I’ve been Cheating

Journal: 069

I’ve been cheating. Not on Milly I hasten to add, though what form that would take with an ex-wife who is quite happy with and indeed likes the one woman friend I have had in the past few years, is difficult to say. And no I haven’t been cheating on my faithful and amazingly reliable Volvo truck, lusting after chromed and noisy Americans (well, sometimes in my heart, like Jimmy Carter). I’ve been cheating on you.

When I wrote to you last, a fortnight ago (here), I said that I was working away diligently but painfully slowly, on Radcliffe’s The Italian. And I was. But coming out of the Library with some audiobooks for the next trip, now passed, The Hydrogen Sonata was front and centre in the library’s display and I was unable despite owning a copy of my own, to not pick it up. And having picked it up to not read it every spare minute. Which of course is not possible with books like The Italian, the reading of which require forethought, concentration, a certain girding of the loins.

Iain Banks (1954-2013), sadly, died young, of cancer according to Wikipedia (and despite owning his books for years I only just noticed that ‘extra’ i). For his science fiction he used the author name Iain M Banks. He wrote 15 works of straight fiction and 14 of SF, 10 of them, of which The Hydrogen Sonata is the last, in the “Culture” series. Looking at the titles I think I may have read them all. One of the straight books begins with the male protagonist committing a carefully described rape – Complicity probably, though I’m not going to check – and yet it develops into a thoughtful and readable (dark) novel. He was a wonderful writer.

The Culture is a multi planet society in which an important part is played by “Minds”, AIs which control spaceships. They are always whimsical and sometimes take roughly human-sized shapes in order to interact at social gatherings. The society itself is anarchist in the best sense, beyond the relatively primitive anarchism of Ursula Le Guin, with everyone interacting, mostly, for the common good.

There are other multi-planet societies, some of them humanoid and some not. In this book one of those societies, the Gzilt, is planning to leave this plane and move on to heaven. An option taken by earlier, mature societies, and about which, though sometimes individuals return, nothing is known.

I have written in the past that SF is generally used to discuss current problems, but I can’t see that Banks does this. Rather, he has created a giant multi-volume artwork, of which lesser readers, like me, may view only small parts at a time. The joy being in the interactions of the characters.

That’s enough SF. To follow on from the discussion in that previous post, this should have been out Sunday. But. I got away from Melbourne late, didn’t get into Perth till Sunday morning. Going back out for the last trailer (with book reading grandson) takes a few hours. Drinks with Milly a few more. Monday I barely got started before breaking down – minor but taking hours to repair – Tuesday I had 3 trailers to deliver, over five sites, some of them on opposite sides of the town. Today, Wednesday, I should be doing book work. But it can wait. And my next trip can wait till after the weekend.

I showed some bloggerly diligence while I was away, listening to one Canadian, two Australian women, and a Wolf Hall compendium for Brona. Francesca Ekwuyasi, Butter Honey Pig Bread and Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall etc. I will review (I hope!) separately. The two ‘Australians’ were –

Lucy Treloar, Wolfe Island (2019). A dystopian fiction set in a near future of rising sea levels and organised antagonism towards immigrants of colour. Or should that be immigrants of color, as the setting appears to be the Atlantic coast of northern USA. Only ‘local’ names are used so it is impossible to tell, but the book I listened to had a US reader (Abbe Holmes) with a mild, vaguely southern accent denoting that Kitty, the middle aged protagonist, was from one of the previously inhabited and now largely flooded islands, the fishing communities on which had their own distinctive accents.

Kitty’s granddaughter comes to hide out on Wolfe Island, where Kitty is the last remaining inhabitant, with her boyfriend and two ‘runners’, children whose parents have already been arrested. The implication is that they are Latino. Interestingly, there are no African Americans in the story at all. Yes, this is a fable in an imaginary land a bit like New England, with the country to the north, also unnamed, representing Freedom, but I found the likenesses to and the diversions from ‘reality’ a bit distracting.

When things get too hot on the island they all go on a road trip, which reads like a standard YA adventure, only with a middle aged narrator, and then there is a final, years later, wrap up. It’s well done, enjoyable enough, and probably contributes to Aust.Lit. But it does nothing to contribute to my understanding of what it means to be Australian which is what I mostly read Aust Lit for. (Interestingly, I might say the same thing about Butter Honey Pig Bread and Canada).

Pip Williams, The Dictionary of Lost Words (2020). Another not about Australianness. As I’m sure you know, this is Historical Fiction about the compiling of the original Oxford English Dictionary framed as the coming of age of Esme whose father was one of James Murray’s researchers. Set at the beginning of the C20th it fades into an entirely gratuitous discussion of the horrors of WWI – which of course might seem new to a young writer. Its strength is its focus on words, the “lost” words which don’t make it into the OED, from the spoken language of ordinary working people and especially women. Esme makes friends with a woman actor who is one of Emily Pankhurst’s suffragettes. This makes sense but is almost certainly historically inaccurate as I don’t think there was any discussion of language excluding women until Greer et al set off the second wave. And yes, I enjoyed it.

