Wednesday, December 18, 2013


Yes, there are spaces on some of my shelves (but only  this one) ... I regularly hand books on, in order to have room for more. Of course, I keep all the old, best-loved ones.

The attic has rules. Yes!

These be the rules: No post shall be without a quotation from a book. Or a song. This time (sigh) I think the quotation has to be be from a book by moi.

Now she reads (the luxury of it!) till the small hours of the morning. Books fill the shelves that line the walls of her room; she has so many they spill over into piles on the floor and over the coffee table; they are stacked up beside the sofa, so she only has to reach out her hand and it touches a book.
The books are many and various. There are new books, with clean, shiny covers and crisp pages, and there are old books, rare books, with beautiful dustjackets and intriguing inscriptions inside. Their pages are beautiful in a different way from the clean, sweet-smelling white pages of the new books - these old books have thick, cream-coloured paper, browned on the edges, some as crisp as a perfectly fried egg. They all smell different - of rich, old spices, or deep green forests, earthy and damp. They evoke long-forgotten rooms and other lives.

Joanne Horniman, Secret Scribbled Notebooks (2004)

And so we enter the season of intense reading, where it is too hot to do anything else here in Northern NSW. Wherever you are, I wish you a festive end-of-year full of books, and a new one of happy reading.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Of attics and apples

Do  the books that writers don't write matter? It's easy to forget them, to assume that the apocryphal bibliography must contain nothing but bad ideas, justly abandoned projects, embarrassing first thoughts. It needn't be so: first thoughts are often best, cheeringly rehabilitated by third thoughts after they've been loured at by seconds. Besides, an idea isn't always abandoned because it fails some quality control test. The imagination doesn't crop annually like a reliable fruit tree. The writer has to gather whatever's there: sometimes too much, sometimes too little, sometimes nothing at all. And in the years of glut there is always a slatted wooden tray in some cool, dark attic, which the writer nervously visits from time to time; and yes, oh dear, while he's been hard at work downstairs, up in the attic there are puckering skins, warning spots, a sudden brown collapse and the sprouting of snowflakes. What can he do about it?

With Flaubert, the apocrypha cast a second shadow. If the sweetest moment in life is a visit to a brothel that doesn't come off, perhaps the sweetest moment of writing is the arrival of that idea for a book which never has to be written, which is never sullied with a definite shape, which never  needs be exposed to a less loving gaze than that of its author.

Julian Barnes: 'Flaubert's Parrot' (1984)

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The cow at the creek

I think I could turn and live with animals, they are so placid and self-contained;
I stand and look at them long and long.
They do not sweat and whine about their condition.
They do not lie awake in the dark and weep for their sins.
They do not make me sick discussing their duty to God;
Not one is dissatisfied - not one is demented with the mania of owning things;
Not one kneels to another, nor his kind that lived thousands of years ago;
Not one is responsible or industrious over the whole earth.

Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Until a day or two ago it had not rained for months. There is so little feed around that the cattle belonging to a farm up the creek are getting through fences and wandering over neighbouring properties, including ours.

Today when I went down to the creek to feed the ducks, there was a large old black cow, with huge horns. As I approached, she did not run away as they always do, but looked at me wearily.

I stopped. Leisurely, she put her mouth to the water and drank and drank. It was then that I noticed she was heavily pregnant. Slowly and laboriously, she climbed the steep bank opposite and went on her way.

I liked her, so dignified and long-suffering. She wasn't young.

The people who own these cattle over-stock them.  A neighbour reckons they are animal hoarders, hoarding also dogs and cats in their dozens.

People do sicken me at times, but never animals.  There's a bit in a Alice Munro story where a woman has on her tombstone, 'She was kind to her chickens.'

I can't think of a better epitaph for me.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

At Kylie's

Diamond Head has its own special illusion. Anyone who comes there is filled with a wild resolution to stay for ever. No man but is possessed  with the urge to bend Diamond Head to his secret longings, to make it his own. Diamond Head deals with them. It outlasts. Its great lump of basalt was doing just this a few hundred years ago when captain Cook and his crew of constipated heros swept past, claiming the continent in a distant and gentlemanly manner. They heard the roar of the cliffs as so many cheers for their passing, a bombardment of welcome salutes. And Diamond Head will give a belch and a roar for the passing of all who come after him.

Kylie Tennant, The Man on the Headland (1971)

We came to Diamond Head (Dimandead) in the late afternoon of a hot, dry and windy day a couple of weeks ago, having left Canberra about 8 am. We did not know it, but the state was burning to the south in our beloved Blue Mountains.

It was a day of complete fire ban; we knew that, so cold baked beans for dinner. We called in at Diamond Head camp ground to register and pay our camp fees. The ranger was away till a quarter to 5, so we waited, wandering down to the beach. A storm was brewing.

Back at the Ranger's office, it began to rain, fat drops making us take shelter under the overhang of the roof. Nearby kangaroos, used to people, hopped over at once to also take shelter under the roof, though around the corner of the building from where we were.

The Diamond Head camp ground is the most popular, full of motor homes and caravans. Simple campers, we prefer the seclusion and privacy of the Kylie's Hut area, a kilometre or two away, at Indian Head.

In the 1940s, the writer Kylie Tennant moved to nearby Laurieton where her husband got a job as school principal.  They stayed many years; both their children were born there.

And it was there that Kylie met Ernie Metcalfe, the 'mad hermit' of Diamond Head, whose family had a farm there (very little farming seemed to be actually done). Later, in 1971, she published a memoir of their time there, naming it The Man on the Headland as a tribute to Ernie, whose story this also is.

Ernie was neither mad nor a hermit; Kylie described him as the 'most sociable of men'. He loved beer, but because he couldn't afford to shout (buy a round of drinks for others), he did not go to the pub.  He was the archetypal bushman, happy to rough it as long as he had his freedom.

Kylie and her husband Roddy befriended him. He'd come around and play chess with Roddy, and borrow books. He read all Dickens, Tolstoy and Balzac, as well as stories of Polar and African explorers.

And Kylie would go to stay out at Ernie's because she loved the bush; it gave her time to think and write, and was a good place to take her first baby, Benison, to give her plenty of sun and air.  She wanted to build a hut to stay in and insisted on paying a fair price for the land Ernie wanted to give her. He was astounded that it was worth sixty five pounds.

In 1976, she gave the land and hut to the National Parks, and the whole headland is now national park.

We first went there over 30 years ago, and then not till earlier this year. The hut has been moved, and fixed up somewhat, so it's not quite as it was described in the book, or what it was like when we first went there.

There are now large swathes of grassed area (there are about 80 camp sites, though both times we've been there this year there were only three lots of campers. From the hut, which may be used in an emergency to sleep in, it is only a short walk down to the beach.

