels. The first is probably the best novel of the First World War I’ve read, and the second extends the story to Irish immigration to the USA, and the past catching up with you, written convincingly in the voice of an 80 year old woman.’

My best books, which I’ve kept down to just five by declaring the AS’s list off limits:

20120224-180529Fàbio Moon & Gabriel Bà, Daytripper (2011): A gem of a comic book by twin brothers from Brazil, this is a string of connected short stories that celebrates a human life as a miracle of survival.

Amitav Ghosh, Sea of Poppies (2008): A story of colonial India that manages to be a gripping romance at the same time as blasting any romantic nostalgia for the Raj to oblivion.

Yalata and Oak Valley Communities with Christobel Mattingley, Maralinga, the Anangu Story (2009): it was a toss-up between this and Tohby Riddle’s miraculous Unforgotten for my picture book of the year. This is a different kind of miracle from Tohby’s – it opens a space for a multitude of voices to speak about the lethal indifference to Indigenous Australians on the part of he British atomic test at Maralinga, and about the resilience of the Anangu people.

Ross Gibson, Seven Versions of an Australian Badland (2002): I choose this over Gibson’s brilliant 26 Views of the Starburst World, which was published this year, because the earlier book made me understand something of the colonisation of my North Queensland home that I had read about previously but managed not to grasp.

Jennifer Maiden, Liquid Nitrogen (2012): I read quite a bit of poetry this year. Possibly the major revelation was Byron’s Don Juan, but I haven’t finished reading that, and I might have chosen Liquid Nitrogen anyway, as I feel that Jennifer Maiden’s stories, meditations and dialogues help me to live in the modern world.

A note on the gender balance front: I would have thought my reading was fairly every spread between male and female writers, but numbers don’t cater to wishful thinking. According to my blog statistics, I read 34 books by men and 22 by women.

Tohby Riddle’s Unforgotten

Tohby Riddle, Unforgotten (Allen & Unwin 2012)

This is a picture book to treasure. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful. The story is like (Doctor Who alert) ‘Blink’, only the angels are benign. So it’s also like (Wim Wenders alert) Wings of Desire, only not really, really long, and also suitable for children.

I’m a Tohby Riddle fan, and friend, but this goes well beyond any of his previous books. Shaun Tan says on the back cover: ‘Ephemeral as a feather, timeless as a rock, and as true as both.’

Crispin: The Cross of Lead

Avi, Crispin: the Cross of Lead (Scholastic 2002)

Moving house is supposed to be one of the most stressful things you can do. It certainly claims a lot of attention, and I thought perhaps a mediaeval adventure for young readers would be an appropriately diverting read. Crispin: The Cross of Lead turned out to be just the ticket – it’s straightforward but intelligent, with enough authenticating detail, political savvy and period vocabulary (I’m familiar with terce, sext and none, can guess what a glaive is, and had to look up mazer) to be interesting.

The 13 year old hero – ‘Asta’s son’ – doesn’t even know his own name at the start of the book. He and his mother have been outcasts in their small village, and now that his mother has died he is almost completely alone in the world. Things get rapidly worse. For reasons he doesn’t understand his life is threatened, and he flees the village that is all he has ever known. He is taken under the wing of a traveling juggler who turns out, of course, to be more than he seems, and we get an age-appropriate taste of the kind of 14th century European politics that informed Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. There’s a twist involving the young hero’s identity that you might be able to guess even from that wispy outline, and would be unsurprising to most of the 10 to 12 year old target readership (a phrase that always reminds me of a Tohby Riddle cartoon where a cheerful adult is taking aim at the head of a small child with a book that’s about to become a projectile). The final scenes are awfully implausible, in way that suggests a tight deadline was being met, but that wasn’t enough to take away from my enjoyment of the book as a whole.

If you don’t know Avi’s work (evidently that’s not a pen name, but the name he was given by his sister when he was small it’s the only one he uses now in his early seventies), I’d recommend starting with The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, in which another 13 year old has equally implausible but wonderfully swashbuckling adventures on the high seas in the early 19th century.

NSWPLA Dinner [2009]

[Retrieved from 18 May 2009]

Tonight writers, translators, illustrators, publishers, agents and fans put on their glad rags and turned up for a glittering evening in the Art Gallery. The occasion was the annual NSW Premier’s Literary Awards dinner. This year’s dinner cost $15 more than last year’s.

