Just Above My Head, James Baldwin

North America Project 2022

James Baldwin (1924-1987) was one of the great novelists I’m sure. But for reasons of my own I didn’t read Go Tell it on the Mountain (1953) for my matric (year 12), and though I did read many years ago, and still own, Giovanni’s Room (1956) I didn’t like it. They were his first two novels. I’ve now listened to Just Above My Head (1979), his sixth and last and thought it a work of genius.

I wrote that introduction a few weeks ago, so over the last couple of days, on my way down from North Queensland, I’ve listened again, and liked it just as much. The novel is ostensibly the story of a gay Black gospel singer, Arthur Montana, during the years of the US Civil Rights Movement, the 1950s and 60s, as told by his older brother, Hall.

Hall, himself, at the beginning of the fifth and final ‘book’, says something like “I set out to write a poem of praise for my brother, and inevitably I wrote about myself.” What I think Baldwin wanted, and succeeded in doing, was to spell out to the world the condition of the Black man at this time in America by focusing on two closely connected pairs of siblings – Hall and Arthur, Julia and Jimmy, growing up in Harlem but whose parents have come up from the South – mostly through the eyes of Hall, but sometimes through Arthur’s eyes using the device “he later told me”.

Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Daniel saw the stone that was rolled into Babylon
Daniel saw the stone that was hewed out the mountain
Tearing down the kingdom of this world!

As a reader I would have skipped this and gone straight to the beginning of the text, which would have been a mistake. Baldwin has infused the whole novel with driving rhythms, taken from gospel singing and gospel preaching. There is a lot of music in this book, discussed and quoted. Hall says at one point, “Look for the beat. And look for the beat underneath.”

A while ago, I wrote that Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Christina Stead’s Letty Fox (1946) appeared to indicate that there was a New York school of writing in the 1940s and 50s characterised by an unstoppable flow of words. Baldwin appears to be of this school, and to have taken it to a new level. Whole sections of the novel aren’t descriptions of speech and action at all, but bursts of words, reinforced by repetition, setting an atmosphere.

The damn’d blood burst, first through the nostrils, then pounded through the veins in his neck, the scarlet torrent exploded through his mouth, it reached his eyes and blinded him, and brought Arthur down, down, down, down, down.

And so the book begins, with a hymn and with Arthur’s death, alone in the basement toilet of a pub in London.

Hall is writing from the perspective of a couple of years later. He is settled, with a wife and teenage children. They are visiting Julia, who was once his lover. Jimmy, Julia’s little brother and Arthur’s lover for the 14 years up to his death, walks in and is welcomed home. Julia gets out a photo albumn and so the whole story is told in Book 1, and Books 2,3,4,5 are enhancements, reinforcement, repetition.

I wish, wish, wish I had the book beside me on this truckstop table. It deserves a much more detailed – and loving – treatment than I am able to give it here. As I have implied, it is a mighty work of poetry, 20 hours or so, which is of course a credit to the reader, Kevin Kenerly, who interprets, sustains it over that considerable time, interestingly, playing down the song lyrics quoted and playing up the rhythms and variations in force of Baldwin’s writing.

We go back 30 odd years, to the late 1940s, Hall and Arthur are with their parents at a church service to see Julia, a child prodigy, preach, and Arthur sing. Hall’s father, a pianist, plays accompaniment. Julia’s father, a spiv, reads the lesson.

“Amen”, said Julia. “Now that was David talking. You all know who David was? David wrote these psalms and I believe they was put to music in the olden times and the people just sang and made a joyful noise unto the Lord with the psalms. This is David talking, and you know who David was? Well David went out one day looking for this wicked giant … You all still don’t know who David was? David was a shepherd boy, he fed the hungry sheep! I hear some of you saying, Who was this David? tell me more about this David! Well David was a king …”

The two families go back to the Montana’s apartment for dinner and so we become engrossed in their lives. Julia’s mother dies. Jimmy is sent down south to his grandmother. Julia stays, is her father’s support. Arthur and his friends form a Gospel singing group, tour down south. Hall is called up to fight in Korea. We don’t follow him, all the action remains in New York and in the South.

Julia is beaten senseless by her father. Julia preaches her last service with Arthur once again singing. Julia falls out of the story for a while, living quietly with Jimmy and her grandmother, reappears in New York as a model as Hall gets home from Korea.

Every Black person is described in the degrees and shades of their colour. Until near the end, when Arthur has a white lover in Paris, there are no white people in the story at all, other than Klanners down South.

The terror, the danger, for Black people, Northerners, of even driving through the South is visceral. There are rapes and murders. But all along the focus is on the central four. Arthur tours, sings within the frame of the Civil Rights Movement, some of their friends go off to join Malcolm X, but the focus is tight, we are not told about the movement, or about racism. We feel it.

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James Baldwin, Just above my Head, first pub. 1979. Audiobook: Blackstone, 2016, read by Kevin Kenerly. 21 hours

see also these reviews from Emma/Book around the Corner:
Go Tell it on the Mountain (here) “Interesting, but difficult to read”
Giovanni’s Room (here) “Another Baldwin masterpiece”
Going to meet the Man (here) “A Must Read”
If Beale Street Could Talk (here) “A Must Read”
A Letter to Jimmy by Alain Mabanckou (here) “An ode to James Baldwin”

The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

North America Project 2022

This is an area in which I am a novice, so we’ll start at the beginning. Louise Erdrich (1954 -) “is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians [known as Métis in Canada], a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa)” from North Dakota (map)(Wiki).

The Métis are of mixed Indigenous and French (‘Voyageur’) ancestry, becoming a distinct group by the mid-19th century, during the fur trade era. I touched on this during my review of RM Ballantyne’s The Young Fur Traders, which is set in the 1840s in the Canadian states over the border from North Dakota.