In her book, Kylie talks of the rutile sand miners coming in next door. (Sand mining disrupted the dunes and bush all the way along the coast and left the curse of the weed bitou bush, which they used to revegetate.  She hated having them there, for the the damage they did to the beach and bush, and the noise of the machinery, but Ernie was phlegmatic. 'You'll never know in fifty years,' he said.

Bitou bush is a noxious weed, but the bush has fairly well recovered, sixty years later. maybe Ernie was right.

I met Kylie Tennant in the early 1970s. She came in to the magazine where I was an editorial assistant to see the two women I worked with, notable children's writers both. I had tea with her a few times, and found her warm, generous, and good-humoured.

As are all her books, and especially The Man on the Headland. It has the kind of humour that speaks of a particular brand of Australian resilience.

When I camp at Kylie's I feel that she and Ernie are there with me, that I am entirely welcome. It's a good feeling, rather like coming home.

Tennant and her family later moved away to Sydney, but they kept the hut, and went to visit. Ernie also visited them in Sydney.

After he died:

A year later, my son coming back from Dimandead said, "You were right about Ernie. He's still there." Somehow the memory of his old army hat has left him. He is always bareheaded in the sunlight. If I did not turn round Ernie could be heard talking of the weather and the birds. Dimandead shines now with more splendid light. It is not every day that a headland takes to itself the soul of a man.

The Man on the Headland 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013


What is wrong with Cryan and most people, said Byrne, is that they do not spend sufficient time in bed. When a man sleeps, he is steeped and lost in a limp toneless happiness: awake he is restless, tortured by his body and the illusion of existence. Why have men spent the centuries seeking to overcome the awakened body? Put it to sleep, that is a better way. Let it serve only to turn the sleeping soul over, to change the blood-stream and thus make possible a deeper and more refined sleep.
I agree, I said.
We must invert our conception of repose and activity, he continued. We should not sleep to recover the energy expended when awake but rather wake occasionally to defecate the unwanted energy that sleep engenders. This might be done quickly - a five-mile race at full tilt around the town and then back to bed and the kingdom of the shadows.
You're a terrible man for the blankets, said Kerrigan.

Flann O'Brien, At Swim-Two-Birds (1939)

At Swim-Two-Birds is about a young, frequently drunk, lazy student who lives with his uncle and spends much of his time in bed. He is writing a book about a character named Desmond Trellis, the publican of the Red Swan, who is also writing a book.

Personal reminiscence, part the first:   One thing my maternal grandmother strongly disapproved of was lying on the bed during the day. Once the bed was made, first thing, that was it, and any tell-tale creases could tell what people had been doing.

Trouble was, her daughter married into a family, part English, part Irish ( I claim Miss Hayes, from Ireland, who married my French convict great-great (and maybe another great) grandfather), for whom lying on the bed  was considered no great sin, and spawned daughters who elevated lying on the bed during the day reading books to an art form. And my mother wasn't averse to a bit of a lie-down during the day with a book either.

This makes my grandmother sound rather joyless, but she wasn't. Staying with her was a glorious time of making toast in front of a wood fire, eating heaps of home-made biscuits with cups of tea, and home-made ice-cream made with Sunshine full-cream powdered milk, sugar and gelatine.  She liked cats, and dogs, and girls, so that was lucky for me. She accepted me for the odd, bookish creature that I was. I would go to stay with her in her cottage in a little coastal town, and go walking on the beach and help her around the house.

She looked very like this; I can only ever remember her old with her long hair in a bun, small and round, forever doing what she called 'jobs' around the house, gardening, and boiling up clothes in her copper (even after her children bought her a washing machine).
Conclusion of the foregoing.

The major part of the narrative of At Swim-Two-Birds is comprised of the novel the unnamed narrator is writing, which is mostly comprised of the novel his character, Trellis, is in turn writing, and then later the novel Trellis's son (by one of his characters) is writing to get back at his father, which is in turn hijacked by the other characters to really give Trellis his comeuppance.

With me?

Anyway, it's hilarious, and many of the characters aren't even 'real', but creatures of Irish myth and legend. But what is real anyway? And remember that N, the narrator is also made up. So there's another book there, the one O'Brien is writing.

But do characters really feel so vindictive towards their authors (even fictional ones?) For these characters start taking over the narrative, drugging Trellis so they can do whatever they like.

Biographical reminiscence, part the second:  About a decade ago I got very ill and spend months of enforced bed-lying, which wasn't much fun. I can remember throwing The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene away in disgust, it was so depressing. Not a good choice when you're not on top of things.

And then when I was on my feet again, I put aside all the notes I'd been taking for a book while I was ill (it made me feel that I was still working), and while I was lying on the day-bed in the living-room with my notebooks around me, I came up with a completely new idea.

Two sisters who lie around on a bed reading books!

And so I came to write Secret Scribbled Notebooks. Whenever someone asked what I was writing I said, a book about two girls who lie about on beds reading Great Books. I knew it sounded uneventful (and was, in a way), but I had the most fun writing a book that I'd ever had.

But did those girls resent me? Did they get up to things while I was asleep that I never knew about? I'll never know.

 I do know this strange thing. By writing about them, I brought those two girls to life. It's a bit mad, I know, but I feel that they really exist.
Conclusion of the foregoing.

It's said that At Swim-Two-Birds was an enormously influential book, and I can see why. In fact, when I first started to read it, it finally clicked, that of course John Kennedy Toole had read the book. How could he not have? A brilliant, well-read young man with literary ambitions like him ...

Ignatius in A Confederacy of Dunces is a lazy, ex-college student who lies about on his bed scribbling into his Big Chief writing pads, and he has all kind of wild adventures. I'm not accusing Toole of stealing, or of not being original, because Confederacy is a brilliant, absolutely original piece of work.

But At Swim is there in the background, influencing away. And writers would be mad not to read as widely as possible, to gather in influences and use them in their own inimitable way. Because that is what writers do.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Laughed till I cried

Books don't often bring me to tearful laughter, but while I was reading Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman I found myself weeping with the hilarity of it.

I won't quote the passage; I think you need to read it in context, but it has to do with atom exchange and bicycles, and the solemn way the policeman pronounces on the connection.

I read the hilarious bit in bed just before I went to sleep. Waking at dawn the next morning I thought of it again, and this time bypassed the laughter. I sobbed silently, remembering it.

We all know how closely conflicting emotions are linked: love and hatred - who hasn't experienced this at one and the same time? But perhaps, after all, there is only one emotion, and we experience different aspects of it. (Reading The Third Policeman may lead to you speculating on matters like this, as it offers strange explanations of almost every science possible)

Indeed, De Selby, the writer often quoted in this book (and whose whacko theories are detailed at length in extensive footnotes) puts forward the proposition that east and west, and north and south, are not four directions but two, because, for example, if you go far enough east you'll come to the same point as if you went west. He extrapolates further to say that in fact there is only one direction, because from any given point you can get to anywhere else.

