Monthly Archives: July 2010

Joanna Russ’s Adventures of Alyx

Joanna Russ, The Adventures of Alyx (1976, Baen 1986)

I believe Joanna Russ carried the flag for uncompromising feminism in the science fiction/fantasy community in the 1970s. Apparently she invited James Tiptree Jr out of a fanzine symposium on women in science fiction because as a man Tiptree had no business speaking on the subject (for those who came in late, Tiptree was really Alice Sheldon lurking behind a male persona, and she responded graciously, in role, to the disinvitation). So it’s no surprise that Alyx in these stories is a strong female character. There are three short stories featuring Alyx, little more than active character sketches really, and a much longer narrative, then a final short story that, as far as I can tell, doesn’t have anything to do with Alyx.

Alyx the adventuress from ancient Tyre is a marvellous character, so the sketches – in which Alyx respectively helps a young noblewoman escape a potentially lethal marriage, escapes her own marriage to take up with a pirate, and deals with a gross man who claims to have created the world – hold up well. The first two happen entirely in a version of earthly antiquity. So does the third, though the nasty patriarchal figure has the language and paraphernalia of a time traveller rather than those of a demigod. In the fourth and longest piece, ‘Picnic in Paradise’, Alyx is transported by the Polysyllabic Agency for Temporal Gobbledygook (or something like that) to a future where her skills – and her lack of knowledge of technology – equip her perfectly to shepherd a group of tourists out of a war zone. In this piece the book well and truly transcends the ‘of historical interest’ niche. It’s funny, touching, and sexy in an over the top way. It points vicious satire  at the Prozac generation before the name. Then, just as one is thinking of Alyx as a kind of moral touchstone, one who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs, a role model even, she confounds all expectations by going so far off the rails it’s hard to understand how the story manages to keep us sympathising with her. She’s a real hero, and the story brilliantly refuses to be neat.

Then the last, short story, as far as I can tell, is not an Alyx story at all. A teenage girl in rural USA in 1925 is visited by a strange woman who turns out to be a descendant from the distant future. The young heroine (and we with her) understands only a fraction of what her strange visitor is up to. She helps her to kill another visitor from the future, but we’re left with only glimpses the relationship between the two visitors. And there’s more. It’s a tantalising narrative in which all the huge world-changing events happen offstage and/or in a language we don’t understand. Yet it’s also a satisfying coming of age story. After all, what teenager understands the world s/he finds him/herself part of.

I don’t have fond memories of Joanna Russ’s The Female Man, which I read (in 1970 something) as an undisciplined scream of rage. This book suggests strongly that I may have got it wrong.

If you want a proper, informed, intelligent discussion, I recommend you have a look at Niall Harrison’s review at Torque Control.

Sam vs Goliath

Photo of Katia and Sam Abouchrouche by Edwin Monk, lifted from The Inner West Independent, August 2010.

It’s a wonder I haven’t blogged about Sam’s shop before now. It’s a family business in Booth Street Annandale that’s been there for almost as long as we’ve been living in this suburb. It’s not our closest shop, but we prefer the extra walk (or, let’s be honest, drive) not only because the shop can be counted on to have good quality vegetables and a huge range of everything, but also for the old-fashioned sense of community and even the occasional free Lebanese lesson. There’s Sam, his wife Kathy and their three sons, though the youngest is too young to work in the shop and the eldest has recently gone to work as a lawyer. The shop, which became an IGA and doubled in size a couple of years ago, is in the news recently as Woolworths are proposing to open a store in our suburb.

The August issue of The Independent Weekly has the story (the whole issue is downloadable as a PDF):

Associate Professor Frank Zumbo,who has studied competition  law for over 20 years, was critical of the proposal. ‘The one thing that emerges from that research over the years is that where you’ve got sectors dominated by a very small number of large and powerful companies, you find that they act as a “cosy club”,’ he said. ‘Where there is just a Coles and Woolworths, the prices there are higher than in those markets where there are strong independents – the evidence is clear from ACCC research.’