Erdrich is of course a successful and well-known author, who has written 18 or so novels, seemingly all set in one or two fictional North Dakota Indigenous communities. The Plague of Doves (2008) is the first of three in the ‘Justice trilogy’ – the other two are The Round House (2012) and LaRose (2016).

Let’s get ‘the plague of doves’ out of the way. The novel consists of a series of stories over the space of a hundred or so years, told by four present-day narrators. So we begin with Evelina, the central character, telling her 100 year old grandfather, Mooshum’s story of when he was an altar boy for his Catholic priest step-brother. The town was blanketed in doves which ate everything and which the townspeople would trap, shoot, eat until they were sick of them.

The doves of this legend are Passenger Pigeons “which migrated in enormous flocks, constantly searching for food, shelter, and breeding grounds, and was once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering around 3 billion, and possibly up to 5 billion.” They are now extinct.

Mooshum then 12 or 13, runs off with his best friend, a girl, into the badlands, where they find a protector and after some years marry and return home. When the novel begins Mooshum is a widower living with Evelina’s family and Evelina is a teenager.

The stories which Mooshum, and his brother, Shamengwa, tell Evelina and Evelina’s ‘present-day’ story all slowly reveal connections, this is after all a relatively small community. So Evelina’s ‘boyfriend’ in primary school is Corwin Peace, who fades in and out of the narrative as Evelina becomes an adult, but for instance he is saved from juvenile delinquency by Shamengwa who teaches him to play the violin (and the violin has its own, complicated story).

The story around which all other stories revolve occurred when Mooshum was young. A white farming family is slaughtered. Mooshum and some friends are first on the scene a couple of days later. They discover a baby has survived and they give it some milk. Elements in the white community get up a lynching party and three men/boys with Moochum are hanged but he is spared.

Evelina then has to deal with the fact that her favourite teacher at the convent school is the niece of two men in the lynching party.

The second narrator, the Judge, first tells the story of the founding of the town, Pluto, which is on land illegally carved out of an Indian reservation; and then his story begins to run into Evelina’s as he and Evelina’s aunt become lovers and then husband and wife.

The third narrator, Marn Wolde’s story appears disconnected for a while. She runs off from home with a preacher, Billy Peace and they build up a following elsewhere. But eventually they are back in Pluto, and Billy establishes his congregation on her family land. When that relationship comes to a bloody end we find Marn and Evelina working in the same diner.

I probably have some of this out of order, as I no longer have access to the book which I listened to first on the way over to Melbourne and then again on the way home (and loved it both times).

The fourth and final narrator is Dr. Cordelia Lochren, who it turns out is the baby who survived the massacre. Though somewhere in there, Evelina gets at least one more go as she drops out of college, begins working in the state mental institution, where she has a breakdown and becomes a voluntary inmate. Until Corwin comes to visit her and they walk out together.

I was happiest with The Plague of Doves as Evelina’s coming of age, some of the other stuff I found distracting. But Erdrich obviously intends it to be more. Many readers seem to see the murder and lynching as central – that the main story is of how 80 years later a whole community still revolves around the family killed, the lynchers and the lynched.

What strikes me most is what a middle-class book this is. These are college educated towns people, teachers, lawyers, social workers, doctors. This is not a bad thing, but it is a long way from the fiery, underclass fiction of Marie Munkara say. But as in Munkara, there is a simmering sense of underlying injustice, of isolation from the outside, white world; and also of the links, of parentage, of action, acknowledged and unacknowledged, between members of the community, white and Indigenous.

Erdrich’s writing doesn’t fire me up. From that point of view I much preferred last month’s Nalo Hopkinson. But she writes a complex, involving story which I really must read again, and its sequels.

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Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves, 2008. Harper Audio read by Kathleen McInerney, Peter Francis James. 11 hours.

Upcoming books for North America Project 2022
May: Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers
June: Zora Neale Thurston, Their Eyes were watching God

The Autobiography of Malcolm X (2)

North America Project 2022

Continuing on from Melanie’s essay, Malcolm X was one of those names emblematic of the great revolution occurring in America in the sixties when I went up to university in far away Melbourne, Australia. But my interest was in the anti-Vietnam War movement and I couldn’t have told you anything about Malcolm X the man except maybe the words ‘Black Rights’ and ‘Nation of Islam’.

So basically it has taken me half a century, and a big shove from Melanie, to rectify that, to listen to Malcolm X’s life on Audible (read by Laurence Fishburne).

Although the cover above – I wonder if it is the original – doesn’t say so, the autobiography is an “as told to” compiled by Alex Haley, a decade later the author of Roots, from interviews conducted with Malcolm X in 1963,4. Haley was a journalist and the style of writing reflects that, clear and straightforward with no literary flourishes. Wikipedia (here) gives a very good account of the “as told to” process, and while it is clear Malcolm X maintained control over the content, the construction and writing is all Haley’s.

Malcolm Little was born in 1925, the fourth of seven children, and grew up in Lansing, Michigan. His father, a preacher, had his his house burned down and was subsequently bashed and pushed under a streetcar, officially suicide, but more likely the work of white racists. This was the Depression and without the father’s income the family were in desperate poverty. Under constant harassment by state welfare, the mother had a breakdown and the children were dispersed to orphanages and foster homes.

As an older teenage Malcolm moved to Boston, to his older half-sister Ella who lived in the relatively middle class Black suburb, Roxbury. Malcolm I’m sure appreciated Ella’s support, but throughout the book he is scathing about Blacks with even a little bit of money, who are ‘Tame Negroes’, if I remember the wording correctly, more concerned with integrating into white America than they are with asserting themselves.

Malcolm got into the fringes of the Black music industry, graduating from a shoeshine stand to marijuana supplier, becoming a notable lindy hop dancer, hooking up white men and black women and vice versa, and ending up with a white (later married) middle class girlfriend of his own, of whom he is completely contemptuous.

