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).

.

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.

.

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.

.

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

Strong Motion, Johnathan Franzen

Journal: 55

 

Strong Motion Franzen

‘Strong Motion’ is a term associated with earthquakes. Franzen’s Strong Motion (1992), ostensibly an ecological thriller about artificially induced earthquakes, is really a literary work about a relationship, between Louis, 21, unemployed, and Reneé, 29, a post-grad seismologist at Harvard. I don’t know Franzen, I don’t know his place in US or world literature, but I recognise his name and was was willing to give up the 21 plus hours this book – read well by Scott Aille – took: a night through northern Victoria, a day across South Australia, Renmark, Burra, Port Augusta, Ceduna, another night, out across the Nullarbor, and with the morning, on into Western Australia.

Franzen (b. 1959) is a literary novelist, columnist and educator. A quote by one of his students: “He read our stories so closely that he often started class with a rundown of words that were not used quite correctly in stories from that week’s workshop” is amusing as I noted that Franzen had someone waiting for a printer to “divulge” a printout, as if printers knew what they were printing, when he should have used the more prosaic “disgorge”.

My mind wanders. The 1990s were a decade when ecology was the concern and not global warming. In the 1990s in my circle (me, Milly, Lou) it was de rigeur to read Ben Elton who had become famous with a movie about rockets in the Australian desert (Stark) – and yes, I saw every episode of The Young Ones and most of Blackadder, I just didn’t associate them with Elton the novelist. Elton lived for a while in Fremantle and was treated as WA’s most prominent public intellectual, a role now granted to a chancer from the upper classes who lived for years mining mum and dad investors on the stock exchange until one of his gambles paid off spectacularly well and now he is a Boyer lecturer (I cringe for ‘our’ ABC).

My mind wanders to Elton because halfway through Strong Motions the most likeable  protagonist is shot. One of Elton’s books has a protagonist in a wheel chair who just as you are getting fully involved with him is run down and killed and the book goes on without him. I still remember the shock, though nothing else except that the book is set in London.

The ecological thriller part of the book concerns a Boston-based petrochemical and weapons company, Sweeting-Aldren. I immediately think of Dow, indelibly associated with the Vietnam War and napalm (but not as it happens, Boston-based). Louis’ grandfather had been a S-A exec. and on re-marrying had invested his $20 mil fortune in S-A shares which on his death had gone to his new wife. At the beginning of the book Louis goes to visit his step-grandmother only to find she has fallen off her bar stool in a localized earthquake and died. The shares then go to Louis’ mother who shares her good fortune with his sister but not with Louis or with his father, a history professor.

Reneé meanwhile comes to believe that the localized earthquakes being felt in the Boston suburb of Peabody are being caused by S-A pumping toxic waste into a disused very deep (6 miles) well. Louis and Reneé meet and begin to sleep together. I don’t mean to go on with a full account of the plot. Reneé has self-image problems. Reneé says she does not intend to mother Louis, but does. Louis has family problems. Louis has a girl in Texas who has plenty of problems of her own. Louis tells Reneé he loves her. Louis goes off with the other girl. Reneé has an abortion. There’s a whole other sub-plot going on with an anti-abortion Southern Baptist church. The earthquake/villainous chemical company thing comes to a head.

It is all very well done. Louis is the principal protagonist, but Franzen is omniscient and quite happy to look at a given scene from Reneé’s POV and occasionally from someone else’s. No, I don’t think he is as convincing giving Reneé’s POV, especially when she speaks passionately as a women’s libber (or a woman during sex).

I get the impression reading up on Franzen that, despite his appearance on the cover of Time as the ‘Great American Novelist’ (in 2010), he has never really made the transition from really good to ‘great’, and that like many other ‘really good’ novelists before him, in a decade or two he will be forgotten.

Did I like it, Melanie? Yes I did. Though for once I wasn’t really keen on the two protagonists getting/staying together and thought they could have done better with other people.