Mr Zumbo said there was a danger that if Woolworths opened in Annandale, they could engage in two major forms of price discrimination. ‘One is ‘predatory pricing’, where they can sell below cost, for extended periods of  time, to drive out the local small businesses,’ he said. ‘Once that happens, prices will go up at that Woolworths. The other thing they could  do is engage in “geographic price discrimination”, where the prices at the [Annandale] Woolworths might be lower than other Woolworths stores for a period of time, and once the local competition is gone,  those prices will go back up.

‘[Their aim] is simply to saturate the area to suffocate the local businesses. Woolworths, for example, has five supermarkets already in place within a radius of five kilometres [of the proposed Annandale site]. To put another one is designed to remove what remaining oxygen there is from the independents.’

The Independent is nothing if not balanced, and gives the other side of the argument. A Woolworths spokesperson is quoted as denying predatory pricing practices, and the article continues:

‘Speaking generally, Woolworths brings many benefits to communities,’ said Woolworths Community  Relations Manager, Simon Berger. ‘We deliver convenience, range and value for local customers, which encourages more people to do their shopping locally, reduces the number of people shopping outside the local area, and generates opportunities for neighbouring small businesses.’

Well, maybe. But we saw Glebe Point Road turn into something very different when the Broadway Shopping Centre opened. And soon after Franklins and then Coles opened in Leichhardt, which is a lot further away than this new development, we saw three butcher’s shops wither and die in our locality.

Sam and Kathy have their moment in the Independent‘s coverage as well:

Like any good independent  retailer, Sam knows his customers personally. ‘I just want to be delivering what I can for my customers – the more you can deliver the more they appreciate,’ he says.

Surely, though, there comes a point when one must ask whether the ridiculous hours and stress are worth it. ‘It’s not easy,’ Katia concedes, ‘but I love what I’m doing. I love my customers – you see families grow, and share their problems. It’s a real community feel. You get used to working – it’s not easy for me to let it go.’

Go Sam! Go Kathy!

Added on 23 July: It took some finding, but if you’re interested you can fill out the snap poll being conducted by our state member, Verity Firth

Every Secret Thing

Marie Munkara, Every Secret Thing (UQP 2009)

I read this immediately after The Tree of Man. I’ll wait to post about the latter until we’ve discussed it at the Book Group  – enough for now to tell you that it was Edward Said’s notion of counterpoint that prompted me to follow White’s novel with one by an Aboriginal writer.

The books have more in common that you might expect – mainly a contempt for Irish Catholics and selected white middle-class people of whatever religio-ethnic background – but where White’s contempt is accompanied by patrician amusement, attacking from on high, Maria Munkara’s, behind its veneer of cheerfully knockabout calumny, is fuelled by powerful sorrow and rage at the damage done by missionaries.

In fact, scrap the word ‘cheerful’ in that last paragraph. The opening chapters have the form of rough humour as they introduce the people of ‘the Mission’  – the ‘mission mob’ of priest, brothers and nuns and the ‘bush mob’ whom they are out to convert. But from the beginning we are told of endemic sexual abuse and corruption, and  the humour comes with such heavy sarcasm that it’s hard to find it actually funny. For example, when some boys are disobeying the nuns while their parents are standing by, the nuns have an inkling that they may be encountering deliberate resistance rather than incidental lack of cooperation, ‘but they all knew that the bush mob were God-fearing people with a deep and abiding respect for the mission and its papally sanctioned quest to strip them of every vestige of their culture so they would never be defiant now, would they?’ The whites of the Mission are mostly presented in unforgiving caricature – closed-minded, arrogantly confident of their own superiority, sexually predatory (the men) or quietly lustful (the women). The Aboriginal characters aren’t treated much more kindly. They’re rough, pragmatic, disorganised, venal, and only slightly more fleshed out than the non-Aboriginal – but there’s no doubt where the book’s sympathies lie.