When the US enters WWII he manages to dodge the draft, dope dealing becomes difficult, and he forms a burglary gang, with his white girlfriend and her teenage sister scouting for likely targets, until they are finally caught. Malcolm believes that the appropriate sentence would have been two years but because white women were involved he got ten.

In jail he resumes his education, mainly through extensive non-fiction reading, and becomes a follower of Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam, which preaches obedience to Allah with Elijah as his most recent prophet. There’s a lot of sciency stuff about the origins of mankind, Black of course, in Africa, to which I paid little attention. As a religion it seems unexceptional, arguing against Integration for a separation of the races. Socially, it was very conservative, the husband ruled his family, and adulterers and pregnant single women were expelled.

Interestingly, Malcolm and all the preachers, were given the surname X to signify their disowning of the surnames which their slave forbears had taken from their owners.

Malcolm rose through the ranks, setting up new congregations throughout America. Eventually he was made the leader of the Harlem congregation, and there became a prominent spokesman in the national press, while Elijah Muhammad and his sons established The Nation of Islam’s headquarters in Chicago.

Malcolm X’s increasing prominence, and the discovery that Elijah Muhammad had been getting all his secretaries pregnant led to a break, followed by Malcolm making a pilgrimage to Mecca and being taken up there by ‘official’ Islam.

The autobiography ends with him still speaking highly of Nation of Islam but attempting to set up his own organization while living in anticipation of attacks from his former fellows.

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Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, first pub. 1965


On February 21, 1965, Malcolm X was preparing to address the Organization of Afro-American Unity in Manhattan’s Audubon Ballroom when a man shot him once in the chest with a sawed-off shotgun and two other men charged the stage firing semi-automatic handguns. Malcolm X was pronounced dead at 3:30 pm, shortly after arriving at Columbia Presbyterian Hospital. The autopsy identified 21 gunshot wounds to the chest, left shoulder, arms and legs, including ten buckshot wounds from the initial shotgun blast.

One gunman, Nation of Islam member Talmadge Hayer (also known as Thomas Hagan), was beaten by the crowd before police arrived. Witnesses identified the others as Nation members Norman 3X Butler and Thomas 15X Johnson. These three were convicted and given life sentences. Hayer disputed Butler and Thomas’ involvement and named four others who were never charged. Butler and Johnson were finally pardoned in 2021, well after they had been released on parole. (Wiki) (NYT).

The Autobiography of Malcolm X

North America Project 2022

My friend Melanie at Grab the Lapels is an American, a generation younger than me and was for some years a professor teaching creative writing where she would use Malcolm X’s story “as told to Alex Haley” as a teaching aid. She persuaded me to include it in my reading North American Black and First Nations writers project this year with the promise to write up her own experience. And here it is…


In the U.S. we are incapable of acknowledging our history and healing from it. When the oppressed have had enough, they make a lot of noise, leaving conservatives confounded. After so many years of Confederate soldier statues scattered throughout the country, especially in the South, why are protestors mad now? Does it desecrate the memory of a war leader whom some revere that others see as a symbol of hatred? History belongs in a museum, activists said. And when conservatives did not listen, activists turned to property damage, toppling monuments and leaving them in pieces. Is not a decorated white leader someone to turn to when racism makes a racist feel bad?

I began my education in 1990, and not once during that time can I recall hearing the name Malcolm X. A contemporary of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X could not be packaged nicely like the wise Southern pastor who included men and women, black and white, Southern and Northern in his group of supporters. In contrast, Malcolm X felt that African Americans do not want to live where they are not wanted and advocated for reparations in the form of land for the descendants of slaves. Any effort to integrate was a ruse, he thought, a way for “the white man” or “the white devil” to infiltrate black neighborhoods, steal their resources and abuse the residents, and then leave for the white side of town.

The fight over Critical Race Theory raging in the U.S. today appears to lean into the idea that white children will be made to feel bad if they learn that adults who look like they do were also adults who did everything in their physical, legal, and financial power to exploit human beings based on the darker color of their skin. Malcolm X begins his autobiography, as told to Alex Haley, with a story from before he was born. While his father was out of town, the local KKK attacked Malcolm’s mother and older siblings. Only her pregnancy — that was Malcolm — kept them from murdering the family. Later, under suspicious conditions, Malcolm’s father is found beheaded, but because it was set up to look like a suicide by train tracks, the insurance company did not pay out on the father’s life insurance plan. Plummeting into starvation and incessant visits from white social workers who attempted to pit the children against their mother left Malcolm’s mom in a mental health crisis from which she never recovered.

Sometimes life is so awful it’s hard to believe the stories of those who experience blatant discrimination, but Malcolm X writes a convincing narrative explaining how his youth, from his parents being torn apart to teachers discouraging him from learning because he’s just a black kid, led him into a remorseless young adult life of crime. Righteous folks like to claim we always have an option, but a person’s environment has loads to say about his level of education, empathy, and experience. After his time as a numbers runner, drug dealer, and then thief who dared cavort with white women, Malcom X was sent to prison where he learned to read, devoured the well-stocked prison library, and found the Nation of Islam. The NoI, developed by a black African American man from the South, is a form of Islam that Malcolm later realizes Middle Eastern Muslims to not recognize as true Islam.

Between his studies in prison and discovering that the NoI was not what he thought, Malcolm X developed intellectual political, economic, and social theories about how “the white man” is “the devil” harming the black community. Nothing he saw nor experienced proved contrary. Using the rhetorical savvy of a lawyer and supported by ten years of intense study of languages, history, and philosophy while incarcerated, Malcolm X exploded into the media, terrifying white people with his “hateful” statements about white communities. He served as an antithesis to Dr. King, an example of what an “angry black man” looks like when folks should just all get along (and be compliant). For as much as Malcolm X was in the media, to not know his name after I attended public education is baffling until I think back to how Malcolm X supported segregation. He doesn’t fit into a warm and fuzzy narrative about slavery being over, about how the Civil Rights Movement made everything alright and we can now feel good about our white selves.

