Friday, 28 December 2012

The Dreadful Fluff - Aaron Blabey

As all my regular readers know, I collect children's literature. I also have a small collection of children's picture books - mostly chosen for the illustrators. DB is a great lover of well crafted picture books - both of us spent time at art school, both of us know illustrators, and a lovely children's picture book is a treat.

I bought this delightful gem for DB as a gift - much to the amusement of those watching him unwrap it. He was quite delighted, didn't think it an odd or ridiculous gift at all. My surprise has been that I found it in the bookshop down from work a few weeks ago, loved it for the mad illustrations and the seriously twisted storyline - and now I keep finding reviews of it all over the media. Apparently, it's one of THE buys in the picture book category at the moment.

The heroine is Serenity Strainer, who is perfect. Perfect in every way - perfectly groomed, perfectly organised, a perfect achiever, perfect big sister and daughter, etc, etc. And then comes the day when she discovers a small ball of belly-button fluff.  Suddenly, Serenity's life goes from being utterly perfect to chaotic and terrifying as The Fluff, once released from Serenity's perfect navel, goes on a rampage through Serenity's house consuming everything in its path to satisfy its insatiable hunger - growing bigger and bigger before her eyes. It is evil, rude, leaves behind a trail of stinky farts and spits up nasty green gloop. The cat, Serenity's mother and teenaged brother are consumed in rapid succession but when the baby becomes its next target, Serenity faces it down with the vacuum cleaner. Clutching the baby under one arm, and the vacuum hose with her other hand, she attacks, thrusting the vacuum deep into The Fluff.
And then, with a pop! And a splat!  And the plop of a cat. That was that.
The cat and Serenity's mother and brother land on the floor covered in green slime and The Fluff is vanquished.

The Awful Fluff doesn't quite have a perfectly happy ending. The cat maroons itself way up high on top of its scratching post. Serenity's mother hangs out the washing looking fearfully over her shoulder, and her brother is last seen in a sterile, bare room armed with spray cleaner and a scrubbing brush. And Serenity? Well, after The Fluff, those small inconveniences in life like belly-button fluff, earwax, and other sundry bodily byproducts will never again be allowed to disrupt what is, for her, an otherwise perfect life!

Sunday, 23 December 2012

Good Yule!

As my regular readers know, I'm Jewish. However, given that I'm being read all over the place (and seriously...the stats are amazing. Thanks to all of you who read me in all the corners of the world!) and I sent Chanukah greetings a little while back, it's only right to do the same for those of you who are celebrating Christmas. So, for all my book junkie brethren for whom this is your festival, the bestest book related Christmas image I could find. Enjoy. A peaceful and joyful season to you all, and the very best for 2013.

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

The End of Your Life Bookclub - Will Schwalbe

I honestly don't know where to start with this book. I picked it up the other day at the Book Co-op near my office while I was there indulging in some illicit book junkie shopping, drawn by the title. I was looking for books for my boys, but on reading the blurb, decided initially not to give it to either of them. Having read it, I'm not so sure. Perhaps I will at some point.

This is Will Schwalbe's elegy for his mother, Mary Anne Schwalbe, founding director of The Women's Refugee Commission and a respected educator. She was also a passionate reader and with Will, formed a 'book club' of two when diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. They shared a vast and eclectic range of books over the almost two years between diagnosis and her death, reading together and discussing them during the hours of chemo and her increasing frailty.  Their activities and discussions were chronicled in part via a blog that she wrote, but in Will's voice, which he uploaded and maintained.

