Dragan’s Back

Journal: 078

There are still wildflowers out in the desert, the last remnants of Spring in amongst the usual grey green scrub and red dirt. But as I never stop to take photos (of flowers, trucks are another matter) you must make do with the kangaroo paw on my balcony which is doing well for a change.

And I’ve been seeing lots of desert. After a blue with the last company I worked for – they booked me for a three day job then ‘forgot’ to tell me it was cancelled – I had a few weeks at home, and in desperation called … Dragan. Sam and Dragan and I spent a pleasant afternoon in the lunchroom swapping war stories and the upshot is Dragan will keep me going with work within WA (and yes, he’s already pressuring me to cross the border to do changeovers. But no way, Jose).

Last weekend I went up to Wiluna, 600 km north of Kalgoorlie and literally the last town on the edge of the dead centre – the Little Sandy Desert or the Gibson Desert – and then 50 km past the end of the bitumen. That was a warm up. As soon as I got home I was off to a mine 100 km past the end of the wheatbelt, past Wave Rock, and then follow the dirt road towards Norseman 80 km, turn north maybe 30 km, and locate the turnoff to a new mine – and if you miss it you’ll be back in phone range in only two or three hours.

This weekend, for a different carrier, I’m going 450 km on a corrugated dirt track out from Kalgoorlie. If I miss that mine … well, I’ll be carrying a satellite phone so hopefully someone will come and find me. (The view from my office window is a bit different from your facebook pic of footprints in the snow in suburban Birmingham. Hey Liz.)

Not driving put a damper on my audio reading, so once I was back on the road I was listening to books without a break in between. There’s some in the list below that I really should have reviewed. Margaret Atwood’s On Writers and Writing was of course for MARM, but I couldn’t get anything from it without notes. She’s a lovely speaker but spent a chapter on ‘my childhood’, then six chapters, from a series of talks she gave somewhere, seemingly on the relationship of writing to religion. Lost me!

I re-listened to Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance so I could comment at least a little bit knowledgeably on Liz Dexter’s review (here) and thoroughly enjoyed it. BIP recommended Cory Doctorow to me some time during MARM. Little Brother is a YA novel of 17 year olds in San Francisco fighting back against the surveillance state and the ridiculous powers awarded in panic to Homeland Security. We have done and continue to do the same thing here (award obscene powers to the security apparatus, that is. No one’s fighting back that I can see). Worth reading. But the best was from the late master, Peter Temple. White Dog is a murder mystery, a tragedy, a tour through Melbourne and Victoria, and a romp around country racecourses.

Of the ‘Currently readings’, ie. books made the old fashioned way with words on paper, These Old Shades was a just a few hours with an old friend. The Young Fur Traders, a very old friend, I have already reviewed; and the other three will be written up sooner rather than later.

My North American Project

I admit I did not use that three weeks off the road to advance this project as far as I should. But, I own Their Eyes Were Watching God, so that will be my January read. I’ll put up a review after AWW Gen 4 Week, probably on Mon 31 Jan. My February read is The Autobiography of Malcolm X. There’ll be a review (from me) and also a guest post from Melanie (Grab the Lapels), at the end of the month, of her experience reading and teaching it.

For March and April I had better see what Canadians I can obtain, through the library system, or from Audible. See the list of books I’m working from (here). I’ve just been re-reading your comments, we might have to make it a two year project!

Let’s say I go with Nalo Hopkinson – BIP, Naomi – help! – which one? Midnight Robber, The Salt Roads, Falling in Love with Hominids. And then perhaps both of Richard Wagamese, Indian Horse and Eden Robinson, Son of a Trickster. One of them later in the year.

Back in the US I have on my shelves Octavia Butler’s Kindred, so that’s in, but for the sake of balance I can probably only squeeze in one of Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, The Color Purple and Maya Angelou, before we get Louise Erdrich and US First Nations. That gets us to 8 reads, so four to go. Maybe Esi Edugyan (Can), but I’m struggling – I’d really like both an older and a leading edge US First Nations. There is more to do. And more arm-twisting from you, probably.

