Books read to small visitors

Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood, The Cleo Stories: The Necklace and The present (Allen & Unwin 2014)
Libby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood. Go to Sleep, Jessie! (Little Hare 2014)
Doctor Seuss, The Cat in the Hat (©1957; Random House)
Janet & Allan Ahlberg, Each Peach Pear Plum (©1978, Puffin)
Doctor Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham (©1960; Random House)

We have just had two small people visiting for a week (along with their mother, my niece). Although the little girls were mostly busy making things and being generally fascinating company, they did like being read to, which meant that we had a chance to discover some new books for very young reader–listeners, and to revisit some old ones.

1gsjLibby Gleeson and Freya Blackwood won two of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards this year (Freya won a third, but for older readers), and we were guided by the CBCA in our purchase of new books. Their books are warm, affectionate celebrations of the intelligence of their girl protagonists. In Go to Sleep, Jessie! the heroine shares a bedroom with a baby who refuses to go to sleep and instead keeps her awake by crying loudly. The parents’ well-meaning attempts to solve the problem are unsuccessful, and she solves it beautifully herself.

1tcsCleo is a bit older, and her problems are of a different order. ‘Everyone’ at a friend’s party has a necklace, but her parents say she can’t have one until her birthday, which is a very long time away.  In a second story she has to decide on a birthday present for her mother. The problems are real, and the solutions clever.

Both books harbour understated challenges to the parents who will read them aloud many times: what do you think about consumerism, envy, tattoos or ‘controlled crying’, among other things?

039480001XAfter dinner one night the two little girls put on a ‘show’ that consisted mainly of vigorous physical movement and silly faces, but included audience participation in which we adults had to take our socks off and wave them about, and later take turns reading from The Cat in the Hat. The book was apparently chosen at random, but it was wonderful to see the concentration grow on the young listeners’ faces as the story progressed. (Two thirty-somethings ostentatiously took to their smart phones during the reading. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.)

1eppp

An ‘I spy’ book whose images turn out to tell a story. Hearing my niece read it to her daughters in a way that beautifully captured its music, I remembered again that the joy of reading excellent children’s books aloud is as much for the adults as for the young ones. And that’s true of books like this, that depend on the art for their full meaning.

Dr_Seuss_Green_Eggs_and_HamAnother Dr Seuss book. This one was referred to a couple of times as our almost-two-year-old was being resolutely negative (‘Would you like it in a box? Would you like it with your socks?’). Theodor ‘Dr Seuss’ Geisel makes it look easy, but to create books that beginning readers can manage that are also fun for the fiftieth – or should that be five hundredth? – time is the work of a genius.

There were other books – an Snugglepot and Cuddlepie adaptation that leaves both revising writer and simplifying artist unnamed among them. I tried to insinuate Where the Wild Things Are into the mix, but the little one, clearly recognising the book, rejected it as too scary.

aww-badge-2015Go to Sleep, Jessie!, The Cleo Stories,  are the thirteenth and fourteenth books I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge. I know they’re very slender, but it should count for something that I’ve read both of them at least four times in the last week.

Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and the Book Group

Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-five (1969, Vintage 2000)

1sh5bookBefore the meeting: I was reading while walking the dog outside the local supermarket when a young woman with fashionable piercings and skin art called to me, ‘That’s a good book!’

So it still has currency.

Do I need to tell you that Slaughterhouse-five presents itself, in its first and last chapters, as Vonnegut’s attempt wrangle into story form his experience as a prisoner of war who survived the bombing of Dresden in 1945? His way of rising to the challenge is to tell a tale of Billy Pilgrim, a chaplain’s assistant in the war, who was also in Dresden at that time. I say also because once or twice the authorial voice intrudes to tell us that he was there, that the person who made that remark was ‘the author of this book’.

Billy Pilgrim comes unstuck in time, which adds an element of quirk while providing an excuse for the narrative to jump all over the place (evidently excuses were needed back in the 60s), and has some vaguely science-fictional adventures, which aren’t fleshed out to any interesting degree, but allow the novel to present a point of view where none of the terrible events it describes really matter, because according to the little green Tralfamadorians who abduct Billy, every moment in time coexists with every other moment, so there’s no point getting upset about any particular moment.