Now, how am I doing in this time of Covid? For once the rules didn’t change as I was crossing the border. My electronic passes into SA and WA worked fine. To meet SA’s rule about being tested every 7 days, I did a second test in WA before I left and that carried me over, though I saw a sign saying that I could get tested at the border if necessary. I got in to Perth yesterday (Friday) morning and did a test when I finished unloading to meet WA’s 48 hour rule. No result yet. There is talk of WA and SA having the same testing regimen, but probably not in my lifetime.

More importantly, Milly says I can see her once I have my test result. But I still have to wear a mask. Seeing Milly, though still not Gee and the grandkids, probably makes waiting 14 days till I’m clear bearable, but as it happens I have the makings of another load (to Leongatha again) and so should be on my way by Thursday.

 

Johnathan Franzen, Strong Motion, first pub. 1992. Brilliance Audio, 2013, read by Scott Aiello

Recent audiobooks 

Aaron Elkins (M, USA), Deceptive Clarity (1987) – Crime
Kendra Elliot (F, USA), Spiraled (2015) – Crime
Jasper Fforde (M, Eng), Shades of Grey (2009) – SF
Robert Wilson (M, Eng), Capital Punishment (2013) – Crime
Michael Connelly (M, USA), Bloodwork (1998) – Crime
Loren D Estleman (F, USA), Ragtime Cowboys (2014) – Crime/Hist.Fic.
Annie Ernaux (F, Fra), I Remain in Darkness (1999) – Memoir
Robert Pobi (M, USA), American Woman (2014) – Crime
Patti Henry (F, USA), And Then I Found You (2013) – Romance
Fannie Flagg (F, USA), Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987/2000) Abridged to 2 hours. I wouldn’t have read it if I’d noticed, but it’s read by the author
Gigi Pandian (F, USA), Pirate Vishnu (2013) – Crime
Peyton Marshall (F, USA), Good House (2014) – SF
Johnathan Franzen (M, USA), Strong Motion (1992)

Currently reading

Thea Astley (F, Aust/Qld), Collected Stories
Thea Astley (F, Aust/Qld), Drylands
Paul Magrs (M, Eng), Exchange

 

 

 

Parable of the Sower, Octavia Butler

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Parable of the Sower (1988) is deeply American SF, all guns and God. Well SF when it was written anyway, 3 decades ago, but now just another story of the US’s decline into hell in a handbasket. Trump, and McConnell’s GOP, too busy harvesting the spoils thrown up by the collapse of the once, recently great empire to offer leadership.

Octavia Butler (1947-2006), a Black American woman, is one of the greats of science fiction writing, deeply thoughtful about race, gender, and class, though not as prolific as many of her contemporaries.

In Parable of the Sower she posits the rise of a new religion, with the slogan “God is change”, and a young black female messiah, against the background of climate induced chaos as America falls back into the unregulated capitalism of mass unemployment, zero social services, corrupt police, and indentured slavery, not to mention roving packs of drug crazed pyromaniacs and walled, armed enclaves in the suburbs.

And I say ‘background’ because though economic and social collapse is central to the story there is not the clear economic analysis of the book’s forbears, Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, Jack London’ s The Iron Heel and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Instead, Butler focuses on what a new religion might look like, what sort of God would make sense of the ever-present danger and disorder of ordinary people’s lives.

A victim of God may,
Through learning adaptation,
Become a partner of God,
A victim of God may,
Through forethought and planning,
Become a shaper of God.
Or a victim of God may,
Through shortsightedness and fear,
Remain God’s victim,
God’s plaything,
God’s prey.

I don’t suppose only Americans substitute religion for logical economic analysis, though it feels like it sometimes, and the best of them, as here, make their way back to anarcho-syndicalism – that is, self government and equal opportunity – with some sort of synthesis of the teachings of Jesus and Buddha and a non-interfering God which seems to offer them comfort without causing us much harm.