.

Recent audiobooks 

Lucy Treloar (F, Aust), Wolfe Island (2019) – SF
Pip Williams (F, Aust), The Dictionary of Lost Words (2020) – Hist.Fic.
Louise Douglas (F, Eng), Your Beautiful Lies (2014) – Crime
Francesca Ekwuyasi (F, Can), Butter Honey Pig Bread (2020)
Hilary Mantel (F, Eng), Wolf Hall (2009) – Hist.Fic
Hilary Mantel (F, Eng), Bring Up the Bodies (2012) – Hist.Fic

Currently reading

Iain M Banks (M, Scot), The Hydrogen Sonata
Ann Radcliffe (F, Eng), The Italian

30 thoughts on “I’ve been Cheating

  1. I’m not sure I have ever consciously thought about why I read Aust Lit, or what I look for when I do read it, but your comment ‘to contribute to my understanding of what it means to be Australian’, is something I will think about some more.

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    • Of course, like everyone, I read mostly for entertainment. But when I think about literature my concerns are similar to those when I visit an art gallery: How does this work contribute to the history of writing/painting? What does it tell me about being Australian? (or Jewish or African American or whatever). I find it difficult to discuss a work without knowing its year of publication and the antecedents of its author. (So, no, not a great believer in the work stands alone).

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  2. I’ve tried to read Consider Phlebas several times and not been able to get into it, so I’ve never got as far as The Hydrogen Sonata (though I hear that’s the best of the bunch). Not sure what it is that makes it so difficult for me to read it, since on paper it’s right up my street and it’s very well written.

    The Dictionary of Lost Words sounds interesting, although as you say perhaps a little anachronistic. I’ll keep an eye out for it at the library.

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    • The Dictionary of Lost Words is definitely worth reading just for its discussion of language, but Williams has also done a good job with Esme and the supporting cast. I hope it turns up in your library.
      I don’t know what has put you off Consider Phineas but skip it and make The Hydrogen Sonata your beach book for this (northern) summer.

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  3. So you follow Annabel ? She did an Iain Banks week recently. I’ve not read his sci-fi but I was a big fan of his other novels when I was in my 20s.

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  4. I’ve read quite a few of Banks’s books over the years but never read one of his sci-fi books—not sure why.

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  5. I always smile when I read something like “And yes, I enjoyed it,” knowing that comment is there for me. Like Brona, I’ve never thought about reading as a way to understand what it means to be a ______. In your cause Australian. I do have a distinct memory of reading more and more and more African American/Black literature and realizing that the Black experiences IS the American experience and finally feeling like there is an identity to this big country of mine, a rhythm to the history, the growth and development of arts movements, etc. White history in school was always something like we fought people we shouldn’t have fought and lots of folks died and now we have more land and don’t forget the date.

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    • History in Australia was and is ‘we fought the wicked, villianous Germans, Japanese, commos etc and because we’re good we won’ (ok, we lost in Vietnam but let’s gloss over that. And the whole interfering in the Middle East thing was probably a mistake). And it still is ‘hard working settlers turned Australia into a productive country’, no mention of the murder and ongoing oppression of Indigenous peoples which made the land ‘available’.
      Indigenous lit here as I’m sure it does everywhere tries to counter the white settler narrative.
      But the point is I read to get the POV of the people involved, not some outsider’s view obtained by ‘research’ and informed by unacknowledged biases.

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      • Ahhhh, I see what you mean. Part of me wondered if you were being a purist when you chose your Australian lit books, as I noticed you often comment on who moved to Australia, how long they lived there, if they left and came back, etc. in your posts. Actually, your comment inspired me to look more into Eleanor Dark, as I am curious about her because I am smitten with Lantana Lane, and I see there is a biography of Dark by Barbara Brooks.

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      • With Jane Harper and Evie Wylde in particular I’m just trying to make clear how little background they have to be writing ‘Australian’ stories. Wylde is a Briton who lived here briefly as a child and it is ridiculous that she wins Australian Lit prizes. Harper is a relatively recent immigrant, but she writes as a local, when it is obvious that all she knows about Australia outside Melbourne where she lives, is what she’s picked up from the newspapers. They are probably both good writers but the settings of their novels betray their lack of knowledge..
        If you read the Dark bio you will be ahead of me. I’ll be interested to see what you make of her and her husband’s communism.
        I paused here to add your review to my AWW Gen 3 page. I see Dark wrote 6 modernist/middle class novels, then the Timeless Land trilogy, then, in her 50s, Lantana Lane. In reference to a previous comment of yours, perhaps she just felt it was time to lighten up.

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  6. My husband really likes both varieties of Iain (M) Banks and was very sad when there were no more books to come. Incidentally, had I been a boy, I would have been Iain. No idea why, and I always say it ee-ane to myself. There you go!

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    • My son was meant to be a girl and we had Victoria Louise picked out. But Louis suits him very well and the next child got Victoria. Banks was one of those few authors I was always on the lookout for their next book and I was sad too when there were no more.