The main event of the book, as announced in the first chapter, is the bombing of Dresden. We read the whole book with growing dread, waiting for it to happen. A lot of that dread depends on our knowing that it’s not an invented atrocity, and a number of historical sources are quoted to chilling effect. We are told that the fire bombing of Dresden is the biggest massacre ever perpetrated in a single day – bigger than Hiroshima, bigger even than the firebombing of Tokyo.

The power of the story doesn’t stand or fall by that claim, but alarm bells went off for me when the authority Vonnegut quotes is David Irving, the most famous of all Holocaust deniers. A quick look on the internet reveals that Irving’s claim, as repeated by Vonnegut, that 135 000 people were killed in Dresden on one night is almost certainly wildly exaggerated. The actual figure is more like 40 000. I’m a bit shocked that Vintage Books didn’t include a note in the 2000 edition that Vonnegut’s source is notoriously unreliable.

The young woman who called out to me may also have done a quick internet search, but if she didn’t she and all the others who are rediscovering this excellent book will be misled.

Still, it’s the book that gave us ‘So it goes’. This phrase occurs after every mention of a death, whether of parasites in a delousing shower or of the citizens of Hiroshima in an extensive self-exculpatory quote from Harry Truman. After a while this feels annoyingly mechanical, but again a little while and it’s tolling like a funeral bell. Evidently some people read the book as endorsing the Tralfamadorian view that there’s no point getting upset about terrible things. In my reading the unremitting ‘So it goes’ reminds us that every life needs to be mourned.

After the meeting: There were six of us, and we met over an excellent meal in Nithik’s Kitchen, an Indian restaurant in Rozelle.Half of us were revisiting the book; all of us enjoyed it; one numbered it among the best books we’d read in the group.

We differed about whether Billy’s travelling back and forth in time was really happening or whether he was escaping into fantasy. I thought that was crystal clear: Billy is actually unstuck in time. I don’t think the narrative is all that worried about the mechanics of his unstuckness, but within the story it’s real. Since the ‘author’ is part of the story, I’m happy to accept that the time travel is his escape hatch, that is, a way of writing about Dresden without being overwhelmed. But in Billy’s world, it’s real.Clearly other readings are available.

The question arose of how much the US–Vietnam War is a presence. Billy’s son becomes a Green Beret, and though he hardly appears as a character his heroic–patriotic version of war stands in stark contrast to the version signalled in the book’s subtitle, ‘The Children’s Crusade’, and embodied in Billy’s story. Those of us who read it back then certainly embraced it as part of the anti-war movement and would have been shocked to hear that some people read it as advocating a quietist, fatalistic attitude to the horrors of war. For those who were had just read it for the first time, Vietnam was perhaps not so strong a presence, but nor was it irrelevant to their reading.

David Malouf’s Being There

David Malouf, Being There (Knopf 2014)

1btDavid Malouf could write about the phone book in a way that held his readers rapt. He is a master of what Steven Pinker  (borrowing from Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner) calls the classic style: his readers are invited into conversation with him as he shows us something about the world. He is a brilliant, warm, generous conversationalist; the ‘something’ in this book is the world of art.

Being There is the third collection of Malouf’s writing published by Knopf in 2014 to mark his 80th birthday. Almost half of it is devoted to essays (including reviews, lectures, one-off newspaper columns and catalogue essays) on other people’s creations. Parts II consists of the librettos of two operas, Voss and Mer de Glace. Part III is a playscript, a ‘free version’ of  Euripides’ Hippolytus.