The book progresses mainly in a series of skits: the children ask the visiting Bishop curly questions about Christian teachings, the old man of the bush mob helps an anthropologist fill his notebooks with misinformation, a couple of French Hippies arrive in a shipwreck, a cyclone virtually destroys the Mission when the mission mob disregard the warnings of the bush mob, and so on. It takes a while for the narrative gears to mesh, and when they do it’s not so much that the sarcastic caricaturing lets up as that a deeper current asserts itself, and we begin to understand that we are reading about an appalling spiritual tragedy. The moments where the narrative voice tells it straight are incredibly powerful, as at the point when the bush mob have been ‘dying in droves’ from a flu that has only mildly inconvenienced the missionaries, and are persuaded to convert en masse not only to Christianity but also to Western materialism, mainly in the form of cast off clothes. The narrator comes out into the open:

The almighty God that most of the bush mob now believed in was nothing more than the grim reaper of human souls with the mission mob as his helpers and the cast-offs the sad compensation for the relinquishment of their own beliefs. And even though the tenth commandment mentioned that you shouldn’t covet your neighbour’s house or wife or donkey or anything else, the church must have decided that coveting someone’s soul was an entirely different matter. And even though the eighth commandment stated quite clearly that it was very naughty to steal, the mission mob ignored this too and stole the things that were dearest to the bush mob’s heart. They stole their resistance to change and they stole their belief in themselves and they stole their children. Because each black soul that was harvested and each child that was appropriated was another rung higher up the ladder to heaven for Father and his crew and another step closer to salvation from this cesspool of earthly temptation and sin.

In a chapter where a stolen child finds her way back to the community as an adult, the tone lurches from silly farce on a crab hunt to plainspoken desolation when the narrator again intervenes. The final moments of the book are as devastating as you’re likely to read anywhere.

Every Secret Thing won the 2008 David Unaipon Award as a manuscript and then in February this year it won the Northern Territory Book of the Year Award. In an interview on Awaye in February, Marie Munkara said her story had ‘little wisps of truth and huge bits of embellishment’. The book makes no claims to be a historical record, but the truths it tells are a far cry from wispy.

Prime Minister’s Literary Awards short lists

The shortlist for the fourth Prime Minister’s Literary Awards has just been published.

On the Book Show on 12 July, Hilary McPhee said, ‘Once you’ve published someone and like their work, you stick with them and read them and see what they’re doing with themselves.’ That’s true of me in my own small way. So I’m thrilled to see on the children’s and young adults’ lists a number of people whose work graced the pages of The School Magazine during my stewardship.

On the Young Adult Fiction shortlist:
Confessions of a Liar, Thief and Failed Sex God, Bill Condon (32 items in SM, between 1992 and 2005, including poems, stories and plays)
The Museum of Mary Child, Cassandra Golds (incalculable contributions to the magazine as member of editorial staff)

On the Children’s Fiction shortlist:
The Terrible Plop, Ursula Dubosarsky and illustrated by Andrew Joyner (mainly excerpts from Ursula’s books in my time, but after I left she joined editorial staff and Andrew became a regular illustrator)
Star Jumps, Lorraine Marwood (42 poems between 1998 and 2005)
Harry and Hopper, Margaret Wild and illustrated by Freya Blackwood

Thinking about it, I can’t claim to have published Margaret Wild, but she’s an Annandalean, so I’m thrilled to see her there too.

I hope they all win.

There are also awards for general fiction (with names like Malouf and Coetzee shortlisted) and non-fiction (with contenders ranging from the extreme lyricism of Mark Tredinnick to what the judges describe unpromisingly as ‘monumental history’ and ‘prescient analysis’ by John Keane).

