A Monday Medley…

June 7, 2010 at 10:12 am (Uncategorized)

I finished On Beauty over the weekend – Llew’s sick at the moment so it was a rare opportunity to get him to sit still, inside, and read. He duly bolted MAUS, Art Spiegelman’s graphic masterpiece, highly recommended reading to anyone out there yet to make its acquaintance, and was predictably blown away. Its candidness as well as its horror makes it unforgettable. Indeed, Llew recalled hearing a radio interview with Spiegelman, who is so clear-eyed about his relationship with his father that it takes your breath away, in which the author/artist said something very brave that you don’t hear too often (which silence makes it no less true): there’s nothing ennobling about survival in and of itself. It’s simply survival, even when we’re talking about the Holocaust. His point is that survivors, including his father, remain deeply flawed human beings, they don’t all suddenly transform into untouchable heroes. Survival is, after all, most often not heroic in the slightest, but horribly mundane and as feckless as all hell. I’ve heard the same thing said of poverty, and it’s true; there’s no intrinsic honour in being poor, though we often rush to imply there is. Perhaps we attach a mythology to both because we instinctively and pretty desperately need to believe some good comes of grinding squalor and abject despair. Sometimes, of course, good does come, and people born into poverty are touched by greatness – of heart, mind or deed – just as some survivors emerge as true heroes, and we need those stories too, just as much as we need someone like Art Spiegelman to remind us of the many things that make up our collective human truth.

Aside from MAUS, I’d recommend On Beauty, too, the first Zadie Smith I’ve read. Someone recommended it to me, but I can’t remember whom – I think it was my friend T when he was up from Melbourne last and came to see me in Man Town. I certainly dragged him into Desire, my gorgeous favourite-place-locally second-hand bookstore, and I certainly bought On Beauty there, but whether or not the two incidents are related I can’t definitively say. Regardless, it was a good recommendation: I enjoyed it, particularly Smith’s take on African American street vernacular, as well as her exploration of the petty preoccupations, politics and minor scandals of academic life. Race plays an inextricable part in the unfolding – or more accurately unravelling – familial narrative, but the novel is at least as interesting on the question of class. Dominating the stage is the educated middle-class – both its liberal and conservative sides, as represented by the Belsey and Kipps clans – but it’s the supporting cast of characters that gives the novel much of its power, in particular the Haitian immigrant class. One character’s teaching qualifications aren’t recognised in America, and so he struggles for a foothold not in the educated classes at all, but as one of Boston’s supposedly “unskilled” working poor.

There’s some interesting trans-Atlantic cultural tension too, and in fact one of my favourite parts of the book is heartbreakingly small and domestic: Howard Belsey visiting his old man in London for the first time in five or so years. Anyone who grew up painfully aware of a fundamental lack of connection with one parent or two will gulp in recognition at this scene, which might otherwise be called ‘Talking to a Stranger.’ Good name for my memoirs, that, which I simply must remember should such a thing ever become worth writing…!

Now I’m reading a short David Sedaris collection, Holidays on Ice. That’s really just like a stiff drink of something delicious as a palate cleanser before I settle on the next novel… decisions, decisions… I have a teetering pile of TBRs that just won’t quit.

And now some news in brief:

  • It seems Lady Alzheimer’s St Andy’s romance is headed for disaster. Turns out the object of her affection is married, and his wife is very much alive and probably still rather attached to her dementia-addled husband. Neither he nor Nana would have any clue whatsoever how hurtful and devastating their twilight shenanigans must be for his poor wife, whom I’d hazard neither can remember long enough to remotely consider, but these two have been caught in each other’s beds, and things have escalated quite dramatically to the point that they’re probably going to be separated. Never a dull moment with the drama queen that is dementia.
  • Man Town had its annual Food & Wine festival over the weekend. Llewie was so poorly that we didn’t organise anything, but next year we really must get a gang together, because we did stroll down the beachfront just briefly to check it all out and sample some of the food stalls, and it’s just a lovely, lovely day out. A massive pod of dolphins dropped by for a stickybeak too, perhaps drawn by the sounds of happy crowds, live music, children laughing inside jumping castles, bustling markets, cajoling wine vendors and crowded food stalls, all overlooking the beautiful beach. By some miracle, the predicted rain held off until late on the second day, and the festival was once again a rousing success. The Man Town love is strong.
  • After a slow start, I’m definitely starting to put on some pregnancy weight. Here’s how I know: my jeans are now slowly but surely unzipping themselves as I walk along, which I only realised too late after returning home from the shops this afternoon. Now all those pitying smiles along the beachfront make complete sense.
  • I say pregnancy weight, but really I suspect these are sugar kilos, pure and simple. Most uncharacteristically, I’ve been really wanting sweet things, and I’ve been having them, often twice a day (a bit of afternoon tea, like a citron tart or a piece of cheesecake being no obstacle to dessert a couple of hours later, be it quince pie or chocolate pudding…). I’ve now decided to try eliminating all these goodies, because they’ve got no nutritional value at all, and indeed could potentially prove harmful, given the increasing incidence of gestational diabetes in this country. There’s simply no justification for continuing on this path, and plenty of reasons not to, including a growing suspicion that my arse has doubled in size. Farewell, French flan, farewell!