A strong theme in the first part is the importance of our physical presence to the appreciation and enjoyment of art. Malouf articulates this theme most clearly in the 1989 essay that lends its title to the collection. Referring to orchestral music, he writes that after being ‘in love with the perfection of a great performance on record’ we have come back to ‘gloomy old covert halls’, to

share as fellow citizens an experience that is only available on the big city, as unique a product of our civilisation as the skyscraper or the cantilever bridge. An orchestra, in the person of its conductor and each of its ninety to 120 players, performing one of the great works of our heritage, making music, but in an environment that has not been bled of all those elements of noise out of which organised sound arose – the street noises we have just stepped away from, voices in the foyer, the whispers and shuffling before the conductor is quite ready, the slight disturbance of the air that is created by 2000 men and women breathing, even the occasional cough; that substratum of undifferentiated sound against which made music has to assert itself, and against which we bring ourselves to attention. Somehow, to experience the fulness of what music offers we have to be there. Presence is everything.

I love that. My most enjoyable night ever at the opera (not that I’ve been to the opera all that often) is a far cry the one Malouf describes, but I think he would have enjoyed it. It wasn’t in ‘the big city’, but in the Innisfail Shire Hall on a sweltering tropical night in the 1970s. All the windows of the hall were open, so the street noises, though distant, weren’t left behind; and the air in the hall was more than slightly disturbed by hundreds of fans wielded by audience members, who weren’t above an occasional comment. I don’t think anyone considered the performance to be perfection. The costumes looked as if they’d been scrounged from the combined storage rooms of every choral society in north Queensland, and the cast had a similar catch-as-catch-can feel. But from the Grand March from Aida that began proceedings to the final moments of the main event, Bizet’s Carmen, it was exhilarating. It was impossible not to be aware of the physicality of the event – David Malouf’s word ‘presence’ is right on the button.

The sixteen essays of Part I give accounts of Malouf’s presence at, among other places, a ‘happening’ in London in 1965, Barrie Kosky’s much-derided 1995 production of Nabucco (which he defends brilliantly), the Sydney Opera House (‘a single building … providing a city almost overnight with what it lacked, a defining centre’). He responds to the work of architect Glen Murcutt, photographer Bill Henson (long before Kevin Rudd pronounced his work ‘absolutely revolting’), painter William Robinson, and others. He is always interesting.

I haven’t seen Voss or Mer de Glace, and unsurprisingly found the librettos pretty inscrutable. I say ‘unsurprisingly’, because essays in the first part of the book have prepared the ground. Part of Malouf’s point about the importance of presence is the idea that a play, an opera or a piece of music is more than its script or libretto. In ‘Opera’ (1988), he writes:

That what is sung in opera shares with speech the use of words ought not to confuse us into believing that what the music expresses is what is in the words. The music has a drama and a purpose of its own. What it gives voice to, beyond mere social exchange or the expression of highly charged particular emotions – devotion, doubt, desire, jealousy, pity, anger, resolution, triumph, grief – is the spirit in action.

The Hippolytus, commissioned by the Bell Shakespeare Company and first performed in 2002, is a wonderful read, and for my money is a standing reproach to the domesticated versions of the Greeks that have been appearing on Sydney stages in the last few years. I’m sorry to have missed the production – maybe I can live in hope of a revival.

I met David Malouf in the street recently, and he referred to himself as ‘very old’. May we all age so gracefully, and so creatively.

Mark Doty’s Still Life with Oysters and Lemon

Mark Doty, Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy (Beacon Press 2002)

0807066095My copy of this book doesn’t have the subtitle it evidently carries in other editions: On Objects and Intimacy. If the subtitle had been there I might have been better prepared for what the book is. What it’s not is a dissertation on the painting it is named after (whose title has been changed to Still Life with a Glass and Oysters and which can be seen at New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or online here).

The book starts with the painting, or at least with the writer’s having fallen in love with it, and it does discuss it and other still lifes from the period, but it roams far and wide, through memoir about objects and how they – or their memories and representations – can come to embody emotional truths, to lyrical reflections on love, mortality, bereavement and poetry. It ranges through cute childhood memories of bears and boiled lollies, a fortieth birthday in Amsterdam involving visits to the Rijksmuseum, a Gay bathhouse, and a fine Thai restaurant, and wonderful writing about the consolations of art.

I came away from the book liking Mark Doty a lot, and with a sense that my heart had been rendered that much more open to the world.

