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)

Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston

I’m sure you know, Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was an influential Black American woman writer and anthropologist whose most famous novel is Their Eyes were watching God (1937). Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) was her first. I have been aware of her for some time – three or four years – as she comes up pretty regularly on Melanie’s blog, Grab the Lapels.

“The novel is semi-autobiographical, describing the migration of characters, similar to her parents, from Notasulga, Alabama to her long-time home of Eatonville, Florida” (Wiki). That’s an interesting statement, as the beginning of the novel feels as if it is in the immediate aftermath of the US Civil War (1861-65), compared with Hurston’s birth year 1891.

When Old Massa wuz drivin’ you in de rain and in de col’ – he wasn’t don’ it tuh he’p you ‘long. He wuz lookin’ out for hisself. Course Ah was twelve years old when Lee made de big surrender ..

John’s mother talking to his father (p. 5)

John Buddy is 16 here and his mother was probably 16 when she had him, so we’re talking 1885, which until I “did the math”, is later than I expected. Don’t you love how she dates the abolition of slavery from “de big surrender”. Ned, John’s father, drives his children “in de rain and in de col'”, sharecropping for poor white landholders in backwoods Alabama, who inevitably steal his share of the crop. In these opening pages we learn that John is Ned’s stepson, that his father is white, and that he is physically big. When Ned takes a whip to his wife, John knocks him down and leaves to seek his fortune on the other side of Big Creek, at the Pearson property where his mother was from.

Although you might think that other characters – friends, neighbours, family – might play a part, they soon drop off, this is entirely John’s story – fictionalised biography, not autobiography. Hurston never speculates about John’s parentage, but on his arrival at the Pearson estate, we see that he is about Pearson’s build, he is warmly welcomed, and he takes Pearson as his surname. There, he begins attending school, sees a railway train for the first time, learns slowly to read and write, works his way up into positions of responsibility, joins the choir to be near very smart twelve year old Lucy Potts whose father is an independent landowner, and is set upon by all the buxom teenage girls.

He has to go away for a while to help out his stepfather. He exchanges notes with Lucy, is soon back and they are walking out under the strict supervision of Mrs Potts who has promised her to another old farmer. And when Lucy turns 16 they are married.

They start having children, John is forever giving into the buxom girls and women who continue to beset him (Zora doesn’t apportion much blame to her father). He is obliged to leave the Pearson place and with a considerable gift from old Pearson, John makes his way to Florida where he becomes a powerful gospel preacher. Now, that’s enough of the story. If you really want to know, when John is old he drives his new Cadillac in front of a freight train, and that’s the end of him.

The importance of this work is of course the first hand account of the post-slavery years in the South, but more than that, it is the beauty and originality of the language. This is not some heavy handed Peter Carey reconstruction (Ned Kelly, Jack Maggs), but a poet writing as she and the people around her speak.

The rhythms of John’s preaching, the rhythms of their partying and dancing are the rhythms of Africa –

Furious music of the little drum whose body was still in Africa, but whose soul sung around a fire in Alabama. Flourish. Break.

Ole cow died in Tennessee
Send her jawbone back to me
Jawbone Walk, Jawbone Talk
Jawbone eat wid uh knife and fork.
Aint Ah right?

CHORUS: Yeah!
Ain’t I right? Yeah!

Hollow-hand clapping for the bass notes. Heel and toe stomping for the little one. Ibo tune corrupted with Nango. Congo gods talking in Alabama.

As it happens, the book I read and wrote up before this one was Christina Stead’s The Little Hotel (to be posted in January). Stead’s protagonist is a German-Swiss, the guests are English, French, Swiss, Italian and the maids have their own language from whichever region of Italy they are from. So I’ve been thinking a lot about rendering language into English, which of course is a problem here too in Australia.

I love Hurston’s approach: This is the way we speak, suck it up!

It is very easy – and far too common – to dismiss non-received English as Pidgin. But Hurston demonstrates that yes, poor Black Americans must speak some English to communicate with their masters/employers, but also that they have language histories of their own, to which they will not let go.