Fittingly, I have conflicting emotions about this book. At the beginning I loved it so much I wanted to read as slowly as possible to savour every bit of it. By the next afternoon (due largely to the effects of de Selby) I read wearily on through the greatest headache and dizzy feeling I've experienced for some time, due either to the effects of the mad illogical logic of The Third Policeman, or the onset of a flu. I had the slight feeling that I might be going mad.

(A sucker for punishment, the next book I read will be O'Brien's At-Swim-Two Birds, of which there is one copy in our local library system, at Byron Bay, and is available, no doubt winging (or swimming) its way towards my local library at Lismore as I write.)

But what I really like about O'Brien (not his real name) is the language. I've decided that what I value most in writing is surprise, which is another way of saying originality, I think.

Take this passage:

...  a house stood attended by three trees and surrounded by the happiness of a coterie of fowls, all of them picking and rooting and disputating loudly in the unrelenting manufacture of their eggs. The house was quiet in itself and silent but a canopy of lazy smoke had been erected over the chimney to indicate that people were within engaged on tasks. Ahead of us went the road, running swiftly across the flat land and pausing slightly to climb slowly up a hill that was waiting for it in a place where there was tall grass, grey boulders and rare stunted trees. The whole overhead was occupied by the sky, serene, impenetrable, ineffable and incomparable, with a fine island of clouds anchored in the calm two yards to the right of Mr Jarvis's outhouse.

The world of this book is not our world; it is both like and unlike it. It is, in effect, akin to madness, but it is a book that will make you both think, and see things differently. 

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Last of the magnolia

Is there a more brilliant book that The Great Gatsby? Satiric, tragic and elegiac, I think it's one of the best short novels I've read.
Once I wrote down on the empty spaces of a time-table the names of those who came to Gatsby's house that summer. It is an old time-table now, disintegrating at its folds, and headed 'This schedule in effect July 5th, 1922'. But I can still read the grey names, and they will give you as better impression than my generalities of those who accepted Gatsby's hospitality and paid him the subtle tribute of knowing nothing whatever about him.

From East Egg, then, came the Chester Beckers and the Leeches, and a man named Bunsen, whom I knew at Yale, and Doctor Webster Civit, who was drowned last summer up at Maine. And the Hornbeams and the Willie Voltaires, and a whole clan named Blackbuck, who always gathered in a corner and flipped up their noses like goats at whoever came near. And the Ismays and the Chrysties (or rather Hubert Auerbach and Mr Chrystie's wife), and Edgar Beaver, whose hair, they say, turned cotton-white one winter afternoon for no good reason at all.
And so on, for another beautiful, hilarious page and a half ...

 F. Scott Fitzgerald's tone is always perfect. This is writing that is about a good as it gets.

 Best read in the afternoon, lying on a sagging sofa on the veranda with the last of the early-flowering magnolia scenting the air, with Caitlin Rose's album The Stand In playing on the stereo. I like the song, 'Silver Sings' (though all of them are a marvel); and she also does a lovely cover of 'Dallas', by the Felice Brothers (from Celebration Florida).

I am so going to Nashville next year.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

I am Sputnik Sweetheart. Am I also The Castle?

You know how it is. You come to the end of a big reading binge (in my case, almost every novel by Elizabeth Bowen interspersed by a little Patrick White) and you come to a standstill. What to read next?
If you are a rusted-on reader, it is unthinkable not to have one (or more) books on the go.

 You have a copy of The Castle by Kafka you borrowed from the library, but it's a bit strange. You could go mad, perhaps, reading this book. It is very dark. You are at page twenty-six. You put it aside.

It's like wanting to eat something and not knowing what. Are you in fact hungry at all? Maybe eating something only seems like a good idea.You look in the cupboards, the fridge, looking for something that may appeal (really, you are searching for chocolate).

And so I searched the bookshelves, opening one book after another, reading bits, putting each book aside. Is this what I want? Is this?

And so to Sputnik Sweetheart, by Haruki Murakami, for what is, I think, my third reading. What a comfort this book is, like draping a cosy shawl round my neck when I feel ill.

An unnamed male narrator is best friends, and in love with Sumire, who is 22, about the same age as himself. But Sumire isn't aware of his feelings and doesn't see him that way. She's not interested in love at all, until she meets Miu, a woman 17 years her senior. She goes to work for Miu, a wine importer, and they do a business trip together, ending up on holiday on a small Greek Island. (There is also a lot in this book about writing, as Sumire wants to be a writer, and does write. She is described as like a character out of a Kerouac novel, with a big heavy old overcoat and heavy boots. Not that this garb features heavily in Kerouac.)

Then the narrator gets a late night call from Miu. Can he come to Greece? Sumire has disappeared.

Being a Murakami novel, Sumire's disappearance isn't the result of a crime. Rather, it is paranormal or psychological or philosophical, or ... you don't really understand it, but with Murakami, you just have to go with him.

He begins with a foundation of absolute normality; we almost hear too much about the quotidian lives of the characters. Not too much for me, though. I love domestic detail, and his central male characters all come from the same mould - the narrator of Sputnik Sweetheart is no exception. They are young men who have some sort of job, live alone and look after themselves fairly fastidiously and with no fuss. They enjoy their lives, working, going out with friends or alone, ironing shirts, doing bits of shopping, cooking 'simple meals' (they are always 'simple meals' - and sometimes Murakami details what: spaghetti or noodles, or fish or toast. They down a beer or two).  Romance figures, and sex.

What I like about these men is that they are men who like women and respect them. They seem to relate to women on terms of equality, and apart from being sexually interested in them, treat them as they would a male friend. They are cooking, ironing New Men. They approach the world with a gentle, good-humored openness.

Sometimes they befriend an adolescent girl  (such as in Dance, Dance, Dance, or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and more disturbingly, in IQ84, where the male protagonist ends up having weird supernatural sex with one such girl, resulting in a pregnancy in the women he loves.

I have this theory that when you read a book you become the book for a while, and so I'm enjoying being Sputnik Sweetheart. Perhaps the reason I couldn't get into The Castle is that I simple couldn't bear being it.

An odd connection

The first of Murakami's books I ever read was Kafka on the Shore. I saw it in Gleebooks in Sydney years ago, read the blurb, some of the inside text, and kept wandering back to it. It sounded strange, but appealing. There was an old man in it who talked to cats. Actually talked to them - and they talked back.

 I liked the easy style. And so I bought it, and became hooked on Murakami, who must be one of my favourite contemporary novelists (Banana Yoshimoto is another).

And now I've almost finished Sputnik I'm starting to pick up The Castle again, browsing through the introduction: ...

"In The Castle K lives in a space where magical connection is taken for granted. The strong erotic charge in the novel [  ...    ]    

..." the central theme of familiar and strange, reason and fantasy, caution and ambition, doubt and certainty ..." 

"To understand beyond understanding we too must be in a mood of acceptance. Our reason is bounded by perceptions which cover part of reality, not the whole."

To understand beyond understanding.