To give you a taste of the writing, here is a passage that crops up as a digression in a story about a chipped blue and white platter that Doty bought at a sale table when out walking his dog, at a time when his partner was gravely ill:

The most beautiful still lifes are never pristine, and herein lies one of their secrets. The lemon has been half-peeled, the wine tasted, the bread broken; the oysters have been shucked, part of this great wheel of cheese cut away; the sealed chamber of the pie, held aloft on its raised silver stand, has been opened. Someone has left this knife resting on the edge of the plate, its handle jutting toward us; someone plans, in a moment, to pick it up again. These objects are in use, in dialogue, a part of, implicated. They refuse perfection, or rather they assert that this is perfection, this state of being consumed, used up, enjoyed, existing in time.
But there’s the paradox – they are depicted in a moment of being seen, contemplated between the experience of tasting, smelling, devouring; but this depiction places them outside of time, or almost outside of it, in a long, slow process of decay, which is the process of oxidation, of slow chemical transformation … Whatever time may have done to the original fruits, their depiction is now safe from the quick corrosions of local time and subject to the larger, slower, depredations of history.
And thus something of the imperfect, the quickly passing, the morning meal with its immediate pleasures has been imported into the realm of perfection, into the long, impersonal light of centuries.

PS: In the little blog that appears over in the right hand column of this one, I expressed frivolous misgivings as I was starting this book:

It’s a slender volume, published by a Unitarian publishing house. Is it a mattress to catch a falling Protestant and so of little interest to those who had a Catholic childhood?

Will commented:

No, not at all. It’s a lovely book of reflections on the real world as we see it. Painting and memory, seeing and interpreting. I hope you enjoy it.

It’s worth mentioning that Will is a librarian, and so may have a slightly more precise meaning in mind for the word ‘real’ than most of us do (see realia). He was right.

Asia Literary Review 26 & 27

Martin Alexander (Editor), Asia Literary Review 26, [Northern] Winter 2014
———————————————————- 27, [Northern] Spring 2015

ALR26How cool is it that there’s a quarterly journal dedicated to literature from Asia that’s either written in English or translated into it? Such a gift to those of us who don’t speak or read any Asian languages!

After a two year hiatus, Asia Literary Review revived in November last year with Issue 26, under new ownership and with a greater focus on its digital platform. Martin Alexander is still editor.

Issue 26 is a feast. Of the many interesting things, let me mention some of the non-fiction:

  • Sister Philomena’s Veil by Kavita Jindal, a memoir of schooldays in a convent in India, which has a similar subcontinental girls-own adventure flavour to Swapna Dutta’s Juneli stories, but takes an altogether darker turn
  • The Secret Happy Life of Uncle Renfeng by Fan Dai, an extraordinary account of a life, which would be satisfying if it was an exemplary tale, and is all the more so when one realises at the end that it’s the story of the writer’s actual uncle
  • Eid in Oghi by Nighat Gandhi, in which the author, described in her bio as ‘a writer, mother, Sufi wanderer and mental health counsellor’, visits a village in dangerously tribal region of Pakistan and comes to know, like and admire the women who are her hosts, so that we too come to line and admire them.

There’s also plenty of fiction and poetry. I particularly enjoyed two dystopian stories, Michael Vatikiotis’ A Case of Penetration and Dipika Mukherjee’s Conjuror of Divinity, though the latter may well be too realistic a tale of the rich and ruthless to be really a dystopia. I also enjoyed Eliza Vitri Handayani’s From Now On Everything Will Be Different, an Indonesian romantic comedy gone wrong.

Among the many poems I was struck by Yong Shu Hoong’s prose poems Tanglin Halt and After the Fire; Kathleen Hellen’s Salmon Said Surrender, which captures a moment when history pushes into the present moment. Justin Hill’s translations of six poems introduced me to T’ang poet Yu Xuanji. I was prompted to go looking for other translations by this, from ‘On a winter’s night I wrote this poem for Wen Ting Yun’:

Shit happens.
I think now I’ve found fulfilment.
Success follows failure follows what?
There’s a third way forward.