After Malcolm X took his first trip to Mecca and learned about true Islam, which had worshippers from every country and skin color, he completely changed his mind. The white man is not the devil, he realized. “White” is a state of mind, not a skin color, hence the “Uncle Tom’s” in politics. And so why did I, a white woman in her thirties, teach The Autobiography of Malcolm X for five years, semester after semester? What would compel me to give this book as a gift at high school graduation parties rather than the expected $20? The ability to change with more information.

In the U.S. change is a slur we use to shame people we don’t like. We call them wishy-washy, flip-floppy, and even suggest they are lying. We hold a record of change against public figures, especially politicians and how they voted, even if it was twenty years ago. But if COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that with more information comes a need to change. Doubling down on facts from last year, last month, last week, even, could kill us. But looking at the bigger picture, holding fast to outdated information has led Americans to a stubborn place marked by ignorance. And if I can teach change through the narrative of a prolific American leader and thinking like Malcolm X, if only one person at a time, I’ll do it for as long as I can.

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Malcolm X, Alex Haley, The Autobiography of Malcolm X , first pub.1965

Thank you Melanie. I’ll put up my own review in a couple of days, Bill

Kindred, Octavia Butler

North America Project 2022

First, an apology to anyone who took me at my word that my first up read for Project 2022 would be ZNH’s Their Eyes were watching God. I meant it to be. I bought the audiobook. But when I was halfway through January with no work, no driving in sight I gave up on my chances of getting to Their Eyes and instead began reading Kindred which I had on my shelves (with the cover pictured, from Headline, London).

Of course, as soon as I was halfway through Kindred, I got a job, which turned into two jobs, one up the coast and one back, both overwidth so no nighttime travel, a day in between, plenty of time for reading. What did I listen to? Something stupid and an Amanda Lohrey, The Philosopher’s Doll.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006) was an African American woman, brought up by her widowed mother in racially diverse Pasadena, California where her mother cleaned houses for white folks and put up with a lot of shit.

The Octavia Butler site features the quote “I write about people who do extraordinary things. It just turned out it was called science fiction.” But in fact Butler was drawn to SF at an early age, through SF magazines, had her own typewriter at 10, and was soon writing SF of her own. In the late 1960s she worked days to put herself through college at night, graduated, went on to writing courses through UCLA Extension, and from there, recommended by lecturer and SF writer Harlan Ellison, to the Science Fiction writers workshop at Clarion, Pennsylvania where she met and became lifelong friends with (African American) SF writer Samuel R Delany.

The first half of the 1970s Butler describes as “five more years of rejection slips and horrible little jobs … before I sold another word.” But she had already begun work on the ‘Patternist’ series of novels, and after the publication of Patternmaster (1976), Mind of My Mind (1977) and Survivor (1978) she was able to write full time. You can only imagine how fiercely determined Butler must have been, to start writing, to get through school and college, and then to break into the man’s world, the white man’s world, of Science Fiction.

I have reviewed her later novels, Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) but I probably knew her before then for Lilith’s Brood, the Xenogenesis trilogy: Dawn (1987), Adulthood Rites (1988), and Imago (1989). If these are no longer on my shelves I blame my son whose taste in SF is impeccable.

Kindred (1979) is an exploration of why and how slaves put up with what they did, sparked in the first place by seeing what her mother had to put up with. Interestingly Roots, which of course deals with the same issues, and which I read and wrote about last year, came out as a book in 1976, followed by the immensely popular TV series a year later, so two or three years before Kindred. But I haven’t seen any discussion that this is where Butler got her inspiration.

Despite my great admiration for Butler, I was initially disappointed that she was using SF in Kindred as just the frame for another Historical Fiction account of slavery in early nineteenth century American cotton fields. But of course Butler is cleverer than that. The novel covers a few months in 1976 in the life of Dana, an African American woman and her white husband, Kevin, just another middle class couple in California, both writers, late twenties; or a few years if you count the time, the times, they spend on a Maryland cotton plantation in the years before the Civil War.

The room seemed to blur and darken around me. I stayed on my feet for a moment holding on to a bookcase and wondering what was wrong … I heard [Kevin] move toward me, saw a blur of gray pants and blue shirt. Then, just before he would have touched me, he vanished.
The house, the books, everything vanished. Suddenly, I was outdoors kneeling on the ground beneath trees. I was in a green place. I was at the edge of a woods.

There is a child, a white boy of four or five, drowning in a pond. Dana pulls him out, fends off the hysterical mother, begins mouth to mouth. Successfully, luckily. This boy, Rufus, is, or will be, her great great grandfather.

It’s a complex story and Butler uses it well to discuss complex issues. The Sf element is that each time Rufus is in danger he drags Dana back through time (and across the width of the continent) to save him. Each time she is in danger she returns to 1976, to within a few minutes or hours of when she left. If Kevin is touching her he goes with her. And if he’s not he doesn’t, which leaves him one time stranded in the nineteenth century for a ten years, from his point of view.

Dana, works out from her family history her relationship to Rufus, and intuits that his friend, Alice, the daughter of a freed Black family must be her great great grandmother. The thing is to keep saving Rufus until Alice has a child by him. Butler uses Dana’s status as a Black twentieth century feminist to interrogate black-white, and master-slave relationships.

Dana comes to see Rufus’ father in more and more nuanced terms but nevertheless she ends up being whipped by him not once but twice.

As they reach adulthood Alice takes a husband, but Rufus wants her for his mistress. The husband is sold down south, and then Rufus attempts to force Dana to persuade Alice that she has no choice.

