Sunday right here

This is a notice of a book I have just read, called The house of twenty thousand books, by Sasha Abramsky.

I don’t remember how I came to find out about this book. As far as I can recall, I was interested in book collecting, and whether anyone had written much about that. Reader, they have! There were bibliomanes with larger collections than Chimen Abramsky’s, but his story seemed interesting. This book was available in the Boroondara Library network — the link above points to their record — so I took a punt on it.

Chimen Abramsky grew up in the Soviet Union, the son of a rabbi. His father, Yeshevel, was arrested under Stalin’s regime, and the family was exiled to Britain when Chimen was 15. Despite this early experience of totalitarian rule, Chimen became interested in Marxism, and joined the British Communist Party. After the war he and his wife bought a house in Hampstead Heath (for 12 pounds!), which became a kind of left-wing salon. Thinkers including Eric Hobsbawm and Isiah Berlin were guests. At the same time Chimen maintained his Jewish cultural links, working in a Jewish bookstore, which also sold religious artefacts. He became a collector of books and memorabilia relating to Socialism and Hebraica, and helped develop the auction market for the latter area in particular. As this market expanded, he become an advisor to Sotheby’s in Hebraica. Chimen also had a later career as Professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College, London — this without holding a formal degree. 

The book had several themes of interest to me. As well as his book collecting and trading activities, Chimen was a leading British Jewish left-wing intellectual. After the war, Socialism was an article of faith to many idealists and progressives (including, at this time, my father). Socialism appeared to promise a fair, equitable, and peaceful society free from discrimination and exploitation. Of course, as the saying goes, someone who is not a socialist under the age of 21 has no heart, and someone still  a socialist after that age has no head. Chimen’s political views evolved in the direction of liberalism, prompted by the the persistence of anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union as well as the revelations about the show trials and prison camps.

(This isn’t specifically mentioned in the book, but I have noticed that many who were attracted to socialism at this time also either identified as Christians, like Graham Greene, or grew up in a religious family like Orwell. There was no shortage also of adherents to Communism from a Jewish background like Chimen’s. Perhaps the structure and discipline of Party membership gave the same feeling of security that religious belief had provided. For some, belief in a Socialist “heaven on earth” was not mutually exclusive of belief in the traditional life after death. In other cases, Socialism became their new religion. Chimen ceased believing in Judaism in a religious sense when he became interested in Marxism. He did not, however, wish his family to realise his apostasy, and maintained Jewish cultural traditions such as wearing the yarmulka and keeping a kosher kitchen.)

The Jewish aspect of the book was of personal interest also. Judaism has had a peripheral role in my life. As family readers will know, my father was half Jewish, originating on his father’s side. Judaism being a matrilineal religion, orthodox Jews would therefore not regard me as Jewish. My father had no religious faith, and was completely uninterested in Jewish cultural traditions. So I grew up as neither a religious nor a cultural Jew. Nevertheless, I was conscious, when growing up in the largely white-bread Australia of the 1960s, of having origins in a minority group. This was reinforced by Jews being the butt of many jokes and other stereotyping. By now people have largely stopped using “Jewish” or “Ikey” as a synonym for meanness. (This is complicated, however; the best Jewish jokes I ever heard were told to me by Dad’s friend Lionel Cohen.) 

Chimen’s was not an interesting life in its external aspects. His collection, which came to take over his and his wife Miriam’s house, is now scattered between the individuals and institutions to whom it was sold. His ideological and personal journey, however, provide a window onto the development of post-war Britain. Sasha Abramsky is the author of books such as The American way of poverty and Inside Obama’s brain . He tells Chimen’s and Miriam’s story with love, but also with the detachment and objectivity of an experienced author. Abramsky’s book is both an act of devotion to a great bookman, who happened to be his grandfather, and a fascinating record of a tumultuous time. 

You are what you eat

This is a minor rewrite of a previous post, published under the title ‘The more things change’. 