This is part of the appeal of Murakami. And so I unconsciously chose to read a book which is perhaps a perfect precursor to The Castle. 

Problem solved as to what to read next.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Four sisters

I have a friend with three sisters. Four girls in a family of only girls, each born a couple of years apart. She told me that three is the perfect number of sisters to have, and felt that, with only two daughters, she had left them inadequately sistered.

How, I wondered when I met her, could you befriend someone with so many sisters: surely she wouldn't need anyone else. But friends we have been for over 25 years, and very satisfying it has been.

"There is no friend like a sister
In calm and stormy weather."

wrote my own much older sister in my autograph book when I was a child. It was a quotation from Christina Rossetti's 'Goblin Market', a poem I used as a motif when I wrote A Charm of Powerful Trouble.

In that book there are two sisters, which is often the case in sister stories. Sisters in fairy tales often have a good, fair sister and an evil, dark one. There are the two sisters in Margaret Drabble's A Summer Birdcage, one of my favourite books.  Sisters often compete with each other, as those two do, but when the chips are down, who do you turn to?

Though as far as I know Margaret Drabble still hasn't much to do with her sister AS Byatt.

Lear had three daughters, and three is a powerful, magic number, also often used in fairy tales.

But in Junichiro Tanizaki's (1886-1965) book The Makioka Sisters (1948) there are four sisters.

So far, I've read this book twice, but as I only discovered it a few years ago I can be forgiven for so few readings. I know I will read it again, and perhaps again.

It concerns four sisters in Osaka before the second world war. The two younger, unmarried sisters live with the second-oldest married one because they prefer to; normally they should live with the eldest. So they are slightly unconventional.

Things are changing in Japan, but these sisters are very traditional - or nearly so. They belong to a once great family who are declining in their fortunes. Most of the activity in the book comes from their attempts to marry off Yukiko, who is thirty and frustratingly shy and retiring. The youngest, Taeko, is twenty-five and the most unconventional; she is having a secret liaison and wants Yukiko to be married so that she can be next.

So action is limited (a book exactly the way I like it!) but every moment is fascinating. There is a Big Flood and a Big Storm, but the rest of the interest in in the characters. It's a quiet, nostalgic book, quite melancholy in its mood, as it depicts the end of a once-great family, and of a vanished era.

Typical is the episode of the squeaking obi:

"You are going to wear that obi?" asked Yukiko. Taeko was helping Sachiko tie the obi. "You wore that one - when was it?- we went to a piano recital."
"I did wear this one."
"And every time you took a breath it squeaked."
"Did it really?"
"Not very loud, but definitely a squeak. Every time you breathed. I swore I would never let you wear that obi to another concert."
"Which one shall I wear, then?" Sachiko pulled obi after obi from the drawer.
"This one." Taeko picked up an obi with a spiral pattern.
"Will it go with my kimono?"
"Exactly the right one. Put it on, put it on." Yukiko and Taeko had finished dressing some time before. Taeko spoke as though to a reluctant child, and stood before her sister to help tie the second obi. Sachiko knelt at the mirror and gave a little shriek.
"What is the matter?"
"Listen. Carefully. Do you hear? It squeaks." Sachiko breathed deeply to demonstrate the squeak.
"You are right. It squeaks."
The Makioka Sisters (1948)

This is a story that builds slowly and quietly, with a steady accretion of detail and character - until, by the end, you have absorbed the Makioka sisters into your own life. They are unforgettable.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Thinking about Alice

I can remember the first time I heard the name Alice Munro.

It was 1980, and we (my partner, our two-year-old and me) had spent a week driving through British Columbia to Banff. We'd skipped stones on enormous glassy lakes surrounded by fir trees, eaten at diners where there were pick-ups with guns and dead deer in the back, stayed in strange little cabins, given a lift to a hitch-hiker who told us about bears, and stopped off at a little town covered in deep snow where we bought a little soapstone carving of a beaver.

Almost back to Vancouver again, afternoon sunshine coming through the windows, the radio had a story about this Canadian writer. I knew at once (it was falling in love at first mention) that I would love her writing, and after dropping off our hire car (our 'little red sporty car', the newest car we'd ever driven) I walked into the first likely-looking bookshop (smallish, independent) and asked if they had any books by Alice Munro.

---Ah, our Alice, said the assistant.

 I bought all the titles they had and posted them home, later buying others when we went to the UK.

My favourite is The Beggar Maid (and see how worn, how well-thumbed, how faded it has become.)

From a page taken at random:

She grew tired, irritable, sleepless. She tried to think admiringly of Patrick. His lean, fair-skinned face was really very handsome. He must know a number of things. He graded papers, presided at examinations, he was finishing his thesis. There was a small of pipe tobacco and rough wool about him, that she liked. He was twenty-four. No other girl she knew, who had a boyfriend, had one as old as that.

Then without warning she thought of him saying, "I suppose I don't seem very manly." She thought of him saying, "Do you love me? Do you really love me?" He would look at her in a scared and threatening way. Then when she said yes he said how lucky he was, how lucky they were, he mentioned friends of his and their girls, comparing their love affairs unfavourably to his and Rose's. Rose would shiver with irritation and misery. She was sick of herself as much as him, she was sick of the picture they made at this moment, walking across a snowy downtown park, her bare hand snuggled in Patrick's, in his pocket. Some outrageous and cruel things were being shouted, inside her. She had to do something, to keep them from getting out. She started tickling and teasing him.
Rose comes from a small town; she's a scholarship girl. Patrick is rich and snobbish. They marry. It doesn't last.

I'm seldom try to analyse why I like particular writing; I simply like to read and absorb.

But to attempt to explain my lasting love for Alice Munro:

No one writes about women like she does, with such tight, interesting, honest writing. There is not one boring sentence. She writes about people in small towns, people who clean motels or farm, or make jam - as well as about academics and women who often have an artistic bent. You come away feeling that all lives are interesting, all people important. (There are no dull people, only dull writing.) And like all my favourite people, she is often funny.

I don't think I've mentioned that she writes short stories, not novels, but you probably know that. The Beggar Maid is a series of linked stores, about Rose, and her stepmother Flo.

Each of her stories has extraordinary depth. She builds the story like someone constructing an arch, with blocks of narrative going back and forth in time. Right at the end there is often the brick in the centre of the arch - the telling scene or detail - that holds the whole thing together and makes it work.

I think that perhaps, when I started writing a few years after discovering her, her example gave me the courage to write about the people in the small towns and rural places where I live.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Once upon a bookcase...

It's that time of year again, and now I seem to have disappeared down the rabbit hole and have turned up somewhere in the UK, being interviewed by another Jo, here.

And there's a review of the girl, as well.

Thank you, Jo!

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

...her head bowed in shame...

It's less than a week since we lost Julia Gillard, our first female Prime Minister. Apparently, she didn't go down well with the voting public, and was replaced in a leadership spill by Kevin Rudd, who, according to a new book, relentlessly stalked her for the leadership since she replaced him in 2010.