I found one by Leonard Ng, here, which translates the same lines as:

Thoughts scattered and released, at last I found fulfilment:
through the emptiness of rise and fall, I saw True Mind.

And I learned again that to really understand a poem in translation you need to read at least one other translation. ‘Thoughts scattered and released’ is almost certainly more literal, but ‘Shit happens’ brings the shrugging of meaning home more sharply. And what if it’s a vulgarity? Yu Xuanji was after all a courtesan.

alr27Issue 27 is, if anything even richer. It has its share of dystopian fiction, this time – perversely – a Singapore buried deep in ice in ‘And Now There Came Both Mist and Snow by Clara Chow, and of strong non-fiction, including:

  • The Sinking City‘ by Bill Tarrant, about Jakarta, which is literally sinking, and a disaster waiting to happen
  • ‘The West Sea Battle’ by Jang Jin-sung, translated by Shirley Lee, an account of his debriefing North Korean sailors after a skirmish, trying to persuade them to tell what actually happened rather than the politically desired version
  • Challenging Convention – The Kung Fu Nuns’ by Namgay Zam, about a striking (pun intended) feminist initiative in Nepal and Bhutan.

The fiction includes a number of stories that feel only slightly removed from reportage: Beijing Hospital by Jeremy Tiang, an account of an expat hospital experience; ‘Comfort Woman Eleanor’ by James Tam, an altogether uglier crosscultural encounter that’s particularly telling at the time of Prime Minister Abe’s too-litle-too-late apology for Japan’s wartime atrocities; Phillip Y Kim’s ‘Run’, a family encounter in the midst of the recent Hong Kong demonstrations.

Again, there’s plenty of poetry, including the marvellous, long, elegiac ‘Peng Chau’ by living Chinese poet Zheng Danyi, translated by Luo Hui. According to Wikipedia Peng Chau is a small island near Hong Kong less than one square kilometre in area, ‘known for its small island lifestyle’. Really, I didn’t need to consult Wikipedia, when the poem includes this:

Post office and doctor’s office, one each, police station
and fire station, one each

One laundry shop, called ‘Laundry Shop’
One bakery, called ‘Bakery’
One library, called ‘Library’

Tin Hau Temple, one and only
Mother Dragon Temple, one

Daoist, Buddhist, Catholic Protestant –
one each in peaceful co-existence.

There’s much more, in that poem, and in the journal.

I am grateful to the editors for my complimentary digital subscription, beginning with Issue 26.

Are rules really like bread, meant to be broken?

At the end of my last post, after whingeing about things that slipped past the copy editor, I said I was reaching for ‘a collection of essays by the impeccable David Malouf’ as an antidote. I’ll write about the collection – Being There – in good time, but right now I want to share a lovely bit of rule-smashing from ‘Questions on the Way to an Exhibition’ on page 77. The subject is what happens when we encounter a work of art, whether it’s a piece of sculpture, a poem, a play or novel, a music or dance performance:

Our spirit soars. We are enlightened, made lighter. The old distinction between body and spirit is resolved in us, and at the same time, in losing ourselves so completely in what is outside us, we feel the resolving of a second distinction – between subject and object, I and the world.

That I couldn’t be me, no matter what the syntactical rule says. The I has to be a subject or the whole sentence loses its meaning. The terrible thought struck me that maybe a similar thing is happening when people say ‘between you and I’: the sense is that the person speaking is a subject, not an object. And then comes the dread possibility that I will never again be able to correct, or even secretly curl my lip at, someone who says ‘between you and I’.

Qiu Xiaolong’s Don’t Cry, Tai Lake

Qiu Xiaolong, Don’t Cry, Tai Lake (Minotaur Books 2012)

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I’ve pretty much stopped reading detective novels. Inspector Chen, Chinese poet-detective tempted me back into the genre. There was a promise of insight into the workings of contemporary China, and Chinese poetry ancient and modern, all floating on a light whodunnit froth.

I should have known better. The whodunnit element is flimsy. The poetry feels inserted (though it’s a nice touch that Chen quotes Matthew Arnold as well as verse from ancient dynasties). And any issue of Asia Literary Review offers more insight.