Previous decisions on these awards have been eccentric, so the winners are anyone’s bet. I won’t even hazard a guess. Unlike, say, the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, they’re not arms-length decisions: the judging panels recommend but the Prime Minister decides, and in the first year of the awards, John w Howard did in fact overrule the judges to make sure the Anzac myth got a boost. Let’s see if whoever is Prime Minister when these winners are announced (I can’t find a date on the site) has enough grace to refrain from bending the prize to her (please!) or his ideological agenda.

School Holidays are almost over

School holidays are almost over and the Art Student will soon gone back to her normal routine. It has been lovely having her about the place, but it will be a relief when the holidays are over.

We’ve been up to quite a lot:

• We visited Michael Callaghan’s exhibition The Torture Memo at the Damien Minto Gallery. Text  – phrases from the ‘war on terror’, a mediaeval Arabic poem – side by side in English and Arabic, combine with images  to powerful effect: realistic water pours from a plastic bottle down the middle of the canvas with text on water boarding on either side, and a blown up woodprint showing that form of torture being carried out in the Spanish Inquisition; a hooded figure with vulnerable looking hands the only visible parts of his body against a background of text and splattered blood. Michael’s political posters have been around for at least four decades – it’s great to see this new work in a gallery, as intelligently provocative, and beautiful, as ever. Some of the large works have been bought by the Australian War Memorial.

• We got out of town for a couple of nights, stayed at Bundanoon, the small town on the southern highlands that was celebrating the first anniversary of its decision  to no longer sell bottled water. It was wet and bitterly cold (by Sydney standards – I realise that 0oC is balmy to Alaskans and others), and though the town’s Mid-winter Festival was in full swing, we mainly played Scrabble beside a wood fire, dining at the local Chinese restaurant and the Suffolk Forest pub bistro. We drove the extra ks to Canberra on our full day, to visit the National Portrait Gallery (how a newborn baby must feel, fascinated by human faces, but surrounded by far too many of them to process comfortably) and the Hans Heysen exhibition at the National Art Gallery. It turns out I can’t get enough gum trees, though the Art Student grew weary after the first hundred of so. We both loved the later, stark Flinders Ranges landscapes.

• We popped in on an Elisabeth Cummings exhibition and narrowly avoided buying a small etching – I’m not sure why we avoided it, as we both loved the painting and both thought it was probably a wise investment. And on the same trip to East Sydney we had a look at Euan Macleod’s riveting Antarctic landscapes.

• We strolled around some fetching Victoriana at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, because the A-S had to write an essay about two of the paintings. While we were there we paid good money to see Paths to Abstraction, which included any number of wonderful 19th and 20th century paintings but left me no wiser about abstraction. Between the Nabis and the Cubists, I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen for 30 years – and given that I have a bit of a reputation for vagueness I’m glad to report that I recognised her. We gratified each other by knowing bits of recent news about each other’s family. This alone made the exhibition worth the price of admission.

• I nearly forgot to mention that on the way back from Bundanoon we made a detour down Bong Bong Road at Mittagong to visit what is now The Hermitage but for three and a half years in the mid 1960s was my home when I was in training to be a Marist Brother. We’d intended to drive around the buildings and be on our way, but we bumped into one of my coevals, still a member of the order, who turns out to be Guestmaster (a church title, as he said) of what is now a retreat centre there. He showed us over the place, which of course bears no resemblance at all to the drab, chilblain inducing environment of our youth. Given that most mentions of the Marist Brothers in the mainstream media these days are to do with sexual abuse, it was a real shot in the arm to be spend time with my old friend Paddy, getting a sense of what he and the others who have stayed in the order have been up to. The place is full of ghosts, some of them still living (one of them in a tiny personal hermitage in the middle of a cow paddock), almost all of them benign.

On the home front, the Art Student’s studio has invaded the sitting room: an easels, a cheap mirrors (for self-portayal purposes), linocut gear, scanned images, scraps of paper, tubes of paint, the occasional fellow artist.

Life is good.