Lauren, 13 when she starts telling her story, has already begun discovering not inventing the religion she calls Earthseed with a God it is up to us to shape. She, her college teacher parents and younger brothers live with four or five other families in a walled enclave in the suburbs on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Throughout the city and by implication, throughout the country, any unprotected building is occupied and ransacked by the masses of unemployed. Gasoline fuelled vehicles are a thing of the past, the internet is mostly down, schools are closed as it becomes too dangerous to leave the enclave, water is scarce and dirty, food is expensive and must be supplemented by home gardens and orchards. Police, fire brigades, ambulances must be paid to attend, are always late and often turn on the people who called them.

With no chance of a college education or employment, Lauren, already sexually active, faces a future of early marriage, constant child-bearing, crowded accommodation and grinding poverty. The father, a Baptist minister, trains the children of his community to shoot and organizes sentries but it is all for nought. By the time Lauren is 18 one brother has joined the gangs and been killed, the father has disappeared, and the enclave is overrun, ransacked, women and children raped, her mother and remaining brothers murdered.

She escapes with Harry (white), a childhood friend and Zahra (black), a wife sold into polygamous marriage by her prostitute mother. And so they join the long trek north, up the west coast to Canada, with tens of thousands of others, preyed on and preying on each other, slowly accumulating a few companions they can trust, children and parents with children.

The danger, shootings and deaths are a given in this brand of dystopian SF, but well done anyway. And the characters and relationships of the protagonists are filled out in a way not generally managed by the writers of boy-SF derived from war and wild west pulp fiction.

Among the people who accumulate in her train is an older black man, Bankole, to whom Lauren, though travelling as a boy, is attracted. They slowly become lovers and he, though sceptical of the religion Lauren is weaving around her little band, offers to lead them to 300 acres of remote farmland he owns in the mountains above San Francisco.

There they find the farm buildings all burnt and the bones of Bankole’s sister and her children in the ashes. And there with seemingly reliable ground water and arable land, remote from the worst of the marauders, they decide to stay. But that, as is always the case with SF, is another story, Parable of the Talents.

Perhaps to make her story more ess-eff-y, Butler gives Lauren and a couple of the lesser characters the ‘talent’, handicap really, of being able to feel the pain of others, so that if Lauren shoots someone she must die, or feel like she is dying, with them. But what is much more interesting is the feeling which people have, at least while they still have jobs and houses, until quite late in the story that this failure of the state is temporary, that after the next election or the one after, life will return to normal.

You get this feeling from America today. That the GOP, captured by the billionaires’ Tea Party, will be stopped from wrecking civilised governance, that the engineered failures of health, education and social security systems, the headlong rush to climate catastrophe, the hollowing out of the middle classes will all be reversed by a Blue Wave in November, when the opposite is clearly true. The Democrats are as captured by Big Money as the GOP; the South is already lost; the American dream is headed for nightmare as SF writers have been fortelling for decades.

 

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower, 4W8W, New York, 1988 (first ed. cover)


*Origin “Going to hell in a handbasket”
The phrase originated in the USA in the mid 19th century and the first print record is in I. Winslow Ayer’s account of events of the American Civil War “The Great North-Western Conspiracy”, 1865  (theidioms.com)

The suggested origin I liked best was being lowered down a gold mine shaft in a basket, which would have been quite common during the gold rushes from the 1840s on.

Setting Out

Journal: 050

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I’m setting out on this post with no clear idea of where it will end up. It’s Sunday 6.46 am and in a few hours I am setting out on another trip to Melbourne (from Perth WA if you’re new here). Yesterday I was planning to go half empty but a truck came up on Loadshift, I tendered my usual price, within 15 minutes I had the job, within 3 hours the truck was loaded and back in the yard (my mate’s back paddock).