Before he is made to leave Alabama, John often leads the prayers –

John never made a balk at prayer. Some new figure, some new praise-giving name for God, every time he knelt in church. He rolled his African drum up to the altar, and called his Congo Gods by Christian names. One night at the altar-call he cried out his barbaric poetry to his ‘Wonder-workin’ God so effectively that three converts came thru religion under the sound of his voice.

But in the end, John is a weak vessel, not worthy of Lucy, boastful and heedless of Lucy’s greater wisdom. Lucy, in fact would have been a much more interesting subject. And I hope a least one of Hurston’s other novels has a female protagonist. Eatonville, Florida was an all-Black town, indeed Pearson was for a while mayor, and Hurston was able to grow up as her mother intended, away from prejudice. John and Lucy’s children play such a small part in the story that I didn’t take the time to work out which one of them she was.

This is a fascinating story, of a flawed man, written with great poetry. There is an Introduction, written by someone I don’t know, about the influence Hurston had on that person, so I skipped it. But I will be looking for more.

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Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, first pub. 1934. This edition Virago, London, 2020. 215pp.

Where on Earth, Ursula Le Guin

If you grew up in the country as I did, then you will know those old-fashioned engagement parties and 21sts, in woolsheds or football clubrooms, trestle tables groaning with savouries and salads and cakes and cakes and cakes catered by the CWA or church women’s guild. My uncle Allan’s 21st was the same, a long table all down the middle verandah of the old farm house, seven year old me in a far corner eating and eating until I had to open all the buttons on my pants, cream cakes and pavlova, fruit cake and mince pies, jelly, trifle, lemon meringue pie and icecream.

And that’s how this collection of short stories by one of the greats of modern fiction struck me. I had to open all my buttons and lean back groaning in the corner. That’s how short story anthologies often strike me. When I open a book I want a meal not a plateful of cakes, and I love cakes.

In a lovely cheerful Introduction Le Guin explains how the two volumes of Selected Stories were chosen:

[First] .. no novellas – even though the novella is my favourite story-form, a lovely length in which you can do just about what a novel does without using all those words.

[Then] .. arbitrary restrictions, [no] stories closely tied to novels … [or] stories forming an integral part of story suites, where the pieces are linked by characters, setting, and chronology, forming an almost-novelistic whole.

So there I was with enough stories, still, to make a book about the size of the Shorter Oxford Dictionary.

After much more culling, she was down to two volumes, this one, Where on Earth for “mundane” stories, and the second, Outer Space, Inner Lands, mostly for SF, which I will review when that bloated feeling is finally gone.

If you ignore Le Guin for being a writer of genre fiction then that is your loss. She is (or was) both a fine writer technically and maybe the best story teller of the past 60 years. Where else but in SF could she explore the ideas behind Feminism, Environmentalism and Utopianism which were bursting out of her, and which she was so skilled in conveying. Nevertheless, in Where on Earth which while it is not without whimsy, she explores the problems of ordinary people dealing with ordinary people.

[In college] I had been writing realistic stories (bourgeois-USA-1948) because realism was what a serious writer was supposed to write under the rule of modernism ..

But I was soon aware that the ground it offered my particular talent was small and stony. I had to find my way elsewhere.

[The invented Eastern European country] Orsinia was the way, lying between actuality, which was supposed to be the sole subject of fiction, and the limitless realms of the imagination.

So, the first four stories are from Orsinian Tales, sharing a common geography, a backward, barren, mountainous country ruled by a distant Soviet bureaucracy; and sometimes sharing or alluding to characters in other stories (and so of course, breaking one of her own rules, above).

When Konstant Fabbre was hurt in the rockslide in the quarry he was twenty-six years old; his brother [Stefan] was twenty-three; their sister Rosana was thirteen. She was beginning to grow tall and sullen, to weigh upon the earth.

Konstant has saved the life of a deaf fellow worker. The deaf man’s daughter comes into town to care for Konstant. Stefan wants her. Unlike all his fellow townsmen Stefan has been away to school. Eventually he takes a mule and heads across the desert plain and into the mountains, through driving snow, heading for the capital. (Brothers & Sisters).

