Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Annual Dilemma

It's that time of year when the newspapers fill their pages with lists of perfect Christmas presents for family and friends. My husband, for instance, has been convinced by the Sydney Morning Herald that the only thing guaranteed to make me happy on 25th December is a 'gift-wrapped' tube of 'self-tan lotion'. I suppose that at least it's a cheaper option than this:

Four hundred and ten Australian dollars! And for something that, so far as I can see, has absolutely no function! Am I out of touch or is that completely outrageous?

Neither of these possibilities - nor any of the others I've come across in the weekend broadsheets - appeals to me at all. Which is why I decided to make my own list, which did start off longer, but has unfortunately gone missing, so that now I can only present a list consisting of the two things I still remember from it. If I ever come across the scrap of paper on which all my other brilliant ideas were scribbled, I shall add them to this post.

In the meantime here are the items that I think will bring happiness to people if you buy them as presents. As further recommendation, I should point out that neither of them costs $410, which has to be a positive. The fact that both of them are books will not come as a surprise to anyone who knows me. Here they are:

1) For novel readers, I would buy The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. None of Eugenides's books has ever appealed to me before, but this story about three young university graduates in the 1980s is really enjoyable, even though I think Madeleine, the character Eugenides describes as the heroine of the book, is by far the least well-developed or interesting of the three protagonists and even though his proposition - that the marriage plot, (exemplified presumably by Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice), is, (since i. women attained equality - if indeed we have - and ii. divorce became easy), a form that is dead - is patently ludicrous. What is Bridget Jones's Diary, for instance, if it isn't a classic example of a marriage plot?

Nevertheless, the book is written beautifully, pulling you into a wholly believable universe, creating, through the character of Leonard, a really moving portrait of a brilliant, neglected, mentally fragile young man, raising, through the character of Mitchell, some deeply unfashionable but, to me, fascinating questions about religion and the best way to live, and providing a hilarious and depressing account of the insidious spread of the doctrine of Derrida et al through the academic world.

While none of this might sound, on the face of it, particularly entertaining, the book is very entertaining - partly because the marriage plot is still a very entertaining form. Above all, what made the novel so appealing, for me, is that it achieves that all too rare feat of managing to be simultaneously thought provoking and ultimately serious, while being enjoyable - not merely easy to read but hard to put down.

2) For poetry lovers, provided they are fit and healthy, (the book is extremely large and heavy), you cannot go past Australian Poetry since 1788, edited by Geoffrey Lehmann and Robert Gray. There are so many great poems in this volume that it will keep its lucky owner happy for years - even decades. Just as an example, opening it at random, I find this lovely one, by Jamie Grant: depending on your precise menu, it may serve as an ideal companion to anyone cooking Christmas lunch:

Social Behaviour of Minted Peas

Contradicting a proverb, the pot
I am watching boils, and resembles
the pool beneath a waterfall.
Then I pour in the frozen peas
an avalanche of green stones, and at
that the pan no longer trembles.
For a while the peas lie as still
as the stony floor of the sea,
or else like a mountain of skulls
in South East Asia; they wait as
rigidly as an audience
with numbered seats, afraid to move.
Then one pea, on an odd impulse,
breaks away, and, with a skater's
motion from side to side, ascends
to ride the surface far above
the others, a non-conformist
with a notion all its own.
Another, hesitant at first, glides
up to join it, and others still,
one at a time, cannot resist
the temptation to follow on,
behind the first one who derides
the common and conventional.
And then it is clear there's a trend,
and all those peas who had hung back
now clamour to be allowed in.
Anxiously they jostle and sprint,
needing to belong in the end
among the upward-mobile pack,
elbowing each other, crowding
up to the air which smells of mint.


  1. I'm a bit Bah Humbug when it comes to Christmas presents anyway, but for the life of me, I can't see what the saddle handbag accessory is or can do. Or could be made to do. It has a carry-strap. I get that. But why give the impression (or confirm) you're an idiot by carrying it around? Does it replace a handbag? Do you carry it in the other hand to balance your 'look'? Has it a secret pocket? Could it be used as a weapon, defensive or offensive? I'm sure you could do something with that buckle, like winch out a jeep bogged in sand. No, then again, I'm not sure. This must win an award for completely useless item of the millennium, even though it's just 11.95 years old.

    The books sound a much better idea. My stepson once bought me one for Christmas with words in the title like 'fiscal' and 'international trade' and 'policy'. I have no idea why he chose it. 'Fiscal' is another word I'd have to look up to find the meaning of, but somehow I don't ever want to know. If any of your readers are interested, it's in pristine condition and they can have it for the price of the postage. Thoughtfulness like that should be shared.

    I do love the poem. The thing about poetry books is they're like books of Jewish jokes – you can dip in anywhere and opt out without fear of missing a thread. What a great idea!

    Please find the rest of the list and I'll pirate it.

    Anyone who buys me the 2D saddle handbag accessory must have three things; a weird sense of humour, be very rich, and be extremely fond of me - especially given that I'm a boy. The receipt and the place where it was purchased could be in with the Christmas card.

  2. Thank you, Denis, you've just made me laugh and laugh. And laugh again. I'm sorry I can't afford to give you that Hermes thing - I'd qualify, within cyber limitations, on the other two counts.

  3. I have absolutely no idea who all those sunday magazine present lists are aimed at. All the gifts shown must average out at at least £100 each, many cost way more than that. Who are the people who regularly buy gifts for their families costing over £100 a pop?? Completely pointless gifts like a leather keyfob or a solid silver vegemite lid. DO THESE PEOPLE EVEN EXIST? I know plenty of wealthy people none of whom would dream of buying such tat. Perhaps a bit of nice jewellery for the wife maybe, or a laptop for the kid's school work, but not a diamond and platinum toothpick case...

  4. For $410, you'd think the thing would at least look like a saddle. Sheesh. And didn't they used to put the bag on the saddle and not the saddle on the bag? The whole world's gone mad.

  5. Worm - solid silver vegemite lid, how ridiculous (where exactly are they available, by the way? Please send details in a brown envelope - it's for a friend, you understand)
    I think there may even be reasonably okay actual saddles that can be bought for $410, Chris - things you can actually use, I mean. Not that I've got anything against fripperies, provided they are truly beautiful and wonderfully made, ideally unique.