Today, I’ll run that trailer ‘up the hill’ to the assembly area on the highway south, go back for the other two, and head down to Esperance, 800 km away on the south coast, to load scrap steel. Then it’s off across the Nullarbor, to the northern outskirts of Adelaide, then for the first time as a road train in my old home state, across the north west corner of Victoria and down the river, on the NSW side, to Echuca (map). Break up, run one trailer into Melbourne, then the other two to Wodonga where the steel is remade in an electric arc furnace. Which should put me empty in Melbourne Friday too late to load out.

Sue (WG), who is flat out getting her elderly parents settled in new nursing accommodation (I think at 90 and 100 it’s safe to say elderly), says I should cherish my mother while I have her, so I guess it’s out to mum’s for the weekend.

If you follow Whispering Gums, and doesn’t everyone, you’ll see she’s running a series called Bill Curates, which is me choosing representative posts from her back catalogue – I’ve made my way so far from May to June 2009 – picking out items to repost. Lots of fun for very little effort. A good way, as Karen/Booker Talk suggested in her excellent A to Z of Blogging, of revisiting material not seen by most of her followers, and a good way too of keeping Whispering Gums ticking over while Sue is so busy.

I have to write Journals because I read so little, even when I have “days off”, which mostly involves moving trucks and trailers from one spot to another to get them repaired or serviced or new tyres, or a paint job and new guards (mudguards) as with the trailer immediately behind my ute in the picture above, white and light blue is going to be my new colour scheme, not to mention keeping my bookwork up to date, though none of that explains why I read only a few pages in the evening, catch up on the news, solve a killer sudoku and am fast asleep by 10pm.

Remember, four months ago, when ‘the news’ was that the Australian government was doing nothing about climate change, then bushfires across half the continent made even the Liberal Party aware that climate change was here now, and just when we thought something might happen Covid-19 wiped everything else off the front pages and the Morrison (and Trump) governments took the opportunity to begin sabotaging every remaining climate initiative they could think of, and now the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police has wiped Covid-19 off the front pages, except for the relatives of 110,000 people killed by Trump’s willful negligence, but of course it couldn’t happen here. Except it does.

“there’s no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia. I mean, Australia is a fair country … I mean, Australia is not the United States.” [Prime Minister Morrison]

African Americans make up 12% of the adult population, but 33% of the US prison population; in Australia the ratio for Indigenous people is 3% of the population and 29% of the prisoners. [Greg Jericho, Guardian Australia, 7 June 2020]

Do the maths. Black Australians are FOUR times more likely to be jailed than Black Americans and TEN times more likely to be jailed than white Australians.

Since 1991 and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, 432 Indigenous people in prison or in the hands of police have died and not one person has been convicted of any offence in connection with those deaths.

That is the Australia we live in, whether we set out to achieve it or not, an Australia founded on the murder of its original inhabitants, as I have attempted to document, and in which those murders continue today, unpunished.

 

Remember: Indigenous Literature Week (July 5-12, 2020) on ANZLitlovers

 

Recent audiobooks 

Stephanie Laurens (F, Aus), Four in Hand (1993) – Romance
as far as I can tell, Laurens has lived in England for a long time, but she does have some reviews on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database. I should contribute another.
Janet Evanovich (F, USA), Seven Up (2001) – Crime
Camilla Lackberg (F, Swe), The Lost Boy (2013) – Crime
Anne McCaffery (F, USA), Damia (1992) – SF
Susan Choi (F, USA), The Foreign Student (1998)
Blake Crouch (M, USA), Good Behaviour (2016) – DNF
Belinda Alexandra (F, Aus), Silver Wattle (2007) – DNF

Currently reading

Patrick White, The Cockatoos
Majorie Barnard, Miles Franklin
Flannery O’Connor, Complete Stories
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (I just bought it, I hope I start reading it)

 

The Foreign Student, Susan Choi

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Susan Choi, born 1969, is an American novelist who had a Korean father and a (presumably white American) Jewish mother. The Foreign Student (1998), her first novel, won the Asian-American Literary Award for Fiction. Choi did her MFA at Cornell, and going by the dates, the novel was her Masters project. I tell you all that to provide context for what I want to say about the book, the audiobook version of which, read by Daniel Isaac, I listened to last week.