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Recent audiobooks 

Louis de Bernieres (M, Eng), So Much Life Left Over (2018)
Kate Atkinson (F, Eng), Transcription (2018) – Hist.Fic (WWII)
Anne Tyler (F, USA), Clock Dance (2018)
Margaret Atwood (F, Can), On Writers and Writing (2015) – NF
Peter Temple (M, Aust/Vic), White Dog (2003) – Crime
Cory Doctorow (M, Can), Little Brother (2008) – SF
Janet Evanovich (F, USA), Curious Minds (2016) – Crime
Richard Flanagan (M, Aust/Tas), Death of a River Guide (1994)
JM Coetzee (M, Aust/SA), Elizabeth Costello (2003)

Currently reading

Georgette Heyer (F, Eng), These Old Shades
RM Ballantyne (M, Scot), The Young Fur Traders
Simone de Beauvoir (F, Fra), The Inseparables
Tsitsi Dangarembga (F, Zim), This Mournable Body
John Kinsella (M, Aust/WA), Pushing Back (short stories)

The Young Fur Traders, RM Ballantyne

#MARM2021

For the third consecutive weekend I am home and not working. The problem this causes is that I am not driving, listening to my (second) #MARM2021 read, On Writers and Writing (2015). So for a change, I have commenced listening in the hour between finishing reading and falling asleep.

However, being home does give me the opportunity to re-read, in connection with Canada if not directly with MA, a childhood favourite, The Young Fur Traders (1856), given to me by my paternal grandfather – going by the handwriting of my name on the flyleaf – sixty years ago this xmas. I looked along my top shelf to see if I also have his copy, I don’t, but I do have my father’s, though uninscribed.

According to Wikipedia, Margaret Atwood (1939- ) “spent much of her childhood in the backwoods of northern Quebec, and travelling back and forth between Ottawa, Sault Ste. Marie and Toronto.” This is reflected in the two works of hers that I have reviewed, Cat’s Eye and Surfacing. RM Ballantyne (1825-1894), a Scot, spent five years in Canada, from ages 16 to 21, working for the Hudson’s Bay Company. On his return to Scotland he wrote Hudson’s Bay: or, Life in the Wilds of North America (1848), then around 100 adventure stories for boys, of which this is the first.

We begin with Charley, 15 and his sister Kate, 14 planning their futures on the banks of the Red River – his as an adventurer in the wilds, hers home caring for their parents, their father having that day removed them from school.

In the very centre of the great continent of North America, far removed from the abodes of civilised men, and about twenty miles to the south of Lake Winnipeg exists a colony composed of Indians, Scotsmen and French-Canadians, which is known by the name of Red River Settlement… At the time at which we write, it contained about five thousand souls, and extended upwards of fifty miles along the Red and Assiniboine Rivers… The banks were clothed with fine trees; and immediately behind the settlement lay the great prairies, which extended in undulating waves – almost entirely devoid of shrub or tree – to the base of the Rocky Mountains.

This, I discover via Google Maps, is now the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, on the far side of the Great Lakes from ‘Atwood’ country, but similar sounding in Ballantyne’s descriptions, to the island in Surfacing.

Given Ballantyne’s stated commitment to accuracy I am interested most in his descriptions. So voyageurs were “descended, generally, from French-Canadian sires and Indian mothers [uniting] some of the good and not a few of the bad qualities of both … the full, muscular frame of the Canadian with the fierce passions and active habits of the Indian.” “They were employed … in navigating the Hudson’s Bay Company boats, laden with furs and goods, through the labyinth of rivers and lakes that stud and intersect the whole continent … or in the pursuit of bisons which roam the prairies in vast herds.”

Charley is accepted by the Company and is conveyed up the Red River and across Lake Winnipeg to Norway House. He meets on the way an Indian guide who tells him a story of his first raiding party, with the Knisteneux [Cree] against the Chipewyans. He becomes a hunter and – we skip a year – joins a small party opening a new trading post in uncharted country north of the Sakatchewan. Charlie and an older hunter whose native language was any one of English, French and ‘Indian’ [surely, there’s more than one].