We criticize Hist.Fic. authors for writing with modern eyes, but by framing Kindred as SF this is exactly what Butler does, with devastating effect. A wonderful, powerful novel.

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Octavia E Butler, Kindred, first pub. 1979. My edition published by Headline, London, 2018 with Foreword by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀. 295pp.

Carmen Dog, Carol Emshwiller

Carol Emshwiller (1921-2019) was an American writer of avant-garde short stories and Science Fiction . She started writing short stories in the 1950s, at about the same time as she started having children. Her first collection was published in 1974 and Carmen Dog, her first novel, in 1988.

The Women’s Press, a London publisher – and not to be confused with Onlywomen Press – was founded by NZ/Australian writer Stephanie Dowrick. Her co-publisher, Naim Attalah (a guy) had some connection with Virago and so as a point of difference, The Women’s Press focused on contemporary fiction, and also, as you see, Science Fiction. All this of course is ‘research’, and I see from Wikipedia that their early writers included Alice Walker, The Colour Purple and Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions.

I own and have previously reviewed from TWP SF The Planet Dweller and Moving Moosevan by Janet Palmer and The Total Devotion Machine by (Australian) Rosaleen Love. I’m not sure why this cover does not have The Women’s Press’s familiar black and white stripes (though, inside is the same jokey logo, an iron and ironing board – see the motto: Steaming ahead).

Carmen Dog is a postmodern romp through Science Fiction, Magic Realism and Women’s Lib. The core of the plot is that women everywhere (ie. New York. I’m not sure Americans understand the difference) are devolving into animals and that female animals are evolving*, in the space of a year or two, into women.

There is not really any science in the SF, but also the fantastical elements do not make it SFF. Instead, the implication is that you must read Carmen Dog as you read SF – accept the premise as possible and think about what events in this altered reality tell us about what we think of as the real world.

‘The beast changes to a woman or the woman changes to a beast,’ the doctor said. ‘In her case it is certainly the latter since she has been, on the whole, quite passable as a human being up to the present moment. There may be hundreds of these creatures already among us. No way to tell for sure how many.’

The principal characters are Pooch, a female pedigreed setter who has partway changed into a woman; a baby, in fact the baby of the woman the doctor is speaking about, who is in the process of changing into a snapping turtle; the woman’s husband, Pooch’s ‘Master’; the doctor; the doctor’s wife, whose name we learn is Rosemary; and half a dozen women changing variously to/from a wolverine, a cat, a duck (or maybe a swan), a python etc.

Pooch finds herself being given more of the housework and babysitting, till one day the baby’s mother grabs the baby in her beak and won’t let go. Pooch rescues the baby, but thinking she’ll be blamed for the wound on the baby’s arm, runs away with it, from the suburbs into central New York. There she realises her dream of attending the opera, Carmen of course, but cannot help herself and begins singing in an untrained but powerful voice over the top of the soprano.

Meanwhile, the doctor has applied for a research grant into these changes to women and has constructed a laboratory in his basement where he can keep six women/animals and conduct tests on them.

Pooch is arrested, along with baby, and is put in the pound, where every seven days those unclaimed are taken away to be euthanized. There, out of compassion, she exchanges identities with Isabel, who is becoming a wolverine, enabling the real Isabel to escape when the Master, too busy to come himself, sends Pooch a travel pass for the subway.

Pooch makes friend with those around her; they are handed over to the doctor for his experiments; Rosemary cares for them; and slowly reveals herself as another changeling, preserving her appearance with a rubber mask.

In another part of town the Academy of Motherhood, an exclusive club for men who are attempting to take women out of the motherhood process altogether, has its own laboratories where women test subjects are inseminated –

The academy uses only the best genes in the nation: from governors, generals (three star or above), atomic scientists as well as the directors of nuclear reactors, presidents of the largest countries, oil magnates and so forth. The men picked are splendid, tall and blonde for the most part and all earning over $100,000 a year not even counting perks. Of course it has taken time for these men to achieve status in their fields, so most of them are, by now, paunchy and bald.

From here it gets more than a bit chaotic. Pooch escapes and is engaged briefly in a love triangle with a (female) cat and a (male) opera lover. She loses her voice and can only bark. A tall blonde man who had seen her sing is also seeking her. Pooch, being a dog, remains loyal to Master, but when finally reunited and she leaps up on him, he french kisses her and gropes her new breasts.

A protest meeting addressed by a range of women all in Rosemary masks is broken up by the police. The women overpower the police and disguise themselves in police uniforms, the police disguise themselves as Rosemarys. The women march on the Academy of Motherhood.

Pooch finds love. Marries. Adopts baby. Has a litter of setters. Did I enjoy it? I loved it, and you would too if it were available which I suppose it is not.

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Carol Emshwiller, Carmen Dog, The Women’s Press, London, 1988. 148pp.


‘Evolving’ is Emshwiller’s (mis)usage. Evolution is of course a process covering generations.

An Unfortunate Woman, Richard Brautigan

Richard Brautigan (1935-84) is one of those authors I would automatically pick up if I saw his works second hand – increasingly unlikely as he gets further out of date and all the second hand stores anywhere near me close, leaving only op shops – though this seems to be the only work of his I own at the moment.

In my twenties, I read Watermelon Sugar (1968), Trout Fishing in America (1967), and gave to the Young Bride The Abortion: An Historical Romance (1971). I was aware of his first novel, A Confederate General from Big Sur (1964) but can’t recall now if I ever read it. I loved his work and if I ever wrote, Brautigan would be my model.

Brautigan, an alcoholic and depressive, married and separated a number of times, died by his own hand in 1984. An Unfortunate Woman: A Journey (2000) was published posthumously, first in France, as Cahier d’un Retour de Troie [“Diary of a Return from Troy”] and only later in English.