Further context is provided by the recent murder of Black American George Floyd in police custody and the ensuing riots. And if you wonder what my opinion is about them, then I think that setting fire to Minneapolis Police Headquarters is the least that the protesters should have done.

The Foreign Student is a discussion of race and ethnicity in the US masquerading as gentle, historical fiction, with a good, old-fashioned eternal triangle. The setting is the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee, which Wikipedia assures me is a real place, in 1955-56. As you most likely know, I dislike historical fiction and one of the reasons is that feeling of the writer being in the now and writing of a period which is not-now. Choi amazingly avoids that feeling altogether. This is a novel which feels as though it was written in 1956.

And so we get to race. This is a novel which feels as though it was written in 1956 by a Southerner. As you can imagine, all the domestic staff at Sewanee are Black and they are invariably and without qualification referred to as ‘boys’. If you have been following along with Melanie/GTL’s Flannery O’Connor short stories series you will know what I mean about that feeling of privileged whites only slowly coming to grips with the early days of desegregation.

I read/discuss US novels about race to help get a handle on racism in Australia. The George Floyd riots have generated an impassioned response to the it-couldn’t-happen-here crowd with a reminder of our own disgraceful record of Black deaths in custody, including the “I can’t breathe” death of David Dungay. It seems to me though that the tremendous problem of anti-Black racism in America overshadows the disadvantaged position of First Nations’ peoples, while in Australia the two problems are of course combined.

The Foreign Student begins with a young Korean man being dropped off by his taxi at the beginning of the long uphill driveway to Sewanee and being picked up by a good looking young white woman in a little yellow open-top British sports car (I’m only guessing a 1954 MG).
1954 MG TF Right Hand Drive Roadster | Beverly Hills Car Club
The two are Chang (Chuck) Anh, 24 and Katherine Monroe, 28. Katherine lives in the house in Sewanee left to her by her father and which her parents gave up forever years earlier when Katherine, then 14, began an affair with her father’s best friend professor Charles Addison.

Chuck has been accepted at Sewanee as an international student on full scholarship; Addison, in his late fifties, is still at Sewanee, his career having stalled, his affair with Katherine having been renewed, is slowly moving towards marriage; Katherine never made it to college, has returned to Sewanee after years away, and now leads a pointless existence running errands for friends in her little yellow roadster.

Katherine and Chuck slowly become interested in each other and Addison is left more and more by the wayside. Which is all you need to know about the romance side. It would be interesting to know how much of Chuck’s story is Choi’s father’s story. Choi uses Chuck’s being Korean as a sort of bridge between Black and White. So that Chuck as a student is White and his attempts to communicate with the servants are knocked back. When Chuck is the only student staying on over summer it is organized for him to eat in the servants’ dining room, but he is so uncomfortable about being seated separately and waited on that he takes (and makes) all further meals in his room. But later, when he must be punished for a breach of the rules, he is treated by the Administration as colored and given a job in the kitchen where he is at last able to be friends with the staff.

For a short while that same summer he has a job with a bookbinder in Chicago where interestingly he is generally treated as Japanese, which language he speaks. Throughout the novel we work our way through Chuck’s back story, his father a professor in Seoul collaborating cooperating with the Japanese occupation when he was a child and then the dark years of the Korean War, communist occupation of Seoul (twice) and the corrupt US-supported dictatorship of Syngman Rhee. Chuck variously works as a translator for US Intelligence and is imprisoned and tortured by his own government.

Choi grew up in Texas and went to university at Yale and Cornell, so this is not home territory for her. If her father did attend the University of the South that would be interesting, but even if he did not, setting her story there enables us to contrast the experience of being Korean in America with that of being Black in America without having to paint it on with a trowel. Highly recommended.

 

Susan Choi, The Foreign Student, first pub. 1998. Blackstone Audio 2019, read by Daniel K Isaac