Orpheus Lost, Janet Turner Hospital

AWW Gen 4 Week, 16-23 Jan 2022

Today seems to be Janet Turner Hospital day. Whispering Gums posted a review of JTH’s short story ‘The Insider Story‘, a discussion ensued about Orpheus Lost which we had both reviewed and lo, Lisa was also working up a review of Orpheus Lost from her reading notes, so here it is,


This was a gripping novel.  Leela, from ‘Paradise Land’ in the US Bible Belt meets Jewish-Lebanese Mishka Bartok from the Daintree Rainforest, and they fall in love.  They are both students in Boston: she’s doing the maths of music and he’s doing the music of the Middle East.  They make a lot of passionate love. Read on …

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.


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)

Can You Feel Anything when I do This? Robert Sheckley

In the past few years we have been flooded with books set in a not too distant future in which everything that we know is going wrong has gone wrong. We are calling these works ‘Dystopian’ because their real name, ‘Science Fiction’ scares the shit out of us (out of you).

SF has a history stretching back centuries, to ETA Hoffman for example, as writers attempted to imagine what the future might be like, how it might be changed, and often, to explore familiar problems in a less familiar setting. But SF was not really SF until after WWII, when it became a platform for pulp fiction adventure, re-fighting the War in spaceships, America to the rescue, taking the Cold War into space, the weapons however futuristic, still just variations on rifles and pistols.

However, right alongside pulp SF came a new generation of young writers, thoughtful, experimental, dealing initially with imagining the aftermath of the nuclear apocalypse, and then in the 60s and 70s with drugs, feminism, politics, the coming collapse of the environment, every human problem you can imagine transposed to a strange setting the better to be examined.

A ‘typical’ SF writer dashed out stories for the pulp magazines on a rickety typewriter production line; mixed with his (they were mostly guys) readers at conventions around the US; formed a community based on conventions and fanzines. The ‘new’ writers were sometimes inside this eco-system and sometimes not, but we took them up anyway.

I’m thinking of JG Ballard, Ursula Le Guin, William Burroughs, Philip K Dick, Doris Lessing, Kurt Vonnegut, John Sladek, Robert Sheckley. I’m not a scholar of SF or of this period, but these are the ones I read, and when I get the chance, still read. Later, beginning in the 1980s, there was The Women’s Press, Sheri S Tepper, William Gibson carrying innovative SF forward as the mainstream collapsed into dragons and magic.

Inside this apartment, all alone and aching of anomie, was a semi-young housewife, Melisande Durr, who had just stepped out of the voluptarium, the largest room in the home, with its king-size commode and its sadly ironic bronze lingam and yoni on the wall.

Robert Sheckley (1928 – 2005) was an American writer. “His numerous quick-witted stories and novels were famously unpredictable, absurdist, and broadly comical” (Wiki). Initially a writer of short stories, his first novel, Immortality Inc. (1958) was published as a serial in the SF magazine Galaxy.

So there she was, standing in her OK apartment, all beautiful outside and unborn inside, a lovely potential who had never been potentiated, a genuine US untouchable … when the doorbell rang… Someone must have the wrong apartment. Nevertheless, she walked over, set the Door-Gard Entrance Obliterator to demolish any rapist or burglar or wise guy..

I’m not sure I ever saw The Jetsons (which failed in US prime time in 1962/63 and was then moved to Saturday mornings where the same one season ran for 20 years) but the idea of 1950s perfection, consumerism, middle class suburbia, perfectly groomed stay at home housewives, extended indefinitely with ever more futuristic consumer products was a staple of American SF, sometimes, as here, examined critically, but often not.

At the door is a deliveryman, a crate, around her height, 5 ft 9″, addressed to her. The crate opens, blossoms out, turns to ash, revealing a machine, a cylinder of metal painted orange and red, ‘four rubber clad wheels, various attachments – longitudinal extensors, prehensile extractors’, “a goddamned vacuum cleaner!”. But she fires it up anyway, it makes its spiel, offers to begin work, removes a stain from her blouse, notes that she is tense, begins to touch her …

“That tickles,” Melisande told [it].
“Only at first. I must also mention this situs as characteristically troublesome. And this one.” A third (and possibly a fourth and fith) extensor moved to the indicated areas.
“Well… That really is nice.”

And so the story proceeds, predictably maybe, it was first published in Playboy. The touching escalates ..

“For example, can you feel anything when I do this?
“Feel anything? I’ll say I feel something -“
“And when I do this? And this?”

They escalate to “cancellation” and then the talking begins. It ends more strangely than you can imagine. Melisande is a women who values control over everything.

Did I say this was a short story collection? A man learns to get hairy-chested with French waiters and US Fuller Brush salesmen, until his fiancee gets upset. The old problem of how do you know when you’re dreaming – a man wakes up terrified from dreams of a world where night follows day, where buildings don’t change shape as you watch them, where skies are blue and grass is green and doesn’t shoot up as you watch. Another man may also be dreaming, he seems to be involved in a game whose rules he cannot recall but at which he appears to be an expert, but like all the other men in all the other stories he goes home to his wife in the suburbs and when she asks how his work went “He said all right, by which they both understood that it hadn’t gone well, not this time, not today.”

A man breeds hybrid animals to wipe out that scourge on the face of the earth, man. And at last, spaceships: a robot perimeter guard interprets its instructions in such a way as to keep the astronauts OUT of the camp. An emissary for the devil grants a man three wishes, on the proviso that the man’s worst enemy will get double. He didn’t even know he had a worst enemy and now he’s going to make him rich and happy. Or is he?

After the War which Ended All Wars all literature was lost, save in the memories of one class of men, the Mnemones, and they were banned. A man from Aldeberan takes in all the sights and experiences of earth, including a wife. She insists he needs therapy.

A lot of the stories are about perception so of course there’s one about LSD. But let’s finish with Plague Circuit. A salesman from the future comes back to Times Square 1968 with a cure for the plague. He gets no takers. What plague? There will be one, the Census Board will see to that. 1960s people had already failed to take advantage of the Hydrogen Bomb, “But humans never see the necessity of thinning themselves out, they never learn. That’s why our plagues are necessary.”


Robert Sheckley, Can You Feel Anything when I do this?, first pub. Gollancz, 1971 (Wiki). Also published by Pan as The Same to You Doubled. My copy, Science Fiction Book Club, 1973. 191 pp.

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

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
Just Above My Head1979US
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 HopkinsonMidnight Robber2000CanCBI
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