Stefan and his friend Kasimir travel by train and bus to Kasimir’s home town, for a break. Stefan falls in love with Kasimir’s sister Bruna. Then, Kasimir is shot by the police, Stefan is jailed. (A Week in the Country)

Bruna Fabbre is home, cooking when her daughter comes in from college. Stefan is at his desk at the university. Young people armed with paving stones are facing off with soldiers guarding the palace. The daughter is on the organising committee. Soon, Bruna and Stefan are in the street. (Unlocking the Air)

It seems there is an ‘Orsinian’ novel, Malafrena, of which I was unaware and which I must have.

There are 15 or so subsequent stories, most of which didn’t stick, many fanciful in one way or another, taking a fairytale or perhaps Native American style. Three stories at the end caught my attention. Each proceeds by a series of internal monologues.

A family is staying at the beach house they have long owned on a remote stretch of Oregon coast. We swap backwards and forwards between three women – daughter (uni student), mother (professor) and grandmother (widow) as they re-settle into long established routines, which are disturbed by the arrival of a researcher, a young woman, working on the life of the grandmother’s well known late husband. (Hand, Cup, Shell)

We are ‘inside’ for short periods each of the inhabitants of the tiny rural town of Ether which is notable for moving around when no-one is looking, sometimes settling on the Oregon coast and sometimes on the eastern slopes of the ranges. But it is Edna and her many lovers (and children) over the years who is the real centre of the story (Ether, OR).

Finally, a story made of eight brief stories linked only by the characters in each having the same names and roughly the same power relationship to each other, which Le Guin says arose out of an assignment she once set her students. Try as you may, you cannot make the Stephen or Ann in one story be the same person as the Stephen and Ann in the next (Half Past Four).

Have I made myself clear? Ursula Le Guin was a genius. Not just in writing, or story telling, though she was, but in her up-close observation and descriptions of human behaviour.

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Ursula K Le Guin, Where on Earth: Selected Stories Volume 1, Gollancz, London, 2012. 281pp

see also:
Ursula K Le Guin, The Dispossessed (here)

Patience & Sarah, Isabel Miller

Journal: 060

Audiobook Review of Patience and Sarah

Don’t you hate it when you’re driving along, or mucking out the stables, or cleaning house, working on autopilot, mapping out a post with perfect opening lines that say just what you want to say, and when you sit down at your desk, or your laptop on the steering wheel, there’s nothing there. It’s all gone.

I read years ago that you should never write a book in your head, all that creation is wasted, and it might be the best you ever wrote. I thought maybe, get my fingers moving on the keyboard, knock out a few lines, it’ll come back, but of course it hasn’t.

A couple of audiobooks ago I listened to Patience & Sarah (1969) by Isabel Miller, historical fiction, romance, thoroughly enjoyable.

In my occasional research into the archetypal Independent Woman I sometimes run into lesbian stories, or possibly lesbian stories, women who eschew marriage not for independent lives but to live with another woman, say Catherine Helen Spence with Jeanne Young or Mary Fullerton and Mabel Singleton, there’s quite a few. And what we know about them, their lives together, other than that they were ‘companions’ is very little. Sylvia Martin writes that she doubts they had the language to even imagine a sexual relationship.

I suspect that she is right, and that the loving, sexual partnership of Patience and Sarah owes a lot more to the 1960s when it was written than to the early C19th when it is set. I suspect. But just as I am an advocate for revising the way we look at early Australian writing to emphasise positive role models for young women, so I am happy in this case for women in the great blossoming of second wave feminism and sexual liberation to look again at earlier women’s relationships.

The outline of the story, loosely based on the life of painter Mary Ann Wilson who lived with her companion, Miss Brundage, on a “farmerette” in Greene County NY., is that Patience, well-off, educated, a talented amateur painter and Sarah poor, illiterate, dressed as and working as a boy for her father in place of the brothers she doesn’t have; in rural Connecticut; meet, fall in love, and form the intention of taking up farm land together in upstate New York, only recently opened up.

Two things strike me and they are the similar (true) story of Anne Drysdale and Caroline Newcomb in 1840s Victoria (here); and that Australia and the US were opened up within very similar timeframes. Of course settlement of New England and the Southern states down the east coast began a couple of hundred years earlier, but the movements inland, in both the US and Australia seem to have begun at around the same time in the early 1800s.

