Tag Archives: Ursula Dubosarsky

Dubosarsky & Chapman’s Leaf Stone Beetle

Ursula Dubosarsky & Gaye Chapman, Leaf Stone Beetle (Dirt Lane Press 2018)

Just under a year ago I became a grandfather. My granddaughter isn’t up to Sendak or Roald Dahl yet, of course. She’s barely up to Eric Hill’s Where’s Spot, Ted Prior’s Grug or Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, though she listens attentively to readings from them, as well as Judy Horacek and Mem Fox’s Where Is the Green Sheep? and any number of excellent board books supplied by her excellent parents.

My own interest in children’s literature has been undergoing a revival independent of the granddaughter’s needs or interests. When I saw Leaf Stone Beetle on the shelf at Gleebooks, I couldn’t resist: Ursula Dubosarsky has written a number of brilliant novels for children, and Gaye Chapman is a formidable, adventurous illustrator. The book will probably belong to a grandniece in less than three weeks, but I have enjoyed it first.

It’s a beautifully produced little book, just 36 pages, that tells a little story about three things – vegetable, mineral, animal, leaf, stone, beetle – each of which/whom is affected by a storm, which brings them together for a moment. That’s it. That’s the whole story. Small illustrations of the leaf, stone and beetle are scattered through the pages, and there are three spreads showing the storm, one for each of the ‘characters’.

My grandniece will no doubt have a different take, but I responded to it as a lyrical embrace of a world where anything can happen, where life is precarious and finite, where there is profound comfort to be found in the sense that one’s small existence is part of the great processes of nature. The text is exquisite, and the drawings burst with energy. 

Leaf Stone Beetle is the eighteenth book I’ve read for the 2018 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Lesley Lebkowicz’s Petrov Poems

Lesley Lebkowicz, The Petrov Poems (2013)

1pp I was seven years old in 1954, and have dim memories of what Wikipedia bills as the Petrov Affair. Vladimir Petrov, third secretary of the Russian Embassy in Canberra, defected, and some days later his wife Evdokia followed suit, generating a dramatic front page photograph showing two burly Russians manhandling a distraught woman across the tarmac of Sydney aerodrome – tellingly, the woman has lost one of her shoes. It’s not clear that the Petrovs had anything substantial to reveal about Russian espionage, but their defection was a boon to the Menzies government’s anti-Communist machinations and has fired the national imagination, or sections of it, for decades.

The affair was the subject of Ralph Peterson’s 1959 play The Third Secretary, which was part of The Currency Press’s first Playtexts Series in 1971, in teh august company of Dorothy Hewett’s The Chapel Perilous and Louis Esson’s The Time is Not Yet Ripe.  Robert Manne’s exhaustive account, The Petrov Affair, was published in 1980, and again in a revised edition in 2004. The Petrovs feature offstage in Ursula Dubosarsky’s magnificent 2006 children’s book The Red Shoe. So far I was keeping up. Then Noelle Janaczewska’s Mrs Petrov’s Shoe won a Queensland Premiers Literary Award in 2006 (back in the days when the Queensland government gave money to the arts), and Andrew Croome’s Document Z got a gong in the NSW equivalent in 2010. How many books could one minor incident sustain?

I tried to read Andrew Croome’s book. It’s probably very good. But I couldn’t get past the first line of the first page, so strong was my reluctance to read one more word about the Petrovs. They may be our only spy scandal, I thought, but they’re just not that interesting. Yet when someone at our book club (the one where we swap books, not the one where we discuss them) offered Lesley Lebkowicz’ book of poems, I surprised myself by taking it home.

I don’t think any book could have completely dispelled my pre-emptive ennui, but this book came pretty close. It’s pretty much a verse novel, keeping a fairly tight focus on the two main characters, known mostly by their pet names Volodya and Dusya. It begins as they arrive in Sydney, seen from Dusya’s point of view:

Volodya is solid – more than a husband – an ally.
She touches his arm, feels its warmth, the play
of slack flesh over bone. Softness had long fled
his mind. He had seen hundreds shovelled
into their graves, thousands destroyed like ants
swept away by hot water.