First, the breaking non-news. I saw Dr Parente (oncologist) yesterday, and the PSA is still undetectable. So everything is the same as last time. The next appointment, in May, will be a Zolodex one. This means, after seeing Dr P, I get a new implant up in the oncology ward. (I say “up” because it is on the 4th floor of Epworth Eastern. If your station overlooks a window, there are soothing views over the nearby park. I always take my noise cancelling headphones, and usually listen to ABC Classic.)

My beloved has just returned from Paris. She had a week there, mainly for work, but added a couple of days to the end of the trip. I was to go with her initially, but we decided against this. Having flown business class on our last trip, it is pretty well impossible to go back to economy. (I would have needed to keep my feet up in any case, for the lymphedema.) We would therefore have been up for another BC ticket and extra accommodation costs. We looked at tacking on a river cruise or something similar to the end of the week. At that time of year, however, there is nothing much available — it’s just too cold.  I had Dr P’s appointment to go to as well — these things can usually be changed — but I wasn’t sure that I wanted to. So I was baching for the week.

It was a strange time. We hadn’t been away from each other for that long for twenty-five years. So I decided I needed things to do. Fortunately there was no shortage of projects. We had a big sheet of plywood sitting down in the garage, about 1.2 metres square. With the help of a neighbour, I cut a roughly triangular piece out of it. This I used as a floor  underneath the vertical garden. The latter is in a corner of the courtyard which faces west and north. Being on casters, is obviously meant to go on a smooth surface, not resting on the ground as I had it. Having the plywood underneath it means I can now move it around to follow the sun, which is now much lower in the sky, and shining more on the northern wall.

This project actually took up quite a bit of time. First I had to measure up the corner. When I had a triangular bit of plywood, I removed the vertical garden and other things, then put the plywood in the corner to see if it fitted. It did — after I dug up a bunch of the native grass that is planted in the corner. (I will tell you what I did with that in a second.) The plywood has battens along two sides, so it is not lying flat on the ground. I decided I would paint it, however, to protect it just a bit from the rather boggy conditions in the corner. So I spread the tarp out on the driveway, and rustled up a miscellany of bits of cardboard packing and other things to rest it on. I had about ten litres of paint left over from painting the fence, so after pulling it out of the corner, I slapped a bit of that paint on both sides. The next day, I put it back in the corner, and arranged the vertical garden and another pot, into which I put the clump of grass which I had dug up before.

Sorted! Well, almost. The pot that holds the grass clump is slightly too small for it. (It isn’t a proper pot, but an old rubbish bucket that I have repurposed by drilling some drain holes in the bottom.) I have an old recycling bin which is a lot bigger, and is already equipped with drain holes. When I dragged this out, however, I realised it was about double the capacity of the present pot, and I didn’t have nearly enough soil or potting mix to fill it. When I shopped yesterday I bought a bag of potting mix. I expect therefore to have the grass in its new home as soon as I can get to it today.

Another little bit that needed fixing was the irrigation to the vertical garden. This is now a metre or so further away from the tap. I therefore had to cut a longer piece of hose to go on using the irrigation. When I move the vertical garden back in its original position, I will have to fit the shorter piece of hose to keep it connected to the tap. To do this easily, I will have to get some more of the click fittings — the bits that accept the male click-in portion.  Another trip to Bunnings! (Not that I mind — there is a coffee cart at the Chadstone store that sells the most insanely delicious Nutella doughnuts — giving my wanderings around its endless aisles a turbo boost.)

I have had very little success germinating seeds in the spot I originally set up for this purpose. So I am trying a new, shadier location, and giving it some more protection from slugs this time. They will have to be like Siegfried and pierce the ring of fire! In this new spot I put out dwarf beans and some more parsley and chives. The first of these have sprouted extremely vigorously — I will probably have to thin them out. So I have planted them out into the top layer of the vertical garden, where they get maximum sun, and have a trellis behind on which to grow.