The romance, its ups and downs, Sarah’s adventures as a boy travelling alone, and the eventual happy ending are all well done. There is not too much sex and, as I say, what there is seems to owe a lot to women’s growing awareness of and assertiveness about their bodies in the 1960s, but that can be excused, and the general descriptions of farm and town life – to someone who couldn’t for the life of him place Connecticut on a map – seem realistic.

The story of the book is interesting too. It was originally self-published as A Place for Us, and was sold by the author, real name Alma Routsong, “on street corners in New York” before finding a real publisher in 1971. I think it must have gained a following in lesbian circles, it was subsequently made into an opera and a screenplay, and this audiobook version was produced by Janis Ian (for a company with an odd name which is not reproduced on the back cover and which of course I did not write down while I was listening). Janis Ian and Jean Smart do an excellent job reading the alternating voices of the gently spoken Patience and the rougher Sarah.

After this I listened to some bog standard crime fiction – I’ll list my reads another day – and then I started on Gone With the Wind which I have not previously read. Scarlett O’Hara must be the least attractive heroine, spoilt and childish, that I have ever had to endure. Sadly (or maybe luckily) about the time the widowed Scarlett is taking up with Rhett while living with her sister-in-law and Aunt Pittipat in Atlanta, the uneven surface of the mp3 CD gave up the ghost and I was able to get no further.

I forget what I’m listening to now, except that it has 15 CDs. I often need to hear a few lines to bring the story back to mind. When I get back in the truck I’ll write down the details (The Unquiet read by Jeff Harding) and you can tell me what you think of the resonant voice of the actor, whom I have heard quite often before.

This weekend I’m in Melbourne. After a hectic Friday in which I unloaded 2 trailers in Wodonga, reloaded them in Melbourne 300 km south, ran one 250 km up to Charlton where I’d left the third trailer, took that trailer back to Melbourne and then 140 km out the other side to unload Saturday morning, When I got back I booked into the Burvale Hotel which has plenty of parking for trucks and spent a pleasant 24 hours with mum, who lives nearby, and brother B2 who had dibs on her guest bed.

Now I’m back out in the western suburbs where I’ll finish loading tomorrow and be on my way. For my last trip of the year I think. The WA premier is reneging on his undertaking to open the state border to Victorians when they reached 28 days clear of Covid, which they did 2 days ago, and so I will have to waste 14 days isolating before Christmas which I might have used to do another trip.

I’d better spend those 14 days preparing for AWW Gen 3 Week 17-23 Jan, 2021 as I’ll probably have resumed work by then to make up for lost time.

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Isabel Miller, Patience & Sarah, first pub. 1969. Audiobook: Brilliance, 2014. 5 hours 47 min.

Zane Grey

Journal: 057

Zane Grey (1872-1939) was born in Zanesville, Ohio. How cool is that? Zane was his mother’s surname and the city was built on land owned by her family. His original first name was Pearl, as in pearl grey, the colour of Queen Victoria’s mourning dress (according to Wikipedia, so it must be true).

He is of course famous as a writer of cowboy stories, 90 odd all-up. Grey lived in Pennsylvania from 1905-1918, then in California. He was married, had numerous affairs and travelled extensively (within USA). From 1923-1930 he had a cabin in Arizona. The book I listened to recently, Captives of the Desert seems to have been written in 1925. It is set in desert country in Arizona which he describes with great affection. What’s most interesting is that although this is ostensibly the story of John Curry, a cowboy  – a herder of intrepid tourists rather than of cows, and in fact the properties in the desert seem to mostly run sheep – the other principal characters are all women: Mary who is married to a no-hoper; Mary’s friend Catherine who has come out from the east to be with her sister who is an invalid; and Magdalene, a young Navajo woman who has been away to school and now finds herself neither western nor native American.

The feeling I got is that Zane Grey is far more liberal than you might expect from a writer of pulp fiction for rural working men. He has a lot of sympathy for the shit the Navajos have to put up with and in particular the difficult situation Magdalene is in, where her education is not valued by her fellows and yet there is no place for her in white society.