I might still have enjoyed it but, perhaps because had just read Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, my internal blue pencil was on the alert, and this book’s copy editor let far too much go by: not anything gross, but far too much tautology of the ‘There was something eerily familiar about the peddler, Chen noticed, thinking he might have seen him somewhere’ kind, and enough examples of words that don’t mean what they’re meant to mean, as in the book’s very last sentence, ‘He wondered if he would be able to take a nap on the train, feeling the onslaught of a splitting headache.’ A decent copy editor would surely have suggested ‘onset’ because who can wonder about naps in the middle of any kind of onslaught?

I reached for a collection of essays by the impeccable David Malouf.

Steven Pinker’s Sense of Style

Steven Pinker, The Sense of Style (Allen Lane 2014)

IMG_1330I love a good argument about punctuation, spelling, syntax or the meaning of words. Does MS Word really allow minuscule to be spelled with two Is? How about the person who wrote to the paper complaining that septic tank should be aseptic tank or at least have an apostrophe to mark the missing letter? What is the difference between ‘my Aunt Mabel’, ‘my aunt Mabel’ and ‘my aunt, Mabel’, and are they all permissible? Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style doesn’t tackle any of these questions, but I reckon he’d be up for the conversation.

For the record, my favourite style guide is Joseph M Williams, Style: Ten lessons in clarity and grace. Pinker doesn’t attempt that book’s succinct guidance, but he brings a cognitive scientist’s perspective to the subject, and his cool, witty, reasonable approach is a joy. Well, mostly a joy: the middle chapter, ‘The web, the Tree and the String’, explains the intricacies of English syntax in a way that verges on the tedious if you already have a grasp of the subject, and is probably impenetrable if you are looking for enlightenment. Apart from that skippable chapter, the book is rich with insight.

Pinker focuses on the ‘classic style’, in which, he says:

The writer can see something that the reader has not yet noticed and he orients the reader’s gaze so that she can see it for herself. … [P]rose is a window onto the world.

In the classic style, the writer simulates two experiences: showing the reader something and engaging in conversation with the reader. There are plenty of other legitimate styles – Pinker names contemplative, romantic, prophetic, oracular, oratorical, practical, plain, ironic and postmodern – but thankfully this book sticks with just the one, which, Pinker says, is ‘an ideal that can pull writers away from many of their worst habits’.

He identifies a number of those habits, conveniently listed as ‘metadiscourse, signposting, hedging, apologising, professional narcissism, clichés, mixed metaphors, metaconcepts, zombie nouns, and unnecessary passives’. That’s quite a list and for my money an extremely useful one. It’s characteristic of Pinker’s approach that he warns against memorising it as a list of don’ts – better, he says, to keep in mind the guiding metaphor in the quote above.

There’s a great discussion of incomprehensible prose. Rejecting the popular explanation that much academic and bureaucratic writing is deliberately impenetrable for self-protective or self-promoting reasons, he reaches for the tool known as Hanlon’s Razor: ‘Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.’ (Hanlon’s Razor was new to me in that form, so I was interested to read more about it in Wikipedia, and delighted to see that Goethe wrote a version of it in 1774.)

The kind of stupidity Pinker has in mind is what economists call the Curse of Knowledge:

a difficulty of imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.

This sounds simple, yet – and here Pinker’s cognitive science background comes into play – psychologists regularly discover more or less the same thing with new names: egocentrism, hindsight bias, false consensus, illusory transparency, and so on. In the writing context, ‘It simply doesn’t occur to the writer that her readers don’t know what she knows – that they haven’t mastered the patois of her guild, can’t divine the missing steps that seem to obvious to mention, have no way to visualise a scene that to her is as clear as day.’

Pinker has a lot to say about the Curse of Knowledge, and makes some useful suggestions for how to guard against it, but in the end, sadly, there’s no silver bullet to remove the curse. But how good it is to be reminded starkly:

The form in which thoughts occurs to a writer is rarely the same as the form in which they can be absorbed by a reader.