The other seeds are not doing anything yet. To the ranks of these recalcitrants I added some baby beet seeds, having first soaked these in water for a couple of hours. When are you supposed to water seeds, by the way — as soon as you put them in, or after a week or so? The back of the packet doesn’t say anything about this. With the beets, however, I reasoned that, as they had been soaked in water, they wouldn’t mind a bit more straightaway. Incidentally, my helpful neighbour showed me a good way of labelling seeds or seedlings. This requires a packet of paddle-pop sticks (available from the $2 shop), on one of which one writes the name of the seed with a permanent marker. 

Another thing I did a fair bit of during this week was cooking. I did acquire a Sunbeam Nutri Oven for $20 in very good condition from the local op shop. Whenever I mention this device to anyone, they look puzzled, and I end up trying to describe it. A picture is worth a thousand words, however, so I am pasting in a picture below.

Nutri oven

The big ugly-looking unit on top contains the heating element. The vertical slots conceal a fan which circulates air around the food. Yes, folks, this is the predecessor to the air fryer we see advertised on late night TV. The Nutri Oven is a lot better, however, because it has a much larger capacity. Using the extension ring (not shown), you can cook a whole roast. Why bother when I have a perfectly good wall oven? The weather is chilly now, but after the hottest March on record, I was interested in something that wouldn’t heat up the whole kitchen. There is actually very little this thing can’t do! I have roasted, grilled, sauteed (sort of), and baked in it, all very successfully. You can do steaming as well, after a fashion — results with fish fillets and potatoes wrapped in foil are very good. I have also baked about half a dozen cakes and three loaves of bread. Being able to bake bread is particularly good for my beloved, who has to avoid bread containing any preservatives. (These don’t have to be listed on the packaging if they constitute less than a  certain percentage of the food.) She can now have a toasted egg sandwich, with Nuttelex, iceberg lettuce and salt. Raymond Blanc, eat your heart out!

 

 

A matter of judgement

There is a timely (for me) article in The New Daily: “How to be a great friend to somone with cancer“.

It makes some common-sense suggestions, which is always good. The major suggestion, reading between the lines, is not to feel as if you — the friend — have to do anything different. Stay in touch. Suggest outings and get-togethers, as you normally would. (Obviously, if your friend has mobility issues as a result of their cancer, you will bear this in mind.) Have a chat, as you normally would. Don’t feel you either have to talk about their cancer, or not talk about it. The tip about not feeling you have to make the big speech is a good one.

You may be surprised — or not — at what people can get used to. It is eighteen months since I was diagnosed. A cancer diagnosis goes from being a rock your life has run aground on, to just another category label. Male. Retired librarian. Likes cooking, gadgets, and cars. Cancer patient. They are all facets of my life. Obviously I give the cancer priority, but all these things are part of who I am. So I think the article is on the money with emphasising normality. Aiming for this is part of how I manage.

In this vein, cancer patients learn that not everyone is cool with talking about mortality. This is totally understandable. There is a time and place for all these things. We are not a society that encourages discussions about death. Some people need to talk about it. Others find it easier not to get into the deep and meaningfuls. There is no one size fits all approach.

I guess being friends with a cancer patient is like being friends with someone recently bereaved. As the friend, you feel awkward and not sure of what to say. So you don’t say anything. As the article points out, that is totally fine. A hearts and flowers speech is not required. What is not fine is if you avoid the person because you feel awkward around them. Then they have to deal with their friends not seeing them as well as with their loss.

Of course the bereaved person, or cancer patient, has responsibilities for keeping the friendship going as well. I’m not terribly good at these things. So I am saying this to myself — friendship involves putting yourself out there and taking a risk.

Cancer patients come in different shapes and sizes. We can be in quite different spaces according to the stage we are at in our treatment. I am in remission and don’t have a prognosis. Someone like me is not going to feel the same as someone who has a prognosis and receiving palliative care. But people whose lives haven’t been affected by cancer can’t readily make these distinctions. When they hear the word “cancer” they assume the worst. We, the patients, have to remind ourselves of this. Everyone is on the same journey, but all starting from a different place.

If you want an education, go to the library

I have just read an extremely interesting and encouraging article in the New York Review of Books called “In praise of public libraries“, by Sue Halpern. (I should add that, I am not a subscriber to the NYRB, and Halpern’s piece is not behind a pay wall, as far as I can see. The link provided above therefore should take you straight to the piece; let me know if not. As always, I apologise for cross posting.)