In truth, this is more travelogue than adventure yarn – though there a few of those as we go along – but an extraordinarily interesting one. Nineteenth century Canada seems like an inverse Australia – a vast unpopulated hinterland but (below) freezing cold with great forests and innumerable streams and lakes and of course endless snow to match our red sand, desert scrub and dry creek beds under a blazing sun.

In fact Australia pops up a couple of times – a horse as long-legged as a kangaroo, and an outpost as desolate as Botany Bay.

Ballantyne describes at length the clothing of the hunters and of the Knisteneux; their feasts and their travelling rations; takes us shooting rapids in bark canoes – after teaching us how to construct one; and hunting for wolves, birds, foxes and of course bison.

And where is Ms Atwood during all of this. Talking quietly into my right ear each evening. She has marvellous diction, largely unaccented. Perhaps modern Australian English is more American than I realise. Into my right ear so it can go out my left. Not much is sticking. I am sure she would enjoy the scenery of this novel, home territory for her, if a few hundred kilometres north and west. I wonder if her father or her brother had Ballantyne’s book. Surely every middle class household in the Dominions at least had Coral Island.

I recall no First Nations presence in Surfacing and Cat’s Eye. I wonder why that is. Here the ‘Indians’ are central, not as protagonists, though one is on the edge of the action throughout, and another is assigned the role of villain. They are exotic, colour, as is always the case in travel stories; it is they with whom the Hudson Bay Company trades; but sadly it is not a trade between equals.

There is a hierarchy. Young Charlie is soon a boss, a bourgeois, in charge of a small outpost. Beneath him is a hunter of 40 years experience of French-Canadian and Indian blood, and beneath them are any Knisteneux who have come into the camp for work. The Knisteneux chief is harangued for failing to bring in enough furs to satisfy the trading post commandant.

In all these Boys Own type books, society is entirely masculine. A few men, years away together, enclosed throughout the winter months into small, shared spaces. Perhaps it’s a product of their schools, Eton, Winchester and so on. The voyageurs are fathered by French Canadians, the British don’t do that sort of thing.

Ms Atwood goes on, reading, talking. I wake with a start, I really must review her properly. I hope it gets past I was a cute little girl, I was a beatnik in college. Charley finally gets to go home to his beautiful sister – the language with which they describe each other is nauseating – but luckily, approaching adulthood, her attentions are directed elsewhere. Boys Own writers do romance really badly, but all ends well.

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RM Ballantyne, The Young Fur Traders, first pub. 1856. My edition (pictured) Ward, Lock & Co.


A discussion we’ve had before: “the canoe entered one of these small rivulets which are called in Scotland burns, and in America creeks.”

Surfacing, Margaret Atwood

November is both Margaret Atwood Reading Month (BIP) and AusReading Month (Brona). But, a week or so ago, it suddenly popped into my head that the month was already under way. So I started reading the book I had set aside for Brona, and, audiobooks being so to speak like signs on a freeway flashing past, I borrowed and listened to Surfacing, which I now must review before it is lost behind the barely glimpsed images of all the subsequent signs, or in this case, a guy-SF space opera.

What is really embarrassing is that all this went on while I was writing the actual date on work stuff every day; and more importantly, I completely overlooked a batch of birthdays coming up at the end of October which required book buying and interstate postage and will now therefore be late.

Yes, I know, I could write today (13 Oct) and hold off till November but I will be desperate for a something to post well before then.

Margaret Atwood (1939- ) is of course Canadian. BIP describes her as the first Canadian author to gain international recognition, as the writer who made Canada a valid subject for writing. I am completely ignorant when it comes to Canadian writing, so that is an argument into which I will not venture any further than to say Canada – or frozen North America anyway – was the setting for a number of boys own type books I owned and read in the 1950s.

