Fairy tale February, Valentines, Reading and Reminiscing: Observation Note 98 and 99, Reading Notes 40 and 41

I’m once again riffing off Wendy the SuperLibrarian’s TBR Challenge themes to kick off my end of month blog post though I can’t really say that there is anything fairytale-ish about the month.

Observation Note 98: Research update. Having accidently (though probably fortuitously) taken a year off to recover from completing my studies, I finally made the decision to submit an abstract on some research I have been conducting since 2018. The CFP was from the University of New England’s Pop Culture Research Network on the subject of Valentine’s Day. This is the first research I am conducting with a co-researcher, Benjamin Hanckel from Western Sydney University. The abstract is as follows:

In her book ‘Guilty Pleasures’ Arielle Zibrak writes in the conclusion “To approach our cultural texts with love is, I think, a step toward approaching our world with love” (2021, p. 148). We start with this provocation as a call to use/explore love as a framework, and explore cultures of love. What does it mean to approach public cultural texts/artefacts like libraries and urban spaces with a framework of love? Focused on libraries, and public displays as cultural artefacts practiced and made for publics our analysis attends to and builds on our understanding of the cultural practices that generate displays of love. Our object of inquiry is the public library display – specifically the display at key moments of love (i.e. Valentine’s day, LGBT pride), and the practices that make (im)possible certain narratives and reproduced cultural understandings of love and romance. Through the use of duoethnography and the physical enactment of spatial research paired with digital discourses, we will present findings on the displays of public libraries over four years, across multiple sites in two cities – Sydney and London.

This research has really been a labour of love (pardon the pun) for Ben and me as we have conducted this research in the tiny pockets of spare time we find throughout the years as we haven’t applied for any funding (at this stage – anyone….anyone….). For the past 5 years, on each Valentine’s and Pride celebration, we both take to the road and visit as many libraries as possible in the one day, sometimes together but mostly separately. The rest of the year, between and around all our other pending commitments, we would discuss and analyse our findings. Of course, we have had disruptions to our research (pandemic anyone???) but overall, it has been such an enjoyable research project. Having presented at the PopCrn Symposium in February, we are now looking towards writing up our research for publication. An outcome of our fieldwork for this research is that I have spent an inordinate amount of travelling around Sydney which also has led me to reading other people’s reflections and research on walking the city, such as Rebecca Solnit, Fran Leibowitz, Vivian Gornick, as well as spending some time reading and thinking about cities as a key narrative tool in romance fiction, something that I think Kate Clayborn excels at. My favourite scholar on urban places is Shannon Mattern who researches cities and their public libraries.

Reading Note 40. Judging a city by its libraries. Shannon Mattern writes in “The city is not a computer: other urban intelligences” that her home city of New York has “constructed the intellectual and aesthetic infrastructures” of how she sees the world, and in her book, she includes a chapter on Public Libraries as one of these infrastructures knowledge infrastructure, social infrastructure, ontological infrastructure. Mattern points out that computers are fetishized (p. 77) whereas libraries show how its community makes the library to be not only about the computer. The library is “ever-changing” (p. 73) in its roles in the community, it has symbolic and social roles, it has repository and knowledge roles, the library is an “otherworld” (p. 104) standing apart from retail and commercial ventures and providing a place where people can understand and engage with digital infrastructure and civic technologies (p. 103) as was seen during the pandemic with people sitting outside of libraries trying to access free wifi to support their work, study, life economy management. I read the whole book and every chapter is informative and interesting, to the point where I was reading so totally engaged that I forgot to take notes. I particularly love finding academic texts that are page turners and I highly recommend this one.

Reading Note 41. Time to read. I managed to read a few more books this month than I expected despite writing for the Valentine’s symposium, running workshops for a road safety education organisation (have I mentioned this? I’ve been doing this for nearly a year), visiting friends for my (our) 27th wedding anniversary (waves to Sandra Antonelli!!!) and preparing for my first uni teaching gig in a while. The three books I will briefly mention are:

The Dating Plan by Sara Desai. Hmmmm….wellllll….I really like the fake relationship trope so this was an easy pick to read. The heroine Daisy was stood up – thus humiliated – by her prom date (and brother’s best friend) Liam who chose her prom night to skip town for a decade. 10 years later, for the usual, weird, romance plot set-ups Liam appears out of nowhere, kisses her, proposes to her in front of her match-making aunt, and then they “pretend” to be engaged while he works through some difficult family dynamics of his own. The book could have been OK but there’s a punch up between Liam and his brother and I am not a fan of this type of machismo. I’m not a fan of the “hero” Liam having a punch up in the book as it hints at a personality capable of loss of control and a mercurial temper (a bit like my dislike of Helen Hoang’s The Kiss Quotient for the same reason) which kinda doesn’t bode well for HEAs. If this adult has the capacity to punch his brother, it is an assault. No thanks. Also, this guy is a 100% flight risk. He’ll one day tell Daisy he’s popping out to pick up some cigarettes and will never come back leaving Daisy to think “but he doesn’t even smoke”. This book is Yeah but Nah.

Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke. This was Radtke’s first graphic novel memoir where she grapples with her uncle’s early death and what it means to a young person who might also have the same genetic disposition to heart disease that he had. A well-written, sombre read. Having read (and liked) her follow up Seek You, I look forward to her next graphic novel.

An Age of License: a travelogue by Lucy Knisley. I adore Lucy Knisley’s graphic novel memoirs and this is the last of all her books that I finally managed to get my hands on. In this one, Lucy travels around Europe on a book tour as well as meeting up with her lover, some other friends, and her mother. Her travels take her from Norway, Sweden, Germany and France. She teaches kids to draw (despite not knowing how to communicate in their language), she has an intense love affair, she laughs and is baffled by her mum and friends and their slowness to get travelling. Lucy Kinisley’s suggests journalling daily so that you can come to an understanding of yourself and your life when you look back through your journal, yet even she got caught up in life and occasionally forgot to take her own advice. I worked out that she was 26 years old on this journey, this “age of license” as she is told by someone in France; an age where you explore yourself through travel, discovering your interests and how you want to see your self in the world. Though I often think back to my own travels in my 20s, this book certainly opened up a different way of considering what those travels meant to me, especially as they took place before and after my father had died when I was 25.

Observation Note 99. Reminiscing. The last day of February always gives me pause. It is the day my father celebrated his birthday (he apparently was born a leap day – he didn’t have a birth certificate). Had my father not died of cancer in 1994, he would have been 94 today. I have spent some time reading from his writing. His command of the English language is beautiful and exacting, his spelling is precise, his punctuation and grammar exemplary and also reflective of his bilingual thinking. His turn of phrase and his expressions delight me and as I read his words, I can hear him again. English was his second language which he only learnt after migrating here at the age of 26, his own “age of license” but one very different to mine or Lucy Knisley’s – an immigrant, suffering war trauma, the murder of his mother, finding himself on the other side of the world. I read my father’s words and feel that his eloquence puts in the shade the writing of many of us who have had the privilege of uninterrupted education and the benefit of continuous peace in our country. I wish that I had the amazing ability to write in a second language like my father was able to do.

I thought I would share with you his reflections on migrating to Australia. These are copied directly and with the exception of a small omission (in ellipses), I have not corrected or edited any of his writing:

On arrival here I was not disappointed in my expectations. I found Australia as a sort of a utopia. Larger than I had envisaged it. The people, not as hospitable as we were back home, but in their own distinctive merits they appeared to be extremely fair, not snobbish at all, and very simple and trustworthy. Their simplicity would have amazed even the ancient Arcadians. Working people used to leave their money on the front verandah of their house for the milkman, the baker and the greengrocer to deliver their goods in accordance to the orders they had left for them and they were helping themselves to their pay without anyone of them helping himself to anything more than due to create any hassles.[…]On my arrival my English amounted to about twenty words and my spoken communication to almost nothing. In spite the display of good will by the people around me my life was depressive and unhappy as I was ill prepared to live and work in a country where the spoken language was English and not that of my own. This lack of communication coerced me to a constant isolation and silence. As I was not used to silence these were degrading and unhappy times. My work mates labored more in trying to teach me English than they labored in their working efforts for our employer. Putting the words together with the help of a dictionary they used to formulate sentences which often enough appeared to have been formulated back to front to make sense. All of them were emulating each other to help me find ways to enter in communication with them. My contribution to work was in no way counterbalancing in work progress the time my fellow workers were spending to help me learn their language. What an amazing lot of people! Their good will impressed me to the extend that I wanted to sing songs and write verses about them and their good will.

This kindness and willingness to help others is the Australia I wish would shine. I get despondent when I see and read about government structures that are put in place that do harm. But I have faith and believe that there are still many people in Australia who are inherently good. Look at the community support for Biloela Family, the hard work of Kon Karapanagiotidis and the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, look at the large shift away from Australians celebrating “Australia Day” ahem Invasion Day to recognising it as a day of mourning, look at individuals such as footballer Craig Foster and his tireless advocacy for young refugees – many of whom should be experiencing their own age of license, who have been kept in Australian hotel gulags for 9, nearly 10 years – these horrific actions from our government only now barely gaining international attention since tennis player Djokovic was detained in the same hotel early in the year for only a few days.

Australia is hardly the country of fairy tales for many people but I am hopeful that there is a continuation of good people who push back against those who feel entitled to silence others.