The title of her article may seem to promise a dusty and tedious motherhood kind of essay, as faded as those little baskets of pot-pourri one sees in an op shop. On the contrary! The article opens with Halpern’s pacy account of helping bring a public library to a small town in New York State, and how wildly popular this initiative proved. The body of the piece, however, is a review of a couple of books about American public libraries, Palaces for the people by Eric Klinenburg, and The library book by Susan Orlean. (The links in each title point to the Amazon entries.) She makes me want to read both these books — usually the sign of a good review.

One particular aspect of the review which caught my attention was the section devoted to Andrew Carnegie and his eponymous libraries. Public libraries would seem an unusual thing for a red meat capitalist like Carnegie to be interested in. The review explains how this came about. Carnegie, at the age of fifteen, was working as a telegram boy in Pittsburgh. A local iron manufacturer, Colonel James Anderson, allowed working boys to borrow one book a week from his private library. Carnegie’s experience of this philanthropy led him to write later in his Autobiography 

It was from my own early experience that I decided there was no use to which money could be applied so productive of good to boys and girls who have good within them and ability and ambition to develop it, as the founding of a public library in a community which is willing to support it as a municipal institution.

He put his money where his mouth was, to the tune of $1.6 billion in today’s dollars. This funded 2,509 libraries worldwide. Family members will know that one of these was in Mildura, where my family was living when I first saw the light of day. A voracious reader, Mum’s use of the Carnegie library was probably a factor in her enthusiasm for public libraries. This in turn doubtless contributed to my becoming a shelf monkey for over thirty years. (I am indebted to the Urban Thesaurus for this nomenclature.)

The NYRB piece sets the institution of public libraries squarely in the current climate in which libraries are being either closed, rationalised, or starved of funds. (This is happening here just as much as the United States.) Economic rationalists are sceptical that we need public libraries at all, now that we have Amazon, and Starbucks stores with free wifi. (I know — libraries don’t actually sell books — but apparently economics professors don’t know this.) Halpern provides the interesting figure that, in the Los Angeles County system, the annual per capita library funding figure is around USD$32, which equates to about nine medium-size Starbucks lattes. (In my local area, every $100 of rates revenue includes $6.68 of funding for libraries, arts and cultural services; about half of what is spent on emptying the bins and other “Environment and waste management” services.)

Rather than join the chorus bemoaning the irreparable damage being done to libraries in all sectors — municipal, university, and special — let’s concentrate on the positives. In the financial year 2016-17, the State Library of Victoria had more than two million physical visits, and over four million digital ones. More than a million people visited its exhibitions. A public appeal raised more than $500,000, a record for that institution. “Major gifts” raised another $25 million for its Vision 202 redevelopment plan (see “A year of records for Australia’s most popular state library”, media release 25 September 2017). Okay, that is one flagship library. But it shows that the public and funding sources — even when everything is supposedly available on the internet — are still prepared to support bricks and mortar libraries.

Where did I get the title of this post from? You are forgiven your overdue fine if you recognised Frank Zappa’s incisive words: “If you want to get laid, go to college. If you want an education, go to the library” (Brainy Quote).

 

Keeping calm & not carrying on (too much)

I was sitting in the waiting room of my lymphedema practitioner yesterday, reading ‘The tattooist of Auschwitz’. When she called me to come in, she asked what I was reading. When I told her, she said “That’s hilarious”. We established that she was referring, not to the book itself, but to the fact that she was reading it too. (We are reading it for our respective book groups.)

Why was I seeing a lymphedema practitioner? In recent weeks I have had a bit of swelling in the feet and ankles. This is quite often found in people who have had radiation treatment, chemotherapy, or lymph nodes removed. (Of course, I have had the trifecta.) The weather has been warm and pretty humid, which tends to make this condition worse. Anyway, I now have a lymphedema practitioner among the team keeping me in a well state. (Who knew that such specialised people existed?) Treatment involves wearing knee high compression socks, doing some lymphatic drainage (i.e. massage), and keeping the limbs elevated where possible. Walking (and exercise generally) is fine. Long periods of sitting with feet on the floor, and standing around, are not recommended.