I'm not a diehard fan of Gillard, but she did a more than competent - I'd say admirable- job in the circumstances. I simply don't get why the public prefers Rudd. After Gillard was gone, a sentence kept going through my head. It's the final sentence of The Bookshop, by Penelope Fitzgerald, about a woman who opens a bookshop in a small town, and it fails.

As the train drew out of the station she sat with her head bowed in shame, because the town in which she had lived for nearly ten years had not wanted a bookshop.

As Julia Gillard said in her parting speech, her being a woman didn't explain everything about why she had lost, but it also didn't explain nothing. And in the weeks, months, and even years prior to her departure from the leadership, she was subjected to a sickening amount of bullying in the media and elsewhere.

And so I sit with my head bowed in shame, because the country I have lived in for over 60 years, did not want a female Prime Minister.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Baby bites book

Perhaps you would fancy an 'Ode to an Eider-Duck' 
Telling his praises with never a pause:
How he was born a duck, lived - yes, and died a duck,
Hampered by nature's inscrutable laws.
(AA Milne, written when he was a schoolboy, from a poem quoted in his autobiography, It's Too Late Now.)

One of the highlights of my day, most days, is going down to the creek to feed the ducks. Often I think how ducky they are, how happy to simply be ducks - and just as well, as they will never be anything else.

My turning up is greeted with such excitement (it's the food I bring - poultry grain mix). Little Duck honks, and Pierre, her paramour, often get out of the water and waddles around with his friends, one or two wild ducks (Pacific Black Ducks), so happy are they to see me.

Just recently I remembered this verse on the destiny of simply being a duck. It's part of a longer poem quoted in AA Milne's autobiography, It's Too Late Now (1939).

 'The title,' he said,  'means that heredity and environment make the child, and the child makes the man, and the man makes the writer; so it's too late now ... for me to be a different writer.'

You are what you are (just like the ducks).

I bought my old copy (not a first edition, but a third, still printed in the year of first publication, 1939) almost 30 years ago, at the height of my interest in children's literature, from an antiquarian bookseller.

Here it is, photographed just now on the window-sill of the attic in bright dappled winter sunlight. Almost half way down the spine there is a small piece  out of the dust-jacket, where my baby bit into the book. I kept the piece stuck in with tape, but that has aged and fallen off over time. My baby turned 28 last month.

I think now that the reason I like this book so much is because it has the imprint of my baby's infant teeth. Some people save the first pair of booties - I have a book with baby teeth marks.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Nasty old ladies and eccentric young girls

Reading Elizabeth Bowen

I had a Rip Van Winkle moment last week. Influenza (or something remarkably like it) having kept me at home for a month, I was on my way to Brisbane. Stopping in the town of Murwillumbah (where I grew up) I got out to take money from an ATM. It was a new-fangled model I'd not seen before. After trying to put my card into the receipt slot, I took out my glasses to look at the machine properly, studying it closely, looking at every part, averting my eyes all the time from a horrible transparent green perspex bubble, which flashed, continuously. This, of course, turned out to be the slot for the card. At a newsagent upstairs, where I went to buy a paper, a woman was buying instant lottery tickets, all with peculiar names. 'I'll have three Shazams and two Pookie Ookies." Or something like that.

Then, at a service station, while observing a very resigned-looking woman fill her car (it was an ugly place, on the highway, with no pleasing thing in sight), it struck me that the rest of the world wasn't working their way through the works of Elizabeth Bowen. (Though there are some women, as I write this, doing exactly that, you may be sure, Mildred.)

When you spend a lot of time with an author over a short time you begin to see patterns in their work. A comment in one book becomes a major thread in another. When I mentioned this to Underground Man, who is going through a bit of an Elizabeth Bowen blitz as well, he said at once, 'Nasty old ladies and young girls.'

Well, yes.

Her young girls, and by this I mean teenagers, are particularly appealing. And though Bowen's books are set roughly from the 1920s to the 1960s, the period she wrote in, they are very like girls you meet today.  Portia, in The Death of the Heart (1938), is heartbreaking in her belief in the importance of real feeling against the cynicism, neglect and betrayal of her elders. Her friend, Lilian, is a hoot (and let's not forget the importance of humour in Bowen's work - I laugh, often).  When Portia asks Lilian what she is doing tomorrow, Lilian replies:

'Confidentially, Portia, I don't know what may happen.'

(And then there is the dear, lolloping, spotty, eager-to-please Pauline in To The North - and her friend Daphne. And the dreadful Theodora in Friends and Relations: 'She was spectacled, large-boned and awkwardly anxious to make an impression.' Theodora forces herself on people and is forbidding and opinionated. She will make a dreadful old lady.)

Portia, Bowen's most intricate and sympathetic portrait of a young girl, doesn't understand the world at all.

Lilian had all those mysterious tomorrows: yesterdays made her sigh, but were never accounted for. She belonged to a junior branch of emotional society, in which there is always a crisis due. Preoccupation with life was not, clearly, peculiar to Lilian: Portia could see it going on everywhere. She had watched life, since she came to London, with a kind of despair - motivated and busy always, always progressing: even people pausing on bridges seemed to pause with a purpose; no bird seemed to pursue a quite aimless flight. The spring of the works seemed unfound only by her: she could not doubt people knew what they were doing - everywhere she met alert cognisant eyes. She could not believe there was not a plan for the whole set-up in every head but her own.

Eva Trout, (in Eva Trout (1969) -  one of those books with the heroine's name as the title - Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina - they all meet sticky ends, as does poor Eva) is one of the most appealing characters I've ever met. She is large, handsome and about to become very rich, at 24, when the book starts. Eva is like a large child and remains so throughout. But a very likeable one, strange and vulnerable.

 Like Portia, she is betrayed by those who are charged with looking after her. Like Portia, she is an orphan who doesn't understand how the world works. Her mother died while running away from the family when Portia was small. Her father, an industrialist, whom we gather had an affair with the man later made her guardian, was always absent anyway. So who was she to learn from? No one has ever loved Eva properly (though some people are obsessed with her and think they do) until a child, who was 12 when she was 24, grows up. One longs for Eva to be happy...  But you know what they say about the gun on the mantlepiece in chapter one (though in this book it appears much later). Eva dies in the last sentence. It is all very fitting. I think this might be my favourite Bowen - it is a very strange book. Few people seem to write strange books anymore, and we are all the poorer.

Emmeline, in ToThe North (1932) is also on the verge of an unavoidable, accidental death right in the last sentence. This pattern made me fear for the fate of Jane in A World of Love (1955), who in the last chapter is a passenger in a car going to an airport. The trip is described in such detail that I become sure that Bowen is about to kill her. But she arrives at the airport, and the passenger she is meeting, unknown to her, alights.

But she doesn't die. In the last sentence, she only falls in love at first sight.