The initial thing that drew me to pick it up off the display was 'book club' in the title. There's something about books about books and reading that draws most book junkies to them...this is something Schwalbe talks about, and there are numerous books on the list of books covered in this one that fit that category. I was a little tentative about reading it on an emotional level, because my mother and I shared books in a very similar way. Next year will mark the tenth anniversary of her death, so I'm having all sorts of spooky moments that feel weirdly as if I'm living the year before she died all over again...which is bittersweet, because there were a great many very special things we did in that last year before she died but there was no indication that it was to be the last year we had. We did discuss, that year, collaborating on writing her story. I spent years working on her about this project. Typically, she dismissed her story as being ordinary and unimportant. It wasn't. In her way, she was as much a pioneer as Mary Anne Schwalbe, and the queen of reinventing herself long before Madonna or Kylie Minogue made it an ordinary part of being famous. My mother, unlike Mary Anne Schwalbe, wasn't famous, but in her quiet and stylish way, made a significant impact on so many people.

Schwalbe discussed writing this book with his mother - to share what they'd done, and I think, as a means of him putting into print just how important she was to him in a way she discouraged him telling her while she was alive. Her initial response was to tell him that he didn't need to do it, that he was far too busy - he was a publisher, editor, and set up, an online recipe library. Later, she came around to the idea and would email him notes and reminders about their discussions, and things she thought he should include.

There are so many things I could include in a discussion about this book that it would take a whole series of posts to encompass them. What I'd like to encourage anyone reading this post is to go and get a copy for themselves and read it - I'd be more than delighted to hear from those of you who do about how you find the reading experience, because I do believe that this is a book that has something extraordinary and special to offer - for everyone, at whatever time they are in life, and whether they are compulsive or occasional readers. However, a few gems that had meaning for me... The choice of this first quote will be obvious to my regular readers:
One of the many things I love about bound books is their sheer physicality. Electronic books live out of sight and out of mind. But printed books have body, presence. Sure, sometimes they'll elude you by hiding in improbable places: in a box full of old picture frames, say, or in the laundry basket, wrapped in a sweatshirt. But at other times they'll confront you, and you'll literally stumble over some tomes you hadn't thought about in weeks or years. I often seek electronic books, but they never come after me. They may make me feel, but I can't feel them. They are all soul with no flesh, no texture, and no weight. They can get in your head but can't whack you upside it.
That made me laugh - Schwalbe captures absolutely all my feelings about eBooks. He and his mother had numerous conversations about electronic publishing. She never read an eBook. While she understood, as I do, the physical convenience of them, she wanted that physicality of the paper, weight and smell.

At the end of the book was one of the most moving passages of all that comes at a point where there is to be no more treatment, it is now just a matter of making what time is left as manageable as possible. They're discussing  their latest book.
When I looked at Mom in that moment, I saw not a sick person, but not quite the same Mom I'd known all my life. After reading so much together, and after so many hours together in doctor's offices, I felt I'd met a slightly different person, a new person, someone quirkier and funnier. I was going to miss my mother dreadfully but also miss this new person, too - miss getting to know her better.
The books, during the period of time the book club exists, become a catalyst for a different kind of relationship between this mother and son.They discuss topics within the context of particular books that they might not have otherwise discussed. Mary Anne was a committed, practicing Christian - Will was uneasy with religion. Yet, during that year, they discuss religion and faith in myriad different ways - which may never have happened without the books. Likewise, other difficult topics - sexuality, family, relationships and, of course, death and dying - all make the book club discussions.

He ends with:
Mom taught me not to look away from the worst but to believe that we can all do better. She never wavered in her conviction that books are the most powerful tool in the human arsenal, that reading all kinds of books, in whatever format you choose - electronic (even though that wasn't for her) or printed, or audio - is the grandest entertainment, and also is how you take part in the human conversation. Mom taught me that you can make a difference in the world and that books really do matter: they're how we know what we need to do in life, and how we tell others. Mom also showed me, over the course of two years and dozens of books and hundreds of hours in hospitals, that books can be how we get closer to each other, and stay close, even in the case of a mother and son who were very close to each other begin with, and even after one of them has died.
There is a very great truth in that paragraph, and all those who scoff at those of us who read are missing out on something special...

If you do one thing for yourself and others this year, read this book and share it with those you love. Start your own book clubs. Be part of the ongoing conversation.

From this - I will give this book to my boys. I will find a way to write my mother's story by myself.