Anyway, things are definitely headed in the right direction. (This is based on re-measurements of my feet and ankles.) Apart from this small inconvenience — with which there is no pain — I am still in remission and feeling fine. The last scan came up clear, PSA still undetectable, so I am continuing with the hormone treatment. (I get another implant every three months.)

Returning to ‘The tattooist of Auschwitz’; when someone in my book group said they would like to read it, I knew nothing about it. Judging from the title, it didn’t sound like a terribly cheery read. I had just suggested ‘The narrow road to the deep North’, however, so I didn’t feel entitled to object to it on those grounds. I’m glad I didn’t — I am enjoying it more and more the further I get through it.

One reason is that, in spite of being set in Birkenau prison camp, the killings and assaults it records are never rendered very graphically. So although it is clear what is going on, it never descends into Holocaust porn. Another is the style, which is clean and unadorned, and propels the narrative efficiently. Doubtless Heather Morris realised that, with a story like this, no flourishes or literary devices were required. If so, she made the right decision. For such a book, it is quite a page turner. The steadiness of the narrative pulse, and the unbelievable ingenuity of the characters in just staying alive, makes you believe that they will get out. (After all, someone survived to tell her the story, right?)

I found this story, of people showing such resilience in unimaginable circumstances, instructive after the Christchurch killings. Everyone will react differently to this event. I have been trying to find a justification for being concerned with, and going on writing about, mundane things. Of course — and I apologise for the cliché — life must go on. Cars must be serviced, bills paid, meals cooked, washing washed. These things don’t stop just because some total bastard has rent the fabric of so many lives.

Of course people in Christchurch are not just getting on with their lives, but are showing great resilience and compassion as well. If the alleged killer was trying to inspire hatred and rejection of Muslims, he has evidently failed. So many people went along to mosques and Islamic museums last Sunday — here and, no doubt, all over Australia and New Zealand — to express their sorrow for these murders. There has also been tremendous support for the right of Muslims to practice their religion.

Taking a closer look at this: we might assume (as I did) that freedom of religion is guaranteed under Australia’s constitution. This actually isn’t so. Australia has no bill of rights guaranteeing the right to practice a particular religion. There is a number of  implied rights in the Commonwealth constitution; these rights are generally taken to include religious practice. However, this implied right only applies in the Commonwealth jurisdiction. So the states and territories are theoretically free to make laws restricting the practice of a particular religion within their jurisdiction. (See the interim report of the 2016  Inquiry into the status of the human right to freedom of religion or belief (Australia. Parliament. Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade)). 

If these events brought about a bill of rights, or other instrument giving proper protection for freedom of religion, it would not be worth the lives lost. But it would be something positive.

Nothing to see here …

We saw Dr Parente yesterday morning. The PSA is still undetectable, and I remain in remission. After receiving this good news, we went to the oncology unit, where I had another Zolodex implanted. (You will remember that this is the hormone treatment — androgen deprivation — that is aiming to starve the cancers of what they feed on.) The implants are about the size of a grain of rice and last about 3 months. They just go in in the abdominal fat, of which there is still plenty, even after the gastro! There is very little discomfort. I booked in the next appointments with Dr P & the oncology unit, for the next implant.

My beloved is going to Paris in early April for a few days. She will be representing her work at an international transport meeting. We thought of me going as well, and tacking a cruise or other expedition onto the end of her work commitments. However, there is bugger-all happening in that line at that time of year (too cold, I suspect). So I am going to hold the fort. Of course this depends on nothing going awry in the meantime, but (touch wood) all seems to be quite stable. I have been going to an exercise class for oncology patients run by Lauren, the exercise physio, and this is pretty good! I will be going back to the gym soon as well (I stopped for a few weeks with the gastro).