After an excellent chapter on coherence, which I plan to reread carefully, Pinker gets to the fun bit of any book on style in a final chapter, ‘Telling Right from Wrong’. After a sweet demolition job on the pedants who write to the newspapers (of whom the ‘septic tank man,my example, not Pinker’s, is my favourite), in which he takes apart the Prescriptivist vs Descriptivist myth, he pronounces on a hundred usage issues – mostly what he gives is the current consensus among linguists, but where experts disagree he gives his own best judgement.

This chapter is a proofreader or copy editor’s delight. I’m grateful for his clarity about the subjunctive. I cheer aloud when he, a USer, curls his lip at US punctuation conventions for the end of quotations, or takes issue with rigid rules about that and which, or talks sense about among and between. I want to be in the room with him to argue about datum and data. I’m chastened by his entries on decimate and unique, and my dissatisfaction about fortuitous remains unallayed. While I don’t understand his argument about between you and I, from now on I’ll stop bridling when people say it. You’ll have your own examples.

Leila Yusaf Chung’s Chasing Shadows 

Leila Yusaf Chung, Chasing Shadows (Vintage Books Australia, 2014)

1csIn August 2001, John w Howard kept the press away from the asylum seekers who had been rescued by captain Arne Rinnan of the Norwegian ship Tampa. It was crucial to Howard’s strategy of depicting the would-be refugees as ‘illegals’ and ‘queue-jumpers’ that Australians not see them as individual men, women and children. His famous utterance, ‘We will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come,’ could not have sounded like a defiant assertion of sovereignty if its hearers knew the wretched terror and misery – not to mention courage and determination – of those who were being ‘decided’ against.

Short of meeting asylum seekers in person, and so far I haven’t bestirred myself to do that, fiction has to be a good way of engaging imaginatively with this class of people who are still being relentlessly disparaged and dehumanised in our media. I bought a copy of Leila Yusaf Chung’s novel with those considerations in mind after hearing her speak, beautifully, at the Sydney Writers Festival about the importance of women in refugee communities.

I’m happy to report that the book filled the brief I had given it. Set mainly in Israel and Lebanon from the 1940s to the 1980s, it has real people who suffer real losses, confront real mysteries, and make their ways through the violence and indifference they meet at every turn. The form of the book mirrors the complexity of Middle Eastern politics, to the extent that plot summaries either misrepresent the book or are close to impossible to unravel. A character who seems to be the main driver of the plot becomes marginal to the point that when he dies we hardly notice; sympathetic characters do terrible things, and a shift in perspective reveals what looked like – and was – abuse to be an act of love; an early scene narrated from an uncomprehending child’s point of view turns out to contain a mystery that is central to the story; there are many false starts, many shifts of location and allegiance.

The book has a Zelig quality – characters find themselves on the spot just in time to be on the wrong side of a disastrous event: a Polish Jew living in Israel converts to Islam just before the naqba, so that he and his new family are among the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians driven from their homes by the Israeli army into apparently permanent exile; a young Palestinian woman is persuaded to marry an Iranian official, only to arrive in Tehran the day of the 1979 revolution and be gaoled along with hundreds of women who don’t meet the requirements of Ayatollah Khomeini’s new regime; characters are caught up in the Lebanese civil war and the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

Identity is fluid, and sometimes a  pragmatic choice: the Jew Lavi becomes the Muslim Abu Fadi in order to marry a young Muslim woman; his Arab daughter poses as a Christian Armenian to give her infant daughter a safe environment to grow up in; another daughter finds a source of strength in strict Islam. Nothing is simple.

I recommend the book. If you read it I’d love to hear your response in the comments.

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Chasing Shadows is the twelfth book I’ve read for the 2015 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

Of Mice and Men and the Book Group

John Steinbeck, Of Mice and Men (1937)

ommEvery now and then the Book Group reads a classic. As one of us is currently performing in the play of Of Mice and Men, it seemed like an obviously good idea to read the book and see the play together.

Before the meeting: This is one of those books that you feel you don’t actually need to read. Like the photos of Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, it’s a solid part of our understanding of the US in the 1930s. A little skinny guy and a lumbering giant with intellectual disability team up in rural USA during the Great Depression. The big man is a gentle soul, but doesn’t know his own strength and bad things happen.