Monday, 10 December 2012

The Hobbit - J. R. R. Tolkien

If you're listing classic children's literature - or any classic literature, come to that - at some point Tolkien's The Hobbit has to be considered for inclusion - in my humble opinion anyway! The papers and other media here are starting to pile up with previews, reviews, interviews, opinion pieces, retrospectives about The Lord of the Rings, and more, all because the first installment of Peter Jackson's adaptation of The Hobbit is due for release on Boxing Day in Australia. It's just as well I first read the book when I was eight, because it's precisely the kind of hype that usually puts me off things! I did, however, realise that it was simply ages since I'd actually re-read it, so I went and pulled my lovely ancient paperback off the shelf and demolished it in short order!
A quick look through Google Images turned up the fact this is not such a common edition and features Tolkien's own pencil drawing The Death of Smaug as the cover illustration. That tickled me a bit - I like it when my books turn out to be a little bit special. It was - for the benefit of one of my readers in particular who drools over my vintage books - published in 1966, and mine is a 1971 impression, inscribed by the family friend who gave it to me in 1972. Given it's been read almost annually since then, it's in surprisingly good nick! It also has Tolkien's maps of Middle Earth as end papers at the front and back, and the title page carries a facsimile of his signature.  DB started reading it as well, and was going to take it with him on his recent OS trip, but realising how old it was, decided not to...he was terrified something might happen to it!

I loved re-reading this book. Despite knowing it so well, I do find that different parts of the story surface with more prominence each time I read it - although, the adventure with the spiders in Mirkwood never fails to send an identical horrified shiver down my spine...I seriously don't do spiders... This time, it was Bilbo and Co's time with Beorn. When a friend and I were chatting on Facebook about different characters in the story, I think I mixed him up with Elrond. I realised my mistake later. Beorn, for some reason, hadn't really figured largely in my memories of the characters Bilbo and the dwarves meet along the way - perhaps because they only stay a short time, and also because he's not, in himself, an overly comforting figure. I have a distinct memory through numerous readings of this book as a child of being aware of a certain quality of darkness and discomfort at various points, alleviated by periods of respite in various havens - chiefly Rivendell and The Last Friendly House with Elrond. And then I was plunged back into darkness, fear, suspense and the like... I think I identified very strongly with Bilbo's frequent unspoken wish that he was safely back in his hobbit hole in front of a roaring fire!

Interestingly, Gandalf, who used to feel so comforting to have around, has ceased to offer me that sense of comfort. Maybe it's because I've now also read The Lord of the Rings trilogy so many times - and in those, we discover that he's not all-powerful as he appears to be in The Hobbit. It's also such a light-hearted book in comparison to LOTR - obviously, the stakes are not so high, but it takes reading it in context to appreciate the difference. The logical part of me was always frustrated by the fact that Peter Jackson made films of LOTR first, when, narratively speaking, they're sequels to The Hobbit. Obviously, the block-buster potential of LOTR - fully realised - made that the more sound financial proposition. I'll be interested to see what he's made of The Hobbit, although part of me is a little wary, given what I've heard. There is a wonderful simplicity about the story telling in The Hobbit and I really hope that that doesn't get lost in the availability of clever effects and the effort to make a similarly epic production - because The Hobbit, as a book, isn't an epic... The fact that Jackson has split up the story to make three films does bother me a bit - I found myself, as I read, trying to figure out logical places to stop. Of course, I lack Tolkien's notes for expanding the book, which Jackson has used to enlarge the narrative...

We shall see. Meantime - if you've been under a rock all your life and haven't read this gem of literature, DO go out and get a copy to read before you see the film so you can appreciate it in all of its quirky simplicity.

Chanukah sameach!

I'm running late with this... I promised myself I'd be organised. didn't happen. I found this image of a wonderful display of children's Chanukah books in a public library - I've no idea whether the libraries in my neck of the woods - which is one of Sydney's bigger Jewish neighbourhoods - have anything similar. The closest I've seen was the awesome display at Gold's World of Judaica at Bondi when I was there on Friday shopping for candles.
So, to all my Jewish readers - Happy Chanukah, or Hanukkah, or Hannukah - or however you want to transliterate it - SO much easier in Hebrew!! May your arteries not be clogged by all the latkes and sufganiot, and may you all enjoy a wonderfully peaceful, happy celebration with your loved ones this year.