My lovely old Luxman pre-amp has spat the dummy again and is only working on one channel. This is a real bore as I have to disconnect everything, pull it out, and run it over to the valve amp guru in Glen Waverley. He will have it for however long he needs to ponder its mysteries — could be weeks. (His workshop is like an Aladdin’s cave of amplifiers, many much more expensive than mine. So he knows whereof he speaks.) This is not my first pilgrimage there, however, and to be honest I am a bit over the vintage gear. Maybe I should sell it on Gumtree and get a nice, soulless, reliable, solid state integrated amp!

Artists and parasites

Whether republicans or monarchists, we are all supporters of the GG (Guy’s Gut). So I knew you wouldn’t want to miss any twist in the tale. The final act of the drama unfolded like this:

  1. 11th: Saw GP A — not my regular one, who was unavailable. She gave me a pathology test kit, just in case I had something more than common old gastro. I dropped this off at a path collection point a few days later. When I didn’t hear anything about it, I assumed it didn’t show anything unusual. (The practice doesn’t contact patients about path results except if they show something urgent or out of the ordinary.)
  2. 18th: Felt worse over the weekend, so saw GP B (my regular). He rang the path lab. The test he was hoping GP A had requested, she hadn’t requested. So he asked them “Can you run an XYZ test on the existing samples?”. Yes, they could. On what I told him and my treatment history, he went ahead and diagnosed a likely Giardia infection. He gave me a script for Flagyl (an antibiotic) and a few other bits and pieces. I had to take the Flagyl for 3 days: no grog (haven’t been having any anyway).
  3. 20th: After having the Flagyl over the last 3 days, I felt dramatically better! GP B had hit the bullseye — good on him. Normal energy, appetite, number 2s, the works. As far as I am concerned, case closed. However, later that day, I got a message from the practice to ring them. I needed to make an appointment with GP A to discuss the test results (remember them?). I made a time for the following day.
  4. 21st: GP A told me it wasn’t Giardia after all, but Aeromonas. Apparently this is a more unusual species of bug, mainly seen in travellers. Same treatment, but it is less likely to recur than Giardia. (This is because the Flagyl kills the Giardia parasites, but not their eggs. A recurrence of symptoms after two or three weeks is therefore possible.) She recommended a probiotic to restore some of the gut flora that the Flagyl will have knocked out. Oh, and I am still off the grog for a few more days.

The most important thing: I feel normal. Today I walked nearly 13,000 steps (about 9.5 kilometres). Appetite, energy levels, and all functions back to normal.

I am re-reading The master, by Colm Toibin, for a discussion group on Saturday.  (For those who haven’t read it, this is his novel about Henry James.) When I checked the publication date, I was surprised to see it was published 14 years ago. I did my Honours thesis on James over 40 years ago, so when this novel came out, I was naturally interested to read it. I was impressed then with Toibin’s novelistic treatment of him, and I still am.

It strikes me, this time around, that there is a lot about social blindness in his treatment of Henry James. (Well, I have always thought of the concept as “social blindness”. An example of this is someone at a nude beach, who strenuously ignores the naked bodies in front of them. Of course, they are just as interested as anyone else would be. They are just not peering too obviously, to avoid the social stigma of being thought a pervert. Maybe someone can tell me what this is actually called in social psychological terms.)

In The master, James feels as if people can tell that he has — as he might put it — particular inclinations. (These crop up pretty early on, so it is no spoiler to disclose it here.) He loathes people inferring this about him, as anyone might. According to Wikipedia, homosexuality was a capital crime until 1861 in Britain, after when it continued to be regarded as a serious offence. Of course, no-one accuses James out loud! The niceties (social blindness) are thus preserved; the fictional James, however, feels vulnerability and shame.

With all these inferences and implications, Toibin infuses the early scenes of the book with a fair degree of tension. In this “faction”, James is portrayed as an observer of human behaviour. (Sargent’s portrait captures this aspect of his personality; as do the books.) That less fastidious people can apparently observe him just as readily adds an uncomfortable paradox. From memory, his sexuality is thought to be ambiguous. It appears that he renounced entanglements the better to write about them. The real Henry James was famously discreet in this as in all things.