Bowen is one of the major novelists of last century. Heir to both Virginia Woolf (whom she knew), and  Jane Austen (to whom she has been compared), the density of her books makes almost every other writer seem superficial. And you need to concentrate.

I liken it to driving along a winding cliff road at the dead of night, rain pouring down, windscreen wipers thrashing. White-knuckled, you keep your eyes on the road. Miss something - a phrase, a nuance - and you're lost.

Re-reading is essential.

And if that makes it all seem a bit difficult, there is also (and here I adopt a Nigella Lawson persona, glancing flirtatiously at the camera before she devours a slice of deep-fried chocolate cheesecake) deep, deep, pleasure.

P.S.  Nasty old ladies? Mostly they are middle-aged and manipulative. But one ( the dying Mme Fisher in The House in Paris is almost pure evil).

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Heart on a shelf

....anyway, so the girl found her way to Germany, and got herself translated, and a new dress:

The small matter of the tatt:

She don't call, she don't write, and I haven't yet been sent an author copy, so I have to find out what my girl is doing from the net.

She's as sweet as sugar on top, but several readers have undressed her and found that under that pretty dust jacket are tea stains from two cups, (see - readers undress books just as mothers undress their baby first chance they get after birth to get a proper look). Nice!

(And thanks to a blogger whose link I can't find again for the pictures here at the side.)

And so to my dear readers:

It's gratifying that so many of you have taken my girl to your hearts.

Thanks to the vagaries of Google Translate, I have been able to read early responses to this translation. It makes me realise how lucky I am to have appreciative readers - and I mean by this of all my books in the many languages they've been translated into.

One of my favourite reader's comment from this latest edition (and there are many quotable comments) is this one from Butterblume89:

 She says, "A book which is my new heart on a shelf ..." (thanks again, Google translate, it's beautiful)

Note that she says: my new heart. She will find new book loves, but this is hers, for now. We readers are constantly falling in love - I'm happy that my girl is yours at the moment, butterblume.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Down the toilet

Can that be Franz Kafka poking his head out?

How can you resist a book that ends with a rendition of 'The Internationale'?

Well, that's a rhetorical question, which I will immediately answer: Not at all.

Danika laughed. 'I don't want to be rich, Dad. I'm going to be a socialist!'

And she sang the lyrics, taught to her by Mandy, of 'The Internationale', anthem of socialists all around and under the world.

Rise, people, from your sleep,
Rise, people, from your misery,
The earth is ours again.
We'll break the chains,
We'll change the rules,
We are poor and weak no more.

Now everybody sing!

From Danika in the Underworld, by Ranulfo  (2003)

This is a book that makes me laugh out loud every time (it's damn health-inducing!), a book that makes me want to pick it up and quote bits to people. It's a book whose heart is absolutely in the right place, a right-on, kick-ass (sorry, kick-bottom) read for people of all ages.


Forget about going through the backs of wardrobes, or down rabbit holes. The entrance to the other world (um, underworld) in this book, is down the toilet.

Which is where Danika goes, to rescue her brother,  Branwell (19th century literary allusion alert in children's book).

There, along with her left-leaning doll Mandy, she faces all kinds of trials, such as being taken to a children farm where they are being fattened up to be turned into burgers for cows. Though resisting the soft, easy life at first, full of fattening food and mind-numbing entertainment, Danika succumbs, and Mandy rescues her.

'I want my TV. I want my TV,' she droned.
Mandy jumped on her shoulder and slapped her hard on the face. 'Danika! Snap out of it!' She slapped her again and again.
'Playstation. Playstation. Playstation.'
'Listen to me, you adolescent imbecile!'
"Pokemon. Pokemon. I must collect them all.'
'Talk stimulatingly to me!'
'Boohoohoo,' cried Danika.
'Why are you crying?'
'I'm not cool. I don't have Nike.'
'Who's Nike? Is he your friend?'
'Mummy, let's go to Mc Donald's. Mummy, let's go to McDonald's. Mummy, let's go to McDonald's.'
'You're beyond my reach, you Zombiegirl.'

Eventually, Mandy 'tied Danika up hand and foot and read Shakespeare to her while feeding her a low fat, sugar-free, nutritious diet.'

It's a book that pokes fun at itself, or at people like me, who love it. But it is also, at heart, deadly serious. Or so I think.

 Ranulfo, I won't ask if you're experienced. But are you serious?

So who is this Ranulfo?

He of only one name (like Prince, or Madonna). His bio at the front of the book is helpful:

"Ranulfo was born on an island called Bohol in the Philippines. He lived in a coconut tree with his monkey friends. Against his will, he was taken to Australia to be civilised. This proved to be a failure so he was sent to a lunatic asylum. He spends his time staring at the wall and writing novels. he is currently working on his third novel made of bricks."

The judging ordeal

I had read Ranulfo's earlier  young adult novel, Nirvana's Children, but Danika would have
passed under my radar if I hadn't been judging the NSW Premier's Literary Awards in 2003-4. I had no trouble convincing my fellow inmates (an independent bookshop owner and a former school principal) to nominate it as one of six short-listed for the Patricia Wrightson Award, but I knew they wouldn't be adventurous enough to let it win. Awards are often compromises on what everyone can agree on (but you probably knew that).

And so to the man himself

He was at the awards ceremony, a gala event full of politicians and literary luminaries (sorry, breaking into cliche here) held that year at the NSW State Parliament House. Former Labour Prime Minister  Gough (Whitlam) walked by as I was in the lobby sipping a bubbly wine. And, gosh, is that Janette Turner-Hospital brushing  past me on her way to the toilet?

No wonder I found Ranulfo lurking after the dinner in the darkened area outside the dining room, solitary with a glass of wine. I don't remember what I said, or he said, except that he seemed shy (horrid judge-lady gushing at him), so I went and gushed at his publisher instead, and she  kindly sent me a copy of Danika's sequel, which wasn't quite as good. (I ended up sending it on its way via Bookcrossing. It started out at Caddie's Coffee shop in Lismore and ended up with someone's kid sister in Melbourne.)

Nirvana's Children

I read a library copy, and now the library doesn't have it any more. And you know me - I forget the content of what I read, but I remember that I found it an extraordinary YA book by anyone's standards. Extraordinary book.

His writing is like Murakami crossed with Dostoyevsky, with overtones of John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces.

I mean it's colloquial, and dark, and fun, and intelligent, and precise, and never dull.

I do wish he'd write more. I haven't seen a new book by him in years.

Ranulfo, where art thou?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A tree falls in a forest

They didn't hear it fall - though perhaps something did - a yellow robin, or a white-cheeked honey eater, or a wallaby.

It's a huge old sally wattle - not long-lived anyway, and with its fall it takes a couple of other trees with it, trees they had planted. They decide not to cut up the trunk, or clear it away from the path. In fact, it's now the nicest part of the rainforest they'd spent almost 25 years working on - a focal point. Its trunk has scores of tiny birds-nest ferns growing on it, and fungi, and in time it will rot away and enrich the soil. The gap in the canopy will allow other trees to flourish. This is as it should be.