The narrative takes us through the process of disaffection to their defections, their interrogations and then their dislocated new life. It ends, after Volodya’s death, with Dusya living with her sister Tamara in suburban Melbourne:

Dusya and her sister walk along the flat paths of Bentleigh

like any two women from Europe.
They’re on their way to drink coffee in the suburb’s first café.
They talk about whether to buy veal
for diner and watch The Bill on TV. Whatever

Tamara says makes Dusya happy – it’s hearing
her voice. Occasionally Dusya mentions Volodya

and Tamara looks at her
but says nothing. His name falls out of their lives.

So it’s as much the story of a relationship that plays out in extraordinary circumstances, a migrant story with higher stakes and the glare of publicity. The part of the story that struck home most forcefully for me is in the last two sections, ‘The Petrovs at Palm Beach’ and ‘The Petrovs in Melbourne’, where they continue with their lives after the drama, neither celebrated nor left alone. From ‘Sentences’:

‘I am Petrov,’ he tells a fellow in Manly,
expecting some sign.
‘Congratulations,’ the man says and walks off.

His photograph regards him every day from The Herald.
What he’s done must mean something –

From ‘They know we are Petrovs’:

The whole street knows they are Petrovs –
too many photos, too much publicity.
One journalist never leaves them alone.
He lurks in his car outside their house.

A kind neighbour builds a gate in their fence
so when the journalist comes, they slip out
through his garden.
In Russia it would have been different –

no one would have known who they were.

The verse is always clear and sharp as this. A lot of it is in unrhymed sonnets, but there’s much variety in form. If you haven’t read much about the Petrov Affair, and OK even if you have, this is a good story well told. If you want to read more about it, I recommend the excellent review by Sue at Whispering Gums.

awwbadge_2013This is the last title in my Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2013. I seem to have read 15, and it’s been fun. I’ve signed up for the 2014 challenge.

A launch

Ursula Dubosarsky’s new book, The Golden Day, was launched yesterday with a suitable sense of occasion. I’d spent the morning as an extra in a rap video clip (about which I may blog some other time), but no one at the launch seemed to notice that my usually shiny forehead was sporting a light dusting of make-up.

We were at Nutcote Cottage, home of May Gibbs, a lovely site for a launch. The golden light of a fine Sydney autumn afternoon, tiny muffins, cupcakes and Lamington slices would have made the mood celebratory even without a subject. As you see from the pic a new Dubosarsky book draws quite a crowd: from the publishing world, family, writers (not just for children), artists and illustrators, colleagues, Marrickville dwellers, the wife of a former Federal Minister, former students of SCEGGS Darlinghurst and even some of the book’s target audience, that is to say, children.

The Nutcote lawn

Julie McCrossin presided. Drawing on her experience as radio interviewer and stand-up comedian, she put Ursula through her paces, quizzing her about her inspiration for the book. It’s set in a genteel girls church school in the inner eastern suburbs of Sydney, a school that evidently bears an uncanny resemblance to SCEGGS Darlinghurst, of which both Julie and Ursula are alumnae. Calling on contributions from other Old Girls, they evoked a startling picture of uniformed schoolgirls making their way from the bus stop to the school gates though filthy streets where junkies and prostitutes hung out. One member of the class of ’78 was coaxed by Julie into saying that she didn’t remember much out of the ordinary, apart from an occasional flasher and the naked woman who appeared in a doorway one morning asking her to get help.

‘There are myriad kinds of writers,’ Ursula said, responding to Julie’s pressing her for the meaning of some of the incidents in the book. ‘I’m the kind of writer who lets herself go to the dream.’ I quote this because it rings so very true of Ursula’s work, but also because just a few moments later Julie referred to the ‘ ‘myriad of influences’ she detected in the book (Picnic at Hanging Rock, classical myth, etc), thereby adding a little fuel to the fire of a conversation I’ve been having recently about usage: Ursula the classicist uses ‘myriad’ as I do; Julie the journalist agrees with my journalist friend. (Are you reading this, L–?)

Julie: Might I suggest that there's an underlying theme of sexual awakening? Ursula: Oh, that's what my book's about!

Prime Minister’s Literary Awards short lists

The shortlist for the fourth Prime Minister’s Literary Awards has just been published.