Here's our chanukiah from second night - we were out last night, so enjoyed the ones we could see in other people's windows!

Sunday, 9 December 2012

The Ogre Downstairs - Dianna Wynne Jones

Thanks to eBay, I managed to get my hands on a delightful children's book that I've been hunting for donkey's ages. I first read Dianna Wynne Jones' The Ogre Downstairs on loan from a friend, and found it quite enchanting. On and off, ever since, I've kept an eye out for it in second hand book shops, but Wynne Jones' books don't seem to surface very often. Clearly, I need to go check out eBay more often as this is the second hard to find book I've managed to get very easily for a very good price!
The story opens with brothers Caspar and Johnny arriving home from school, Johnny with a mysterious parcel from his stepfather. He's not too pleased about it, saying that it's a bribe. The household is far from comfortable, their mother having not long married the man befriended by their little sister, Gwinny, one day when she was lost. After the marriage, they go to live in their stepfather's house, which is now very crowded as his sons, Douglas and Malcolm,  have to leave boarding school due to the costs of a family of seven.

All of the children struggle to adjust. Caspar, Johnny and Gwinny thought they were all managing very well living with their mother, Sally. They don't like their stepfather, whom they name 'The Ogre', and they don't like their stepbrothers, finding them distant, posh and hard to get along with. Douglas and Malcolm, have to adjust to being pulled out of boarding school and being sent to the local school with Caspar and Johnny. The Ogre himself, unused to having children around, finds the hurly burly of five children infuriating and is in a bad temper most of the time - seemingly always looking to find fault and mete out punishments. Sally - Caspar, Johnny and Gwinny's mother - seems always to look hurt and tired most of the time, which just makes them feel even more animosity towards both The Ogre and his sons.

Much to Caspar's disgust, it turns out that Johnny isn't the only one to receive a present from The Ogre - Malcolm has one too. When they open their parcels, they discover they have both been given large chemistry sets. And so the fun begins... Initially, both boys, as small boys do with chemistry sets, set out to create the worst possible stinks, and the upstairs of the house soon becomes quite unpleasant. Then, in a kerfuffle between all the boys in the disorganised mess of Caspar and Johnny's rooms, one test tube is broken and Gwinny's leg is splashed with the concoction Johnny was mixing. No one notices initially as Caspar and Johnny are occupied pushing Douglas and Malcolm out of the room. Having done that, they turn around to find Gwinny floating up against the ceiling. The bottom deck of the chemistry sets are magic...

In a series of increasingly hilarious and challenging disasters, they bring toffee bars, dust balls, Gwinny's doll's house people, Malcolm's pencils and one of The Ogre's pipes to life. The toffee bars eat wool, and the boys find themselves struggling to keep up with supplies - edges of the carpet, a succession of outgrown jumpers and their blankets start to disappear. The toffee bars also like heat, and keep escaping and melting over radiators. Malcolm shrinks himself, and later turns himself into an ever-changing rainbow. In a turning point experience, he and Caspar manage to swap into each other's bodies and have to manage a day at school experiencing each other's lives. A fierce competition develops between both sets of boys to top each other's exploits resulting, inevitably in clashes with The Ogre, who distributes punishments all around and the household steadily gets more and more chaotic and antagonistic until, with disaster piled on disaster the night of the special grown-up party thrown by the parents, there is a huge show down that results in Sally packing up and leaving.

It takes a week before they manage to track her down - not before they've had to wrangle Johnny, who in an agony of misery about his mother and life in general, cracks working out how to make himself invisible and decides to do away with The Ogre altogether. The others join forces to stop him, catastrophe is averted, numerous home truths are shared, apologies extended and general promises to try and do better in the future are made - just in time for Sally's return.