Curry is hopelessly in love with Mary. Magdalene and maybe Catherine are hopelessly in love with Curry. Mary slowly comes to despair of her husband, who leaves her when he realises Mary is not the heiress he hoped for.

While we are driving old cars or riding horses and mules through desert canyons, dealing warily with the local native Americans, and conducting tourists on trail rides, the husband is having another shot at making his fortune selling liquor – which was banned on Indian reservations in Arizona by state law and subsequently by federal law (1920-1933). Magdalene gets pregnant; various people get shot; and yes there is a happy ending, two in fact.

Both Mary and Curry are very nineteenth century. Mary in her determination to be a good wife to a man she despises, and Curry in his honourableness, his wish to serve Mary but to not compromise her marriage. I found Captives of the Desert to be good, thoughtful reading (listening).


I didn’t mean to write so much about what is after all an obscure book, but Zane Grey is interesting for the light he shines, or the study of him shines, on the Bulletin school of Australian writing. As with many other issues, 1950s US movie culture – in this case cowboy and indian movies – stands between us and a proper understanding of where society was at pre WWII.

There are lots of things I haven’t done that I mean to and following up the myth of the American ‘Noble Frontiersman’ (in Canada as well as the US) and how that feeds into Australian Legend is one of them. I wonder if I can get ES Ellis on audiobook.


After not this last trip but the one before, I didn’t look for any freight at the end of the week and was happy, even on my own, to have a weekend at home. As it happens, I loaded the following Thurs and stayed on in Perth a couple of days, to be out of iso for just one day for the first time in months, had tea at Milly’s and took our granddaughter out to lunch for her birthday.

As you know, Melanie/GTL and I were working on The Slap and in the course of our interchanges I sent her a photo of a dingo which came up to my truck at Nullarbor station. She promptly imagined a whole story around Bingo the dingo, including adopting it and heading off on a road trip in a red convertible. I turned around very quickly in Melbourne and Bingo was still there when I got back, and although it’s not apparent in this photo, she’s clearly a bitch who has just had pups. So now it’s Lady Bingo and maybe the whole Thelma and Louise scenario (Don’t do it Melanie!).


I’m settling down with the new WordPress editor and have even converted the Truck Pix page of my work website to a slideshow, following a hint from WG. Next step is to play with Tables which Karen/Booker Talk makes a start on here in Comments.


Did you see WG’s most recent Monday Musings where her 100 year old father burst into song. We got onto my own father singing – in 1959, just me and him on the road from Leongatha to Sea Lake (500 km). His grade 6 had done HMS Pinafore for speech night, and he sang it to me to wile away the hours.

I only have Pirates of Penzance and The Gondoliers in the truck , but Pinafore is the one that has stuck and I was silly enough to boast that I could still sing Dear Little Buttercup (in falsetto!). Despite requests, that won’t be inflicted on my readers. But it reminded me that three or four years later in his first (and only) headmastership, Dad got his teachers to perform the Death of Julius Caesar – you know: “He was stabbed in the rotunda.” “Oh! That must have been painfull!”. He played Calpurnia and his “I told him Julie , don’t go, don’t go” in falsetto is still with me. (It’s actually Rinse the Blood off my Toga).

 

Recent audiobooks 

Mudrooroo (M, Aust/WA), Wild Cat Falling (1965) – DNF. Read by the author whose older ‘university’ voice was just wrong for the story
BV Larson (M, USA), Tech World (2014) – SF
Tom Franklin (M, USA), Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (2010) – Crime
Joy Fielding (F, USA), Someone is Watching (2015) – DNF. Shoot me if I pick up another Joy Fielding. She gets off on gratuitous violence.
Tess Gerritsen (F, USA), The Bone Garden (2007) – Crime/Hist.Fic.
Zane Grey (M, USA), Captives of the Desert (1926) – Western
Lisa Kleypas (F, USA), Sugar Daddy (2006) – Crime

Currently reading

Ivan Čapovski (M, Macedonia), The Sorrow of Miles Franklin…
Jessica White (F, Aust/Qld), A Curious Intimacy
JD Salinger (M, USA), The Catcher in the Rye
Georgette Heyer (F, Eng), The Talisman Ring
Milan Kundera (M, Czech), The Farewell Party

The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger

It’s years now since I first read Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and Raise High the Roof-Beam Carpenters, stories he wrote in the 1950s, and in my mind some of the best prose ever written. I was thinking as I planned this review that the most comparable prose is the opening of Christina Stead’s Letty Fox: Her Luck (1946) and so I wonder was there a New York school of writing at this time of which in my general ignorance of US Literature I remain blissfully unaware.