On the Book Show on 12 July, Hilary McPhee said, ‘Once you’ve published someone and like their work, you stick with them and read them and see what they’re doing with themselves.’ That’s true of me in my own small way. So I’m thrilled to see on the children’s and young adults’ lists a number of people whose work graced the pages of The School Magazine during my stewardship.

On the Young Adult Fiction shortlist:
Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God, Bill Condon (32 items in SM, between 1992 and 2005, including poems, stories and plays)
The Museum of Mary Child, Cassandra Golds (incalculable contributions to the magazine as member of editorial staff)

On the Children’s Fiction shortlist:
The Terrible Plop, Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Andrew Joyner (mainly excerpts from Ursula’s books in my time, but after I left she joined editorial staff and Andrew became a regular illustrator)
Star Jumps, Lorraine Marwood (42 poems between 1998 and 2005)
Harry and Hopper, Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Thinking about it, I can’t claim to have published Margaret Wild, but she’s an Annandalean, so I’m thrilled to see her there too.

I hope they all win.

There are also awards for general fiction (with names like Malouf and Coetzee shortlisted) and non-fiction (with contenders ranging from the extreme lyricism of Mark Tredinnick to what the judges describe unpromisingly as ‘monumental history’ and ‘prescient analysis’ by John Keane).

Previous decisions on these awards have been eccentric, so the winners are anyone’s bet. I won’t even hazard a guess. Unlike, say, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, they’re not arms-length decisions: the judging panels recommend but the Prime Minister decides, and in the first year of the awards, John w Howard did in fact overrule the judges to make sure the Anzac myth got a boost. Let’s see if whoever is Prime Minister when these winners are announced (I can’t find a date on the site) has enough grace to refrain from bending the prize to her (please!) or his ideological agenda.

Bookblog #59: March is the launchiest month

Paula Shaw, Seven Seasons in Aurukun (Allen & Unwin 2009)
Cassandra Golds, The Museum of Mary Child (Penguin Australia 2009)
Ursula Dubosarsky, The Terrible Plop (Penguin Australia 2009)
Stephen Whiteside, Poems of 2008 (self published 2009)
Noelene Martin, Freda (self published 2009)

Here’s a clutch of books I have more than a casual interest in.

aurukunI’ve told you about Paula’s Seven Seasons more than once, and may well do so again. Now I’ve actually read it. While it’s missing some of the juicier and possibly libellous moments of the early draft I read, it still offers plenty to chew on, and is also — Richard Aedy was right — a bit of a girl’s own adventure. More than 30 years ago I spent six weeks in a remote Aboriginal community with the Fred Hollows Trachoma Prevention Program. Just those few weeks were enough to unsettle my sense of what it means to be Australian. One of the other Trachoma-ites put it well, if slightly hyperbolically: I used to think Australia was a European country, he said, but now I realise it’s an Aboriginal country with a huge number of Europeans living around the edges. Paula spent a lot more than six weeks in Aurukun, and engaged in a way that shows up my stay at Willowra for the tourism it was. What’s more, she took on the challenge of wrangling the experience into words. I hope the book provokes a productive conversation. I expect it will give pleasure to most readers. But don’t take my word for it.

plopmarychildEarly in the month, the publication of these books by former editorial staff members on The School Magazine was celebrated — nothing so grand as a launch — by a small lunch in town. I had the best gnocchi ever, the authors paid, and we enjoyed each other and the occasion in a way that might have been described as riotous if there had been more than a handful of us. But the pleasures of the lunch were pallid compared to those of the books. I hadn’t seen The Terrible Plop before, but I hope to see much more of it as a result of giving it to very young acquaintances: it’s a rhyming story of ridiculous terror in the forest that begs to be read repeatedly until it’s known by heart. The Museum of Mary Child is another book I read in earlier incarnations, as a beta reader. As a rule I’m not drawn to horror as a genre, and this is at least marginally a horror book – marginal because there are no vampires, ghouls or zombies. But I just loved it. I haven’t read the published version yet, but it’s been highly praised in the Aust Child Lit Crit journal Magpies as a ‘disturbing and quite terrifying’ book that ‘demands a special reader’. 