It's like a child leaving home. The rainforest is grown-up at last. It's first natural felling.


God-like, and rather presumptuously, we sometimes think we created this little rainforest, but really all we did was work around what was there - a foam bark, some kamalas ... though we did plant hundreds of trees we either propagated ourselves, or bought. Seed collected from the foam bark that grew here, and black bean seed from trees found along the creek. In time, they seeded themselves, thickening everything up nicely.

There's a bunya nut pine or two, grown from a cone from a tree further up the road at Cawongla, whose enormous seeds were brought back a century ago, at least, by Aboriginal tribes who journeyed to the Bunya Mountains in Queensland for the bunya nut feasts, coming back as fat as butter.

There's a blue quandong, and a Moreton Bay fig, and callicoma, and walking-stick palms, and crows ash ... and ...and ...and

A labour of love

That's what it was. Purely and simply. Because we love trees, and the land I only ever considered we were looking after. Because we wanted to put it back to a semblance of how it once was. Hours spent clearing lantana, and digging up and pulling down and brush-cutting madeira vine, but mainly crouching down with a couple of buckets pulling the weeds up out of the ground - hours at a time, meditatively. The zen of clearing madeira vine.

Madeira vine

You have your own heading. I should say,    !!!!MADEIRA VINE !!!!

This weed is truly a curse. Without it, and its friend balloon vine, regenerating a rainforest would be a doddle. Madeira vine smothers and kills; each plant produces hundreds - thousands!- of  tubers that fall to the ground and stay viable for years, each of which send up its own little innocent shoot that grows into a raging growth, cutting out the light from trees. The tubers are so indestructible they must be burnt.


And yet we've managed to rescue trees from it. We found one tree, many metres tall, that had but one little branch and a single leaf clinging to it. That tree (whose name we don't know) is now flourishing and healthy.

The Nicholsons

Remember that the attic is a bookish one. I want to bring into it a series of brilliant books that were our Bible when we did our planting. They are called Australian Rainforest Plants, and there are 6 of them,  published by the authors Hugh and Nan Nicholson.

They're such simple, beautiful little books, and have done so much in making people aware, appreciative and educated about rainforest plants. With a beautiful photograph of each plants, there is a graceful and informative description, and how it may be used in the garden.

Mallotus philippensis

Red Kamala

In India a golden-red dye for silk is made from the powder covering these fruits. Red Kamala is widespread through Asia and New Guinea and from north Queensland south to the Hunter River in New South Wales. It is a very common tree growing to about 10m and is most useful for regenerating abused ex-rainforest land, often unfortunately in competition with the introduced Camphor Laurel. Brilliant red and blue bugs often inhabit the foliage but do little harm to the tree.
In the garden: It is not a remarkably handsome tree and is rarely seen in cultivation. However it could be grown more often for reforestation purposes as it is very tough in full sun and in depleted soil. For a pioneer tree its seed is remarkably short-lived and it is difficult to find trees with good seed. It should be sown when very fresh.
Family: Euphorbiaceae
Australian Rainforest Plants, Nan and Hugh Nicholson

We have countless Red Kamalas growing all over our place - all naturally there, all self-sown. They aren't very attractive, but their red seeds are decorative - and I've seen huge clusters of the little red and blue bugs!

Sleepless nights

Sometimes I wonder what will happen to our rainforest when we leave here (and we have decided to move on to new adventures). Although it's all grown-up it's not really able to look after itself. If not kept in check, weeds like lantana and balloon vine, but especially madeira vine (hello again!) could smother and choke it.

I don't know if people will come who value it as we do - or even notice it. (If no one's noticing it, will it still exist?) When people buy houses these days, even houses in the country, they seem obsessed with bathrooms and kitchens, but not a beautiful little rainforest pocket.

Ah, I know you will say that I should be optimistic. But if you don't know a rainforest and understand it, and know what it is you're looking at, can you be expected to value it and care for it?

As a writer once said,

A forest is so intricate it takes intimacy with it to know how to look at the maze of plants entwined like serpents: twisted, coiled, sinuous, insinuating. A rainforest is artful and curled and wild. It is the wildness I love most of all. It takes time to know it and love it, to see properly what it is.

Joanne Horniman, A Charm of Powerful Trouble, 2002

Thursday, April 11, 2013

So I am with them, in London

We castigate ourselves when we forget things. It must be some failing in us, or worse, a premonition of dementia.

But imagine if we were to remember every single thing in our lives. That way madness lies. We were meant to forget. Some things drop out of our minds to make room for others - even though sometimes we remember trivial things and forget stuff that seems more important.

Our memories are different from those of our friends. One of mine swears I went with him to THE big, famous, anti-aparteid demonstration at Coogee oval during the 1971 Springbok tour.  But I don't think I was there, though I can't be sure. I've seen footage of it - and sometimes I think I remember it - but they may be false memories. But why would I block out such a big thing?  - it looked violent and scary.  Maybe I've blocked it out because of that. Maybe my friend is mistaken, and he was there with someone else ...

And so to books. I forget most of what I read. The only books I remember really well are ones I've read many times - such as Jack Kerouac, or the early novels of Margaret Drabble.

I even forget the books I've written. I'd be hard-pressed to name the minor characters in some. It all flows away.

What I do remember of what I read is a) whether I liked the book and b) why I liked it, in a broad sense - for the style, or the atmosphere, or a memorable character. Plots I'm hopeless at, either reading or writing 'em.

There's a book by Elizabeth Bowen I must have read about 20 years ago. I went through a real binge of reading her, and owned most of her novels at some time - still own most. But not this one, until now.

I read it as a library copy, and all I remember of it is a few sentences. What I thought might be it turned up as a second hand copy yesterday, and I wondered, Is this the one?

I looked at the back blurb:

...  when sixteen-year-old Portia comes to live with her wealthy half-brother and his wife, Anna, in London during the thirties ...

This was the one!

I found the bit I remembered, a few pages in, just where I thought I'd find it.

 Portia keeps a diary, and Anna has found it and read it. She talks to a friend, who is a writer, about it:

'Tell me, [he says] do you remember the first sentence of all?'
'Indeed I do,' Anna said. '"So I am with them, in London".'
'With a comma after the "them"? ... The comma is good; that's style ... I should have liked to have seen it, I must say.'

Elizabeth Bowen, The Death of the Heart

A sixteen-year-old girl with a diary. A girl who can write with style, who knows where to put a comma, for effect.

I am thankful for my forgetfulness. I am going to read this book all over again, with great enjoyment.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Mad men and women who want it all

This month I've been reading Dostoyevsky (The Devils, or if you prefer, 'The Possessed') and watching seasons One to Four of Mad Men.