In previous years the dinner has been organised by staff of the Ministry of Arts. This year it was in the hands of the Department of Arts, Sport and Recreation. The transition was seamless, though there was a slightly awkward moment when the Department’s Director General, who was our MC, said we were doing very well for an arts event and only running half an hour late. There was no hiss of indrawn breath, but I did think it indicated she was much more familiar with sporting events than with arty ones, where my experience has been there is an obsession with punctuality. And at times, as she urged us to resume our seats after a break, her tone was reminiscent of what one would hear over the loudspeaker at, say, a netball tournament. But these were amusing foibles that in no way took away from the pleasure of the evening.

Nathan Rees, more famous for his stint as a garbo and for having inherited a train wreck of a government than for his Eng Lit Hons degree and likeability, gave the impression that he was much happier here than in the bearpit of politics. In his welcome (which followed Aunty Sylvia Scott’s Welcome to Country, in which she said, ‘Your books let me travel’), he spoke of his own passion for books, and told us that some left him cold, surely a mark of a genuine book lover. And he said, interestingly, ‘The examined life is only ever the turn of a page away.’

This was the thirtieth year of the awards, and there was slightly more reminiscence than usual. Neville Wran, the first Premier of the Literary Awards, was there and gave a brief talk on their genesis. Success has many parents, he reminded us, but failure is always an orphan. Of the many people who have claimed m/paternity of these awards, he assured us in his ruined voice, the one who could truly claim parenthood was his wife Jill, who insisted that Sydney should have a writers’ festival distinguished by literary awards. He mentioned the legendary Night of the Bread Rolls in 1985 when the guest speaker Morris West was pelted with bakery products. I’d heard that it was because he droned on. One of my dinner companions was there on that night, and he assured us that it was because the literary types were envious of Morris West’s best-seller status.

Marieke Hardy, of Reasons You Will Hate Me, gave the Address, with a tattoo on each shoulder and a large red flower behind one ear. She spoke of Twitter and quoted Stephen Fry to good effect. In the past, I’ve referred to these dinners as the Oscars of the introverted. Marieke went several steps better and, referring to booklovers out and proud, called it ‘our Mardi Gras’.

As in past years, it’s my pleasure to list the winners with random observations:

The UTS Prize for new writing: Nam Le, The Boat
There’s no short list for this prize, so the announcement was a bit of a surprise. It’s a wonderful book. The award was accepted by Nam Le’s publisher, who read out a short speech Nam had sent him from Italy.

The Gleebooks Prize for an outstanding book of critical writing: David Love, Unfinished Business: Paul Keating’s interrupted revolution
Nathan ‘s script described this as an accessible account of important economic matters. I’m afraid I didn’t understand a word of the brief acceptance speech after the initial ‘This is one for the true believers!’

The Community Relations Commission Award : Eric Richards, Destination Australia: migration to Australia since 1901
Eric Richards spoke of how Australia’s immigration program has been an outstanding success, yet has been and is still a cause of widespread anxiety. He was expecting the book to provoke ‘historical warfare’, but so far there has been none.

The Translation Prize and PEN Trophy: David Colmer
He seems to be a nice man – he translates from Dutch.

The Play Award: Daniel Keene, The Serpent’s Teeth
I saw the STC production of these plays, and was less than impressed by the production, though the plays as written seemed to be marvellous. I approve.

The Script Writing Award: Louis Nowra and Rachel Perkins and Beck Cole, First Australians
In announcing this prize the Premier said, quite rightly, that it was hard to go past this show, but then he went and spoiled the moment by feminising Mr Nowra’s first name. When Rachel Perkins took the mike she pointed out the error. Our Nathan looked suitably abashed, and Louis clearly couldn’t help himself: ‘How long do you plan to stay in government?’ he asked, trying to make it sound good-natured. Ow!

The Kenneth Slessor Prize for a book of poems or for a single poem of substantial length published in book form: LK Holt, Man Wolf Man
Possibly intimidated by the compere’s reminders of the importance of being brief, LK Holt simply thanked her publisher and took her prize. She did stand at the microphone long enough to enable those of us close enough to read the enigmatic tattoo on her left shoulder: ‘MCMLXN’.

The Ethel Turner Prize for a work written for young people of secondary school level: Michelle Cooper, A Brief History of Montmaray
At this stage I began to feel very under-read.

The Patricia Wrightson Prize for a work for children up to secondary school level: Ursula Dubosarsky & Tohby Riddle, The Word Spy
And then I started to feel like an insider again. Tohby and Ursula have both worked at The School Magazine. I read this book in its first incarnations as a series of columns in the magazine, and I was sitting at the same table as both of them – along with two other generations of Ursula’s family and Tohby’s wife Sally. This is the fifth gong Ursula has collected from NSW Premiers. Though it’s no longer a gong.: to mark the 30th anniversary, a new trophy has been created, by Dinosaur Designs: a hefty, transparent, book-shaped objet.