whiteside08This book slipped quietly into my mail box with a friendly note from the author. It turned out he’d used a quote from this blog as a back cover blurb, and I wasn’t embarrassed to see myself thus quoted. Stephen evidently plans to produce two very slim vols a year to sell at his performances, and his brief introduction to this one implies that he produced a number of poems in 2008 that didn’t make the cut. He’s a member or ARVOs (Australian Rhyming Verse Orators), a group who meet of a Sunday, presumably in the afternoon, to celebrate their shared passion for bush poetry. Poems of 2008 begins with ‘Triangular Cantaloupe’ a smooth parody of/tribute to C J Denis’s ‘Triantiwontigongolope‘ and proceeds on its cheerful way for 40 pages. There’s a touch of controversy in ‘A Puzzle’, which raises questions about euthanasia in a poem that an introductory note suggests might be for children. There’s political comment, in ‘Australia Spurns a Hero’, about Peter Norman, the white Australian athlete who stood on the podium with the two African Americans who gave the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics:

Norman is a hero, now, throughout the USA.
October 9 has peen proclaimed as Peter Norman Day,
And in Australia’s hist’ry a most sorry day is burned,
For Norman is the hero that his native country spurned.

You can get copies from the BookPod online bookstore or, while stocks last, wherever Stephen Whiteside is performing.

fredaFreda is a self published book of a very different stripe, a biography of Freda Whitlam, launched this morning appropriately enough at the Whitlam Institute in the University of Western Sydney. Noelene Martin, the author, is a friend and neighbour of her subject, and I suspect she chose the self-publishing route to improve her chances of getting the book into print while Freda, now nearing 90, and her elder brother Gough were still around to enjoy it. Noelene is a veteran writer of non-fiction for children (much of it published in The School Magazine during my editorship, hence my interest in the project), and it shows here: while the meat of the story is in Freda’s career as Principal of the prestigious Croydon Presbyterian Ladies College in Sydney, Moderator of the Uniting Church, force behind the establishment of the University of the Third Age in Sydney, and so on, it’s the first hundred pages that really shine.

You can tell that, as well as sifting through piles of youthful correspondence, the author spent hours with her subject, listening to reminiscences. As she said today at the launch, the down side of seeing the book finally published is that all the secrets about Freda that she has held close to her heart are now general property. The little girl who knew the Greek alphabet, but not the English, before she started school; the teenager who walked seven miles from her tutor’s place back to school and couldn’t understand why the Principal made a fuss; the young woman at Yale on a Fulbright Scholarship who slept through a sermon by Eric Fromm; the beginning teacher on an excursion to Alice Springs who couldn’t stand to see a tourist haggling with Albert Namatjira and interrupted to buy a painting at exactly the price the artist was asking: the book recounts these and a myriad other minutely recorded incidents that are steps on a journey to a significant contribution to public life. (As a bonus, we get to see Gough as a shadowy but brilliant big brother.)

The launch was an imposing affair. A handful of distinguished Whitlams, including Gough in a wheelchair, and a hundred or so other people, mostly a good bit older than me, gathered in a spacious hall with modern stained glass windows and were addresses by the Vice Chancellor, Barry Jones (the launcher, who proclaimed with reasonable confidence that he and Freda were the only two people in the room who had corresponded with Ezra Pound, and conceded that she won the competition by having actually met him in the asylum in Washington DC), Noelene and finally Freda herself. Much had been said about Freda’s modesty (her entry in Who’s Who is apparently terse to an extreme and she doesn’t have a Wikipedia page at this moment). Her speech exemplified the trait: she hardly mentioned herself at all, but urged us to be glad at the publication of a book by someone from Western Sydney, about someone in western Sydney, when so many people think that ‘out here we don’t read’. Everyone has a story worth telling, she said, and it was good that one person’s story was being told in this book. In other words, she found any number of ways of praising the book while directing attention away from herself.

You would probably have trouble finding this book, but if you’re interested in Whitlamiana, in the history of the Uniting Church in New South Wales, the University of the Third Age, or the past as a fascinating other country, I recommend you contact the author-publisher at mrsmarty(at)aapt(dot)net(dot)au.