The mad men, you will probably know, are the advertising execs on Madison Avenue in the 1960s.
The Devils has quite a few mad men of its own. The characters have conversations that go like this:

....' I love beauty. I am a nihilist, but I love beauty. Don't nihilists love beauty? The only thing they do not love is idols, but I love an idol. You are my idol! You don't insult anyone, and everyone hates you; you look on everyone as your equal, and everyone is afraid of you. That's good. No one will ever come up to you to slap you on the shoulder. You're an awful aristocrat. An aristocrat who goes in for democracy is irresistible. To sacrifice life - yours and another man's - is nothing to you. You're just the sort of man we need. I - I especially, need a man like you. I don't know of anyone but you. You're my leader, you're my sun, and I am your worm.'
He suddenly kissed his hand. A shiver ran down Stavrogin's spine and he snatched his hand away in dismay. They stopped.
'Mad!' Stavrogin whispered.

People in Dostoyevsky make mad, impassioned speeches. The samovar is always boiling. Oddly, I find them rather like people I have known. I could walk into a Dostoyevsky novel and feel right at home. Reading him is addictive.

Addictive, too, is Mad Men, though I don't think I have met people quite like this. Scheming, mad revolutionaries, yes, ad men, no. (No, I did meet one once at a posh Sydney wedding in the 70s. He was all for cigarette advertising.)

As they are in Mad Men. There, it's the 1960s - 50 years ago! - and everything is seething away under the surface. Don and Betty Draper look like the perfect young middle class couple, but it's all a facade. At the end of season three, Roger Stirling says to young copywriter Peggy Olson, 'Go get me some coffee,' and she looks up from her work and says, 'No,' firmly but without rancour.

There will be a lot of anniversaries of the 60s this decade. Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar was published in 1963. So was Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique.

At the beginning of the episode titled 'Maidenform', set in a hot New York summer, someone at a party murmurs, 'This reminds me of the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs.'

Literary allusions in Mad Men!

'It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I don't know what I was doing in New York' is the opening sentence of The Bell Jar.

My 40 year old copy is full of underlinings. Back then, as an eager young feminist, I always underlined sections of books pertaining to the role of women, but in this book, I can tell by what I was underlining it wasn't only that. I underlined sentences that I liked for the way they were written. I liked many of the one line sentences, what they suggested, admiring their brevity and nuance. I liked the poetry of it.

I think Sylvia Plath was teaching me how to write.

I've been thinking a lot about the 60s lately. Now, all these years later, sexism is still on the agenda. Last weekend in the Sydney Morning Herald,  Anne Summers writes about how people don't have the concept of 'men who want it all' - that impossibility is reserved for women.

Which makes Mad Men and The Bell Jar (set in 1953, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs) seem oddly relevant today. Lets not get too cocky about how far we've come.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Recycled love: Howl on Valentine's Day

Yesterday Underground Man found this at the Lifeline recycling centre at South Lismore:

The inscription inside:

"The Weight of the World is Love"
For Michael (Mik)
On Valentine's Day 1998
From Felicity (Fel)
With Love...
I adore you.

(And opposite this, Fel has planted a lipstick kiss on the inside cover)

(By the way, 'the weight of the world is love' is a line from Ginsberg, from a poem inside).

Every book has a story, and I wonder why Michael (Mik) got rid of this one. Are he and Fel still together? Perhaps not (15 years is a long time for a romance) which was why he got rid of it. Or maybe he just can't stand Allen Ginsberg.

Which leads me to think that perhaps books last longer than love. Books can certainly last longer than a human life. Such tough little things!

So this was a Valentine's Day present (of sorts) for me. I will certainly keep it. It's a City Lights publication! The 53rd printing, first published in 1956.

795,000 copies of this were in print when it was printed in 1997.

There is a dedication inside, from Ginsberg, a sort of love letter to his friends:



Jack Kerouac, new Buddha of American prose, who spit forth intelligence into eleven books written in half the number of years (1951-1956) - On the Road, Visions of Neal, Dr Sax, Springtime Mary, The Subterraneans, San Francisco Blues, Some of the Dhama, Book of Dreams, Wake Up, Mexico City Blues, and Visions of Gerard - creating a spontaneous bop prosody and original classic literature. Several phrases and the title of Howl are from him.

William Seward Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, an endless novel that will drive everybody mad.

Neal Cassady, author of The First Third, and autobiography (1949) which enlightened Buddha.

All of these books are published in Heaven.

Which is a way, I think, of saying that none of them were published in the world (yet) - most of them would be. But what a generous and loving dedication to his friends.

(Coming up next: Dostoyevsky - How I love thee. Let me count the ways)

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Jim Cain

I started out in search of ordinary things
How much of a tree bends in the wind
I started telling the story without knowing the end

I used to be darker, then I got lighter, then I got dark again
Something to be seen was passing over and over me
Well it seemed like the routine case at first
With the death of the shadow came a lightness of verse
But the darkest of nights, in truth, still dazzles
And I work myself until I'm frazzled

I ended up in search of ordinary things
Like how can a wave possibly be?
I started running, and the concrete turned to sand
I started running, and things didn't pan out as planned

In case things go poorly and I not return
Remember the good things I've done
In case things go poorly and I not return
Remember the good things I've done
Done me in

'Jim Cain' by Bill Callahan (from sometimes I wish we were an eagle)

I've been reading James M Cain: The Five Great Novels, which has been hanging around the house for at least 20 years or so. Underground man reads it from time to time. So in a hot January, when I felt jaded with all other reading, I turned to this.

You might know the films that have been made of his books: The Postman Always Rings Twice, Mildred Pierce, Double Indemnity ...    What he does is chart the desperation of a particular type of person in a particular period in America. He writes well - if I don't like someone's sentences I stop reading. I think it's fair to say I'm now addicted to Cain. I regard him as a literary writer.

Mildred Pierce is my favourite: the story of a housewife during the depression who makes it big with a chain of restaurants after starting out baking pies to sell in her kitchen. There is no crime in Mildred Pierce (though the filmed version has a murder in it), except perhaps the crime of loving an undeserving daughter too much and spoiling her rotten.

People in Cain's novels often work hard and do well - and then lose it all again. It's the the American dream turned sour. The characters have fatal flaws, but they struggle and do their best. Cain is interested in the detail of exactly how they do it; he details the poverty and the desperation.

And Bill Callahan? What does his song mean? 

"I started out in search of ordinary things" could be a mission statement for many writers.  Bill and Jim were both born in Maryland. And Cain's middle name is Mallahan. So they have things in common - or Callahan thought so. (And I suppose you could call them dark. I once sent a Bill Callahan album to the son known as Bush Tucker man, thinking it might be his kind of thing, but he hated it. 'It's so bloody depressing!')

Maybe I like darkness.

Next stop, I think, is Dostoyevsky: The Devils (or if you prefer, The Possessed) It's the only way I can think of following up Jim Cain.