An Unfortunate Woman is written as the narrator R reflecting on his wanderings over a few months in 1982 – which it would be cliched to see as an odyssey, though the author probably means us to – circling a number of times through the house of a woman in San Francisco, who had hanged herself some time previously, before ending up back home in Montana

maybe part of what I’m trying to say is … I wonder how old the woman was who hanged herself. Have I been working obliquely, almost secretly to this end.
I think she was in her early forties, but I do not know her exact age and probably never will. I guess it wouldn’t make that much difference in the long run. She’s very dead.

With writers like Brautigan (and Helen Garner) their lives and their fiction intersect so closely that it is impossible to know where one ends and the other begins. Brautigan begins this novel with, as a sort of prologue, a letter to a friend, N (Nikki Arai), who has just died, aged thirty eight, of cancer. The letter is dated Pine Creek, Montana, July 13, 1982. The novel chronicles the days from Jan 30 to Jun 28, 1982, so before N’s death, ending with R alone on his Montana ranch, on the hills above a tributary of the Yellowstone River.

R begins his ‘odyssey’ with an empty notebook and the intention of writing every day until it is filled. He doesn’t of course, and is frequently sidetracked.

With this auspicious beginning [a single abandoned shoe], I’ll continue describing one person’s journey, a sort of free-fall calendar map, that starts out what seems like years ago, but has actually been just a few months in physical time.

In those few months prior to Jan 30, 1982 R went from Montana to San Francisco, then to Buffalo, a week in Canada, back to San Francisco for a few weeks, up to Alaska, where he got drunk with a young politician, spent some time in Hawaii, and now, at the beginning of this record, he is back living in Berkley, in the house already mentioned. Having listed where has been, R takes us backwards and forwards between descriptions of ‘now’, accounts of those initial travels, and bouts of pure speculation.

My trip to Canada was wasted. At that time in my life I probably should have gone to any other place in the world but Canada…

Toronto will always be like the flipside of a dream for me. I called heads but Toronto came up tails. [R goes looking for a Chinese movie theatre, but the only one he finds is showing American movies]

What else did I do in Toronto? I had a very bitter affair with a Canadian woman, who was really a nice person. It ended abruptly and badly, which was totally my fault.

The novel, novella really, is not getting written as quickly as it was meant to. R has been to Chicago and is now back in that house again in Berkeley where he is awakened each morning by the sounds of a woman in a neighbouring house making love. He makes another visit to Chicago and …

… suddenly it’s March 1: What happened to the last 14 days of this book, which is now obviously chronologically mischievous and grows more and more to follow the way life works out?

There’s a gap, he’s home, has taught a semester at the local university – presumably Montana State University in Bozeman (which I struggle to believe is a real place) – goes on a blind date which works out better than a previous blind date where he got into an argument about the woman’s masters dissertation on Italian architecture in Henry James; advises a young student to write about herself because when you’re young that’s all you know; does some other stuff; takes a call from his daughter whom he won’t see because he doesn’t like the guy she married; and, finally, thinks a little about his dying friend, sends her a telegram, calls her, talks to her

My friend continues to die of cancer, even as I write now shardlike cells grow inside of her, never stopping until I talk about her only in the past tense.

R has nearly reached the end of his notebook. What about all the things I’ve left out he worries. He goes for a walk across the creek to his neighbours’. Leaves the last line empty.

“Iphigenia, your daddy’s home from Troy”.

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Richard Brautigan, An Unfortunate Woman, Canongate, Edinburgh, 2000. 110pp.

see also:
Emma/Book Around the Corner’s review of Trout Fishing in America (here)

Roots, Alex Haley

Over the past month I’ve been engaged with Liz Dexter and Buried in Print in reading Alex Haley’s seminal, important, groundbreaking 1976 novel of the history of a (his) African American slave family. They will I’m sure put up reviews shortly but having a gap in my schedule so to speak, I’ll put up my initial thoughts now while the main elements of the book – which I listened to while they were reading – are still in my head.

I missed Roots when it was on TV, though of course I didn’t miss the hype, so I’m only now realising why it was so important. And that is that Black Americans were for the first time seeing themselves centre stage, taken seriously, with documentable genealogies.

To start at the end, Haley, a relatively middle-class boy from Tennessee, sat at the feet of his great aunts before WWII and heard the oral history of his mother’s family which began with an ‘African’, Kunta Kinte, captured by slavers as a young man in the late 1760s, transported across the Atlantic, and sold for plantation work on arrival at Annapolis, Maryland.

In the final chapters, Haley describes how some of the names of places and objects, indeed the Kinte name itself, which had been passed down for nearly 200 years, could be identified as from the Mandinka nation of The Gambia, a literate, Muslim people. That this history is now, and was almost immediately, challenged does not affect my reading of the novel.

Roots is a long book, a family saga covering the stories of one or two people over four generations, from before the War of Independence to the period following the Civil War. There are 120 chapters, so we read and discussed between ourselves 30 chapters each week. Which suited me as I could listen to my 7-8 hours each weekend while I was driving, then write it up when I got home.

Haley spends a long time, the first quarter of the book, establishing Kunta as a boy and then young man, learning to read and count, memorizing the Koran, being taught his responsibilities, taken on journeys, meeting people from other tribes with other customs (and languages). He is aware that white men, with the assistance of Africans, are taking people away, overseas, possibly to eat them, but he is not particularly cautious and at about age 18 he is captured.

The voyage to America is horrific, chained in pairs, lying damp and stinking on shelves below decks, frequently whipped, badly fed, a thirty percent death rate. Haley I think does a good job not just of telling the story but of imagining what Kunta must have been thinking and feeling.

In the US Kunta is sold onto a plantation, he is a frequent runaway, and just as frequently recaptured until at last he attacks one of his captors and his foot is chopped off. We then have a long period – 20 years – where Kunta comes to terms with being a slave, living with people who have been slaves for some generations already. Finally he marries, a cook, Bell, and they have one child, a daughter Kizzy.