Soul Digger

Look at this music video of ‘Soul Digger’, a track from Alba Varden’s debut album.

Directed, rather well I thought, by someone with whom I share quite a lot of DNA.

Capitalism never solves its crisis problems …

… It moves them around geographically.

Have a look at this, a lecture by David Harvey rendered as an ‘Animate’ by RSA, for:

a) brilliant use of cartoon illustration

b) lucidity about the GFC

c) all round coolness.

RSA has similarly animated  lectures by, for example, Barbara Ehrenreich and Jeremy Rifkin, to brilliant effect.

Thanks to Felix Salmon, and before that Making Light’s particles.

From Freecycle

Freecycle is a wonderful system for giving away stuff without leaving it sitting on the nature strip exposed to the weather. Occasionally it’s exploited by secondhand dealers (which I realised after the same person had taken four large pieces of furniture off our hands – I will no longer respond to her emails), and people do post requests for things that may be hanging around unused in other people’s houses –baby clothes, car seats, etc. A Freecycle member named Chris seems to have had some kind of crisis induced by the optimism of some of these requests, and struck back today with this lovely bit of outrageousness. I especially like the opening sentence, a nice reference to the kinds of notes that often accompany requests and offers:

Subject: [freecycle_sc] Wanted :  Lamborghini preferably 2009 model

Only genuine offerers need reply to this email I really don’t want anyone to waste my time.

If you have one up on blocks in the backyard I would be very interested in re registering it and using it for sporadic trips to the nearest ALDI supermarket for the weekly shopping.

I know that this is a really long shot but if you also have roof racks to suit that would be great as I was hoping someone here in freecycle land has a spare jet ski in their garage that they also don’t use any more that I could place on said racks and transport it at breakneck speed to the nearest waterway when I have the urge to use it.

Thanks in advance and happy freecycling

PS . I don’t want to bug you all but some straps to tie down the jet ski would be awesome. and possibly a few dollars toward the first tank of fuel wouldn’t go astray.

This almost made up for Marion being kicked off Master Chef (though Aaron’s dismay at beating her was one of the sweetest things I’ve seen on the box for a long time).

Poetry, dementia

It seems Penny isn’t the only one to find that poetry with strong rhymes goes down well with people with dementia. Harriet the Blog quotes The Orlando Sentinel about the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project:

The Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, founded by New York poet Gary Glazner, is not built on the traditional, stand-at-the-podium-and-read poetry recital. Rather, it uses the simple rhymes typically learned in childhood or whimsical works created on the spot with audience participation. The facilitator moves among the seniors, holding their hands, touching their shoulders, gently prodding them to share their thoughts, reawakening long-ago memories.

‘There was a guy in [one] group, his head was down, he wasn’t participating, and I said the Longfellow poem, “I shot an arrow in the air…”‘ Glazner says, recalling the initial workshop that spawned the project. “And his eyes suddenly popped open, and he said, “It fell to earth, I know not where.” In that instant, he was back with us and was able to participate. It was very powerful.”

The Project’s web site has a book for sale with 75 poems they use.

Reading while walking, episode 732

Reading a book while walking is different from walking while wearing earphones. A little moment from yesterday illustrates:

I was walking the dog home from the Orange Grove markets reading the Patrick White novel that we’ll be discussing at our next Book Group meeting.

A voice from behind me called out, ‘Is that The Tree of Man?’ It was Dancer1, one of the men from the Group, behind the wheel of his car emerging from the side street I’d just crossed. ‘Where are you up to? The flood or the fire?’

‘Finished the flood,’ I called back. ‘Still waiting for the fire.’

‘I’m loving it.’

‘Me too. I was completely bowled over by the first four chapters.’

‘Yes, I kept saying to my wife, “Listen to this bit!”‘

Go on, have a conversation like that with someone listening to their iPod.

1This inaugurates a policy of giving the chaps from the Book Group noms de blog.