Last year for MARM I read Cat’s Eye (1988), deliberately not looking up any explanatory material, including Atwood’s year of birth, until after I had written it up. This year I know a little more, so I will attempt to provide some context.

Atwood’s father was a botanist and the family – MA has an older brother and younger sister – appears to have lived and travelled a great deal in Canada’s forests. Her first vocation was as a poet, though interestingly in both Cat’s Eye and Surfacing her protagonist is a painter or illustrator.

She describes her first novel The Edible Woman (1969) as a work of protofeminism, ie. as predating Women’s Lib. As is frequently the case with Literary Fiction, her early works – judging by the summaries – are all explorations of her own coming of age, early adulthood and relationships, the theme to which she returns, aged nearly 50, in Cat’s Eye. And although I have read her better known fiction, A Handmaid’s Tale, Alias Grace etc., I am glad I have come to Cat’s Eye and now Surfacing (1972) for a closer look at her.

Surfacing begins with a road trip. The female protagonist, unnamed; the guy she lives with, Joe; her current bestie, Anna; and Anna’s husband David, are all in their late twenties, in David’s old car and as best I can make out, in Quebec, or maybe further west, in Ontario, north of the Great Lakes. Anyway, they’re in Canada, making for a lakeside village in the pine forests where ‘she’ is known, where she grew up on an otherwise uninhabited island out in the lake, where her father is now missing presumed dead.

A local boatman takes them out to the island. They occupy her childhood home, a log cabin without power or running water, in a damp, cold, densely treed wilderness. It might be summer, Anna sunbathes, but for an Australian this is winter, and the winters she remembers, with snow up to the eaves, are just unimaginable.

I use Google Books to get a quote. It’s describing Joe in the car –

From the side he’s like the buffalo on the u.s. nickel, shaggy and blunt-snouted, with small clenched eyes and the defiant but insane look of a species once dominant, now threatened with extinction. That’s how he thinks of himself too: deposed, unjustly. Secretly he would like them to set up a kind of park for him, like a bird sanctuary. Beautiful Joe.

He feels me watching him and lets go of my hand.

David has a grant to make an arty film. Joe, an artist in clay, is his cameraman. They have a hired camera and a limited amount of film. She will show them around. Anna is along for the ride.

On the island, initially for the weekend, then for a week, she is the only one at home – camping, kayaking, fishing – and must take the lead. Apart from day to day living, very little happens. She is afraid that her father will reappear, driven mad by loneliness, her mother long since dead, her brother a geologist in the Outback, presumably Australia, and she too long absent.

There is a Lord of the Flies vibe. Gradually the little party falls apart. Her back story includes marriage and a child, both seemingly abandoned. Joe is convenient but unimportant. He, feeling her slipping away, wants more, and sulks when rebuffed. For a while She and Anna exchange confidences, interestingly, they have both tried the pill and stopped taking it. David asserts his new-age guyness, forcing Anna to pose naked, and then when she gravitates towards Joe, puts the word on ‘her’. She evades him, but he follows her into the bush, “You know you wanted me to.”

Throughout, there are Canadians chopping down trees, damming the lake to make moving the logs easier, and Americans in fast, loud boats who think Canada is their private hunting reserve. “David says ‘Bloody fascist pig Yanks,’ as though he’s commenting on the weather.”

Slowly her own mental condition deteriorates. The week comes to an end, they leave, she stays. For a day she’s naked in the snow. It’s not clear why the story ends as it does.

Surfacing is excellently written. Atwood was clearly a talented literary writer right from the beginning. Here she is exploring not so much feminism as women’s new relation to men; men’s uncertainty about how much of their old roles they are going to have to give up in the brand-new world of the Sixties.

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Margaret Atwood, Surfacing, first pub. 1972. Audiobook read by Kim Handysides, published in Australia by Bolinda. 7 hours.