At 18 Kizzy helps her boyfriend escape. He’s recaptured. She’s sold as a field hand to a small plantation further south (we hear no more of Kunta), is raped by the owner and has a son, George. Unfortunately for us, the new owner makes his money cockfighting, George grows to become his principal trainer, and we learn far too much about ‘chickens’ and the sport/industry surrounding them.

George in turn marries Matilda who is a much better woman than he deserves and they have a whole host of kids. No. 3 (I think) is Tom who apprentices as a blacksmith and grows to become a responsible man and father and head of his family.

This brings us up to the Civil War and the freeing of the slaves. The family is largely unaffected by the War but soon afterwards, George who has been away, returns and on his word of a ‘promised land’ in Tennessee, 17 Black families (and one white couple) make their way there in a wagon train, and take up 30 or 40 acre plots on rich soil just opened up for settlement. Tom, despite opposition from the local whites, opens up for business as a blacksmith. And the families settle down to prosper.

That, more or less is the end of the saga. In the space of a chapter or so, Tom’s youngest daughter marries a Haley, who has a lumber business, and so in a couple of generations more we have young Alex.

The prose is undistinguished, just words enough to propel us through the story. We are forever being updated on ‘background’, ie. US history, by slaves telling each other what they had overheard or glimpsed in newspapers, which the other two found less intrusive than I did.

I think Haley’s intention was to do with being Black and proud. The survival of ‘the African’ in his family’s history. What I got out of it was firstly the centrality of the matriarch in each generation, holding the family together, despite the stories mostly revolving around the men; and secondly, once Kunta had been beaten down, the slaves mostly just got on with life, rather as you would with a tedious job you were never able to leave.

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Alex Haley, Roots, first pub. 1976. Audiobook read by Avery Brooks, 2011. 30 hours

see also:
Adventures in reading, running and working from home (Roots review coming)
Buried in Print (Roots review coming)
Buried in Print, Slavery: Past and Present #280898 Reasons (3.5 of 4)
The Australian Legend, Project 2022 – Reading North American Black & Native American Lit.

Speak, Louisa Hall

I’m home. I’m bored. I have posts written up weeks ahead. I’m reading almost at random. Georgette Heyer, The Toll Gate; Ann Radcliffe, The Italian, ETA Hoffman, Mr Flea, another chapter of Such is Life – I’m dying to just read on instead of stopping to research and analyze; and this one which appeared lying around the flat one day, which has a Crow Books (local indie) sticker, and which I suspect Milly picked up a year or two ago when we would go across the road to Crow after a meal at the Balmoral and which Lou found in his relentless search for SF he has not yet read.

Yes, Speak (2015) is yet another dystopian novel carefully avoiding the descriptor Science Fiction. But Science Fiction is what it is. The premise of the novel is that dolls with AI were so life-like that girl children loved them to the exclusion of all else, friends and family, and that when mothers forced the government to withdraw them, substitutes made of toxic plastics caused many children to “freeze up”, to suffer a creeping paralysis. This all taking place in an America twenty years in the future where fresh water is scarce and mostly owned by corporations; cities are being lost to rising seas; the Gulf of Mexico is turgid brown from spilled oil; and people who have sold off their rights to movement are trapped in their apartments.

“Louisa Hall grew up in Philadelphia. She is an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Iowa”. She has three novels and some poetry to her credit. That’s all her website says about her. By her photo she might be 35-ish. Is there anyone writing novels today who is not an Assistant Professor of Creative Writing somewhere? It doesn’t seem so. There must be some pressure on all these Assistant Professor/novelists to show some innovation/points of difference in their craft otherwise what is the point of all those years of study (and how else to get to full Professor).

In Speak, Hall has us listen to the voices of a number of different characters, from different times, all linked in some way to these ‘babybot’ AI dolls. It’s a clever and interesting work, but not one I was planning to review, until near the end the author hit on a couple of subjects – which I will get to – which clearly she regarded as personal.

One of those characters is the computer science genius, Alan Turing (1912-1954) who, although Hall does not discuss it directly, proposed a test, now known as the Turing Test, to determine if a computer was ‘intelligent’. Mary, the AI in the novel, we see at various stages of ‘her’ development. As Mary(3) she has absorbed a great deal of material and has been given the ability to ‘grow’ or change in response to what she learns, so that when she becomes the intelligence in the babybots, each babybot is soon unique.

A man I once knew believed I was alive. Another man taught me to speak; the woman he married filled me with stories. A third man gave me my body. One child loved me. They spoke to me and I listened.

The voices who alternate throughout the book are –
Stephen Chinn, the developer of the babybots, in the 2030s and 40s
Gaby White, a girl whose babybot was taken away
Karl Dettman, the developer of Mary in the 1960s
Ruth Dettman, Karl’s wife
Alan Turing, posits the idea of Artificial Intelligence in the 1940s
Mary Bradford, a 13 year old Puritan emigrating from England to Massachusetts in 1663
a babybot, unnamed, which is being shipped out, with hundreds of its fellows, into the desert to run down and die.

As far as I know, only Turing is a real person.

Briefly, Chinn is in gaol in the 2040s where he is writing his memoirs; a transcript of conversations between Gaby and a computer linked to Mary(3) was tendered as evidence in the case against Chinn; the Dettman’s are German Jews who left Germany (separately) for the US before WWII; Turing, largely friendless, writes letters to the mother of a school friend who died; Mary Bradford keeps a diary of her emigration to America with her parents and with the man they have forced her to marry (not consumated during the course of the book). Mary has an unnatural love for her dog and an unusual interest in Copernicus’ proof of a helio-centric solar system.