The Douglas Stewart Prize for a prose work other than a work of fiction: Chloe Hooper, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island
I’ve read this too, and think it deserves any prize anyone chooses to give it.

The Christina Stead Prize for a book of fiction: Joan London,The Good Parents
I haven’t read this, but it’s been very well reviewed in my house. Joan London gave a sweet speech, acknowledging , among other things, her debt to her children.

The People’s Choice Award: Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole
I hadn’t voted, because I’d only read two of the books, and this wasn’t one of the ones I’d read. The same man who had accepted Nam Le’s award accepted this one, but Steve Toltz, who couldn’t be there, hadn’t tweeted him anything to say, so he just looked pleased.

Book of the Year: Nam Le, The Boat
Then the poor guy had to get up for the third time, and gave us the second half of Nam Le’s emailed acceptance speech, in which he thanked his readers, ‘both professional and normal’. As one who used to be a professional reader who is striving for normality, I loved this.

The Special Award: Katharine Brisbane
Katharine was my first employer, when she was Managing Editor at Currency Press, and I couldn’t be more pleased at her receiving this recognition. She adlibbed an elegant speech about the importance of recognising achievement in the arts. She has received a number of awards in her time, she said, but this is the first one to come with money attached. She closed by saying that she too had been there in 1985. ‘We pelted Morris West with bread rolls because he warned us that we had to be prepared for bad things. The Baader Meinhofs were in the news, and he was warning us against terrorism. We thought he was ridiculous, but he was right.’

And then it was all over bar the networking …

… and the journey home. As I was walking back towards the city from the Art Gallery, I drew alongside a rough looking man going in the same direction. He said hello and asked how the evening had gone. ‘We’re homeless, you see, we sleep just beside the porch there.’ We chatted for a couple of minutes. He told me who had won the People’s Choice at the Archibald. I tried to tell him about the Literary Awards, but I think he still thought I’d been at something to do with paintings. As we parted, he said, in an eerie echo of Nathan Rees’s comment about the examined life: ‘People don’t realise it, but you’re always just one step away from the gutter,’ and we wished each other good night and good luck.

Books I read in India (and on the plane there and back) [January 2008]

Jean-Dominique Bauby, translated Jeremy Leggatt, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Fourth Estate 1997)
Richard E Grant, The Wah-Wah Diaries (Picador 2006)
Ruskin Bond, Roads to Mussoorie (Rupa & Co 2005)
Henning Mankel, Kennedy’s Brain (Harvill Secker 2007)
Philip Kerr, The One from the Other (Quercus 2006)
Michelle De Kretser, The Hamilton Case (Knopf 2003)
P Sainath, Everybody Loves a Good Drought (Penguin India 1996)
Tohby Riddle, Pink Freud (Penguin Australia 2007)

Deciding what books to take travelling is probably always problematic. They need to weigh little enough, be discardable or relevant enough, and preferably be likely to be read by more than one traveller. My reading on this trip managed a fairly decent combination of those criteria.

dbb

The Jean-Dominique Bauby memoir rates high on the light-of-weight criterion. Given the manner of its composition, it’s just as well. Bauby was suffering Locked-in Syndrome in the aftermath of a stroke: his mind was unimpaired, but his paralysis was so extensive that he could communicate only by blinking his left eye. Just reading about it was enough to restimulate my mild episode of Bell’s Palsy from some decades ago. He dictated this elegant, even lyrical book one letter at a time by blinking that eye. I’ll never look at the immobile and unresponsive people in the nursing home the same again: they differ from Bauby in being demented, but the powerful lesson of the book is surely that inability to communicate is not at all the same thing as lack of ability to perceive and respond.

I read the whole thing before we reached Singapore. As it had been lent to me, it stayed with me for the whole remainder of the trip, and came home safely. I recoil from the idea of the film (which is coming to Sydney soon). This is a quintessentially verbal creation, and I can’t see that a film could be anything other than a travesty.

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I expected the Richard E Grant book to be discardable, but it’s such a good read that it too stayed with me for the whole trip and is now on loan to an emerging filmmaker. The thing about REG (as he is called in the captions to the location photographs) is that as a first-time, perhaps even one-time writer-director who is also a well-established character actor, he is at the same time an insider and an outsider in the movie business. Wah-Wah is an intensely personal, autobiographical film, and the diary of its making is also intensely personal, an account of revisiting a difficult but rich childhood. It’s also the story of a multinational, multimillion dollar enterprise in which it sometimes seemed that anything that could go wrong would go wrong. The diary form serves the subject well, and in his producer REG finds a perfect villain. It’s hard to believe she was ever as incompetent, as obnoxious, as French-arrogant as she is portrayed, but the joy she gives as a character in the book is directly proportional to the pain she apparently gave in the real/reel world. I remember enjoying the film. I’d now like to see it again. And I’d love to see a version that includes some of the (correctly) excised scenes.

rm

By now we were in Delhi, and when in the Central Cottage Industries Emporium on Jarpath Radial near Connaught Place I saw books by Ruskin Bond, a sometime contributor to a magazine I once edited, of course I bought one – an interesting experience in itself, as the process was broken down into its parts: agreement to the purchase and receipt of a docket at the counter; payment and having the docket stamped at a cashier two floors down; receipt of the book and surrender of the docket just inside the exit door.