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  7. In the last two months of her life, I gave Mum three novels, and the only one she, the lexicographer as you know, managed to finish, was The dictionary of lost words. She loved it, and I’m keen to read it, but haven’t yet.

    I have one up on you as I did know about the extra “i” in Iain Banks’ name – but that’s because my brother is a “one i” Ian!

    I like that you say that “understanding of what it means to be Australian … is what I mostly read Aust Lit for”. I have never quite articulated why I read Australian lit, but it probably is for this reason. I think though that you could do a blog post on what you have learnt about “what it means to be Australian” to date?

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    • You should read The Dictionary .. You would love it as a feminist and, bonus, you could use your review to strike back at all my qualms about Historical Fiction.

      My thesis and subsequently my blog were designed to expand on what it means to be Australian. After all, the myths of Australianness are just distillations of that meaning. I am sure you agree that The Independent Woman is as important an archetype as the Lone Hand/Brave Anzac, but yet it appears nowhere in our old-white-man centred public discourse, not in feminist lit and not under some other name.

      One day soon I’ll review Ward’s The Australian Legend (six years later than I should have) and we can have this discussion again. (Meanwhile my thesis, cut back to just 16,000 words, is up there for anyone to read.)

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  8. And here I have been imagining you spending every spare moment with The Italian. Pfft. 😉

    You must have mentioned Wolfe Island previously? As when I searched it out in the library catalogue, I recognized the results from the search (which did not include that book). I wonder if the setting was selected to make American readers more interested, from a marketing perspective, I mean. For decades, Canadian writers were urged to set their works in the U.S. to open up a “proper” readership…I think many still feel that way. 🙂

    I’ve never read Banks, but I have a feeling I’d enjoy him.

    And I agree that one gets less of a sense of Canadian landscape (in a trees and rocks way) from Butter Honey Pig Bread but perhaps more a sense of various Canadians’ lives. Although I think that’s the book with a scene in the Halifax Public Library (which is near Naomi’s locale)? What I will probably always remember about the book though? The cake.

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    • Buried, you are the only person to pick me up on cheating. I thought it might lead to a more general discussion about reading what we should instead of what we like. I forgot to say to Sue (WG, above) that my cheating extends to forgetting to read JA’s Lesley Castle, which I had better get stuck into this weekend.

      Wolfe Island has been in the air for a little while, which is why I picked it up and mini-reviewed it. Australians i think have largely stuck to setting their books in Australia (except when they themselves are o/s.). Christina Stead is the only one I can think of who was forced to use a US setting, and she was so shamefully ignored in Australia that one can hardly blame her.

      BHPB of course is an expression of Canada’s multi-culturalness, but is more Lagos-centred than I expected. I have a copy reserved at the library so my review is some weeks away. You’ll be pleased to hear BHPB is widely available in Aust., has in fact been republished locally, and the library I was in yesterday said they will have to order another copy.

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      • The trouble is, Bill, that you pack so much into your posts we can’t comment on everything! That’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it.

        I did wonder about Lesley Castle, but can be patient! I have no right to be anything else!

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  9. Your explanation of why you read Australian lit got me into an internal discussion about why I read Welsh lit.

    I think there is an element of wanting to understand the culture of my country. All through my school years we never once had a lesson or even a mention about a book or author from Wales. The syllabus was pretty much all English. So even a classic of Welsh literature called the Mabinogian ( a set of tales based on myths) was never talked about – it was as if this whole body of literature never existed.

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    • Educators have a lot to answer for. Australians until large scale southern European migration commenced in the 1960s considered themselves entirely English, and so the history and literature we were taught was almost entirely English. That only changed with the teachers of my, baby boomer, generation. Our only token Australian writers were Henry Lawson and bush balladist AB Paterson (and Dorothea McKellar who wrote a dirge to our sunburnt plains we all memorised in primary school).

      I’m sorry but unsurprised the same is true of Wales. I wonder what the English allowed to be taught in Northern Ireland.

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      • I did a bit more at high school in Queensland and NSW in the 1960s – Call of the gums poetry book (so many Aussie poets), Frank Dalby Davison’s Manshy, Vance Palmer’s The passage, and Patrick White’s Voss. There may have been others but these are the ones that have stuck.

        However, I do agree with you. I didn’t really see a great improvement in my kids’ classes.

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      • Sue, you did more than I did, I only remember Martin Boyd’s A Difficult Young Man (about as Englishy Australian as you can get) from my matric. I didn’t say, because I couldn’t be bothered looking it up, but I don’t think any Australian unis taught Aust.Lit until the 60s (maybe Colin Roderick up north an exception).

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      • My (limited) indents are a hassle even to me sometimes, but I spend days at a time with only my phone so they’ll have to stay as they are. Karen, you having responded directly to my comment about Wales and N.Ireland, probably don’t even realise you came in three comments further down, which is what my otherwise puzzling answer is referring to.
        The English, and anglophiles, did a lot of historical re-writing and glossing over in all their former colonies, dominions as well as throughout the ‘United’ Kingdom I am sure.

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