The chemistry set offers one last trick - but you'll have to go find a copy of this gorgeous romp if you want to know what it is! I read it in an afternoon when the weather suddenly closed in on Sydney and it cost me less than $10 on eBay - a good afternoon's work.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Mary Mary, quite contrary, how do your bookcases go?

There is often chat amongst book bloggers about how we all arrange our bookcases. After all, they take up a fair chunk of our walls, and they can be very decorative - but most book junkies aren't collecting books for the aesthetic effect!

Very few of the people I know with huge collections of books have the luxury of a dedicated room for their books - a library in their house...drool... I did briefly once, and I have to say that it was a wonderful thing. I plan in my  'house of dreams' (L.M. Montgomery fans will get the reference) to have a library again - floor to ceiling timber bookcases, with a ladder to reach the high ones, a cosy couch for stretching out on and a couple of cosy armchairs for curling up, a fireplace for the chilly days and French doors out onto a wide verandah for when it's warmer...

Meantime, I have the four matching dark melamine woodgrain, VERY cheap bookcases that I acquired when DB and I moved in together. They've changed configuration a few times with house moves, which has necessitated some rethinking about book arranging to make them work, because my books are fairly strictly organised, and always have been. I tends to drive other people bonkers - I have no idea why. However, with eyes shut, I can head to a bookcase and pull the book I want off the shelf...and that's the aim of the exercise.

The fiction is divided into adult's and kid's. All the fiction is in alphabetical order by author. Then there are separate spots for art and design, poetry, biography, food, religion, and then a bottom shelf that has a collection of the really big books that can only be piles sideways because they're too tall to stand up!
These are some of the kid's books - they go across twice this width. The little wooden creatures were all gifts from my mother at various times, and this is their spot.
The biogs - this is one shelf of two - are separated from the tail end of the kid's collection by the book bears - Gus and Wilbur. Wilbur is dark grey and hand knitted, so you can't really see him behind Gus, but rather than have them languishing in a box somewhere, they live with the books. DB just came back from an overseas business trip and brought me Mr Bean's bear, Teddy... I have to decide whether to find him a spot in the bookcases, or to take him to work - there is a row of books on my desk that may need some company!
The right hand bookcase of the pair that house the adult fiction - the tail end of that is in the top couple of shelves, and on the second, where the pile is stacked, begins the poetry. The lovely ceramic piece on the right hand end of that shelf is a tea bowl by Milton Moon - one of my great treasures and a lovely gift from a group of friends. It gets used to drink from, but it's safer living on the bookcase in between rather than being in the cupboard in the kitchen. The other ceramic piece acting as a bookend is a piece of porcelain by a South Australian potter, Kirsten Coelho, given to me by my closest girlfriend. It comes out when I can get my hands on tiny white daisies, because it looks just gorgeous holding a handful of those. The green ball on the wooden stand was my mother's, and the soccer ball-style one is one of a pair that belong to DB - they're those oriental ones that chime gently when they're rolled.
This is just some of the art and design collection - a goodly number of which were part of the kilos posted home from Florence years ago! That big one - History of Art, on the bottom shelf - is, seriously, is the heaviest book I've ever owned and was the core text for my MA in art history.
And this is what's happening in selected places all over the house.... I have run out of room in the bookshelves. Of course. They have finite space. The collecting isn't finite... The shelves on the TV stand were empty, so this one on the end began to be a good place to keep knitting projects that were in progress so they were safely out of the way of traffic on the coffee table, but still within reach. So, when I acquired those lovely knitting books I posted about a little while ago, this seemed to be the logical place to put them. There are other spots with stacks - the bedside table, the end of my worktable, there's a growing pile on the floor at one end of one of the bookcases too...

I'm not sure how long I have before there are words. But, methinks just arriving home with a fifth bookcase might be a little overt at this point! However, I'm measuring up walls while I sit in the living room and considering the options because it is starting to be a bit of a problem.

And, don't forget, there are the same number of books in boxes in storage...