Butter Honey Pig Bread, Francesca Ekwuyasi

First things first. Butter Honey Pig Bread, ie. the title not the book, is a list and not as I still say it to myself, 3 adjectives and a noun. It’s a list of section headings and apparently of Nigerian cooking’s four main food groups. You could read this novel just for the cooking and the recipes. Though, as a vegetarian, the emphasis on pig meat was not really to my taste.

Francesca Ekwuyasi is a young Nigerian/Canadian artist, writer, filmmaker and Butter Honey Pig Bread (2020) is her debut novel. I see it is now available in Australia from publishers Angus & Robertson, though the copy I have from the library for this review is Canadian

Interestingly, the back cover says “Francesca Ekwuyasi is a writer and multidisciplinary artist from Lagos, Nigeria ..”. Nevertheless, in the various locations in which this book is set – Lagos, London, the south of France, Halifax and Montreal – it is Halifax, which I understand is where the author lives, which is described in far more detail than the others.

The reader of the Audible audiobook I listened to was Amakah Umeh. She was ok, but her accent was, I guess, educated east coast American and her reading relatively flat, which on my checking, accords with the way the book is written. There is very little of the poetry I expect from Nigerian writing. BHPB is the story of twin sisters, Taiye and Kehinde, priveleged, educated, middle class women, an ordinary women’s issues novel, made exotic only by its grounding in Lagos and the strangeness of their mother, Kambirinachi.

The three women narrate in turn; Kambirinachi in third person, Taiye in third and second person, and Kehinde in first person. Kambirinachi’s narrative begins with her parents, who live in the provinces, depositing her with an aunt so that she may attend an elite girls school in Lagos. Kambirinachi is a spirit who is forcing herself to remain in this current body

Kambirinachi hadn’t visited Lagos in her present incarnation, but she remembered it vividly. She had seen it many times. One time before before, she borrowed the body of a taut and agile dancer at Fela’s Shrine in Ikeja.

Her strangeness, sometimes dosed with lithium, and her grief after the sudden death of her husband – which leaves her with a substantial house and the money to maintain it – means her mothering is often distant to non-existent.

Taiye’s and Kehinde’s narratives begin in the present. Taiye is back in the family home in Lagos preparing a meal for her sister from whom she has been estranged, emotionally since the ‘bad thing’ happened when they were 10 or 11, and physically since they finished high school and began university, Taiye in London and Kehinde in Montreal. Kehinde is flying in with her French Moroccan husband, Farouq. They will stay a few weeks then go on to Morocco.

The girl’s stories, and particularly Taiye’s, begin again in their university years, and all the subsequent years apart. We proceed then not so much in parallel as in concentric spirals, circling back to the present within the outer circle of their mother’s life.

Taiye studies chemistry, sleeps with girls, moves on to restaurants, sleeps with more girls, studies cooking in the south of France, ends up in Halifax making bread (and sleeping with girls) from whence she does not visit her sister in Montreal, goes home to Lagos, sleeps with an old school ‘friend’ and neighbour (also a girl). Lots of excuses for cooking and recipes

This is how you make a salted caramel chocolate cake for your twin sister whom you haven’t seen in …
For the batter, you will need as much butter as you can manage without leaving your cake too dense and greasy.. You should use a little over two cups of all-purpose flour, three quarters of a cup of unsweetened cocoa powder – preferably free trade.. a teaspoon and a half of baking powder, a quarter teaspoon of baking soda, a half teaspoon of salt, and three large eggs. You may add a cup of sugar, but Taiye used a cup of honey instead. And finally some vanilla extract.
In place of buttercream frosting, Taiye made honey caramel to pour over the top.
She lit the gas oven and turned the dial to 325 degrees.

Kehinde’s story is more restrained. She begins to draw, meets her husband. Works towards unveiling to us the ‘bad thing’, towards what she sees as Taiye’s betrayal, which set them apart. All three of the narratives provide their different perspectives of the ‘bad thing’.

Joining the sisters’ two stories is a series of letters written by Taiye to Kehinde when Kehinde stopped replying to her phone calls and emails, letters written and not sent, written with no intention of sending, until a girlfriend boxes them up and sends them anyway, so that Kehinde is still reading and dealing with them when she arrives back in Lagos.