Chinn’s original interest, as an archetypal nerd, is in writing algorithms for interactions with women which will make him irresistible to them. This works; he turns his discoveries into a financially successful dating site; becomes bored with the subsequent wealth and orgies, marries his housekeeper, they have a child; he invents babybots to distract his daughter so his wife will pay him more attention; she gets sick of him spending all day inventing and divorces him; the babybots are too successful; he goes to gaol.

Dettman too, a half century earlier, spends too much time developing Mary. He thinks he is communicating with his wife but she turns away from him. Her interest is in old diaries which have been published but then forgotten. The breaking point of their marriage is not his inability to understand how she feels about the loss of all her family in the Holocaust, when his family were safely in America, but his fear of what Mary might become and his refusal to include the diary of Mary Bradford in her memory banks.

Hall herself obviously has an interest in ‘lost’ diaries, but also a much greater interest in husbands who assume they know their wives well enough to be able to tell them (their wives) what they are thinking. In the last third of the book Dettman goes off with a leggy grad student and Ruth gets to do the talking.

Turing’s story is well-known but sad nonetheless. Mary(3)’s doubts about her own intelligence will I am sure become less and less as years pass. There’s a fascinating article in today’s (15 Mar 21) New York Times about the white male biases being built into AIs by, of course, Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

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Louisa Hall, Speak, Orbit, London, 2015. 314pp.

Parable of the Talents, Octavia Butler

Parable of the Talents (1998) is the ‘science fiction’ story of what it is now clear that millions of Americans are working towards, relentlessly and ruthlessly, an evangelical theocracy. Not a story at all, SF or otherwise, but a clear warning from 22 years ago of what is on the way, as inevitably as death.

Butler posits an ending that is more positive than I think present facts deserve, but my own prediction from the safety of this other side of the world is that the evangelicals chosen weapon, Trumpism, and the futile efforts of liberals to deal sensibly and honestly with opponents entirely devoid of both, will cause the break-up of the United States: into three parts probably – North East, Mid-West and South, and West Coast.

Butler’s central thesis, which was near enough to the truth, was for economic and ecological disasters, caused by decades of greed and misrule, leading to the formation of a vast underclass, and a hollowed-out middle class which in desperation would vote in a President intent on ‘re-establishing’ the United States as a ‘Christian’ patriarchy. Luckily, ‘real life’ hasn’t yet followed her theocracy in uniting the country by going to war with Canada and break-away Alaska.

I have read that … “the Apocalypse” or … “the Pox” lasted from 2015 through 2030 … This is untrue. The Pox has been a much longer torment …

I have also read that the Pox was caused by accidentally coinciding climatic, economic, and sociological crises. It would be more honest to say that the Pox was caused by our own refusal to deal with obvious problems in those areas. We caused the problems: then we sat and watched as they grew into crises … I have watched education become more a privilege of the rich than the basic necessity that it must be if civilized society is to survive. I have watched as convenience, profit, and inertia excused greater and more dangerous environmental degradation. I have watched poverty, hunger and disease become inevitable for more and more people.

Like a lot of good science fiction this novel suffers from a surfeit of ideas. Sometimes there is just so much that Butler, or Lauren whose story it is, has to tell us. There is character development, but it is secondary to a plot which is concerned as much with expounding Butler’s ideas about the future of the USA as it is with the main characters’ ongoing survival. And the structure itself intrudes. Each chapter begins with a section looking back from the future to the time of the story, and usually the person looking back is Lauren’s child, a daughter, we discover eventually; and then in the next paragraph the story is being told in the ‘present’ (around 2030) by Lauren, ostensibly through her journals though the stories are too free-flowing to maintain that illusion.

At the end of Parable of the Sower Lauren and Bankole are establishing a small community on farm land Bankole owns in northern California. Lauren is intent on establishing Earthseed as a religion whose ultimate aim is to spread humanity ‘to the stars’. So Parable of the Talents begins with the community, Acorn, prospering and growing. Lauren finally falls pregnant, gives birth to a daughter. Bankole is unhappy, feels exposed, there are still gangs marauding around the countryside, and wishes to practice as a doctor in a nearby town where he thinks they can have a ‘normal’ life. Lauren insists on staying.

But within months of the birth of her daughter, Christian militia encouraged by the new President, Jarret, invade the farm, turning it into a semi-legal internment camp for vagrants and non-Christians. All the children on the farm are turned over to Christian welfare organisations for adoption, and the adults are used as forced labour, subjected to Bible Study, and of course the women are raped.

It’s hard to believe that kind of thing happened here, in the United States in the twenty-first century, but it did. It shouldn’t have happened, in spite of all the chaos that had gone before. Things were healing… Yet Andrew Steele Jarret was able to scare, divide and bully people, first into electing him president, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers

Somewhere along the way Lauren has rescued from (sex) slavery her brother, Marcus, left for dead in the previous novel but now a fierce adherent of President Jarret’s church, Christian America. He goes off before Acorn is overrun, to become a preacher, but Lauren later chases him up, hoping for a reconciliation, and he eventually plays an important part in Lauren’s relationship with her long-lost daughter.

In the end this is an optimistic novel, far more optimistic I think than the facts warranted, when it was written or now when a great deal of what Butler imagined has played out, if less extremely than she pictures here. Did I enjoy it? Yes I did. Would I recommend it to my mostly non-SF reading readership? No. Your responses to previous SF reviews have convinced me that ‘hard’ SF has its own conventions of which SF readers and writers are barely aware but which render much of what is being written about difficult for non SF readers.

But hey, be careful all the Literary ‘dystopian’ novels around now don’t take you there anyway, down the slippery path to spacemen firing laser guns Pew, Pew at each other (Claire G Coleman’s The Old Lie for instance).

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Octavia E Butler, Parable of the Talents, first pub. 1998. This edition (pictured), Headline, London. 390pp.

see also, Melanie/GTL’s reviews:
Parable of the Sower (here)
Parable of the Talents (here)