I knew I should read The Catcher in the Rye (1951) and indeed a copy has been prominent in the general disorder of my TBR stacks for some years. This week in iso that I am taking off from work was the opportunity, a remark from Jackie/Death by Tsundoku that she didn’t agree with Catcher being the Great American Novel was the spur, and a review of The Blue Guitar published today (Sun 6 Sept) as I write by Kim/Reading Matters is my inspiration.

Ok, I finished it. I was about two thirds through when I wrote that intro, then Milly came round and sat on the balcony and drank wine and talked to me through the door, Boy, is she a good sort, old Milly. She even brought avo dip and some stuff for later, dhal and a home-made spinach roll. The kids rang, it’s father’s day, and Gee and Oak, who’d taken baby Dingo camping, promised me home delivery pizza for tea, vego and anchovies. I sure wish that’d turn up soon. I’m old, goddammed well over fifty and I eat early.

But no, it’s not the Great American Novel, more an iconic coming of age story, two or three days in the life of a privileged, troubled New York school boy, Holden Caulfield, a junior, year 11 in Oz-speak I think.

I forgot to tell you about that. They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking four subjects and not applying myself and all. They gave me frequent warnings to start applying myself – especially around mid-terms when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer – but I didn’t do it. So I got the ax. They give guys the ax quite frequently at Pencey. It has a very good academic rating, Pencey. It really does.

He goes to see a teacher who wishes to wish him goodbye and then back to his room, and his annoying dorm-mates, but late decides he can’t wait the few days till end of term, and heads in to town, worrying all the while about his friend, Jane, who’s been on a date with his room mate, and who he doesn’t mess around with but his room mate never misses so what went on. And all the time he’s thinking about his brother, DB who’s a writer in Hollywood, and his other brother Allie who died, and little sister Phoebe who’s only ten but bright as hell and he just wants to sit down and talk to her.

In a downtown downmarket hotel the elevator guy talks him into having a girl come to his room and he doesn’t feel like it, well ok, he’s still a virgin and she might get him started so he knows what to do when he’s married and all, but when she comes and takes off her dress and sits on his lap, he just wants to talk.

The thing is, most of the time when you’re pretty close to doing it with a girl – a girl that isn’t a prostitute or anything, I mean – she keeps telling you to stop. The trouble with me is, I stop. Most guys don’t. I can’t help it. You never know whether they really want you to stop, or whether they’re just scared as hell … They tell me to stop, so I stop. I always wish I hadn’t, after I take them home, but I keep doing it anyway.

He goes out again for a drink. He’s under-age but tall, 6’2″, he’s been to all the bars with DB, and sometimes he gets served and sometimes he doesn’t. The next day he checks out, wanders around, almost rings up Jane a half dozen times, takes the very good looking Sally who is keen on him, to the theatre; makes some funny observations about the self-awareness of actors, fights with Sally, drinks, sneaks home late at night to talk to Phoebe, sneaks out again after his parents come home, wakes an old teacher/friend who puts him up …

We get to the ending, which I found heavy handed. All along Caulfield has been talking to us, revealing his pain, his confusion, through his own lack of comprehension at what he is telling us, and on this final night he, and we, must endure a long well-meaning lecture about missed opportunities and all that bullshit we say to kids; as though Salinger lost faith in his own story telling (and what is it with Salinger – who had one, older, sister – and families and dead brothers?) though he pulls it together a bit the following day when Phoebe … (I won’t tell you, in case you’re the one other person in the world who hasn’t read it yet) and winds all up too patly with Holden in care.

This isn’t Salinger’s best prose because the voice is Holden’s, but it’s still pretty damn good.

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JD Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, first pub. as a novel, 1951. My edition (with what appears to be the original cover) Little Brown, New York, 1991