Kambirinachi
Taiye has gone into the house and Kehinde will not look at me …
How can I fix this?
The thing that my child experienced is unbearable. And yet she bore it.
‘How can I fix this?’ I ask her.
But she only shakes her head and starts to walk away from away from me.

There are a few more dramas. We reach a resolution. It’s an interesting novel. The writing is a bit try-hard as you might expect from a debut, though if Ekwuyasi has an MFA she doesn’t say so. If you like stories about women’s lives then you’ll like this.

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Francesca Ekwuyasi, Butter Honey Pig Bread, Arsenal Pulp Press, Vancouver, 2020. 314pp.

see also reviews by:
Buried in Print (here)
Consumed by Ink (here)


Lard, Taiye discovered, was much less challenging to make than she’d anticipated. It was in fact a simple matter of using the leaf fat from around the pig’s kidneys, as this particular kind of fat produces a versatile white and mildly flavoured lard …

Did I ever say that it was pig fat, its smell, its taste its essential greasiness permeating all the other food on the plate, that made me a vegetarian.

Project 2022

My project for next year is to read twelve US/Canadian Black and First Nations fiction or memoir, with a review in the last week of each month. I’m starting planning now because a) it’s on my mind; and b) I need time to assemble a list of books which I can access and which I will need to be mostly audiobooks. This is your cue to start making suggestions.

Towards the end of this year I will publish the finalized list for anyone who might feel like joining in. In the meanwhile I might keep updating this post with your (and my) suggestions.

Off the top of my head, I think I would like to read another Toni Morrison (after Beloved), maybe another Zora Neale Thurston (after Jonah’s Gourd Vine) and if I can access it, the autobiography of Malcolm X, highly recommended by Melanie/GTL. Then there’s Go Tell it on the Mountain by James Baldwin which I failed to read during my matriculation year. I may even still have a copy. That would no doubt please Emma/Book Around the Corner who has written some terrific Baldwin reviews (here).

Canadians Naomi/Consumed by Ink and BIP/BIP have written and recommended too many Canadian First Nations writers to list (ie. I have failed to note them) but, for example, see Naomi’s two most recent posts (here and here).

I did follow up BIP’s review of Butter Honey Pig Bread by Nigerian Canadian Francesca Ekwuyasi – which inter alia contains some interesting stuff about Black history in Canada – and a review is in the works. May even be my next post if I can get away with not working this weekend. And then there’s her recent post on Black slavery in the Americas (here).

I look at my shelves. I think I may deal with Octavia Butler separately (see Parable of the Talents, Parable of the Sower). I have Kindred waiting which I will get to ‘soon’ like the many other, though mostly Australian, new books I have purchased and am yet to read. In the more formal shelves of my lounge room I see quite a few boys own type books of my own, my father’s and my grandfathers’ – ES Ellis’s Lost Among the Redskins for instance – for the reading of which this project may gave me some context. This is important to me, although to no one else probably, as the noble frontiersman of the US and Canada was the precursor of Australia’s ‘Lone Hand’ bushman (How many years is it now? and I still haven’t reviewed Russell Ward’s The Australian Legend).

It occurred to me at this point in this post that I had read many years ago the memoir of a Black New York science fiction writer, a guy, a gay, not Butler. It was someone well known to me (as an author) and whom I normally did not think of as Black. Searches… Turns out it was Samuel R Delaney of Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand fame, and the memoir was The Motion of Light in Water (1988) which name I do not remember at all, and which I must have read quite soon after publication, not realising because it deals with events a couple of decades earlier – including meeting a young Bob Dylan.

Ok, the next little bit is up to you

Reminder: Lisa/ANZLL’s Indigenous Lit. Week, 4-11 July 2021. Her Indigenous Lit. Reading List includes a section for Canada and the Americas (here).