Predictably, the book turned out to offer any number of surprises. First was the lyricism of the opening. I vaguely knew that Elmore Leonard’s disparagement of ‘hooptedoodle‘, the descriptive bits that readers tend to skip, cited Steinbeck as an authority. It was a surprise, then, to meet an opening paragraph that describes a pool over which arch the ‘recumbent limbs and branches’ of sycamores, and to which water ‘has slipped twinkling over the yellow sands in the sunlight’. That ‘twinkling’ challenged my assumptions mightily.

But then the humans appear, and there’s no more twinkling or recumbent arches until the final chapter, where ‘row on row of tiny wind waves flowed up the pool’s green surface’. The return to that pool carries a huge emotional thwack. Steinbeck knew a little hooptedoodle goes a long way, but he knew how to do it well. In this case, it’s the equivalent of a theatrical backdrop.

The story unfolds in six scenes, each of which observes the classical unities of time, place and action – that is, we see only what happens in a given place, and we see everything that happens there in sequence. The settings, described briefly at the start of each scene, are: an idyllic clearing on the bank of the Salinas river on a Thursday evening; a ranch bunkhouse the next morning; the bunkhouse again that evening; the harness room, which is also the bedroom of Crooks, the stable buck, on Saturday night; the barn, Sunday afternoon; the pool again, still Sunday.

Almost everything is conveyed by dialogue and action. It’s a short book, just about 100 pages – it could have been twice as long in the hands of a writer who wanted to tell us what his characters were thinking, rather than trusting us to get it.

There’s another passage of ‘fine writing’ that stands out. Unlike the other characters – the old man Candy, Crooks, Curley – who reveal themselves by their words and actions, Slim first appears in a long descriptive passage. Here’s the end of that passage:

There was a gravity in his manner and a quiet so profound that all talk stopped when he spoke. His authority was so great that his word was taken on any subject, be it politics or love. This was Slim, the jerkline skinner. His hatchet face was ageless. He might have been thirty-five or fifty. His ear heard more than was said to him, and his slow speech had overtones not of thought, but of understanding beyond thought. His hands, large and lean, were as delicate in their action as those of a temple dancer.

This eloquent prose telegraphs Slim’s function as moral touchstone: we know that his judgement is to be trusted, that his point of view is as close as we’ll get to the author’s. Then the prose snaps back to normal, not so much undercutting the hoptedoodle as saving it from itself, when Slim speaks:

‘It’s brighter’n a bitch outside,’ he said gently. ‘Can’t hardly see nothin’ in here.’

As I was reading this book, Barack Obama made headlines for using the N word. (As someone said, he is the first US President to use that word without referring to someone he claimed to own.) Given the extreme sensitivity to that word in the US today, it’s gratifying that Steinbeck’s use of it hasn’t been bowdlerised, at least not in the edition I read. The characters’ casual use of it to refer to Crooks, the only African American character, is very uneasy-making. Then there’s a scene where the woman addresses him by the vile term, and reminds him that she could have him ‘strung up on a tree so easy it ain’t even funny’. Steinbeck and Obama would agree that racism is not just a matter of it not being polite to use some words in public.

After the meeting: We didn’t have a group meeting as such, as we spent two and a half hours at the Sport for Jove production of Steinbeck’s play, directed by Iain Sinclair, with an all-round excellent cast. All good intentions of joining our actor-member after the show evaporated at the final curtain, and we all made our way home to warm mid-week beds.

It was interesting to see the play so soon after reading the novel. Maybe Steinbeck had the play in mind when he wrote the novel, because it really did feel largely as if as if the book had been magically transmogrified into flesh and blood. Maybe George wasn’t as wiry as I’d imagined, and Curley’s wife (her lack of a name much more noticeable in the play) was less sexy; the scene in Crooks’ bunk felt truncated; the dog was cuter and more alert than the book’s smelly wreck. But these were minor variations. The novel was walking and talking in front of our eyes. But no twinkling water or recumbent sycamore branches.