The book is a collection of rambling essays about the joys of living in Mussoorie, a hill station in Uttar Pradesh. It turned out I’d read a number of the pieces before when RB submitted them as typescripts to the magazine (corrected with white-out and ink – I can verify his assertion in the book that he doesn’t use a computer). We published at least one of them. But there was a special pleasure in reading them so close to the place where they were written, and where Ruskin still lives, as far as I know. Among many delights, one that stands out is the little excursion into the history of potato in India – we had an Irish soldier to thank for the plentiful potato that seemed to feature in every meal.

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The Henning Mankell book made the cut because both Penny and I have enjoyed his detective stories, and I’m respectful of his two books for young people (one of which deals, like this book, with AIDS). Written, according to an endnote, in fury at the role of the West in relation to AIDS in Africa, it appears to have been revised in haste, to have done without beta readers altogether, and been copy-edited on a tight budget. The result is that, though the same endnote asks that the book be taken seriously as shedding light on terrible things, it actually comes across as a clumsy fantasy of wickedness, a rickety, even incoherent, echo of Le Carre’s The Constant Gardener, a trivialising of the issues about which Mankell undoubtedly cares deeply. The translation may be partly to blame, but I don’t think so.

We didn’t have the heart to inflict this on any of our fellow travellers, so it found a bin in the pink city of Jaipur.

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We brought The One from the Other for pretty much the same reasons as the Henning Mankell, except I haven’t read any of Philip Kerr’s children’s books. It ranked low on the relevance scale, though as I took my malaria tablets one morning, I enjoyed the moment’s connection to the book’s maguffin, a cure for malaria which was to be found at monstrous cost.

It turns out to be a ripping good yarn, in an amusing tough-guy voice; its incidents and conspiracy theories are plausible; and its endnote provides quite a bit of information on the sources on post-war Germany and Austria where it is set. Of course, Kerr has the advantage over Mankell of a setting nearly 60 years in the past, which is well documented and much storied, and in which he has already set a number of novels. Still … we didn’t have any qualms about passing this one on.

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Michelle De Kretser writes a pretty damn good sentence, and a pretty damn good yarn. Our copy of The Hamilton Case is a hardcover, so not designed for ease of packing, and neither Penny nor I had read anything by this author. We must have thought its setting made it relevant. And indeed, Ceylonese complexities did resonate with our experiences in the land of the former British Raj. The resonances weren’t always comfortable. I noted down a couple of neat observations:

There is an old instinct, at work in bordellos and the relations of East and West, to convert the unbearable into the picturesque. It enables a sordid existence to be endured, on one side, and witnessed, on the other, with something like equanimity

and

The coloniser returns as a tourist, you see. And he is mad for difference. That is the luxury commodity we now supply, as we once kept him in cinnamon and sapphires.

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On the train from Delhi to Agra we got chatting with an Indian couple from Pune who were also sightseeing. In a wide-ranging conversation, I asked if they would recommend any books about India by Indians. They mentioned Everybody Loves a Good Drought. The first time I got to a bookshop was in Pushkar in the last couple of days of our trip, and sure enough, there it was, along with just about every other book by an Indian or about india that I have ever read. I read it on the plane home, and haven’t quite finished it. The subtitle says it all: ‘Stories from India’s Poorest Districts’.

It’s wonderful, powerful journalism: P Sainath spent some years travelling around talking to the poorest of the poor and writing articles for The Times of India. This is a collection of the articles linked by short generalising essays. It gives faces and voices to the poor, and it’s unremitting. Nothing picturesque or ‘different’ here.

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Tohby’s collection of cartoons from the weekend magazines of the Sydney Morning Herald and the Melbourne Age was on the hall table on our return, a very welcome gift. I was still making frequent visits to the toilet, and this book made the experience much less unpleasant. I include it here, because it was part of the India experience to come home to something so very Sydney: warm, witty, elliptic, muted, spiritual and sometimes laugh-out-loud. I particularly liked the image of a search and rescue worker who, when asked where he’s going, says, ‘I’m going to India to find myself.’