Suggestions for Project 2022

AuthorWorkYearRec.
Sherman AlexieThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian2007USTPe
Andre AlexisFifteen Dogs (2 of 5)2015CanCBI
Maya AngelouI Know Why the Caged Bird Sings1969USLiz
James BaldwinGo Tell it on the Mountain 1953US
If Beale Street Could Talk1974USGTL
Joseph BoydenThe Orenda2013CanRM
Octavia ButlerKindred1979USBB
David ChariandySoucouyant2007CanCBI
Samuel R Delaney Stars in my Pocket like Grains of Sand 1984US
The Motion of Light in Water 1988US
Cherie DimalineRed Rooms2011USCBI
Esi EdugyanHalf-Blood Blues2011CanCBI
Louise ErdrichThe Bingo Palace (4 of 8)1994USWG
The Plague of Doves (1 of 3)2008US
La Rose (3 of 3)2016USBB
The Night Watchman2020USTPe
Mini Aodla FreemanLife Among the Qallunaat1978CanBIP
Lawrence HillThe Book of Negroes2007CanCBI
Nalo HopkinsonSF!CanCBI
Thomas KingThe Inconvenient Indian2012CanCBI
Nella LarsenPassing1929USBIP
Audre LordeZami: A New Spelling of my Name1982USWG
Terese Marie MailhotHeart Berries2018CanKW
N Scott MomadayHouse Made of Dawn1968USBB
Toni MorrisonSula1973USBB
Eden RobinsonSon of a Trickster (1of 3)2017CanRM
Tanya TalgaSeven Fallen Feathers2017CanBIP
Zora Neale Thurston Their Eyes Were Watching God1937USTPi
Richard WagameseIndian Horse2012CanCBI
Alice WalkerThe Color Purple1982USGTL
Elissa WashutaWhite Magic2021USBIP
Jacqueline WoodsonIf You come Softly1998USLL
Richard WrightNative Son1940USTPe
Malcolm X (and Alex Haley)Autobiography of Malcolm X1965USGTL

Cat’s Eye, Margaret Atwood

Journal: 059

Cat's Eye Audiobook | Margaret Atwood | Audible.co.uk

After years as a truck driver, half a century! (an exaggeration, I had a 15 year white collar gap in my 30s, 40s) I am a little bit intuitive, not the way natural drivers and mechanics are, but enough to often belatedly realise, feel when things are going wrong – the smells of burning grease, oil, electric wiring, the feel of unbalanced wheels, trailers swaying or sliding, vibrations from the engine or tailshaft, changes in the constant noises of the engine and the wind.

I drive by ear, changing gear with the rise and fall of the revs, choosing the right gear to hold my speed at a given volume of noise through towns or roadworks. Until this week anyway, when books and blogging unexpectedly intervened.

A year or so ago, no doubt enticed by free books, I opened an Audible account which subsequently morphed into one book plus occasional freebies for $16/month. And so I began accumulating a library which I could not access. Ok, which I could not cable and was too incompetent to bluetooth from my phone to my truck radio.

This week, wanting to read Cat’s Eye for MARM (which has co-hosts, so here and here) I downloaded it and went out and bought expensive noise cancelling headphones. Noise cancelling! I can feel the base rumble of the engine but I can’t hear at all the wind around the cabin, the constant woosh of the air over the engine beneath my feet, the high-revving of the motor. I’m deaf to my truck!

I have some excellent books in my Audible library but I’m going to have to space them out. Listening through headphones while remaining conscious of the truck requires far more concentration than just letting all the noise of the truck and the radio speakers wash over me, more concentration than I can manage for any length of time.

I’ve read a few Margaret Atwoods, The Handmaid’s Tale & The Testaments, Alias Grace, The Blind Assassin (the cover is totally familiar but I don’t remember one word of the story). She’s a good writer though her SF lacks imagination compared with greats like Doris Lessing and Ursula Le Guin. I didn’t have any expectations of Cat’s Eye – except that it’s long – and I looked nothing up, prepared to allow the story to speak for itself.