  1. Pete said,

    I must look for that Art Spiegelman. I remember it (I think) from my days working at the bookshop where I would sidle away and read graphic novels (and kids’ books) for as long as I could get away with. And I enjoyed your comments on “On Beauty”. I had mixed feelings to the novel. Her writing is certainly excellent but the subject-matter disturbed me. Perhaps that’s what novels are supposed to do. But I did enjoy the portrait of academic life and the cultural nuances were fascinating as well.

    As for the pregnancy weight-gain, those teas sound delightful. I think if L ever falls pregnant then I will enjoy cultivating a food-belly of my own as a form of practising pregnancy empathy!

    • doctordi said,

      Oh yes, you almost certainly do remember Spiegelman from your FAB sounding bookshop job, Pete. And MAUS is incredible. It’s on the HSC course list here – senior high school students study it – with good reason.

      Yes, I don’t mind being unsettled by some of the subject matter in On Beauty. I think it’s part of what I ultimately enjoyed about it.

      And I do at least have a tendency to choose wisely when I am being a glutton – there’s nothing second rate making the line up!! You may be amused to know it’s actually a documented tendency for the man to gain weight in so-called sympathy, so it sounds like you’ll be a natural!!

  2. Grad said,

    There’s no nutritional value in chocolate pudding?? *Now* you tell me. I think I told you my pregnancy pants trick…you take a good strong rubber band and send it through the button hole. Then you grab the two rubber band loops and hook them over the button. You’ll get another month or two out of those jeans! Of course, if the rubber band snaps you could also put someone’s eye out, so there are risks.

    • doctordi said,

      Graddikins, I’m sure there’s nutritional value in TREACLE pudding, though… or at least those date puddings… and they don’t call it “fruit cake” for nothing! Yes, I think a friend has just given me a patented version of your rubber band solution (it should have been you, Grad, this might have made you your fortune!) – and not a moment too soon…

  3. Lilian Nattel said,

    I’m with art on survivorship–although I’d add that there is some credit to go along with not giving up. But what you do after that–that’s telling. Hurray for your jeans or rather the joy that is pushing them out. Enjoy whatever you want, I say. And thanks for the rundown on On Beauty.

    • doctordi said,

      I was wondering about your thoughts on this, Lilian. And yes, agreed, I definitely think a refusal to give up deserves credit, because I think there are times when that requires an awful lot of courage and determination.

      Oh, I’m enjoying myself on the food front, don’t you worry – another side benefit of not having morning sickness is that there’s nothing I don’t want!!

  4. davidrochester said,

    we instinctively and pretty desperately need to believe some good comes of grinding squalor and abject despair.

    That’s an excellent observation.

    At least you don’t have to worry about Nana getting pregnant. It could be worse.

    … and when you’re having those sweet cravings, try a handful of nuts. Sweet cravings are often misguided protein cravings. Toasted pecans, which you can make yourself at home, are the best for this … just put them in the oven at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until golden-brown, and toss with a little salt. They taste like they’ve been dipped in caramel.

    • doctordi said,

      David, I eat so many nuts!! I have almonds every day on my cereal, and I have walnuts as snacks and in salads – and tonight in my gnocchi – I really can’t imagine I have a protein deficiency… But I do like the sound of pecans that taste like they’ve been dipped in caramel – that is something I have to try!

      God, you’re so right about Nana. How you’ve managed to make me feel relieved about this situation I’ll never know.

  5. Lisa Almeda Sumner said,

    Doctor Di, have you read E.M. Forster’s Howard’s End? If you just finished On Beauty, you should read Howard’s End, since Smith’s book is a kind of tribute to Forster’s. I loved On Beauty, and Smith’s first book, White Teeth. I think she’s a brilliant writer, and I thought the characters in On Beauty were very real, if sometimes disturbing.

    • doctordi said,

      Hi Lisa, and welcome to DoctorDi! No, I haven’t read Howard’s End, but that’s interesting information – I don’t think Smith mentions Forster in her Acknowledgements, so I would have missed that connection entirely. Mmm, yes, I found the characters utterly believable too, if, well, believably unsympathetic at times!

  6. litlove said,

    Oh so much to respond to! I really enjoyed On Beauty, too, and thought Smith’s prose was lovely. And what about Nana! She really is taking after her Zola-namesake with just a teeny bit too much excitement there. But at least you know she is finding entertainment for herself. And those unzipping jeans (which made me laugh – that happens to me, too) are probably due in part to your stomach muscles slackening so as not to harm the baby in any unexpected clenching movements. Bodies in pregnancy are amazing.

  7. doctordi said,

    LL, I’d really enjoyed an essay of Smith’s on writing, so I was pleased I enjoyed On Beauty as much as I did because I’ve heard several people say they like her writing-on-writing more than her writing itself. I’m finding On Beauty’s pleasures and questions are lingering, which is not always the case.

    Nana – it’s sad to think of them being separated, but also so unbearably sad to think of the heartache this must be occasioning the visiting wife. Honestly, after four husbands you’d think Nana might have had enough… but no.

    Oh yes, I’m quite sure my stomach muscles are slackening!!!

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