The protagonist, Elaine, is 8 or 9 when WWII ends and is in her mid-fifties at the time of writing, so we can say she was born in say, 1936 which I’m guessing is roughly true of Atwood also, and the book is set in about 1990. The novel is framed as Elaine coming from Vancouver where she lives to Toronto where she grew up, for a retrospective of her paintings, but mostly consists of her coming of age, from grade school through to her mid twenties.

Elaine’s father is an entomologist. When she’s young, and later in school holidays the family, father, mother, Elaine and Steven, her older brother, travel the forests in their old Studebaker, collecting bugs, camping or staying in cheap motels. Then when she’s 8 father gets a job at the university and they buy a new, unfinished house in the Toronto suburbs.

Every now and again we duck back to the ‘present day’, to the week or so Elaine is spending in John, her artist ex-husband’s apartment (while he is away). They have a daughter and she has another daughter with her second husband. I get the impression that Atwood makes herself an artist rather than a writer because she likes to philosophize about painting but also because it is easier to talk about movements in painting than in writing.

But mostly we make our way through Elaine’s childhood, year by year, structured around the two or three girls with whom she is friends and around her brother. These children Carol, Grace, Cordelia, Steven, are ciphers – temporary constructs against whom she can contrast herself and her development, abandoned when they are no longer needed. Cleverly, Atwood tells each year in some detail, detail which the Elaine of a year or two later has often forgotten.

As she moves on from being Steven’s sister to Carol’s friend to Cordelia’s friend what we observe is her socialisation from tomboy to young woman. And it is this process of what makes a girl and then a woman that is the core of the book.

Right from the beginning Atwood makes it look as though this is the story of Elaine’s relationship with the darker (I don’t mean skin colour) Cordelia, but it is nothing of the sort. Cordelia is a year older, and one or two years ahead. Elaine is willingly submissive to her, until at last Cordelia forces her to descend from the bridge over the ravine on the way home from school, abandons her when she falls through the ice into the creek and nearly dies of hypothermia. Cordelia goes off to a different school, Elaine starts high school, and then Atwood brings Cordelia back, in the same year as Elaine, makes Elaine the confident one, because that suits her narrative.

Later, Cordelia drops out of sight for years, Steven is sent off to California, Carol and Grace are long gone. Elaine studies Art History, goes from virgin to two days a week lover of her drawing teacher, another relationship involving submission, starts going out with John. The drawing teacher’s other two day a week student/lover gets pregnant and has a messy illegal abortion. Cordelia reappears, briefly, in a mental home. Elaine refuses to help or even visit her after the first time. The story stretches on for a while, but the coming of age is done and the rest is just filler.

I enjoy coming of ages and I enjoyed this one. I enjoyed too ‘living’ in Canada for a while, especially 40s, 50s Toronto, though I expect I would have enjoyed it more if I were familiar with the areas she’s writing about. I find Atwood to be a fine writer but only a so-so story teller and so it was here.

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Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye, first pub. 1988. Audiobook read by Laurel Lefkow, 2013. 15 hrs 17 min.

Audible Library

Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye
Joan D Vinge, The Snow Queen
Christos Tsialkos, Merciless Gods
Joy Ellis, Their Lost Daughters
Charlotte Bronte, The Professor
Thomas Keneally, The Pact
Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Universe
Richard Flanagan, Death of a River Guide
HG Wells, The Science Fiction Collection
F Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamzov
Andy Weir, The Martian
William Gibson, Agency
Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner
Charles Dickens, Bleak House
James Joyce, Ulysses
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre
GG Marquez, Love in the Time Of Cholera
F Dostoyevsky, Crime & Punishment
George Eliot, Middlemarch
M Lucashenko, Too Much Lip
Walter Scott, Ivanhoe
Samuel Delaney, Dhalgren

Some of these I have read since buying the audiobook, some I own but won’t get the chance to read anytime soon and would like to listen to again, and a couple I wouldn’t have chosen but got for free. And Melanie, The Snow Queen will be next.